Panama Hydro Project Threatens Indigenous People and Biological Preserve

Hydro Project Threatens Indigenous People, Biological Preserve; Human Rights Panel to Review Issue

WASHINGTON – Nov. 4th, 2008 – Cascading from the heights of the Talamanca Mountains, the Changuinola River forms the heart of the Panamanian portion of La Amistad International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that provides habitat for hundreds of rare, endemic, endangered and migratory species, as well as the indigenous Ngöbe and Naso tribes.

AES Corp., a Virginia-based company, plans to build three hydroelectric dams on the Changuinola, threatening to forever ruin this ecological gem. AES is building the dams on the Changuinola – which runs through the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve – in an effort to gain carbon-offset credits. The first of the dams will flood four Ngöbe villages and create impassible barriers for fish species the tribes rely upon, such as the mountain mullet and the bocachica.

“No other time in the history of Panama has a project been developed with so much disregard for the environment, human rights, and indigenous peoples as the Chan 75 hydroelectric project by AES Corporation. The Company and its Danish contractors are practically building on top of the people of Charco de La Pava, as if their lives and properties had no value,” said Osvaldo Jordan of Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo (Alliance for Conservation and Development), one of the groups fighting to protect the tribes.

Because Panama lacks adequate legal mechanisms for indigenous people to obtain title to their land – even though Panama’s Constitution expressly recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to their traditional lands – and because indigenous people have failed to gain traction in Panamanian administrative and penal processes, the Alliance for Conservation and Development, and three other advocacy groups, submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Consequently, the IACHR has scheduled a public hearing for 9 a.m. Tuesday in Washington.

“What is most tragic about the dam construction and the oppression of the Ngöbe and Naso communities is that the destruction of their land is being done in the name of fighting climate change … it’s the most shameful form of greenwashing,” said Jacki Lopez, a legal researcher from the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that authored an amicus brief to the IACHR on behalf of the tribes.

The IACHR has consistently held that governments must recognize indigenous land claims and develop mechanisms to obtain land titles. With the social impacts of the dam construction to include the forced displacement of more than 1,000 Ngöbe indigenous people, and impairment to the livelihoods of 4,000 more, a favorable IACHR decision could be the boost the tribes need. Already, the Ngöbe people have suffered beatings, arbitrary detention, public humiliation and threats by local police to expedite the dam construction. And according to the tribe, AES has failed to obtain their free, prior, informed consent to take the land.

The immediate environmental impacts of the dam constructions are expected to include the destruction of riverine and forest ecosystems, including harm to fish and shrimp biodiversity, by locking migrations between the San San-Pond Sak Wetlands, a Ramsar Convention site and the reserve. The long-term effects are lesser known, but are expected to include an increase in methane production, a powerful greenhouse gas.

The AES Corp. has applied for “green company” status with GES Investment Services, a green investment company in Western Europe. However, a growing body of scientific evidence reveals that dams dramatically increase – rather than decrease – overall greenhouse gas emissions. The science shows there is a link between reservoirs and methane gas emissions related to resulting vegetation decomposition, making reservoirs significant contributors to overall greenhouse gas emissions.