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Central America
Environment News Service, June 22, 2009

Panama's Ngobe Indians Win Temporary Halt to Dam Construction

WASHINGTON, DC - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has ordered the government of Panama to suspend all work on a hydroelectric dam that threatens the homeland of the Ngobe Indians of western Panama.

In a ruling Thursday, the commission granted the Ngobe's request for an injuction that stops construction of the dam to prevent any further threat to the community and the environment while the commission deliberates on the merits of the case.

The Chan-75 Dam is being built across the Changuinola River in the heavily forested and sparsely populated province of Bocas del Toro by the government of Panama and a subsidiary of the Virginia-based energy giant AES Corporation.

In addition to Chan-75, for which land clearing, roadwork, and river dredging are underway, the order covers two other proposed dam sites upstream.

The commission's ruling results from a petition filed last year by the Ngobe, after AES-Changuinola began bulldozing houses and farming plots. When the Ngöbe protested the destruction of their homes, the government sent in riot police who beat and arrested villagers, including women and children, and then set up a permanent cordon around the community to prevent anyone from entering the area.

"We are thrilled to have the commission take these measures to protect Ngobe communities," said Ellen Lutz, executive director of the nonprofit Cultural Survival and lead counsel for the Ngobe. "We are hopeful that this will help the government of Panama and AES recognize their obligation to respect Ngobe rights."

The government must adopt necessary measures to guarantee the Ngobe people's basic human rights, including their rights to life, physical security, and freedom of movement, and to prevent violence or intimidation against them, ordered the commission, which is a body of the Organization of American States.

In the order signed by the commission's Exective Secretary Santiago Canton, the government of Panama is ordered to report back to the commission in 20 days on the steps it has taken to comply with the injunction, called precautionary measures, and to update this information periodically.

The Chan-75 Dam would inundate four Ngobe villages that are home to about 1,000 people. Another 4,000 Ngobe living in neighboring villages would be affected by the destruction of their transportation routes, flooding of their agricultural plots, lack of their access to their farmlands, and reduction or elimination of fish that are an important protein source in their diet.

The dam would also open up their territories to non-Ngöbe settlers, warns Lutz, who says the Ngobe have already endured "two years of brutal government repression and destruction of their homeland" to make way for the dam.

The dam also would cause "grave environmental harm" to the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site upriver from the dam site, Lutz warns.

La Amistad International Peace Park, managed jointly by Panama and Costa Rica, is a major water source for the San San Pond Sak Wetland Reserve, a designated Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. It includes coastal lagoons, mangroves, channels, wetlands, beaches and marine coastal environments, as well as the Changuinola River.

Many species of fish which require saltwater at some stage of their lives migrate into and out of the reserve. These species support wildlife in the La Amistad Reserve, including several endangered species, but scientists believe there is a high risk of losing these fishes because the dam will destroy their migration route.

"The Panamanian government must follow the precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and prevent further human rights violations and environmental damage," said Jacki Lopez, staff attorney for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which submitted a brief to the commission in support of the Ngobe.

AES-Changuinola S.A. is part of the Latin American operations of AES Corporation, one of the world’s largest global energy businesses. AES Panama is currently the country’s largest energy generator and the largest private hydroelectric generator in Central America.

AES-Changuinola claims on its website that "building of a productive relationship based on concerted agreements" with the Nogbe indigenous populations residing adjacent to the project.

"They have historically lived under poverty conditions within an area without access roads and communication, where there was a scarce presence of the state as well as limited coverage of public services," says AES-Changuinola. "Therefore, area residents were practically invisible to authorities and society in general. This reality has significantly changed after our project came to the place, making their existence visible and creating a new dynamics in the area."

The company claims, "From the beginning of the project's development AES has fully observed all laws of the Republic of Panama, in strict adherence of respect for the integrity and human rights of persons who currently reside in areas surrounding the project."

But this assertion on the company's part is disputed by a report issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, James Anaya, on May 12, 2009.

Anaya concluded that the government of Panama had ignored its obligation under international law to consult with the communities and seek their free, prior, and informed consent before moving ahead with the construction project.

He urged AES-Changuinola to meet international standards for corporate social responsibility and not contribute, even indirectly, to violations of human rights.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton