Panama: Ngöbe-Buglé renew anti-dam protests

Some 80 indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé activists blocked access to the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam construction site in Panama’s western province of Chiriquí for about three hours on March 8. Riot police dispersed the protesters with tear gas, and the next day police agents arrested four Ngöbe-Buglé. Ricardo Miranda, a spokesperson for the April 10 Movement, which opposes construction of the dam, told a March 11 press conference that the police threatened the detainees and beat them with nightsticks. Miranda, who offered photographs of injured detainees as evidence of the beatings, also charged that the police violated the autonomy of the Ngöbe-Buglé territory by making the arrests. Chiriquí police commissioner Luis Navarro denied that the detainees were mistreated.

Mining and hydroelectric projects have been a source of tension between the Ngöbe-Buglé and the government of rightwing president Ricardo Martinelli for several years. Indigenous communities blocked off highways in the western part of the country in January and February 2012, causing shortages in Panama’s cities, to press demands for restrictions on the projects. At least two protesters were killed, Jerónimo Rodríguez Tugrí and Mauricio Méndez; Intercontinental Cry, a publication covering indigenous news, names a third protester, Franklin Javilla, killed during the 2012 protests. On March 11 an unidentified 75-year-old man from the Soloy community died as a result of complications from injuries he sustained from rubber bullets or birdshot during a 2011 protest, according to Omaira Silvera of the Coordinating Committee for the Defense of the Natural Resources and Rights of the Ngöbe-Buglé People. Silvera said the man had lost an eye and never received adequate medical treatment from the government.

The government and Ngöbe-Buglé leaders reached an agreement on March 15, 2012 ending mining in the indigenous territory and requiring referendums among area residents on any future hydroelectric projects. But local Ngöbe-Buglé continued to oppose the Barro Blanco dam, an existing project being built by the Honduran-owned company Generadora del Istmo, S.A. (GENISA) on the Tabasará River in Chiriquí province. Residents say the dam threatens to flood three villages, to destroy fishing and other food sources for the communities, and to submerge several archeologically significant petroglyphs that also have cultural and religious importance for the Ngöbe-Buglé.

In September the United Nations (UN) sponsored an environmental impact survey for the dam, as required in the March 15 agreement. The UN’s report, published on Dec. 19, found that many of the residents’ fears were credible and mandated an independent study by experts to determine the risks of flooding and other damage to the local villages. But the local communities began protesting again in January when they saw no sign of the independent study. Meanwhile, construction continued on the dam, which is already 50% complete.

In late February residents of the village of Viguí began a vigil closing off a road. After the arrests on March 9 Ngöbe-Buglé leaders threatened to block the Pan American highway, which passes through Ngöbe-Buglé territories both in the western provinces of Chiriquí and Veraguas and in the central province of Panamá at the Pacora river. International supporters of the Ngöbe-Buglé started an online petition on March 10 calling for a halt to the construction of the Barro Blanco dam; the petition is at (Adital, Brazil, March 11; La Estrella, Panama, March 12, March 13; Intercontinental Cry, Jan. 9, March 10)

On March 15 Ngöbe Buglé Coordinating Committee president Rogelio Montezuma confirmed that a meeting in Panama City the day before had arrived at a “road map” on how and when the independent study would be carried out. The meeting included UN representatives, traditional Ngöbe-Buglé leader (cacica) Silvia Carrera, Coordinating Committee members, April 10 Movement members, Catholic Church representatives and Government Minister Jorge Ricardo Fábrega. Montezuma said the next meeting is set for Mar. 20. (Prensa Latina, March 15)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 17.