Ngöbe communities in the vicinity of proposed Chan 75 hydroelectric damn in Changuinola River



Philip D. Young Consulting

771 Eastview Rd

Cottage Grove, OR 97424


The Government of Panama (GOP) plans to build a large number of hydroelectric dams in the next few years, most in western Panama on major rivers in the provinces of Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro. The GOP has granted a contract to Allied Energy Systems Corporation (AES), based in Arlington, VA, through its subsidiary in Panama, to construct three hydroelectric dams on the Changuinola River in the province of Bocas del Toro.[1] Construction has already begun on the first of these dams, known as Chan 75 (or Changuinola I), despite alleged irregularities concerning the terms of the Environmental Impact Assessment and confirmed violations of the human rights of the indigenous Ngöbe people who live in the vicinity of the construction site. The site of Chan 75 is entirely within the boundaries of the Palo Seco National Protected Area. The Palo Seco NPA is part of the buffer zone of La Amistad International Biosphere Reserve. The site of Chan 75 is supposedly outside the boundaries of the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca.[2]

A Panamanian NGO, Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo (ACD – Alliance for Conservation and Development), has been working with the residents of the affected Ngöbe communities to help them understand their rights as human beings and as indigenous people and to document violations of these rights by AES and the GOP.

In early November, 2007 at the invitation of ACD, Ellen Lutz, the Executive Director of Cultural Survival, Inc., visited Charco la Pava, the largest of the Ngöbe communities that will be affected by Chan 75. Because of my long experience working with the Ngöbe, she consulted with me by phone before her trip to Panama. During her visit to the Ngöbe communities, she was accompanied by Lucia Lasso, Panamanian anthropologist and Executive Director of ACD who has been working with the Ngöbe for several months (See Lutz 2007).

After returning from Panama, Ellen Lutz again contacted me to see if it would be possible for me to visit Charco la Pava and possibly other communities that would be affected by Chan 75. She reported that both the Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM – The National Environmental Authority of Panama) and AES were claiming that the Ngöbe in the affected communities were no longer Ngöbe and therefore not subject to Panamanian laws pertaining to the rights of indigenous peoples. She suggested that as an anthropologist who had worked with the Ngöbe for many years my professional assessment would be quite useful.

I had already planned a trip to Panama in December 2007 and January 2008 to visit Ngöbe friends in villages in Chiriqui Province. At the request of Ellen Lutz and the invitation of Lucia Lasso of ACD, I agreed to volunteer five days of my time for a visit to Ngöbe communities in the vicinity of Chan 75.


I have a Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana (1968).  During 1964-65 I conducted ethnographic research for my doctoral dissertation among the Ngöbe of Chiriqui Province (Young 1968). A revised version of my dissertation was published as a monograph (Young 1971). Since 1965 I have revisited the Ngöbe several times and have published extensively about their traditional culture and about the impact of outside modernizing forces on their way of life (see, for example, Young n.d. and Young and Bort 1999). Details can be found on my academic CV at


I arrived in David, Chiriqui on January 3, 2008, where I met my friend Adan Bejerano, a Ngöbe from the community of Soloy, whom I had invited him to accompany me on the trip to Bocas.  There I also met Lucia Lasso, an anthropologist who works for the Panamanian nongovernmental organization ACD (Association for Conservation and Development.)  She greeted us with the disturbing news that on the preceding day (Jan 3) a large group of Ngöbe, most from Charco la Pava, had been engaged in a peaceful protest, blocking the road to the Chan 75 dam site. The mayor of the municipality and the governor of Bocas del Toro Province called in the police who arrived in full riot gear, used tear gas, and beat men, women, and children with their batons. Lucia said that several of those injured had needed medical treatment and that about 50 Ngöbe, including men, women, and children, had been jailed.[3] Lucia was on her way to the Public Defender’s office to present a deposition and hopefully secure the release of those jailed. We left on the bus to Changuinola at 1:50 pm, arriving in Changuinola about 6:30 pm as it was getting dark.

On the morning of January 5 Lucia arranged for a young Ngöbe man to accompany us on the bus to Almirante and from there in the pick-up taxi to Valle de Risco. He introduced us to Ismael Quintero and Elario Santos, both politically active community leaders from Guayabal. Lucia had arranged with them to be our guides on the trip to Charco la Pava.

We left Risco about 1:30 pm and walked overland from the Rio Risco to the community of Guayabal, passing through the community of Quebrada Pluma at about the midway point. The terrain was a series of very steep ridges and valleys and the trail was muddy all the way and downright swampy in places. This is not the usual way to get from Valle de Risco to Charco la Pava, but Ismael and Elario said there were police posts along the usual route and that police were patrolling the area since the events of January 3. They felt it was best to avoid any encounter with the police if possible so they took us to Charco la Pava, as Ismael put it, «por la ventana» (through the window). The journey from Valle de Risco to Elario’s house in Guayabal took a bit over four hours.

On January 6, we walked to Valle del Rey. A community meeting was quickly organized, which began about 12:30 pm and lasted about an hour. I was asked to explain who I was and why Adan and I were there. Then several men spoke, mostly in Spanish for my benefit, about how the community members had not been consulted by either the GOP or AES before the company moved in heavy equipment and began road building and dam construction, in the process destroying the crops of some and imperiling their supply of riverine resources as gravel excavation and construction muddied and polluted the waters of the river. Those present were unanimously against the construction of Chan 75 which, they pointed out, would flood their lands and leave them with nothing and nowhere to go. They do not believe the promises of AES and ANAM that they will be compensated for their losses and relocated to comparable lands.

We left Valle del Rey about 2 pm, crossed the Changuinola River again, and walked about 45 minutes, arriving at Charco la Pava about 3 pm. People were already gathering for a meeting, which began about 3:30 pm. Once again I was asked to introduce myself and explain who I was and why I was there. Adan then introduced himself as a Ngöbe from Soloy. I was asked a few questions about where I worked, what kind of work I did, and in what ways I might be able to help them. Then the testimonies began. Most of the people present were from Charco la Pava but there were also people from Guayabal and Valle del Rey.[4] First several men spoke in Spanish repeating more or less what we had heard earlier in Valle del Rey. Several of those present at this meeting had been jailed during the demonstration on January 3 and they told of brutal treatment by the police. Several women who had been jailed also spoke of their mistreatment by the police and some of them told of how their children, including two infants, had been beaten or knocked to the ground by the police and some of the children jailed. Some of the mothers had their children who had been jailed stand with them as they spoke. Most of the women spoke in Ngöbére and after each one spoke, Francisco Santos, the community leader, provided a synoptic translation for my benefit. Francisco also gave his own testimony, pointing out that some people blamed him for the presence of AES because he had signed a document. He said that the document he signed was only to grant a feasibility study and that AES had promised him a copy of the study for the community. At least this is what he understood. But, he said, the company did not provide him with a copy of the study. Instead they simply came in with bulldozers and other heavy machinery and began road construction.

All those who spoke at the meeting were against the construction of Chan 75. There was inevitable repetition in the points made by those who spoke. In sum, the points made were that there was a lack of communication and consultation with the communities by both the government and AES, they do not want to be relocated, they do not want to lose or sell their land, they have been intimidated and threatened by AES personnel and their subcontractors. Those who had been jailed or participated in the peaceful demonstration on January 3 added that they had been unnecessarily abused physically by the police who had used tear gas and had kicked them and beaten them with their nightsticks (toletes).

The meeting ended about 6:15 pm and, at their request, I took pictures of the assembled group and then of the group of all those present who had been jailed. Adan and I were then taken to the house that had been formerly occupied by the former Peace Corps Volunteer. Elario and Ismael did not want to return to Valle de Risco the way we had come because, but wanted to avoid an encounter with the police if at all possible. So we planned to leave before daylight and travel on the river.

By 5 am on January 7, we negotiated the steep muddy trail down to the river’s edge with flashlights and by 5:30 am we were headed downriver in a cayuco with outboard motor. As we approached the police post on the opposite bank we could see that the lights were on.  The boat owner gunned the motor and we raced full throttle downriver through some mild rapids, guided by a young man standing in the bow with a flashlight. We arrived at a place where the road ends near Nance shortly before 6:30 am and walked from there to Valle de Risco, where we caught a ride back to Changuinola.


Are they Ngöbe? All visual observations and conversations confirm that the people in the communities along the Changuinola River that will be affected by the construction of the Chan 75 hydroelectric dam are indeed Ngöbe. All those with whom Adan and I spoke speak Ngöbére as their first language; most speak Spanish as their second language. A few also speak some English which is widely spoken by the Afro-Antillean population in the insular and coastal regions of Bocas del Toro. Some Ngöbe women in the communities of Charco la Pava, Valle del Rey, and Guayabal (and presumably other communities as well) speak only the Ngöbe language. Adan, my Ngöbe friend from Soloy in Chiriqui Province did not find the Ngöbe in these communities to be significantly different culturally from his own kin and other Ngöbe in Chiriqui. He also had no difficulty in conversing with them in Ngöbére. While it is true that many of the Ngöbe women in these communities did not wear the traditional nagua on a daily basis as do most Ngöbe women in Chiriqui, it was apparent that most (maybe all) of them owned naguas and wore them on special occasions, and some wore them daily. Only women who are culturally Ngöbe wear these dresses. Women who are culturally Latina or Afro-Antillean never wear them. Women in these communities perform the tasks customarily assigned to women throughout the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, including the manufacture of the traditional kra (net bags; chacaras in Spanish).

Subsistence. The Ngöbe in the communities of Charco la Pava, Valle del Rey, and Guayabal, as well as in the communities of Valle de Risco, Nudobidi, Soledad, Nance de Risco, and Quebrada Pluma which we passed through on our journey to and from Charco la Pava, practice subsistence agriculture in the traditional Ngöbe fashion, supplemented by some crop production for sale, notably cacao in this area.

Important sources of dietary protein for the Ngöbe communities along the Changuinola and Risco rivers are fish of various species and freshwater shrimp, as is the case with all riverine Ngöbe communities both inside and outside the comarca, e.g., communities along the Cricamola River in Bocas del Toro and along the Fonseca River in Chiriqui. For the communities along the Changuinola River, where the availability of food is regularly precarious, the loss of these riverine resources would be a severe threat to the well-being of all who rely on these resources. There is no doubt about the ecological devastation that would be caused by Chan 75 and the other two proposed hydroelectric dams on the Changuinola River as well as the Bonyic dam in Naso territory. The upstream impact would seriously alter the riverine ecology within the La Amistad International Park (PILA – Parque Internacional La Amistad). As McLarney and Mafla note

probable upstream effects would be drastic, involving extirpation or severe reduction within PILA of populations of 8-11 species of migratory fish and several species of shrimps. Ecological consequences would be severe since these species comprise most of the most abundant and largest species, as well as species with unique ecological functions. (n.d.:1)

Both the upstream and downstream impact on the existent riverine ecology and the resources it provides to the human populations would be severe.

Land tenure. The traditional land tenure pattern among the Ngöbe when I first conducted research with them in 1964-5 was that land was held collectively by kin groups and individual members had use rights. Control of the land (as opposed to collective ownership) was vested in those members of a kin group who actually resided on the land in question. The recognized head of the kin group, usually the eldest male, would allocate use rights upon request unless more than one kin group member was requesting use rights to the same parcel of land, in which case there would be consultation with other resident members of the kin group before a decision was made. The actual determination of who had use rights within a collectively owned piece of land was, and is, rather complex but is heavily dependent upon two factors: an individual’s actual place of residence and her/his kin ties (see Young 1971:148-153 for details). I did note, on the basis of research in 1964-5, that some changes in concepts of real property ownership appeared to be on the horizon:

inevitably certain aspects of Latino real property ownership began to filter into the Ngawbe value system, along with fences; fences came to be regarded as effective land-boundary markers. [Fences force] a shift in concepts of real property ownership: the collective of kinsmen is traditional; the private individual holding is a new awareness – but not yet a reality. (Young 1971:98).

By 2007 concepts of private property ownership had become a reality in some of the Ngöbe communities within the comarca in Chiriqui Province, but instances of actual sale of small plots of land by one Ngöbe another are still rare, though certainly present in Soloy where Adan lives. The predominant pattern is still one of land owned collectively by kin groups.

Concepts of land tenure among the Ngöbe in the communities along the Changuinola River vary. Apparently at least a few men believed they had the individual right to sell their family land because they did sell to AES. Whether they had the legal right to do so is questionable. Those who sold were criticized by some who, believing more along traditional lines that the land belonged to the family, that is, the kin group, argued that individuals did not have a right to sell the land because it was, in essence, the inheritance of their offspring. Still others did not directly comment on whether individuals had a right to sell land but instead voiced their opposition to anyone selling any land to AES. Based on conversations that Adan heard in Ngöbére, he reported that people talked very little about actual laws and concepts of property ownership but «were much more practical, claiming instead that they had been living there so long that it was unthinkable to them that now they’d be forced out with no where to go.»

In sum, the Ngöbe of the Changuinola River communities are convinced that collectively as communities they have ownership rights to the lands that they occupy. Use rights to parcels of land occupied by kin groups (usually extended families) appear to follow generally the description of traditional use rights outlined in Young 1971. Opinions differ regarding whether the head of a family or kin group has the right to sell the land.

Religion. Many contemporary Ngöbe are adherents of a variety of Christian faiths, while also retaining certain non-Christian beliefs, but there are also Ngöbe in the Changuinola River communities who are adherents of the revitalistic religion, known as the religion of Mama Chi or Mama y Tada, that emerged originally among the Ngöbe in Chiriqui Province in 1961 (Young 1971:212-224, 1978). Although containing elements of Christianity, this religion is strictly Ngöbe in origin and there are no non-Ngöbe adherents, further proof, if any were really needed, that the Ngöbe in the Changuinola River communities are indeed Ngöbe.


Lutz, Ellen 2007. Dam Nation. Cultural Survival Quarterly 31(4):16-23.

McLarney, William O. and Maribel Mafla H. n.d. Probable Effects on Aquatic Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function of Four Proposed Hydroelectric Dams in the Changuinola/Teribe Watershed, Bocas del Toro, Panama, with Emphasis on Effects within the La Amistad World Heritage Site. Scientific Paper submitted to the World Heritage Committee providing additional information for the Petition to the World Heritage Committee Requesting Inclusion of Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves/La Amistad National Park on the List of World Heritage in Danger. (ms)

Young, Philip D. n.d. Ngöbe Cultural Survival in the Twenty-first Century: Four Challenges. Paper submitted to the San Diego Museum of Man for an edited volume on Panama, past and present.

Young, Philip D. 1978. La Trayectoria de una Religión: El Movimiento de Mama Chi entre los Guaymí­es y sus Consecuencias Sociales. La Antigua 11:45-75. Panama: Universidad Santa Marí­a La Antigua.

Young, Philip D. 1971. Ngawbe: Tradition and Change Among the Western Guaymí of Panama. Illinois Studies in Anthropology No. 7. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Young, Philip D. 1968. The Ngawbe: Social and Economic Organization of the Western Guaymí of Panama. Ph. D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois, Urbana.

Young, Philip D. and John R. Bort 1999. Ngóbe Adaptive Responses to Globalization in Panama. In William M. Loker, ed., Globalization and the Rural Poor in Latin America, pp. 111-136. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

[1] According to an on-line bulletin from Burica Press (12/08/2007) «The original proposal is for 3 hydroelectric  [dams] and 3 concessions with 3 environmental impact assessments approved. But there has been a design change in the second project, Chan 140, which moves the site of the dam upriver from the original site. Unofficially it is now said that now there will not be three dams, just two larger ones, but there is no document to confirm this.» (Original in Spanish; translation by Phil Young.)

[2] This remains uncertain because the GOP has not finished surveying the boundaries of the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca even though Article 3 of Law 10 of 1997 establishing the comarca specifies that the survey of the mainland boundaries as well as the islands and annexed areas of the comarca is to be completed by September 7, 1999. It should also be noted that Law 10 only gave to the Ngöbe and Bugle about half of the territory that they had requested from the GOP.

[3] Reports of the actual number of Ngöbe who were jailed varied between 40 and 54, depending on who we spoke with during our time in the area. The number is now consistently reported as 54 – 13 children, two of them infants, 8 women, and the rest (33) adult males.

[4] Those present were asked to sign a list with their name and community of residence. I was given this list the following morning. There were many children present at the meeting but I do not know if any of them signed the list. While the list was circulating my impression was that only adults were signing it. I also do not know if all of the adults present put their names on the list. There are 85 names on the list: 69 from Charco la Pava, 11 from Valle del Rey, 4 from Guayabal, and 1 unidentified.