The Center has mobilized public comments opposing proposed hydroelectric dam projects promoted by the Panamanian government, which would threaten free-flowing rivers, rare tropical species, indigenous cultures, and a biologically diverse World Heritage Park in the remote rainforest of northwestern Panama — in addition to exacerbating global warming. Backed by the Virginia-based AES Corporation, three of the dams would be built on the beautiful Changuinola River, open jungle in the Changuinola basin to development, and contribute to the demise of the local Ngöbe tribe. The other planned dam, proposed for the Teribe River by a Columbian company, threatens the Naso/Teribe tribe. All four dams threaten the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, with the Teribe River dam directly threatening La Amistad International Park, a World Heritage site and home to numerous endemic and endangered species including the jaguar, ocelot, Central American tapir, and harpy eagle. According to the World Conservation Union, La Amistad also contains floral diversity “perhaps unequaled in any other reserve of equivalent size in the world.”
To stop the destruction of Panama’s unique biodiversity hotspot, the Center organized an international coalition of more than 50 indigenous and environmental groups, which demanded that the AES Corporation withdraw from the hydroelectric projects. We also petitioned the World Heritage Committee to list La Amistad as a World Heritage site “in danger,” due largely to the pending dams and other biodiversity threats. This led to a joint UNESCO World Heritage Centre/IUCN mission to the region and a subsequent report to the Committee, causing the Committee to note with concern “the absence of any planned measures to mitigate the impact of the hydroelectric dams . . . and . . . absence of an effective participatory management process involving civil society and government authorities.” The Committee requested that Panama develop and implement measures to monitor mitigation, ensure that the needs of the community are met, and analyze cumulative effects of dam construction on the park.
Since then, a UN special rapporteur on indigenous peoples has spoken out against the hydroelectric dams, the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights has held a public hearing on AES’s displacement of the Ngöbe tribe and issued precautionary measures requesting Panama to halt dam construction, and the Ombudsman Office of Panama has issued a special report on human-rights violations and the construction of the dams.
But AES is shamelessly moving forward despite the myriad threats its dams pose, insisting it has a “commitment to environmental and social responsibility.” In spring 2009, Center Conservation Director Peter Galvin attended AES’s annual shareholder meeting to make sure AES leadership and shareholders knew about the irreversible damage the dams would cause — and many apparently didn’t. Galvin urged AES to withdraw from the ill-fated project.
The Center has been working to secure Endangered Species Act protection for more than 70 of the world’s rarest bird species including the Utila chachalaca, which formerly occurred in mangrove forests only on Utila Island, Honduras. More than two decades after ornithologists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect this and other birds, the agency had yet to take action — so we filed a lawsuit in 2006 to force the Service to acknowledge the birds’ peril. Unfortunately, the Utila chachalaca may have gone extinct while awaiting protection. Hopefully, it’s not too late for the southeastern rufous-vented ground-cuckoo, a native of Nicaragua. Learn more about our International Birds Initiative.
Critically endangered leatherback sea turtles in the Pacific have declined by more than 90 percent over the past three decades, primarily as a result of industrial longline and gillnet fisheries, marine debris, and loss of nesting beaches due to global-warming-induced sea-level rise. In the past decade, the Center and a coalition of marine protection groups have filed a series of lawsuits that restricted swordfish longline fishing and drift gillnetting in areas off the Pacific coast where fisheries were killing the sea turtle. In 2007, the coalition petitioned for designation of critical habitat for the species.
Panama ’s Bastimentos Island, one of several islands in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago off the Caribbean coast, shines as an ecological and cultural gem rich with coral reefs, pristine beaches, dense tropical rainforests, and indigenous communities. It’s also home to numerous plant and animal species likely found nowhere else but on individual islands within the archipelago — as well as two distinct color variants of the strawberry poison dart frog, the namesake of the fabled Red Frog Beach. Much of the island and its surrounding marine habitat have been designated as a national marine park, and many other areas are considered buffer zones in which development must be strictly regulated. However, because of a massive, U.S.-fueled luxury-development boom, Bastimentos Island's sensitive marine and terrestrial habitats are under siege due to the planned construction of Red Frog Beach Club, a high-end tourist resort. To save the island’s array of unique species and habitats, the Center is taking part in an international movement to oppose residential tourism there. In 2007, we rallied our members to speak out against the Red Frog Beach Club by appealing to Panama’s environmental agency to decline approval of its construction. More recently, we produced a report highlighting the risks investors face when investing in so-called eco-developments abroad.
Bare-necked umbrella bird
Leatherback sea turtle
DOCUMENTS AND PUBLICATIONS
UNESCO report: The Threat to Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function of Proposed Hydroelectric Dams in the La Amistad World Heritage Site, Panama and Costa Rica
Greenwashing Risks to Baby-boomers Abroad
Open letter to foreign investors
Contact: Jacki Lopez