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A chronology and analysis of the events of Chan
Paradigms and Perceptions
A Chronology and Analysis of the Events of the Chan-75
Hydroelectric Project and the Roles and Relationships of
Participants, Bocas del Toro, Panama
Jessica Barber
Independent Study Project
SIT Panama: Conservation and Development
May 2008
Abstract
The pending construction of the Changuinola 75 Hydroelectric Project (Chan-75) has
sparked significant controversy as the affected communities, national non-governmental
organizations (NGO’s) and international NGO’s have protested against the conduct of the
project’s promoters, the AES Corporation and supporters, the Panamanian government. Located
in the Bosque Protector Palo Seco, a buffer zone to La Amistad International Park, the Chan-75
hydroelectric dam project will have significant consequences for the biodiversity, flora and fauna
of the area. The dam will also displace four indigenous Ngöbe communities, a traditionally
marginalized and underrepresented group, as well as flooding the farmland of many others.
Hydroelectric power accounts for 51% of the primary energy production in Panama. Though
Panama does not currently need to import energy to meet demand, there is growing concern that
the growing population may soon demand more than is available. The environmental and social
effects of hydroelectric dams have sparked a worldwide anti-dam movement that has begun to
intersect with the growing indigenous rights movement of Latin America; these two movements
inform the movement in Changuinola. This paper provides a graphical representation and written
account of major events surrounding the efforts of AES and its associates to push the Chan-75
project forward and the those of the project’s opponents to block its construction based on
primary documents. Using testimonies of participants from both sides of the controversy, it
analyzes the relationships between participants and how they may have shaped what has
occurred. The participant entities’ views on the other stakeholders, most notably how AES
views the Ngöbe, are central to how these events have occurred, the choices have been made and
the effects of these choices.
Note: Due to the desire of the researcher for the research to be available to participants
of the events of Chan-75, the graphical chronology has been written in Spanish and the executive
summery has been expanded to provide a fuller review of the paper.
Acknowledgements
Thank you to all the people in Panama and in Changuinola who agree to talk with me
about their experiences in the Chan-75 despite the risks. Thank you to Lucia Lasso for her time
and guidence even when larger crises were looming; I couldn’t have done it without your advice
and knowledge. Thank you to Juan in Changuinola for his advice, generosity and willingness to
help me with whatever I needed including driving me an hour away for an interview when he
didn’t have to. Muchas gracias a mi familia en la capital por acogerme con abrazos abiertos y
darme comida y apoyo mientras estaba escribiendo mi proyecto. And finally thank you to my
biological family, Fred, Liz, Kris and Sheba. I’ve thought about you constantly and I appreciate
your support and love even when we’re far apart.
Expanded Executive Summery (en español)
Debido al aumento en el uso de energía, el agotamiento de combustibles fósiles, y la
creciente conciencia de cambio climático, se cree que las hidroeléctricas son una alternativa
buena para la generación eléctrica. Sin embargo, sí causa efectos grandes en las comunidades en
el área circundante, usualmente marginando poblaciones como los grupos indígenas. En el año
2005, la Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM) de Panamá aprobó la construcción de tres
hidroeléctricas ubicadas en el Bosque Protector Palo Seco (BPPS), una zona de amortiguamiento
para el Parque Internacional La Amistad (PILA) en la provincia Bocas del Toro. AES
Corporation (en Panamá AES Panamá y AES Changuinola), una empresa multinacional de
generación eléctrica, ya inició la etapa de construcción de la primera presa, Chan-75 (o El
Gavilán o Chan-1). Si fuese construida, Chan-75 empezaría a producir 223MW de energía en
2012 con la etapa de operación por 50 años. Las implicaciones sociales y ambientales de Chan75 han provocado oposición fuerte de las comunidades afectadas (Ngöbe), organizaciones
ambientalistas panameñas y la comunidad internacional de ambientalistas y activistas de
derechos humanos. La ubicación en un área protegida, los problemas legales con la concesión y
estudios de impacto ambiental, y denuncias de violaciones de derechos humanos contra las
comunidades han resultado en casos legales en juzgados nacional e internacional. La lucha se ha
intensificado desde el principio del 2007 en la forma de manifestaciones y violencia policial.
Con los testimonios de miembros de AES, apoyo local de Chan-75, líderes y los
afectados de las comunidades, y la Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo, he concluido
que sus relaciones informa las acciones de los participantes, los eventos que han ocurrido, y los
resultados actualmente. Las acciones de la empresa contra las comunidades en la forma de
intimidación, presión y en unos casos, violencia, han pasado en parte debido a su percepción de
los Ngöbe. De unas entrevistas con ingenieros de AES, la empresa los percibía como ingenuos,
incultos, y aislados. Mientras sea verdad que los Ngöbe no tengan acceso a escuela, más que la
educación primaria, y vivan lejos de los centros urbanos de Bocas del Toros, AES usará estas
ideas para justificar la devaluación de la cultura de los Ngöbe e intentará asimilarles a la cultura
dominante. Además, AES le echa la culpa a ONG’s y a ACD por la oposición comunitaria
porque cree que las comunidades han sido confundidas por ellos. Por su parte, los Ngöbes creen
que la empresa no los respeta y que todos los programas sociales que dicen que son beneficiosos
en realidad son para lograr el acuerdo de las comunidades y convencerlas para marcharse de su
tierra.
Por medio de documentos históricos, he compilado una cronología gráfica de los
acontecimientos más importante en el caso de Chan-75. En el contexto de la relación entre los
Ngöbes y AES, la secuencia de los acontecimientos durante los últimos años tienen sentido. El
siguiente es un resumen breve de los eventos más importantes. Espero que mi investigación
pueda ser una herramienta para entender la lucha y ayudar a los participantes en Panamá y de
otros movimientos mundial.
Resumen breve de la Cronología
La historia de Chan-75 empezó en 2004 cuando la empresa Hidro Teribe entregó el
estudio de impacto ambiental (EIA) a ANAM en octubre. El EIA fue aprobado en 2005 y las
comunidades afectadas empezaron discutir sus posiciones a la hidroeléctrica el mismo año. La
Alianza para la Conservación y Desarrollo (ACD), una organización ambiental no
gubernamental de la capital, decidió apoyar las comunidades después de hacer estudios para su
publicación “Análisis de costo beneficio de cuarto proyectos hidroeléctricos en la cuenca
Changuinola-Teribe” en 2006. Por los estudios, ACD reconocía los problemas legales de los
EIAs, y que a la empresa le falta mucho en mitigación social y ambiental. Con la ayuda de
ACD, las comunidades empezaban organizarse, mejorar sus capacidades de defender sus
intereses y tomar conciencia de las desventajas de Chan-75.
La situación en las comunidades se intensificaba en el principio de 2007 con las acciones
de AES en las comunidades para lograr la tierra y el apoyo que se necesitaba para comenzar con
la construcción de Chan-75. La oposición la ha criticado por distorsionar los resultados de
estudios de opinión en las comunidades y cortar árboles y vegetación en la tierra de los
moradores sin permiso. Sin embargo, en enero de 2007, la empresa llevó a la Señora Isabel
Becker de Charco la Pava a la capital para convencerla de vender su tierra. Después de doce
horas en las oficinas de AES, Sra. Becker firmó un acuerdo en español, el cual ella no entendió
porque no puede leer ni hablar Español, que dio su tierra a AES. Según ella y su familia, no
entendía el documento y pensaba que no podría volver a su casa hasta que firmara el acuerdo.
La empresa continuaba realizando acciones de intimidación contra la Sra. Becker hasta octubre
de 2007, cuando se llega con tractores a su casa y la destruyen con todas sus pertenencias a
dentro. Ella fue movida a Finca 4, y el mismo día AES inició y celebró oficialmente la
construcción de Chan-75. Continuando la lucha legal, las tres denuncias sobre la omisión de
sitios de valor arqueológico del EIA, la categorización de la vía de acceso y el caso de Sra.
Becker fueron entregados en septiembre, octubre y diciembre de 2007.
El 17 de diciembre de 2007 la empresa anunció que dos días después comenzaría
detonaciones en el sitio del cimiento de la presa. El 19, miembros de las comunidades iniciaron
una manifestación para bloquear la vía a las máquinas de construcción. Diecisiete días después,
con la vía bloqueada todavía, autoridades locales y policía fueron a la manifestación para
negociar. Las manifestaciones consistieron en quitar el bloqueo pero regresaron el día después,
el 3 de enero de 2008 para bloquear las máquinas que habían vuelto también. En respuesta, la
policía llegó y la disolvía con fuerza. Las manifestantes sufrían golpes y gas lacrimógeno, y 50
personas fueron detenidos incluyendo mujeres embarazadas y 11 niños. Después de este
incidente, la empresa colocó policía armados permanentemente en las comunidades “para
seguridad”, y hasta ahora no ha permitido personas de afuera entrar.
En el año 2008, debido de los esfuerzos de ONGs nacionales e internacionales, la
situación esta logrando más atención internacional. Los casos de las violaciones de derechos
humanos contra los manifestantes, Señora Isabel Becker y otros habitantes de Valle Riscó han
tenido como resultado el apoyo de Cultural Survival, una ONG de Estados Unidos que apoya
grupos indígenas, para algunas denuncias legales. En enero y febrero de 2008, tres denuncias
contra a AES por limpiar la tierra sin permiso fue entregado en cortes nacionales. También, en
marzo, ACD, entregó la petición Violaciones de los Derechos Humanos por el Gobierno de
Panamá contra las Comunidades Indígenas Ngöbe e Individuos en el Valle del Río Changuinola,
Bocas del Toro, Panamá a la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. Las Visitas en
febrero de representantes del Banco Mundial para conocer los efectos de Chan-75 a sus
proyectos el Programa Nacional de Tierras (PRONAT) y el Corredor Biológico Mesoamericano
(CBM) pueden que afectar los fondos que el WB da al gobierno panameño. El comité del
Patrimonio Mundial de UNESCO vino en febrero también para observar la situación y decidirán
si designar al PILA como un sitio “en peligro” en julio. Actualmente en los últimos días de
mayo, la policía todavía permanece en las comunidades, y la empresa esta trabajando 24 horas
por día para lograr la construcción de Chan-75. Debido a estos, el contacto entre los activistas
comunitarios y los activistas de afuera es limitado. A pesar de las dificultades, la mayoría de los
líderes de la oposición expresan esperanza que puedan lograr sus objetivos, y la lucha es lejos de
terminar.
Introduction
In 2005 the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) of Panama approved the
construction of three hydroelectric dams on the Changuinola River in the province of Bocas del
Toro. The dams will be owned and operated by the US Company AES Corporation and its
Panamanian affiliates. The first dam to be constructed, Chan-75 (also El Gavilán and Chan-1)
will produce 223MW and is slated to be operational in 2012, with a generation life of 50 years.
The environmental and social implications of the dam have resulted in strong opposition from
the affected indigenous Ngöbe communities, Panamanian environmentalists, and the
international environmental and human rights community. The location in the Bosque Protector
Palo Seco, a buffer zone for the UNESO World Heritage Site, La Amistad International Park, as
well as problems surrounding the accuracy of the environmental impact statement and the
company’s treatment and relocation plans for individuals in the area of construction have
garnered even greater criticism and have resulted in legal action against the company. The
struggle between the individuals, communities and organizations opposing the dam and the
business and governmental interests that support it have escalated over the past year in the form
of public protest and police violence.
Through the examination and analysis of primary documents such as government
resolutions, legal cases, letters, transcripts of meetings, and newspaper articles, a chronology of
events has been compiled in both graphic and written form. Using this chronology and personal
interviews with members of participating groups, the major actors have been identified and their
roles and relationships examined (see appendix 1). These relationships inform the chronology,
as they provide lens to examine and interpret every choice made and its outcome.
As energy needs grow worldwide and fossil fuels become scarce, hydroelectric dams are
becoming an increasingly popular alternative for electric generation. While these dams may
seem more sustainable due to their reduction in carbon emissions they still have significant
social, economic and environmental effects on surrounding communities and ecosystems.
Around the world, and specifically in Latin America, the low social capital of affected rural and
indigenous populations may make them unable to demand proper consideration and
compensation for the losses caused by large hydroelectric projects. As communities join forces
with national and international non-governmental organizations to oppose projects advocated by
national governments and powerful business interests, it becomes important to analyze the
evolving movements. By examining the relationships between participants in current struggles
we can begin to understand the factors that influence the success of opposition movements and
identify the best ways for communities and their allies to protect their land, livelihoods and
interests in the face of powerful multinational interests.
Literature Review
Hydroelectric Energy, Dams and the International Opposition Movement
Worldwide hydroelectric power generation amounted to 2009.03 billion kilowatt hours in
2005 or 6.3% of the world primary energy production (US Department of Energy 2008). Central
America had an electric generation capacity of 8.5 gigiwatts that year, 51% of which is
hydroelectric. The capacity to exchange, transport and sell this electricity in Central America
will be significantly expanded by the Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP) proposed former president of
Mexico, Vincente Fox, and signed by participating countries in 2001. The first step in the
implementation of the PPP is the construction of the Interconnected Electric System of Central
American Countries (SIEPAC). The SIEPAC is a system of electric transmission lines that will
connect Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama
onto the same power grid. Construction began in 2006 and will allow for the sale and exchange
of energy between countries. The project is slated to be finished by the end of 2008 (US
Department of Energy 2008).
While one of the PPP’s goals is to provide energy for the growing electricity demands
and the oft-purported coming energy crisis, Panama currently produces more energy annually
than they use. In 2005, Panama’s net electric generation was 5.66 billion kilowatt-hours (bkWhr)
and their net consumption was 4.74 bkWhr (US Department of Energy 2008). There are thirteen
hydroelectric dams currently operating in the country that provide 51% of its electricity
(Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2007). Another seventy-six dams are currently in initial
stages of planning or construction (Cordero et al 2006, 18).
The many dams that provide such a substantial percentage of Central America electric
generation can be owned by governments, private national companies or private multi-national
companies, have a generation capacity from 40MW to 300MW, and generate energy for local
cities or countries thousands of miles away, but the debate surrounding all of them is virtually
the same. Supporters say that hydropower is a sustainable and environmentally friendly
alternative to carbon emitting energy sources such as oil and coal, and the many Latin American
countries without a domestic source of oil it is a way to harnessing the natural resources
available in country and reduce dependence on foreign oil. Critics cite the interruption of natural
river flow, destruction of acres of habitat, and loss of lands and livelihoods without proper
compensation of the thousands of people often already living at the margins of society displaced
by vast reservoirs. As environmental and indigenous movements have gained momentum and
begun to focus on these issue, governments and construction companies attempting to construct
large dams have faced increasing opposition.
Since the 1970’s the worldwide anti-dam movement has grown. Initially led by
environmentalists mainly concerned with wilderness and biological conservation, the movement
has expanded to address the social effects dams have on affected communities. As opponents to
large dams have become more inclusive and more effective in their opposition, alliances have
been formed between non-governmental organizations, human rights group, and local and
indigenous communities (McCully 1996). International organizations such as International
Rivers collaborate with national or local-level organizations such as Friends of River Narmada in
India help local communities oppose large dam projects that threaten riparian ecosystems and
lives and livelihoods of surrounding communities. There are dam opposition movements in
Taiwan, India, Europe, Brazil, the United States and countless other countries (International
Rivers 2008). The work of anti-dam organizations and many environmental and indigenous
NGOs that object to lack of accountability or sufficient mitigation of issues caused by large dam
projects have increased pressure on international entities such as the World Bank in recent years
and have experienced success (Leslie 2005). Their work in Latin America and worldwide has
prompted the creation of the World Bank Inspection Panel in 2003 that allows communities
affected by World Bank funded projects such as hydroelectric dams to defend their rights and
interests (Clark et al. 2003), and the development of the World Commission on Dams and their
publication of guidelines for large dams, Dams and Development: A New Framework for
Decision-Making (2000), which addresses displacement of communities the mitigation of other
social affects (World Commission on Dams 2001, Leslie 2005).
As in the rest of the world, resistance to dams in Latin America has been occurring since
the 70’s and has been widespread due to the region’s historical dependence on hydroelectricity
and the high rate of dam construction. In Brazil, the construction of dams such as the one on the
Rio Sao Francisco, which displaced over 70,000 people sparked local mobilization against them
(Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens-Brasil 2007). Local movements joined to form
coalitions such as the Comissão Regional de Atingidos por Barragens, [Regional Committee of
those Displaced by Dams] in 1979 which evolved in Movimento Nacional de Atingidos por
Barragens, [National Movement of People Affected by Dams] in 1991(Rothman et al 1992).
Some governments have responded to opposition brutality, such as in Guatemala when 376
people were massacred in 1980 and 1982 for resisting eviction to allow the construction of the
Chixoly Dam (Witness for Peace). Situations like these and countless more have triggered the
formation of countless national anti dam organizations all over Central and South America from
Mexico to Chile that continue to fight large dam projects today. (International Rivers).
International and Latin American Indigenous Movements
Anti-dam movements often intersect with indigenous movements as the best dam
locations often occur in ancestral territory and disproportionately affect indigenous groups
(Leslie 2006). Indigenous people worldwide have historically been marginalized from political
and social systems and continue to be today. From wide-spread extermination by colonizers to
continued efforts of national governments to assimilate or exclude groups, indigenous peoples
continue to experience inequality, political marginalization and threats to their cultural survival.
Recently, domestic efforts to secure rights and protect their traditional lifestyles and ancestral
lands have grown into international coalitions such as The World Council of Indigenous Peoples
that promote indigenous activism, organization and popular protest (Hodgson 1039-1040). Part
of this shift has been the “reindigenization” and recognition of communities and groups that had
previously been considered campesinos (Jackson and Warren 2005, 551). International
governing bodies have also begun to address the challenges and interests of the world’s
indigenous groups. In 1982 the United Nations established the Working Group on Indigenous
Populations (WGIP) of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
One of the group’s projects was the writing of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. The high-level UN advising body, The
UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues meets yearly in two-week sessions to address
worldwide indigenous issues (United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 2006).
With the growth of the international movement, indigenous groups of Latin America
have become more politically organized and have been experiencing some success. Movements
have addressed a variety of issues, from political autonomy and land rights to exploitation of
natural resources on indigenous territory and intellectual property rights (Dove 2006). The
implementation of ubiquitous neoliberal projects mandated by the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund have also become factors in indigenous movements (Jackson and Warren 2005),
most notably the Cochabamba uprising in Bolivia over water privatization (Perreault, 2006).
Indigenous groups of Bolivia have experienced success with organizations such as the
Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador and Movement Towards Socialism in
Bolivia experiencing growing political influence (Naim 2003) the election of indigenous leaders
to high positions such as president Evo Morales. Other struggles, though well publicized, such
as the Zapatista uprising in Mexico have not had the same level of success. (Jackson and Warren
2005). Indigenous groups still experience structural discrimination within political systems, and
some governments have reacted violently to indigenous movements (552). Moisés Naim, in his
article An Indigenous World, argues that the successes had are partially due to globalization that
has allowed indigenous groups to network with non-governmental organizations that work for
human rights, anti-poverty and environmental conservation (96). NGOs can both advocate for
indigenous groups on national and international scales and help the groups to organize for
successful local action and activism. Naim also argues that decentralization of governments has
allowed indigenous leaders to be elected into local and regional governments and therefore
address issues particular to the often majority indigenous populations in those areas (96).
Indigenous movements face many obstacles of which state produced reputations as being
“subversive” and internal conflict and splintering are just a few (565), but with collaboration
with in Latin America and worldwide.
Panama, Bocas del Toro and Bosque Protector Palo Seco (BPPS) and Parque Internacional La
Amistad (PILA)
Panama is located on the Central American isthmus between Costa Rica and Colombia.
It has an area of 78,200 square kilometers making it slightly bigger than South Carolina. The
country’s population is 3,292,693 (estimation for July 2008) (CIA World Fact Book 2008).
Bocas del Toro is a province located in the Northwestern part of the country on the border of
Costa Rica. Its population is approximately 90,000 people and its main industries are tourism
and banana production. Demographically the population of Bocas del Toro is made up of
Latinos, Afro-Antilleans descended from immigrants from Caribbean islands and two main
indigenous groups, the Ngöbe, previously called the Guaymi together with the Buglé, and the
Naso, also know as the Teribe (Panama Census 2000). Due to the Cordillera de Talamanca
mountain range that extends through the middle of the country, Bocas del Toro has been
historically cut off from Panama City and the development that has occurred there and has not
experienced the growth of urban centers or large cattle farms or agriculture that has led to the
deforestation of much of the interior (Garcia). Due to this, the rainforests and ecosystems are
remarkably intact in the province and have led to the creation of multiple protected areas of
international importance.
The largest of these is La Amistad International Park (PILA), encompassing land in Costa
Rica and Panama that is “the largest remaining upland virgin forest in Central America” and
“one of the most ecologically diverse and rich in the whole of…Central America” (IUNC
Summery 1990). The 491,896-hectare Costa Rica section of the park was created in 1982 (Costa
Rica National Parks 2005) and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site the next year
(Thorson et al. 2007). In 1988 the Panamanian government fulfilled the commitment made in
1979 and designated 207,000 hectares (Sistema de Información Ambiental Mesoamericano
2005) which was also included in the UNESCO listing.
The Bosque Protector Palo Seco (BPPS) was created in 1983 in part due to the
hydroelectric potential of the Changuinola and Teribe Rivers that had been investigated since the
1970’s (De los Santos, et.al. 2006). The Changuinola-Teribe watershed encompasses much of the
land in the BPPS. It’s headwaters are located within PILA and it meets the ocean at the
protected area San San Pond Sak, designated as a Wetland of International Importance (Cordero
et.al. 2006). The Plan de Manejo de ANAM written in 2004 lists the park as a buffer zone to
PILA and categorizes areas into three zones of management, from absolute protection to open
local use for the communities located inside the park (Plan de Manejo BPPS 2004).
The Ngöbe of Panama and Valle Riscó
The Ngöbe are the largest indigenous group in Panama with the 2000 census listing total
population as 169,130 (Perfil de los Pueblos Indígenas de Panamá 2002). They share a comarca,
a semi-autonomous indigenous reserve, with the Buglé, a linguistically related but culturally
distinct group, which encompasses land formally in the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui
and Veraguas. Various economic and social pressures increasingly threaten Ngöbe culture and
ways of life both inside and outside the comarca. Decrease in available land has made
indigenous subsistence farming techniques such as fallow cycles difficult to maintain and less
economically viable (Wickstrom 44). While the existence of the comarca helps to preserve
ancestral land and traditional activities, growing populations within the boundaries have
significantly affected the sustainability of subsistence agriculture and slash and burn clearing
practices (Bort and Young 2001, 127). In addition, natural resources that exist on Ngöbe lands
attract attention from national and international companies and the Panamanian government
interested in exploiting these resources in the form of mines and hydroelectric dams (Young
2007). In 1997, after years of political struggle, the Panamanian government designated the
Ngöbe-Buglé comarca through Law 10. (Young 2007, 11) Consisting of 2,500 square miles, the
comarca only encompassed half of the territory the Ngöbe had requested, and the Law contained
a number of problematic provisions (12). While the Ngöbe General Congress has the right to be
involved in development projects, the national government legally can control and initiate
projects within the comarca if it’s “in the best economic interest of the country” (22). Outside
the Comarca, Ngöbe communities have no special rights that allow them to protect their land
from natural resource exploitation, nor do companies or the government have to consult them
regarding concessions of the land. (Wickstrom 58).
The communities of Valle Riscó in the Changuinola River watershed are part of the 40%
of the Ngöbe population that live outside the comarca (Young 2007, 3). They are some of the
many Ngöbe communities that exist outside of the protection of the comarca yet are not fully
integrated into the Latino economic and political systems (Wickstrom 50). This has many
implications for both the preservation of their culture and their ability to respond to threats to
their land and resources. The area is not pre-colonial Ngöbe territory, but was colonized in the
1960s as land pressures from population growth and the development of Panama’s interior
forced many Ngöbe to search for new lands (Engineer, AES #1, Bort and Young 2001). The
inhabitants, like most Ngöbe, live in scattered subsistence farms collectively owned by kin group
(Young 2007). Like many Ngöbe communities inside and outside of the comarca, the people of
Valle Riscó have only limited participation in the cash economy, partially due to the extreme
inaccessibility of the area. Their lives are dependent on the land they farm and the growth of
more centralized communities has been due to the construction of primary schools. Many
families with houses in the communities farther up the mountains continue to keep fincas in the
Changuinola River valley where there is richer farmland (Inhabitant #2).
Part One: The Participation of Many- A Brief Chronology of Chan-75
1970’s-2004
Evaluations of the Changuinola-Teribe watershed for hydroelectric potential began in the
1970’s (De los Santos et.al. 2004, 43). In 1981 the company Chas. T. Main International Inc.
submitted a study to IRHE (4), the state run electric company detailing the hydroelectric
generation potential of the Changuinola River. The promising findings played a role in the
deliniation of the Bosque Protector Palo Seco (BPPS) on September 28th, 1983 (1) but its status
as a protected area would later prove to be an obstacle. Interest in potential projects was growing
in 2001, and researchers began arriving in the communities of the Changuinola River starting in
2004 when Hidro Teribe S.A of Panama hired the Panamanian Ecological Consultants S.A.
(CEPSA), to begin studies for the environmental impact statement (EIA) (inhabitant #1). The
first community response to the proposed projects was in September 2004 with a joint
declaration against the projects by members of fourteen communities surrounding the dam site
including those that would be inundated by the dam, Charco la Pava, Valle el Rey, Changuinola
Arriba and Guayacan. Hidro Teribe submitted the completed document Environmental Impact
Study-Category III: Construction and Operation of the Hydroelectric Dam El Gavilán (Chan-75)
October 2004.
2005
In 2005 the company began taking social surveys of community residents as part of the
required social mitigation the company has to do and to begin trying to buy people’s land
(Inhabitant #1). The company also began clear the line that marks the height of the reservoir,
often clearing trees and crops from residents’ land without permission (Stein 2005). In response,
some community residents began to organize more resolutely against the dam (Inhabitant #1). In
April, a required public forum regarding Chan-75 was held in the town of Almirante, a half an
hour away from the affected communities, and attendance was low due to its inaccessibility. The
Center for Ngöbe Development and Technical Assistance sent a letter that same month asking
why the forum had not been held in a place within the affected areas and accessible to
community members.
From the beginning, the impacts studies of Chan-75 experienced some setbacks within
the approval process, as various government entities declared them insufficient. The National
Direction of Historical Heritage Office (DNPH) of the National Institute of Culture (INAC) sent
a letter to Hidro Teribe in March saying that according to the members of a INAC-commissioned
archeological study, CEPSA needed to do more investigations of the area of Charco la Pava in
order for the EIA to be approved. When there was no response, DNPH rejected the submitted
EIA until the archeological studies were completed. However DNPH rejection was technically
only a recommendation and the EIA was approved by ANAM in October 2005. and CEPSA and
Hidro Teribe submitted their expanded archeological study over a year later in October 2006.
The next step in the approval process was to obtain a land concession. Hidro Teribe had
already received the necessary concession for the actual hydroelectric project from Regulating
Entity of Public Services (ERSP), but in order to build the dam in the Palo Seco Protected Forest,
they needed a land concession from ANAM, the granting of which would require a judicial
agreement saying the proposed project meet certain standards. Hidro Teribe submitted their
request to ANAM for a concession of 6,215 hectares in June.
2006
While the legal documents worked their way through governmental approval, the
company continued to do local surveys of residents and do work to prepare the site for
construction. A number of residents have asserted that employees of the company entered and
cut paths, trees or even destroyed crops when granted permission only to do a study, or no
permission at all (inhabitant #1, Lasso pers. com.). As residents became more concerned with
the implication of Chan-75 and the presence of the company on their land, the majority of
communities in Valle Riscó had began holding individual meetings to discuss their positions
between May and November. 2006 also saw the beginning of coalition building of those against
the dam. First aware of the Chan-75 project through their work with the Naso of the Teribe River
and the proposed Bonyic dam, the Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD) increased
their participation in the early months of 2006 (Jordan pers. comm.). As the organization
became more involved in the growing Bonyic controversy and began providing technical and
capacity building support to the Naso, they also began working with the communities of the
Changuinola River (Jordan). Lucia Lasso, the current executive director of ACD, explained that
throughout the studies conducted for the 2006 publication Cost-Benefit Analysis of Four
Hydroelectric Projects in the Changuinola-Teribe Watershed, it became apparent that the
process of developing Chan-75 was “problematic… with vacuums in knowledge that needed to
be addressed”. (Lasso 2008). ACD’s involvement was initially moderate, consisting mainly of
writing letters to ANAM officials and helping the communities improve their capacities to
organize (Jordan, e-mail 2008). However, as the legal issues surrounding the impact statements,
the significant threats to La Amistad International Park, and the marginalization of the
communities in the development process became more obvious, ACD began to increase their
level of participation through legal cases, international coalition building and greater local
collaboration.
The status of the Palo Seco Protected Forest as a buffer zone the World Heritage Site La
Amistad International Park brought the issue to the attention of international conservation
organizations, specifically the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). A 2006 visit took CBD
members to the site of Chan-75 and the combination of the threat to the biodiversity of PILA and
the involvement of a US-based company led to their decision to join ACD in opposing the
projects. (Galvin) Together with ACD and 36 other national and international organizations, they
began preparing and submitted a petition to UN World Heritage Committee requesting the
designation of PILA as a World Heritage Site “in danger” due to the threats posed by the four
proposed dam projects. CBD also began publishing press releases on their website in 2006 to
raise international awareness and supported the legal cases currently pending in the Panamanian
courts.
In June, Carlos Fitzgerald, a Panamanian archeologist, was contracted to carry out the
archeological studies requested by INAC. According to Fitzgerald, a road had already been built
though the area of the archeological sites, but the company wanted to enlarge it. Fitzgerald
carried out the studies and submitted them to CEPSA, the contracted company who executed the
EIAs, who than submitted them to ANAM in October. However, according to Fitzgerald, the
report contained “conceptual and factual differences” from the one he had submitted and so did
not include the relevant information needed to correctly assess the archeological value of the
area. This irregularity violates Panamanian Law 14, which protects all archeological findings by
law and requires their preservation or excavation. (Fitzgerald, Serracín). Despite these
irregularities, ANAM proclaimed the Chan-75 EIA complete and legal through Resolution
DINOERA IA-127-06 on December 21st.
In November, Hydro Teribe the submitted their Category I impact study of an access road
called Río Riscó. Category I is the lowest impact categorization of a project by ANAM and is
defined in Executive Decree No. 209 of September 5, 2006 as projects that “…that do not
generate significant environmental and that do not entail environmental risks.” (translation by the
author) (Ramos) However, the construction of the access road required large movements and the
terracing of a steep slope to allow the entrance of large machinery for the construction of Chan-
75, and both the Ministry of Public Works and the Regional ANAM Office in Bocas del Toro
rejected this categorization.
2007
On a national scale, Chan-75 finally achieved the legal permissions to begin work. On
May 2nd 2007, despite the objections of the Ministry of Public Works and the administration of
ANAM’s Bocas del Toro branch, the National ANAM office approved the Río Riscó EIA as a
category I project. Two week later, Hidro Teribe, now know as AES Changuinola, was granted a
concession of 6,215 hectares within BPPS on May 23 2007. Both these decisions prompted the
filing of court cases later that year. On the international scale, the movement gained momentum
as CBD submitted the petition to list PILA as “in danger” In response, on June 26 the UN World
Heritage Committee decided to investigate the claims made by the petition and visit Panama in
order to assess the level of danger the projects present to La Amistad.
On a local scale early 2007 marked the beginning of one of the most publicized series of
events related to Chan-75: the case of Isabel Becker, who owned land in Charco La Pava at the
site of the dam. On January 4th 2007, AES flew Sra. Becker and her daughter to Panama City for
what they thought was a vacation. Instead, the company brought her to their offices, where she
stayed for ten hours until she signed a document selling her finca to the company (Lutz 2004,
17). Sra. Becker asserts that she was not told truthfully the contents of the document, written in
the Spanish she can neither read nor speak, thinking it only rented the land to the company, and
only signed it so they would be allowed to leave and return home (17). After returning from
Panama City, Sra. Becker continued to experience pressure from Aes to leave her house. On
July 21st, tractors arrived at the house, the shock of which caused Sra. Becker to faint and the
police took her to the hospital in Changuinola. When she had recovered she was not allowed to
return home until the next day and spent the night at the new house in Finca 4 that AES had built
for her (Stein 2008, 75). Three months later in October, AES arrived with another document in
Spanish that sold her finca for a higher price, which she signed. Six days later, on October 25,
Aes arrived again with tractors, bulldozed her house with all of her possessions still inside, and
moved her permanently to Finca 4 (75). That same day AES officially inaugurated the
construction of Chan-75 (Arcía 2007).
In addition to the official beginning of construction on Chan-75, the end of 2007 also saw
the filing of a series of court actions against the company and the government. ACD filed an
Environmental Criminal Report in September requesting an investigation of the categorization of
the Río Riscó access road as a Category I. In October, the Association of Environmental Rights
(ADA) and the Association of Panamanian Ecologists (ASEP) filed a Environmental Criminal
Report (Denuncia Penal Ambiental) in the Environmental Prosecuting Court #5 asking for the
investigation of the irregularities in the impact statement in regards to the archeological studies
(Serracín).
In November, Ellen L. Lutz, the executive director of Cultural Survival, a non-profit
organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the USA that works with indigenous groups
around the world to support their rights and cultural traditions, visited Charco la Pava. Prompted
by the experiences of Isabel Becker, the apparent human rights violations perpetrated by the
company, Cultural Survival decided to become involved in the opposition of Chan-75. ACD and
Cultural Survival began preparing a petition Human Rights Violations by the Government of
Panama against the Indigenous Ngöbe Communities and Individuals the Changuinola River
Valley, Bocas del Toro, Panama to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which was
officially submitted in March 2008.
As construction began and the communities began to experience more unauthorized work
on their lands situation became tenser. Tensions escalated to action when on December 17th AES
announced that on the two days later they would begin detonations to remove bedrock for the
dam’s foundations (Lasso 2008). Members of the affected communities responded by staging a
protest at access road the day of the detonations, December 19th, and closing the entrance to the
company’s equipment. The protesters continued to block to road for the rest of December,
setting the construction significantly behind schedule. The mayor of Changuinola arrived on
December 29th and issued a statement requiring the immediate abandonment of the area or the
face the police intervention. The declaration was ignored and later that day the Head of the
Valle Riscó Police issued an order for the arrest and 24 hour detainment of all participants.
2008
Four days later on January 2nd, the road still blocked, the local police and the AES subcommissioner arrive at the site to negotiate with the protesters. After four hours, the protesters
agreed to leave on the condition that they would have a meeting with AES and the local
government on the 8th to seriously address their concerns. The next morning, the 3rd of January,
with the arrival of AES construction machinery, the protesters returned to prevent the
detonations until the agreed-upon meeting. In response, the National Police forcibly broke up
the protest and arrested 54 people including pregnant women and 11 children. Two other
children were taken to the hospitals with injuries and the leaders of the protest were forced to
escape into the mountains to avoid arrest. All 54 detainees were kept over night in the
Changuinola jail. The morning of the fourth the police released the children, and after a protest
in front of the jail for the release of the remaining people, the adults were released that night.
(Lasso 2008)
In the aftermath of these events AES installed a permanent armed police force at the
entrances and in the communities in the area for reasons of security on January 8th which have
been denying access to anybody who does not live or own land within the area. (Lasso 2008).
The treatment of the protesters by the police has increased the accusations of human rights
violations and had led to legal cases being filed against the company in January and February by
various community members. These cases have addressed both the illegal destruction of
individuals’ fincas by the company and the treatment of the protester at the hands of the police.
Repression in the communities did not slow down the international momentum. In
February, a number of international entities visited Panama in order to assess various aspects of
Chan-75’s environmental impacts. UNESCO made a well publicized visit from the 18th to 23rd
to assess the request submitted by ACD and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) for PILA
to be classified as a World Heritage site In Danger. Their visit included meetings with major
Panamanian environmental organizations including ANCON and the Panamanian branch of The
Nature Conservancy, as well as ANAM and ACD and CBD (ACD 2008). However, the police
refused to allow members of UNESCO, ACD and Cultural Survival to enter the area of dam
construction on the 21st and the tight control by ANAM on the visit meant the committee never
actually got to visit PILA to truly assess the damages (ACD 2008). UNESCO will make its
decision regarding the petition during its 2008 summer session.
Also in February, the World Bank sent representative to assess how the Chan-75 project
is affecting their Panama Land Administration Project (PRONAT), which aims to increase land
tenure security and environmental conservation in protected areas and indigenous territories
(World Bank 2000). The World Bank gives the government of Panama money to maintain these
projects and could pull funding if it finds that allowing the construction isn’t compatible with the
goals of the projects. This visit was also tightly controlled by the government and the
representative from PRONAT did not even visit Charco la Pava or the affected communities to
speak with the inhabitants. Police refused admittance on March 5th to members of ACD, the
Latin-American Water Tribunal and UICN, two more organizations that had come to assess the
situation.
In the months of April and May, ACD and other organizations have continued to send
letters to the government, pursue the involvement of the Interamerican Court of Human Rights,
the World Bank and other international entities, and push the pending legal cases through the
justice system. On a community level, the Congress of the Comarca Ngöbe-Bugle officially
declared their opposition to the project and called for its suspension on April 4th. Also in April,
members of ACD and a growing national movement against hydroelectric, mining and tourist
development projects successfully pressured President Martin Torrijos into creating a
governmental committee to address their concerns, though little has been achieved in the few
meetings they have had. The World Bank sent another representative to assess the second
project it has in Panama, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, but similar to the visit in
February, it was tightly controlled by the government (Lasso pers. com.). As of the end of May,
armed police continued to be stationed in the area, despite letters from community residents and
the Mayor of Changuinola asking their removal. AES continues to realize the detonation of
dynamite twice everyday for the construction of the foundation and continued to work 24 hours a
day, 7 days a week in construction of the access road and preparation of other sites in the area.
Part II: Cause and Effect- Analysis and Discussion of Stakeholder Roles and Relationships
The complex and interwoven events surrounding Chan-75 have occurred as they have
due to many factors, but one of which is the preconceived perceptions and current relationships
that exist between significant stakeholders. How one-group views another in regards to their
values, motives and culture is central to the conscious and unconscious treatment of said group,
and therefore the actions the group chooses to take. The most significant relationship is that
between AES and the Ngöbe of the affected communities. This relationship is central to the
story of Chan-75 as they are the two actors with the greatest stake in the future of the project, the
two with the least in common, and the two most at odds. The majority of choices made on the
part of the company and the issues that have arisen from these choices can be considered direct
results of this complex and problematic relationship. Also important are the ways the company
and the Ngöbe perceive the involvement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs),
specifically the Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD), and the role the government
and their representative, National Authority on the Environment (ANAM), has had in this long
controversy. 1
1
The interviews cited in this section were conducted between May 5th and May 21st 2008. Members of AES and the
community opposition movement are kept anonymous here due to the sensitive nature of the topic. Prominent
participants in the issue are referred to by name due to their high level of recognition within the movement and
because I believe their identities are relevant to the interpretation of their answers. Though three interviewees are
referred to as “inhabitants” all three are also leaders in the local movement against the dam, however I wanted to
The Gift of Development: AES and the Ngöbe
Jean Jackson and Kay Warren discuss the policies of assimilation as a tenet of stateindigenous relationships before the 1980s and the rise of the international indigenous movement
(2004, 551), but in the case of AES and Chan-75 it is a guiding principle. Within this indigenous
movement, rights are a substantial part of the dialogue; human rights, territory and land rights,
intellectual property rights and cultural rights. Cultural rights are defined by Kottak as the right
“to preserve its culture, to raise its children in the ways of its forebears, to continue its language”
and perhaps most applicably, “to not be deprived of its economic base” (1999, 29). However,
the recognition of cultural rights requires the recognition of the existence of a valuable culture,
which is not present in the rhetoric of AES. The Ngöbe of Valle Riscó have not been part of the
growing indigenous rights movement in Latin America, nor have they had access to the
increased political capital that has become associated with the concept of indigeneity (Dove
2006). This, however, does not invalidate their claims to a distinctive valuable culture or the
right to protect it from development projects not only threaten to destroy their way of life, but
purport its destruction as an opportunity.
There is a vast inequality present between the powerful multinational company and the
indigenous subsistence farmers in the form of political, social and economic capital. AES is a
multinational electric generation and distribution company that has 123 electric generation plants
in 29 countries around the world with annual revenues of 13.6 billion dollars,. (AES 2008) In
Panama, they successfully built the Chiriqui Estí dam in 2003 and have operated three dams,
Bayano, La Estrella and Los Valles, since 1999. AES has the money, governmental support and
experience to challenge any opposition to their goals. The Ngöbe of Valle Riscó have no legal
protection, no institutional support and very little capacity to organize, protect their interests or
challenge the immense threat that the dam presents. These inequalities are further exacerbated by
the company’s pre-conceptualized views on who the Ngöbe people are as well as the unshakable
belief in the virtues of western-style development. These views are fraught with contradictions,
but constitute the basis of how the company has conducted itself in the communities and within
the project in general.
AES’s perception of the Ngöbe of Valle Riscó and the value of their culture have been
apparent through throughout the development of Chan-75. From early days of controversy, the
surveys conducted of community opinions have been described as insufficient and
“misrepresented” (Stein 2008, 65). The relocation of the inundated communities was not
included or addressed in the 2004 environmental impact study, and the Relocation Plan
published in July 2007 was harshly criticized for not providing sustainable or culturally
appropriate solutions. A revised Relocation Plan, prepared in April 2008 by Gestión Urbana and
currently pending approval of AES, is significantly longer and more detailed with four sections,:
“Food Security and Economic Sustainability”, “Empowerment of the Communities in the
Process of Implementation of Relocation”, “Collective Construction Program of the New
Communities and Territories” and the “Improvement of Channels of Communication.” Though
these programs are carefully presented, they are inadequate in terms of long term plans to ensure
sustainability and long-term security. Under the section “Food Security and Economic
Sustainability”, one of the three minimum achievements was “five farms improved through the
application of the program.” (Programa de Reasentamiento 2008) When asked how this could be
distinguish them as members of affected communities in contrast to the other two “leaders” who live outside the
area.
the minimum for the 150 households that are being relocated, a representative from Gestión
Urbana asserted that it was “just a minimum” and of course more than 5 farms would benefit
(Gestión Urbana, architect) Despite its four part plan, ubiquitous references to “participation”
and inclusion of requirements of AES, the relocation plan not only does not provide a
reevaluation program to ensure long term security but it also does not provide compensation or
training for the acres of farmland in the flood area that is owned by people who live in
communities that aren’t being relocated.
The presentation of the Relocation Plan to the public exhibits the devaluation of
traditional indigenous culture in the face of Westernized values. Originally, all families displaced
by the dam were going to be moved outside Valle Riscó to small settlements nearer to
Changuinola as in the case of Isabel Becker. Her house in Finca 4 is prominently displayed in
publicity ads in Panamanian newspapers as well as in posters describing the relocation that are
hanging in the AES offices in Ojo de Agua. The photographs show a modern, boxy, one-floor
house similar to most of the houses in urban Panamanian towns. This photo is usually paired
with an interior shot showing a cushioned living room couch and large television. These photos
and others of the houses AES will buy or build for relocated families are usually printed next to
photos of the original homes, open-air, thatched roofed, one or two-room wooden houses on
stilts. The subtext of these advertisements invites a comparison between the conditions the
people were living in before AES and the ones they will be living in now with AES’s help. To
the general Panamanian public and most westernized viewers, the better life is clearly the one
with full walls and a personal television.
The rhetoric of the benefits and opportunities being provided by Chan-75 also exhibit the
extent to which AES find the Ngöbe’s current lifestyle legitimate. Despite claims of advocates
that AES will sacar (remove) the communities from poverty and give them something better
(Caballero) the reality is that the communities are being forced to assimilate into the dominant
Westernized culture. This culture is based around a capitalist monetary exchange system that
they are not prepared to enter because their cultural system if one of self-subsistence, collective
land, and little, though always increasing, participation in the monetary economy. The relative
merits of these two systems are beyond the scope of this paper, but the issue here is not which
system holds more value, but rather the forced removal of people from a system they know and
understand and that holds cultural importance for them. The modern houses in town may come
with a TV but they do not come with farmland, the only source of food most community
residents have ever known. Without the ability to produce their own food, the residents are
forced into low-paying jobs by their lack of training for anything better. The company’s plans
and abilities to provide the support for these families after relocation inspires little confidence in
community or environmental leaders, but AES remains convinced that the relocation is for the
people’s own good. One AES engineer dismissed the concerns of families regarding the planned
relocation by confiding that many Ngöbe families engaged in incest, a comment that implied the
existence of a backwardness that needs to be corrected. In general, the company and its
advocates refuse to believe that the opportunity they are providing could be anything but good,
and a general development-oriented society is inclined to agree (AES engineer #1, Gestión
Urbana architect, Caballero).
The company’s view of the Ngöbe people themselves, which was echoed in the
interviews of many who support the dam, stems from a mixture of cultural realities, feelings of
superiority and the same Western views of the virtues of development. The Ngöbe are seen
uneducated, naïve, and isolated. An AES engineer described them as entitled, believing that
others are “obligated” to provide them with money and services yet ungrateful because the gift of
these opportunities “doesn’t mean they’re going to say thanks” (AES engineer #1). The
opposition that is present in the communities is explained through a variety of ideas, some
contradictory. The same engineer explained that for the Ngöbe, “it’s easier to say no than yes,”
implying that the opposition is based not on valid concerns but a cultural trait. A more common
view from dam supporters inside and outside of AES is that “the people don’t understand it,”
implying that if they were smarter or familiar with the dominant culture, they would understand
and accept the benefits and opportunities being offered to them (AES engineer #1; AES engineer
#2; Gestión Urbana, architect; Caballero). Another set of viewpoints is that the Ngöbe are
suspicious and distrusting of people from afuera (outside the communities), namely the
company, yet naïve and easily influenced by outside ideas, namely those of environmental NGOs
(AES engineer #1). Community members who openly oppose the project were consistently
presented as manipulated and confused by outside influences.
Culturally, not all these views are unfounded. The Ngöbe are isolated from the dominant,
westernized Panamanian culture and unfamiliar with its “benefits”. They have experienced
discrimination from the non-indigenous community and therefore have good reason to suspicious
of outsiders coming in with large-scale plans for their ancestral territory (community leader #1).
It is not uncommon to be asked for money when visiting their communities, and a low level of
education is generally accepted as an obstacle to making well-informed and independent
decisions. The issue with the views held by high-level employees of AES is the extent to which
the company has used them to disregard the opinions and wishes of the people of Valle Riscó.
Cultural differences and low levels of education are not indicators of the value of a person, but
the condescension and lack of respect present in the tones of the AES engineers interviewed
exhibits the existence of exactly that belief.
“No hay respecta”: The Ngöbe and AES
On the part of the Ngöbe activists, these perceptions have not gone unnoticed. Every
community activist spoken with asserted that AES had no respect for the people, their opinions,
lands or livelihoods and consistently ignored them in their efforts to initiate, develop, and build
Chan-75. An interviewee personally affected by the company’s insensitivity when they cleared
his finca without his permission asserted that all the company’s actions had been carried out
without community consultation and with “no respect” (inhabitant #3). An indigenous rights
activist specifically criticized the company’s treatment in regards to indigenous culture saying
that the project was going to “break” their traditions and customs and force them into
unsustainable lives in unfamiliar cities or on insufficient farmland (community leader #1). The
company’s actions were described as dishonest and placing no value on people’s lives. All four
interviewees believe the company does not actually care about the people they are displacing and
the social programs AES has proposed simply done as a matter of form to silence opposition.
The result is a shared animosity and almost no communication between community
leaders and the company. Communication is minimal and some leaders seemed content to keep
it that way. It seems that in the past, community leaders who had gotten close to the company
had been influenced by the relationship and, possibly with a promise of money or other benefits,
had switched sides (community leader #1). Another activist expressed an unwillingness to let
the general community get too close to the company in the fear that the company will buy their
support or agreement to sell their land through money, gifts or simply force (inhabitant #2). This
loosely echoes the company’s sentiment that the Ngöbe are naïve and easily convinced of outside
ideologies or ideas. Whereas the company thinks outside NGOs are doing this, these community
leaders are afraid of the company being able to do the same thing.
Unwelcome Ideology vs. Social Empowerment: The Role and Relationships of ACD
The Panama City-based Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD) was founded
in 2003 by a group of Panamanian scientists and professionals is a member of the growing
community of environmental NGOs in Latin America that has attracted the attention of many
anthropologists. Price, in her 1994 paper Ecopolitics and Environmental Nongovernmental
Organizations in Latin America examines the characteristics of these local NGOs as they are
influenced by the unique social, environmental and political forces of Latin American countries.
A major challenge for environmentalists in developing countries is that “…concern about
employment, infrastructure [and] services…takes precedence over environmental activism”(42).
This becomes a particular concern when environmentally destructive projects purport to provide
or improve the conditions of all three things, as is the case with Chan-75. For this reason, NGOs
in Latin America have been more concerned with social and human development and the
concerns of communities than their more preservation-oriented counter-parts in developed
countries (43). Many organizations attempt to connect the goals of environmental conservation
with sustainable development for the people and communities that depend on natural resources.
This focus on exploited environmental resources and the needs of marginalized rural
communities has led to a natural alliance between NGOs and indigenous groups. Indigenous
groups are often threatened by both development and conservation projects that “expect local
people to give up…their customary economic and cultural activities without clear substitutes,
alternatives, or incentives” (Kottak 1999, 27) whether it be in the form of a hydroelectric dam or
a national protected area. Kottak argues that local participation is essential to the success of any
development or conservation project (27), and this has been a central tenet for many fledgling
and NGOs in Latin America including ACD. They aim to support rural communities in regards
to sustainable development that is compatible with the conservation and include the communities
in decision-making (Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo, 2007). Though a small group,
they have become the face of the movement against Chan-75 and have been both lauded and
vilified for their willingness to get involved. As the situation has intensified, Chan-75 has
become their primary project.
However, Latin American NGOs have been criticized for their primarily North American
funding base and for conservation programs that fail to take into account the realities and
cultures of indigenous communities in the areas. Primary funding sources tend to be from large
environmental organizations located in the North America or Europe, raising concerns about the
influence of foreign money and foreign interests on the projects addressed by Latin American
NGOs (Price 1994). Working in indigenous territories with cultures that may not seem to fully
appreciate the worth of the natural resources they have creates a temptation to environmental
organizations “…to remake native landscapes and cultures in their own image” (Kottak 1999,
26) just as social programs such as AES’s Relocation Plan seek to do the same. The involvement
of NGO’s from the global North (North America and Europe) in environmental and indigenous
issues have also been viewed as “imperialist” and “self-interested” as in the case of the
indigenous Penen’s campaign against logging on their lands in Malaysia (Brosius 1999, 41)
Criticisms such as these combined with AES’s perception of the Ngöbe as naïve and unable to
separate ideology from reality has resulted in the blame for creating any and all opposition to the
dam being set entirely on ACD. To AES, ACD has brought in ideas from afuera that have
confused the Ngöbe and brainwashed them with an outside ideology. AES and the dam’s
supporters also do not believe the NGOs voice any reasonable concerns about the dams or have
the interest of the communities in mind but are fighting the dam for personal gain. Referring to
them as ambientalistas malas (bad environmentalists), allusions were made to pay-offs from oil
companies and according to ACD members, Hugo Chavez has even been suggested as a possible
backer (Caballero, AES engineer #1, Lasso pers. com.). This view both stems from and further
exacerbates the already acute issue of AES refusing to recognize the legitimacy of community
opposition. ACD views the company as corporately irresponsible, corrupt, morally bankrupt and
unabashedly destroying the culture of an indigenous group and one of the most biodiverse areas
in the world for the financial windfall of select members of society. As one ACD member
bluntly put it, “We hate each other.” Initially there were some unsuccessful attempts at
negotiation but these have disintegrated into essentially no communication (Lasso), and the
relationship itself does not extend past their mutual efforts against each other.
The blame placed on ACD for “confusing the communities” extends to other supporting
environmental organizations. International NGOs bring in ideas from even further away and
represent “left-wing hippie values” from Europe and the United States that an AES engineer
implied had no place in Panama (AES engineer #1). (He incorrectly said that ACD was
originally from the US, but the implied meaning behind the comment was clear). The Center for
Biological Diversity and Cultural Survival, the two international groups most involved in the
issue, have both sent letters expressing their concerns over the project but AES has failed to
respond (Galvin). The engineer I spoke to mentioned the Peace Corp as another ill-intentioned
entity that has been speaking against the dam (AES engineer #1), perhaps explaining why the
volunteer stationed in Nance de Riscó was escorted out of the area by police after the events of
January 3rd.
In contrast to AES’s claims, all of the community activists interviewed described their
relationship with the NGOs as “very good”. A few mentioned ACD specifically as supportive
and willing to come help whenever there was a problem. One indigenous rights leader asserted
that the NGOs’ work was mainly “sharing experience and technical advice so the communities
can speak in their own interests.” (community leader #1) Another, perhaps familiar with the
“ideas from afuera” accusation said that the communities make decisions for themselves and the
environmental organizations “support us, nothing more.” (community leader #2) While one
community member was frustrated with the lack of tangible success achieved and the current
loss of momentum the community is experiencing, he did not seem to blame ACD for this, but
the power and resources of the company and their unequivocal support from the Panamanian
government (inhabitant #2).
They’re Not There: The Role and Relationships of ANAM
The role of ANAM in the events of Chan-75 appears to be more straightforward than the
complex relationships between other actors and also much more minimal. Officially, ANAM
describes its role as “ensure that the company, in execution of the project [Chan-75], follows the
law” (official statement ANAM). Time constraints prevented an official interview with a
member of ANAM either from the national office or the regional office of Bocas del Toro so the
following analysis is based on other stakeholders’ description of their views of the role and
relationships of ANAM.
The creation of government environmental agencies began in Latin America in the
1970’s (Price, 46). Generally concerned with the establishment and management of national
protected areas and the creation and enforcement of environmental laws, in many countries the
effectiveness of these bodies in the face of both governmental and business interests is
questionable (46). The National Authority of the Environment (ANAM) is the Panamanian
National Government’s environmental governing body that was created by Law No. 41 (the
general environmental law) on July 1st 1998 as “the autonomous governing entity of the state in
matters of natural resources and the environment to assure the observance and application of the
laws, regulations and national policies towards the environment” (Ley 41, ANAM website,
translation by author). ANAM’s duties include the revision and approval of all Environmental
Impact Studies, and the delineation and management of the National System of Protected Areas
(SINAP). However Panamanian scientists and environmentalists alike generally consider
ANAM to be desperately under-funded, ineffectual, and extremely susceptible to pressure from
the national administration (Ramos, Lasso). There are regional ANAM offices in every province,
but the influence of these satellite bodies on national policy is weak, as exemplified by the
rejection of the categorization of the Rio Riscó access road by the Bocas del Toro ANAM office
which was ignored by national level officials.
To the communities, ANAM, which is seen as the same as the national government and
administration, has often appeared as an extension of AES, ignoring environmental laws on
behalf of the company and standing to gain just as much from Chan-75’s construction
(community leader #2). This view was universally expressed by those against the dam, with
ANAM being seen as not only aiding the company, but also shirking its responsibilities to both
the environment and the communities. Members of ANAM have spent very little time actually in
the area of the dam site or the communities, and the most common description of ANAM’s
relationship with the residents of Valle Riscó, cited by both community members and members
of activist and environmental groups, distills to “they fine us for cutting one tree on our own land
than they let a huge foreign company come in and cut them all”. An AES employee was much
less verbose regarding their relationship with ANAM, simply stating that they work with ANAM
to receive the proper legal permission from the work and to address the management of the
resource (AES engineer #1). In regards to that relationship, this was the only response supporters
of the dam seem willing to give.
According to Lasso, the ACD has maintained a relationship with ANAM, though very
little comes from it. She believes that though there are members of ANAM who recognize the
social, environmental and legal issues with Chan-75, but they fear retaliation from the national
administration if they act against it. While communication with activists outside the community
may be open, if not meaningful, those inside the communities report little to no contact, not
surprising as local meetings that have included ANAM have also included AES. Indeed, ANAM
seems unwilling to go to the area or discuss the project without AES at their side. Lasso reports
that the confidential meeting ACD tried to have with the government organization proved useless
when engineers from the company also showed up. The active involvement of ANAM with the
project appears to have started and ended with the approval of the environmental impact
statements and the granting of the concession, which according to their official statement, is
exactly what it should be. After the achievement of both these things, ANAM has been
unwilling to assume their role as an independent third party and seems to prefer to allow AES
and the communities to fight it out on the ground (Lasso).
Sequence of influence: relationships, choices, events, outcome, and next steps
This analysis of relationships can be used to inform the choices made by each actor, the
events that have arisen from these choices, the outcome and effects of these events and
subsequent choices made up through the current situation. Analyzing all events in detail using
this framework is beyond the scope of this paper, but using the traceable line of influence that
leads up to the police intervention into the closure of the dam’s access road by community
activists and their subsequent arrests on January 3rd and the events that follow it one can see a
clear example of how the aspects of the stake-holders’ relationships have shaped this chronology.
The relationship between AES and the Panamanian government, and therefore ANAM,
has been one of collaboration and support from the start. Support from the most powerful entity
in the country (who virtually promised the success of Chan-75 with their approval of the
problematic EIAs and concession) contributed to expectations of the company regarding what
they could and should be able to achieve. AES’s perception of the only clear opposition, the
Ngöbe communities surrounding the dam site, added to their assumption of a straightforward
project with levels of opposition being no higher than expected. But the community opposition
was stronger then AES expected and ACD’s participation in the conflict starting in 2006 allowed
the affected communities to access legitimate lines of resistance socially and legally and
strengthened their resolve.
Early in 2007, perhaps frustrated by the growing opposition in the communities and many
inhabitants’ unwillingness to sell their land to the company, AES increased the pressure on the
owners areas key for the construction of the dam, resulting a series of events that increased the
intensity of the situation for all actors involved and led to the full participation of ACD as the
face of the opposition against the dam. As accusations of human rights violations reached the
international level and biological concerns prompted international attention in ways that could
legitimately threaten the construction of Chan-75, AES was suddenly in a situation they had
thought they would avoid from their relationships with the supportive government and the undereducated, marginalized Ngöbe communities. It became all the more important to begin the
construction in hopes that they may get the dam built before anyone can stop them. For the
communities, the continuing disregard for their opinions and criticisms on the part of the
company, civil disobedience may have seemed the only way to truly get the attention of AES and
affect the company’s behavior. When the community activists successfully prevented the
company from beginning construction on the dam’s foundation for 18 days, they resorted to
intimidation, repression and violence.
These events exemplified the willingness of the company to use force to obligate the
communities to allow them to build Chan-75, their disregard for the legal and human rights of
the Ngöbe, and a confidence that the limited political and social power of the group would
prevent consequences from the government or the public. It also may be framed as the
beginning of a kind of desperation in the face of strong opposition from a coalition of local,
national, and international actors. In some ways, the strategy of unabashed use of force has
worked; with the installation of police in the communities, AES has successfully cultivated a
culture of fear and cut the communities off from consistent outside support of ACD and other
activists. One resident expressed concern for the children of the communities “no lo conoce” the
presence of police and especially in the aftermath of the brutality on January 3rd are always
scared. Another community leader said that the movement in the communities had been stymied
by the loss of resources and communication with allies outside, and he expressed frustration that
they did not have weapons of their own to force the police to leave to area. “I don’t know what
more we can do,” he said, “What more can we do?” (inhabitant #2). Lasso expresses similar
concerns about being continually denied access into the area since AES stationed police at the
roads. ACD’s relationship with the community “used to very good, but expectations were bigger
than what’s been accomplished,” and now unable to enter the area and talk with the general
population ACD no longer has a clear idea of their thoughts or what may be changing. She adds
that five months ago, with the local and international momentum she was confident that the dam
would be stopped but now “the police intervention has weakened the communities resolve.”
However, while AES may have successfully isolated their main opponents from outside
help and installed a mechanism to prevent further threats to day to day construction of Chan-75,
their conduct and disregard for human rights has raised awareness and concern on both a national
and international level. Especially on the national level, where support for the activists against
the dam has been the weakest, consistent news coverage of the police brutality at the protest as
well as a well publicized 3 week protest in the Panama City cathedral by a coalition of
indigenous and campesinos threatened by mega-development projects has begun to strengthen
national involvement, a crucial part of the movements success. Internationally, momentum has
increased as well with January 3rd strengthening the case against AES and the Panamanian
government now pending in the International Court of Human Rights, and catching the attention
of more international actors. Despite the constant work at the dam site as AES races to finish the
dam, and the ever present challenge of finding enough resources to challenge the bottomless
funding of the corporation, the opponents to the dam have not and will not give up hope, and
though the optimism may sometimes be forced, it is there nonetheless.
Conclusion: The Continuing Fight for Legitimacy
The relationships that have shaped the sequence of events that have led to the current
situation indicate larger issues surrounding the wider world of multi-national companies,
developing countries, indigenous groups and environmental NGOs. Consciousness is being
raised on multiple levels, even if it continues to be insufficient to truly mobilize the general
public in Panama. International coalitions, widely viewed as indispensable instruments of
success for environmental conservation and social justice have been formed to address the
environmental and social wrongs of AES. ANAM may have a limited role in the actual events
that have occurred, their cognizance of the issue may be growing as society begins, however
slowly, to react. At least in theory, the government is a function of the people, and while
corruption may abound, there is hope that within a democracy concerns of the people will
eventually influence the choices of the state. Strengthening democracy and reducing corruption
are two steps towards the full inclusion of indigenous groups under the law and the successful
addressing of environmental and social concerns.
In some ways, the most pressing task here is to legitimize the Ngöbe’s culture and values
in the eyes of AES and their advocates such as the government whose decisions have a direct
effect on the survival of their culture and livelihoods. To change a company or countrywide
perception of an entire people may seem a momentous task, if not entirely hopeless, but the steps
that lead to this shift are already part of the current efforts against the dam. AES may not be
open to changing their paradigm of the value of development and the value of indigenous people,
but other actors are, and with enough support this can spread upwards, at least to the entities that
have some control over what AES is allowed to do. Current activities of the NGO’s, capacity
building, community organization, and helping the Ngöbe understand their legal rights and
exercise them, empower the communities in a way AES’s relocation program will never be able
to do. Helping the Ngöbe protect their cultural interests in the larger westernized society will
help them follow in the paths of many indigenous groups across Latin America who have
engaged in decades of struggle to further their interests and influence in order to protect their
culture and traditions from international business and development interests. While the fate of
the Ngöbe and the possibility of success are unclear even for the opposition’s leaders, like every
struggle, the controversy of Chan-75 will add valuable experience and new knowledge to the
backlog of social and environmental struggles against mega-development projects around the
world.
This paper has attempted to identify and examine one factor of many and to provide a
clear chronology of the complex and many-layered events that have surrounded Chan-75, the
relationships and perceptions between major stakeholders and participants. Pre-conceived
conceptions of other groups, paradigms of the virtues of development and the value of culture,
and assumptions, proven or unproven, all inform the series of choices actors have made
throughout the evolution of Chan-75. The conclusions of this paper are part of a greater web of
factors including the national and international political climate, the growing worldwide demand
for energy, climate change, and globalization, all of which need to be examined to gain a full
understanding of the events of Chan-75. However, academic analysis can only be so
illuminating, and we must remember that the most insight can be gained from the words of the
people intimately affected by Chan-75 themselves.
“We depend on this land, it is what we live. How can we negotiate when it doesn’t have
a price? It’s the same as a person, how can I negotiate the price of a person? I don’t know
what price they could have.”
Inhabitant, Charco la Pava, 15 May 2008
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Appendix 1: Major Actors and Stakeholders in Chan-75
AES Changuinola:
-multinational energy generation company based in the US. Builds
generation plants that run on a variety of fuels including coal, natural gas,
wind, and water. In Panama, the company exists as AES Panama, with
AES Changuinola operating as its regional entity in Bocas del Toro.
Government:
-constitutional democracy with a four year presidential term. The current
president is Martín Torrijos.
ANAM:
-governmental body in charge of environmental management including the
approval of environmental impact assessments (EIA) and the national
protected areas.
Valle Riscó :
-the Changuinola River valley where Chan-75 is located. Communities
included this area are Charco la Pava, Valle Rey, Guayabal, Changuinola
Arriba, Bajo Culubre, Guayacan, Valle Libre, Ceiba, Nance de Riscó,
Pluma, Punta Pena de Riscó, Soledad, Bajo la Esperanza and the
community of Valle de Riscó. Charco la Pava, Valle Rey, Guayabal and
Changuinola Arriba will be displaced by the reservior.
ACD:
-small non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Panama City. They
have become the national and international face of the campaign against
the dams.
Other Actors:
-media sources, international NGOs involved in the campaign and any
other associated or unassociated groups who do not fit inside the first
categories.
Appendix 2: La Cronología de Chan-75
Notas de la Cronología
Esta cronología no es una lista completa de todos los documentos o acontecimientos ocurridos en
relación al proyecto Chan 75, más bien es un resumen general de la evolución de estos hechos.
Algunas cartas han ilustrado los niveles de acciones comunitarias y temas importantes, sin
embargo algunas cartas, contratos y otros documentos se han omitido para evitar redundancias o
irrelevancias. He incluido algunos artículos de medios de comunicación nacional e internacional
que presentan el caso de Chan-75 y la crisis de energía en Panamá. Las acciones de la policía
están categorizadas como “GOBIERNO” pero cuando la policía fue contratada por la empresa
fueron incluidas dentro de “EMPRESA”
Leyendo de Appendix 1- La Cronología de Chan-75
Colores:
Rojo: eventos de alta importancia
Azul: cartas
Verde: cosas legales
Violeta: artículos
Acrónimos:
ACD- Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo
AES- AES Panamá, AES Changuinola, Changuinola Civil Works
ANAM- Autoridad Nacional de Ambiente
BID- Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo
BPPS- Bosque Protector Palo Seco
CBD- Centro para la Diversidad Biológica
CBM- Corredor Biológico Mesoamericano
CEDETENG- Centro de Desarrollo y Asistencia Técnica Ngöbe
CEPSA- Consultores Ecológicos Panameños S.A.
EIA- Estudio de Impacto Ambiental
GEPSA- Generadora Eléctrica de Panamá S.A.
IACHR- Comisión Interamericano de Derechos Humanos
INAC- Instituto Nacional de Cultura
IRHE- Instituto de Recursos Hidráulicos y Electrificación
PILA- Parque Internacional La Amistad
PRONAT- Programa Nacional de Administración de Tierras
UICN- Unión Mundial para la Naturaleza
UNESCO- Organización de Las Naciones Unidad para la Educación, la Ciencia y la
Cultura
Personas:
ANAM:
-Ligia Castro- Administradora Nacional
-Diana Velasco- Jefa de Departamento de Evaluación de Impacto Ambiental
-Aleida Salazar- Directora de Dirección de Áreas Protegidas y Vida Silvestre
-Bolivar Zambrano- Director de Evaluación y Ordenamiento Ambiental
-Eduardo Reyes, Subadministrador General
-Denis González- Jefe del Departamento de Evaluación
-Indira Duran Oliva- Evaluadora de Proyectos
Empresa:
-Humberto González- Representante Legal de Hydro Teribe S.A.
-Ing. José Victoria –Director Ambiental
ACD:
-Osvaldo Jordán, Coordinador de Asuntos Internacionales,
-Ariel Rodríguez: Presidente
-Lucia Lasso- Directora Ejecutiva
-Susana Serracín- Abogada Ambiental
-Donaldo Sousa- Abogado
Otros Funcionarios del Gobierno Nacional:
-Domingo Varela- ex Director Nacional del Patrimonio Histórico
-Generoso Atencio P. – Jefe de la Sección Ambiental Ministerio de Obras Públicas
-Maria Roquebert, Ministra de Desarrollo Social (MIDES)
-Rina Rodríguez, Secretaria General, MIDES
-Ricardo Vargas, Defensor del Pueblo
-Ana Matilde Gómez, Procuradora General de la Nación
-Anel Omar Rodríguez, Director General, Instituto Nacional de Cultura
-Rolando Mirones, ex Director de la Policia Nacional
Autoridades Locales:
-Virginia Ábrego, la alcaldesa de Changuinola
-Nelso Ábrego Molina, corregidor de policía Valle Riscó
-Jose Rios, sub-comisionado de policía, Bocas del Toro
-Norberto Palacio- secretario corregiduria Valle Riscó
Instituciones Internacionales:
-Ellen Lutz- Directora de Cultural Survival
-Peter Galvin- Director del Centro para la Diversidad Biológica
-Rolando Armuelles, Programa Nacional de Administración de Tierras (PRONAT)
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