In The Valley Of The Invisible


The village of Quiabda sits in a clearing a little way above the Tabasara River, in the territory of the Ngäbe-Buglé people of Western Panama. The woods shade the village’s cacao fruit, guava and avocado, and harbour plants that treat snakebite and fevers. But to the villagers, one zapoté tree just below their houses is especially important. On 10 February 1972 Manolo Miranda Senior received three letters of the Ngäbere script while he was praying beneath it. With these, the community decoded the ancient petroglyphs engraved onto surrounding boulders by their ancestors.

Ten years earlier Adelia Atencio had prophesised that whoever followed and obeyed God would come to understand, read and write the script engraved on the stones of their territory, giving rise to a religious movement among the Ngäbe known as Mama Tata.

The script is now taught in Quiabda and in other areas of the indigenous Comarca. In Quiabda’s village school it is written in books and on the blackboard; and Manolo Miranda Senior — now the village elder — gestures towards the children and then over to the trees, saying: “They have everything they could need here, clean air, food, water…”

Beyond the village clearing the woods descend to the Tabasara, 20m below, which will drown the village and much of the valley, during periodic floods, if the controversial Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam project is completed. The 61m-high structure has been approved to receive carbon credits by the UN’s clean development mechanism, and is supported by the Dutch development finance bank FMO, the German investment bank DEG and the Inter-American Development Bank.

‘There is complicity by the UN’

The M-10 protest movement (Movimento 10 de Abril) had blocked access to the dam’s worksite, successfully halting construction, but then agreed to peace accords on condition that the United Nations would conduct an environmental impact assessment of the dam. The blockade was lifted. However, in disregard of the accords, construction work has continued 24 hours a day — eroding public support for the indigenous leaders who had supported the peace deal.

Goejec Miranda, from Quiabda, says: “Apparently there is complicity by the UN for the company to develop the work … That is the strategy we are seeing. But we are hoping that the UN complies with the processes that they established in a signed agreement — that they have to go to the area and see the damage that will occur, and talk to the people to see if they agree or not.”

Osvaldo Jordan, director of the NGO Alianza para la Conservación y Desarollo (ACD), thinks the UN process has failed to constrain the government and served instead to buy time for the company to continue work, while dividing the Ngäbe: “M-10 at some point broke apart between those who were favouring dialogue [such as that proposed by Silvia Carrera, elected head or Cacique General of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca], and those who thought that dialogue was a way to help the company continue, and that hasn’t been helpful. But I think both sides genuinely want it to be stopped, it’s just a discussion about tactics: whether to go into dialogue and wait for technical opinion, or to act directly even though that can carry a heavy price.”

The ACD had lodged an appeal in 2008 to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission against the Chan-75 dam in neighbouring Bocas del Toro province, arguing that it violated national and international law by not seeking the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous people who would be displaced. The Panamanian government ignored the commission’s subsequent suspension order on dam construction; then when the case reached the Inter-American Court, it successfully argued that the project would not negatively impact any communities as it had already been completed. Chan-75 recently made the news when an Al-Jazeera film crew filmed the government flooding the valley without informing the indigenous inhabitants (1).

Environmental lawyer Felix Wing represents the communities affected by the Barro Blanco dam, and is suing the government for its approval of an environmental impact assessment in which the indigenous communities were not consulted, as is required by the Panamanian constitution and the UN’s Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples. But his request for a preliminary injunction against the project was refused by the country’s Supreme Court, a decision that he claims “has allowed the company to build the dam in a very speedy way. They are working 24 hours a day and they have been doing so for the last four months.”

The stimulus for the current wave of dam construction across Panama is due, he says, to “big business” taking advantage of the development of the carbon credit system and the construction of the Mesoamerican electricity grid, which allows Panama to export electricity to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala. The UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has approved Barro Blanco to receive carbon credits, a decision Wing claims was due to it being given misleading information on the consultations with affected peoples. He also notes the CDM has a very short time period to lodge complaints, which means that un-notified subsistence farmers living without electricity and internet were presented with particular difficulties; and in any case, the “communities didn’t even learn about this window of opportunity.”

Sitting outside his timber house by the Inter-American Highway downstream from Barro Blanco’s construction site, Toribio Garcia says he feels bitter with the indigenous leadership and the UN. He was one of the grassroots activists who successfully blocked access to the construction site (its gates have since been redesigned by the company to better resist further stoppages). He says: “The protest was paralysed for two and a half months after the truce; we waited for the UN to come and do their study but they were very slow to arrive … the other groups said we should withdraw, and said let’s take a truce for a while to see what the UN would do.” He is unimpressed with the results: “The authorities betrayed us, together with our peers, who we thought were in our favour.”

The three important petroglyphs

High above the River Tabasara, a boulder covered in petroglyphs stands in a maize field. From it one can look down onto the river winding between the forests and settlements and see two other rock formations on either side of the water, also adorned with petroglyphs. Schoolteacher Manolo Miranda Junior says: “These are the three important ones that together explain the beginning of the river, and the world. The three are all in sight of each other, and you need the symbols on each to interpret the other.” The dam will quickly drown the two boulders in the river, and later the riverside pastures and forests, the rich fields of maize and cucumber. Then it will destroy the villages and cemeteries, two schools, and the tree by which Miranda Senior prayed.

The UN has visited the area and left markers of pink tape to show where the water level would reach at the proposed minimum level of 103m above sea level, but it has yet to complete and release its report on the social and environmental impact of the dam. The company did not mention the three boulders and their carvings in their submissions, and they do not appear to have been recorded by the UN.

This rich culture appears to be invisible to the Panamanian and international authorities — and the same can be said for the people themselves. Barro Blanco’s operating company GENISA initially proposed a 42m-high dam, and in its correspondence with the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) it claims to have visited several Latino communities that would be affected (2). But in a subsequent submission (3) the dam height was quietly raised to 61.09m, with a maximum water level of 108.25m above sea level. At this level, Quiabda would, together with Nuevo Palomar and the richest farmland of the other valley communities, be underwater.

GENISA says it has negotiated with the indigenous regional congress of Kadriri and, for an annual payment of $45,000, gained support from the congress for the drowning of Quiabda, Nuevo Palomar and the farmland of Quebrada de Caña. But these moves don’t have a clear impact on the Barro Blanco case, for international and Panamanian law rules that it is the indigenous people directly affected by developments, rather than politicians, who must give their consent.

Consultation claims

The company also claims it consulted the affected indigenous villagers on two occasions — a meeting in the Latino town of Tolé on 8 February 2008, and a discussion with M-10 in April 2011. Invitations to the first meeting were not circulated in the indigenous villages; when a villager found a flyer in Tolé, a delegation of seven indigenous villagers attended. They say the mayor threatened them with police action.

But the second meeting, in April 2011, was a tripartite negotiation between the government, GENISA and M-10, held to negotiate an end to the standoff at the barricades. The villagers say they were offered a price of 2 cents a square metre for their land (a cent less than was offered to neighbouring Latino ranchers) and told that if they refused, their land would be expropriated. They say the company and government abandoned the talks when the Ngäbe insisted that an environmental impact assessment be conducted. The dam site was subsequently occupied by border troops.

The company’s website still claims that the Barro Blanco project “does not require resettlement, or have human or commercial involvement in the district of Tolé, much less within the Ngäbe-Buglé,” but is now asking the government to expropriate the indigenous community. According to Felix Wing, this is being accomplished in an “irregular way, because this should be done before the judiciary, not before the Public Utilities Agency of the government.”

‘We give the UN a deadline’

Despair is forcing changes at the top of the indigenous movement. Italo Jiménez, president of M-10, is one of the leaders now being criticised for accepting the truce. On 1 August he held a meeting that culminated in the issuing of an ultimatum: “We are fed up with the mocking and lies from the government. We give a deadline to the UN of 30 days to halt construction on the dam; [so far] the agreement has not been obeyed. After that, we will again live with one foot in the street. Our community sends a message to the world: the Dutch and German banks have been sent letters by us, but the world will eventually find out about us when we are beaten or massacred. We trust in God that such painful things will not happen, but the honour of the people has been violated time and again.”

In Osvaldo Jordan’s eyes, the Ngäbe have been left with little choice, for when lawsuits do not progress in reasonable time periods and mediation allows the project to continue, “it starts taking away options and only leaving direct action — which is what many people don’t want. But by not having a rule of law it’s pushing people into a corner.”

Weni Bagama (also known as Adelaida Miranda) is from Quiabda and knows very well the potential costs of protesting in Panama as an indigenous person: she attended the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights in March to speak of the state’s use of violence. Mauricio Méndez, Jerónimo Rodríguez Tugrí and Franklin Javilla all died as a result of the spring protests. Bagama says: “The policeman who killed Jerónimo is not in prison. Everything is quiet like nothing happened. There were women who were arrested and raped, even men as well; physically, all their rights were violated.”

What is her message to the banks behind the development? “We are involved in a project that will affect both the way we live and our ways culturally, and it will affect the earth and what little is left for us. For us the earth is the mainstay of the Ngäbe population, so we suggest that banks should invest in other types of projects or in another area if you wish.”

Back in the village school, the children are for now learning their language in the script from the stones, while the adults sit nearby discussing the dam. From one of the benches near the children, a parent says: “The lifecycle of development is not for the people as the government claim, it’s for the capitalists. We’re rich here; the poor are those who can’t breathe, who have no water to drink, who can’t provide for themselves.”

Now this population, which lives with almost no negative impact on the environment, could soon be joining the ranks of the poor.  

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