Panama: Barro Blanco dam construction suspended

Panamanian vice president and foreign minister Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado announced on Feb. 9 that the country's National Environmental Authority (ANAM) had ordered the temporary suspension of work on the $130 million Barro Blanco hydroelectric project, which is being built on the Tabasará river in the western province of Chiriquí. ANAM attributed the suspension to the owners' failure to comply with requirements in an environmental impact study, including those for clear agreements with affected communities and a plan approved by the National Culture Institute (INAC) to protect archeological relics likely to be flooded by the dam. ANAM officials also cited the owners' handling of hazardous waste without an environmental impact study and the lack of a plan for the management of sediments.

The suspension came four days before preliminary talks between the government and representatives of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group, which opposes the Barro Blanco project. The Feb. 13 talks were in preparation for a formal dialogue scheduled for Feb. 24. The two parties are seeking "a consensus that takes into account human rights, the protection of the original peoples, the environment [and] sustainable development," Governance Minister Milton Henríquez said on Feb. 12. The government has invited United Nations (UN) representatives to participate in the discussions. However, the UN itself has come under criticism from international environmental groups for the decision of its Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to approve the project. Eva Filzmoser, the director of the Brussels-based Carbon Market Watch, charged on Feb. 10 that the CDM board "approved Barro Blanco when it was clear that the dam would flood the homes of numerous indigenous families. This decision is a warning signal that safeguards must be introduced to protect human rights, including robust stakeholder consultations and a grievance mechanism." (La Estrella de Panamá, Feb. 9, Feb. 13; Intercontinental Cry, Feb. 10)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 15.