Ignoring FPIC Leads to 30 Years of Protest, Violence, and Profit-Loss in Panama

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by Britnae Purdy

Ignoring the free, prior, informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous Peoples in regards to development projects on their land has huge costs. Without taking into consideration the impact that a mining, logging, or oil drilling project may have on both a community and the surrounding ecosystem, these projects may result in the eviction or loss of livelihood of a community. Lacking their traditional homes or sources of food or income, these communities face an increase in poverty and malnutrition and related disease, and illicit industries such as sex and drug trades may spring up to cater to construction workers. They may be forced to move to relocation camps or urban areas to seek employment, which may result in cultural erosion, loss of language, and more. Environmentally, rivers may be polluted (also resulting in disease for people and animals drinking from that water source), forests leveled, and entire species threatened.

Some corporations seem to remain oblivious to these human and environmental costs, but more and more they cannot ignore the fact that not respecting FPIC costs companies and their investors big bucks by delaying projects and generating bad publicity. Case in point: the Barro Blanco dam on the Tabasara River in Chiriqui Province, Panama. Developers of hydroelectric dams along this river have been denying FPIC for over thirty years, and the violent protests and lawsuits that have resulted have cost countless in terms of both money and lives.

In 1981 the very first dam project on the river, Tabasara I, was meant to supply energy to the Cerro Colorado copper mine. This project was ultimately canceled after being rejected by the local community. The area lay quiet until 1997, when a consortium was created to develop Tabasara I and Tabasara II hydroelectric dams. In 1999 the local Indigenous communities became aware of the projects and the Movemiento 10 de Abril (M10) was formed from Ngabe communities in opposition to development projects along the river. Protests ensued, and in 2000 the Panama Supreme Court suspended the projects for lack of Indigenous participation. In 2007 the dam concession was given to Honduran-owned Generadora del Istmo, SA (GENISA) and renamed the Barro Blanco dam project – the current developer and project name.

GENISA proved no better than previous companies involved in the area. In 2008 GENISA took a stab at local consultation – they consulted a non-Indigenous town near the affected area. Upon hearing of the meeting, Indigenous villagers flooded the area in protest. Five community members were eventually allowed in, but were not allowed to speak. The final report that the company used left out all reference of the meeting or the Ngabe people at all, instead referring to a 2007 survey on non-Indigenous villages. The same year, the Environmental Impact Study of the project was approved and GENISA began to apply for carbon credits under the Clean Development Mechanism established under the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2010 local organizations such as the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and the Environmental Advocacy Center, Panama (CIAM) began filing complaints against GENISA for falsifying information in their Environmental Impact Study and denying FPIC.  GENISA, who was already approved for funding by a German bank and a Dutch bank, withdrew their application for funding from the European Investment Bank after learning that bank officials planned to visit the affected area themselves. This should have been a red flag for everyone involved – but GENISA sought and received funding from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration instead. In 2011 new legislation provided foreign companies “bold new rights” for the exploitation and acquisition of minerals in the country, and widespread protests began against the Barro Blanco dam. Just days after beginning construction that NMarch, M10 blocked the entrance to the construction site and effectively delayed the project for two months before the project was “militarized” and protestors forcibly displaced. Distastefully, in June GENISA’s application for the Clean Development Mechanism was approved by the UN. From 2012 to 2013 violent protests and backlash from the government has resulted in the deaths and injuries of many protestors, including a February 2012 blockade of the Inter-American highway – however, in March of 2012 the United Nations Development Program agreed to reassess the Environmental Impact Survey and in December confirmed that “the dam will flood homes and religious, historical, and cultural sites in the Ngabe Bugle territory,” as well as “convert the flowing Tabasara River into a stagnant lake ecosystem, affecting the Ngabe’s diet and means of subsistence.”

As Weni Bagam, leader of M10, says, “the Barro Blanco dam will directly affect Ngabe people, yet we were not even consulted about the project before it was approved. Despite proof that the dam will have grave impacts on the Ngabe way of life and cultural heritage, the construction of the dam continues.”

Three decades of protests, negative publicity, violence, and profit loss could have been avoided by acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ rights to free, prior and informed consent and allowing full consultation and veto power to Indigenous communities whose lives could very well be destroyed by this project.

(Photo: M10 member oversees highway blockade in 2011, from International Rivers)