Panama's hydroelectric boom destroys ecosystems, threatens rural way of life

Sr. Edia "Tita" López is a frequent visitor at the Ngäbe encampment against Panama's Barro Blanco dam, one of many dam resistance initiatives she has supported. (Courtesy of Sr. Edia López)

Sr. Edia "Hermana Tita" López was living out her mission as a Sister of Mercy, seeking the best ways to serve the poor and disenfranchised of Immaculate Conception Parish in La Concepción on the western end of Panama, when she learned of a plan that would leave many far poorer.

She heard about a "public consultation" in the nearby town of Volcán, and along with religious in the Vincentian community where she was working in 2005, they went to see what it was about. Church and community leaders were shocked to learn that a company was planning to build 11 hydroelectric dams on the largest river in the area, Río Chiriquí Viejo.

Once known for its spectacular whitewater rafting and lush riparian forests filled with wildlife, Chiriquí Viejo was a Neotropical gem. Along its banks, farmers produced much of the food for the nation.

López was alarmed.

"We realized it was being called a consultation, but it wasn't a consultation," she said. "So we asked questions: What can the community do to stop the development of this project, which was going to have serious effects on our water?"

They were told that the environmental impact statement had been approved, and anyone who wanted to register their opposition would have to file a lawsuit within 15 days.

That meeting drew López into a struggle that has become a constant theme in her life and for many others in Panama and elsewhere throughout Latin America. Hydropower development has exploded in recent years as the region's energy needs have surged, and the river-rich mountainous terrain that has sustained indigenous and campesino populations has been tapped as a source of so-called "green" energy.

Sr. Edia "Tita" López has been a constant presence in the fight against hydroelectric dams in Panama since 2005. (Tracy L. Barnett)

Many projects are concentrated in Chiriquí, and a number have become focal points of fierce resistance — like the town of Paraíso, not far from where López once worked, and La Cuchilla Dam, which sparked opposition from thousands, to no avail.

Hydropower dams have been used as a strategy for ramping up development in Panama's rural areas since the era of military dictator Omar Torrijos, who flooded 350 square miles of Emberá and Kuna tribal rainforest in 1976 with the 260-megawatt Bayano Dam. On a global level, dams have displaced between 40 million and 80 million people, fragmented two-thirds of the world's rivers, wiped out entire ecosystems, and produced a billion tons of one of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane, produced by decaying vegetation.

(YouTube / CSDMSmovie)

While hydro dams are being dismantled and rivers restored in North America, many continue to be constructed in the developing world, fueled in part by rewarding them carbon credits as a supposed mitigation for carbon-generating projects elsewhere.

López and others in her parish began to look into the effects of hydroelectric dams on local communities and ecosystems, and what they found was alarming. She and several others in the community flew into action. They formed a group — the Coordinating Committee of the Missionary Team of La Concepción for the Defense of the Environment and Ecosystems (CEMCODE, for its acronym in Spanish) and found a lawyer to file a lawsuit.

They lost the case, but the group made the issue a priority, and continued to fight, organizing educational meetings about the effects of hydroelectric dams in the affected communities up and down the river.

They filed lawsuits, but lost appeal after appeal. Ultimately, the dams started construction in 2007 and finished in 2012. The effects López and her colleagues feared began to become evident.

Four communities were severely impacted, she said, beginning with the social dynamic of a large workforce of single men in small towns.

"Families were divided in the area, there was a lot of divorce, prostitution proliferated, the campesina girls would go when the workers came to put up the dams," recalls López. "There were terrible effects on the population."

The toll on the land soon became evident. "Chiriquí Viejo: A Lost Treasure," one newspaper columnist wrote. The river was fragmented; areas once abundant with many kinds of fish were now nearly dry. Tributaries and springs that farmers had used to water their fields dried up, making agriculture difficult in some areas and impossible in others. Levels in local wells dropped precipitously during the dry season. The nascent ecotourism industry was choked out.

Members of the Coordinadora Bugabeña at their regular meeting place, Immaculate Concepción Parish in La Concepción, Panama (Tracy L. Barnett)

Particularly infuriating was that even in the towns that were promised abundant water and electricity from the dams, there were frequent shortages of both.

"It fell to us to take testimonies, and as you can imagine, it's a process of many years," López said. "We stopped filing lawsuits because the court is also corrupted. It is bought; we weren't going to win anything."

In 2010, word came of the struggle of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, or autonomous territory, where a battle was unfolding against mining and hydroelectric projects. The Ngäbe people responded with a force that breathed hope and energy into a struggling movement, López said. She moved to the comarca — just a few hours away and still in the province of Chiriquí, but a whole different world culturally — and soon found herself once again on the front lines of a battle that exploded into the international consciousness in February 2012. (See "A wall in their river" on Global Sisters Report.)

After a particularly violent police confrontation in which two people died, López helped organize a search party for missing people; fortunately, there were no other casualties. At the height of the struggle, she recalls, she began to be followed by a car with dark windows, and she suspected her phone was being wiretapped.

La Cuchilla Dam was constructed on the Macho del Monte River despite the protests of thousands, and the river's once strong currents have been reduced to a trickle. (Tracy L. Barnett)

None of this made her step back.

"On the contrary," she said with a defiant laugh. "It makes me want to put aside other things that take time from this to dedicate more time to supporting people in the resistance. I wish that we as sisters could dedicate more time to this subject, which is our responsibility — because the most affected are the most poor. And if we are to accompany the poorest, we must be prepared to accompany them in resistance.

"And that's the call. It's for life — it's so that others will have life, as Jesus said in the Gospel; he came so that we would have life, and life in abundance. And this system doesn't support life; it's a system that kills, as the Holy Father said. It's a system of death. And now we're seeing the effects of a system of death."

History repeats

La Concepción, the municipal center of the Bugaba district of Chiriquí, is home to the parish of the Immaculate Conception, where the words of St. Vincent de Paul are emblazoned: "The poor are my burden and my sorrow."

This is the nerve center of what was once CEMCODE and now is the Coordinadora Bugabeña Contra las Hidroeléctricas (Coordinating Committee of Bugaba Against Hydroelectric Dams), the place where López once labored, and where Vincentian Fr. Eric Obaldía carries on. It was here that the 5,000-strong marches against La Cuchilla Dam on the Macho del Monte River were organized, and here where the resistance against the Piedra River dam, called La Chuspa, was solidified.

"If the state lets the opposition triumph, they are creating a precedent for other people to fight. So the position of the state was, 'We will close the hydroelectric in a different place, but not yours,' " said Obaldía.

Chiriquí produces 60-80 percent of Panamá's food. The government's decision to sell the water rights in the region's rivers are a serious threat to food sovereignty throughout the region, said Obaldía — which means a population's capacity to produce its own food, as opposed to food security, which in his view means importing it. The communities, the environment and the farmers should have first rights to the water, he said, but the company has the right to 90 percent of the water.

Sabdi Granda, left, and Damaris Sánchez contemplate the dam that was recently finished on the river where their families once picnicked and swam. (Tracy L. Barnett)

One morning in March, a diverse group of committee members gathered at the church — campesinos, housewives, professionals, retirees. They were there to share their stories and their outrage. Two years of intense organizing against the La Cuchilla Dam had come to naught. The dam had been built on the mighty Macho del Monte River just upstream from the town's new water treatment plant — one they had lobbied for through year after year of unreliable water service. Now they worried about further water shortages and quality issues resulting from the dam.

Mavis Espinoza explained how her family had offered to donate a hectare of their land to build the plant; it ended up taking three hectares, but she had given it gladly, she said, because the community desperately needed the water.

The plant was 90 percent complete when the director of IDAAN, the federal agency responsible for aqueducts, dams and sewerage, came to town in March 2015 to announce two hydroelectric dams upriver from the plant, one immediately above the water intake for the treatment plant.

"We were furious," she said. "We couldn't understand the reason for this contradiction when the water in a water treatment plant is primordial for the health of the town's inhabitants."

Contacted for an interview, IDAAN's public relations department responded that environmental concerns should be directed to MiAmbiente, the environmental agency. MiAmbiente did not respond, nor did ASEP, the federal public services agency.

As López did a decade before, the coordinating committee flew into action, filing protests with the relevant agencies, filing a lawsuit, organizing a march that drew 5,000 people. The dam was built anyway.

The water treatment plant began operating last August but has been plagued with problems. In September, it was clogged by sedimentation and debris following high rains and shut down, leaving thousands without water. President Juan Carlos Varela personally went to inaugurate the plant two weeks ago and it was out of service because of a broken control valve.

Damaris Sánchez, leader of FUNDICCEP, a sustainable development initiative in the town of Cerro Punta in the north of Bugaba, loaded a group into her pickup truck and headed up to survey the damage. It had been several months since she and Sabdi Granda, secretary of the coordinating committee, had been back to see the dam.

Along with many other environmental groups throughout the country, FUNDICCEP had been fighting a proposed highway through the Barú Volcano National Park in 2002-2004, she explained — which they won. But they emerged from that fight to find that the government had meanwhile granted concessions to build dozens of dams on the rivers throughout the area. They only became aware when the companies began coming into the communities to announce their projects. In 2006, she and others concerned about the dams braced themselves for a new battle.

A banner at the protest camp in Paraíso shows the 69 dams currently operating, under construction and in the planning phases in Chiriquí. (Tracy L. Barnett)

"The projects came with a number of promises to the population and with the government saying that Panama is growing and developing and needed energy, that if we didn't supply it, we could run out of electricity," she recalled. "And that fear plus the promises made the projects seem a necessity of national interest."

In the province of Chiriquí alone, 72 concessions were awarded for hydroelectric projects, of which 34 have been installed so far.

About two dozen more are still being built despite the degradation of watersheds and opposition of communities, said Sánchez. "There was no preliminary study that said the watershed produces so much water, and these concessions were given without taking into account the people who use that water."

The truck came to a halt after a 40-minute drive through freshly paved, winding mountain roads to an overlook above a chain-link fence with the word IDAAN emblazoned on the gate. The women gasped to see what had become of the river they had loved. They fought off tears as they stepped out of the truck.

The green ribbon of vegetation alongside the river had been clear-cut and the hills surrounding the river sculpted into giant exposed-dirt stairsteps. The river itself was choked off by an imposing cement dam, a trickle of water pouring down into the nearly dry streambed.

Granda began to speak through her tears.

"You see the way that human power and the ambition for money destroys nature and destroys places where people enjoyed coming with their families, where there was tranquility and peace, and now there is none," she said. "It's lamentable to see the way our rivers dry up and the waters run out. Lamentably, they don't think of the future for our children. What are we going to have to give to our children and their children? The government has simply ignored the community, the call of the people who don't want these projects of death."

With nothing to be done about their own river, they piled back into the truck and headed to the next battle, another 30 minutes down the road.

Members of the Guardians of the River of Paraíso stand in front of one of the pieces of heavy machinery they blocked with their encampment. (Tracy L. Barnett)

Trouble in paradise

Huddled under a canvas tarp in the scorching midday sun, members of the grassroots group Guardians of the River were clustered around a radio when Sánchez and the others arrived. One leader, "Maestro" Edidio Bonilla Serrano, was doing an interview on a local radio station, explaining what had happened: A hydroelectric dam company had gotten permission to put an 8-foot pipe through the middle of this rural neighborhood to carry water from Río Piedra to a hydroelectric project in another watershed.

This was the town of Paraíso, with a population of about 220. It draws visitors from around the world to enjoy the surrounding lush forests, the mountain breezes, and the crystalline Río Piedra that runs along its edge — all of which are threatened by one of the country's most powerful contractors.

About 40 local residents are taking a stand, camping out in the middle of what used to be a shady country lane, now razed of its grand old trees, baking in the tropical summer heat. They had set up camp 41 days before March 10, the day of Granda's group's visit, a day no one present would likely forget.

Residents have collected intact pottery and hundreds of pottery shards they believe date from ancient times, and a large petroglyph lies 45 meters from the construction site. The National Institute of Culture is currently investigating the case. (Tracy L. Barnett)

They were there to stop the bulldozers and other heavy equipment parked down the road from leaving. On the table was a large collection of pottery shards, evidence they were preparing to submit to the National Institute of Culture, along with photos of the petroglyph that lies 45 meters from the dam site. No site inspection had been done to investigate the presence of the archaeological remains, they say, and an environmental impact assessment was filled with irregularities.

The group was camped alongside the ample front yard of Rosa Sánchez, a teacher and mother of two boys. She had been away in her native Chile when the contractors descended, cutting down her fence and 15 trees, she said. She and her husband had carefully tended those trees and all the others that they had planted on their reforested land. But now, like the rest of their neighbors, they were fighting to hold onto the refuge they had created.

Her neighbor is Mishael Rivera, a nature guide neighbors call the Bird Whisperer. Rivera, who grew up nearby on the banks of the Piedra River, participates in the annual Cornell University bird count, he said, and he has drawn upward of 200 hummingbirds at a time to his backyard, with as many as 25 different documented species — more than any other place in Panama. Hummingbirds are sensitive, however, and they have nearly disappeared with the noise of the construction.

Sánchez, Rivera and a half-dozen other neighbors escorted their visitors on a tour of the devastation. Neighbors carried umbrellas to shield them from the sun and recalled the trees that used to stand there — a huge cedar, a jacaranda, an oak.

Soon the scene opened up to a vast gouge in the earth, where two large backhoe loaders and a fleet of dump trucks sat grounded. They had carved through a hillside and used the fill to cover the cut-down trees and level the valley into a huge platform — part road, part staging ground, part entrance to what was to be a dam. The group stood on the edge and peered some 15 meters down to the rubble pile at the edge of the wetlands and river below. Farther down, a spring had been bulldozed and a trickle of clear water made its way through the mud.

The women picked through the excavation and collected more pottery shards as Rivera made his way toward the river, where a section of forest had been bulldozed for reasons not entirely clear, as the dam site was farther downstream. He stood amid the pile of trees, tossed like so many matchsticks, and counted the different species of orchids, ferns and mosses that lay desiccating in the sun.

Suddenly, word came that the contractor was on his way to the encampment and was threatening to bulldoze his way through with his equipment.

Women from the Guardians of the River, collecting pottery shards from the construction site, shield themselves from the brutal sun with umbrellas. (Tracy L. Barnett)

The group hurried back to find a crew from the construction company engaged in an intense discussion with the activists. They demanded to be allowed to remove the equipment; the group refused, saying they were concerned the crew would enter through another area and continue the work.

"Your complaint is not with us," Damaris Sánchez declared at one point. "It's with the government, who should never have approved this project to begin with."

The standoff continued into the late hours, when members of the construction crew returned, rammed the gate with a pickup truck until it fell, and ran over the fence and banners that hang on it — including, to the ire of the River Guardians, a Panamanian flag. The whole episode ended with Rivera being punched in the eye for taking photos of the incident. Police eventually responded but declined to press charges.

Late that night, over tea and bread, Rosa Sánchez reflected on the whole episode. The peaceful times before the construction commenced seemed a distant memory.

"We didn't even know we were happy," she mused. "The only good thing to come from this is that now we know what it is we have to fight for. But now we will have to win it back in order to have it again."

The petroglyph of Paraíso, covered with mysterious markings from the past, lies 45 meters from the construction site. (Jonathan González Quiel)

For "Hermana Tita" López, hearing about these struggles in her former home district elicits sad memories. The scene has changed, but the story stays the same; now she worries as the Ngäbe community she works with is being flooded by a dam project in their region.

Last year's murder of internationally recognized anti-hydroelectric-dam activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras — who for López and many others was a model of resistance — brought the issue home in a frightening way. Panama is far from the level of violence that Honduras has sunk to, she said, but she worries that Panama could be next.

"I as a sister am defending a movement really similar to the '80s, with activists being persecuted throughout the Central American region," she said. "When the delegates of the word were killed, it was because they opposed the military forces and the governments who use the military forces to repress whatever movement of protest for rights. Now I would say the focus of our environmental activism should be for the defense of human rights — because the rights to land and to water, those are fundamental rights."

A big part of the problem, she said, is that people don't make the connection between their materialist, consumerist lifestyle and the impacts in faraway lands — in part due to the interests of extractive industries, and in part because that model has been exported to countries like Panama, where people aspire to the same lifestyle.

"People need to turn around and see the cost of maintaining this system, exploiting the natural commons ... up to the point of taking lives," she said. "Millions and millions and millions of people in the world are affected, and they have to realize that it's crazy because it's a system that does away with the lives of people in other parts of the world so that they can have their comfort."

[Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer, editor and photographer specializing in environmental issues, indigenous rights and sustainable travel.]

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