hydroelectric dam, Ngabe People of Panama

Panama Hydroelectric “Clean Energy”: Village of the Dammed


Huge hydroelectric dam projects in Panama destroy pristine rivers and flood rainforest, home of the Ngäbe People. The Panamanian government deems it vital for economic growth, with multinational corporations cashing in. Even the UN has awarded carbon credits predicated on “sustainably” produced energy.

screenshot from Village of the DamnedAlJazeera Report: Panama, Village of the Damned

By Glenn Ellis, Originally Published in AlJazeera

Away from its busy capital city and famous canal, Panama is one of the world’s most ecologically diverse nations. Yet huge new hydroelectric dam projects now underway call for damming pristine rivers and flooding virgin rainforest. The government deems it vital for economic growth, with multinational corporations cashing in. Even the UN has awarded carbon-offsetting credits predicated on “sustainably” produced energy.

Yet for the indigenous Ngäbe people – their homeland vanishing under water – it is an unmitigated catastrophe. So they have been fighting back. Environmental groups around the world call for a withdrawal of the concession for the Barro Blanco Dam and a suspension from the carbon offsetting scheme. They also call on banks and companies to immediately freeze their support to the project. Filmmaker Glenn Ellis went to Panama for People & Power to find out more.

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People & Power - Panama: Village of the damned

Film By Glenn Ellis and Guido Bilboa for AlJazeera’s “Power and People”

Destruction of Ngäbe-Buglé Reserved Lands With No Compensation in the Name of “Clean Renewable Energy”

In February 2011, the most famous Panamanian in the world went for a routine medical check-up. The authorities used a decoy, and General Noriega, the country’s former military governor, was spirited back to his luxury detention center, safe from prying eyes and a hungry press. Nonetheless, acres of news print around the world were lavished on the event, while a far more urgent unraveling Panamanian story dropped under the radar.

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hydroelectric dam, Ngabe People of Panama
Carolina Tera Salina, villager from Guayaboa, lost her house to the flooding of the Changuinola River Hydroelectric dam.

Panama’s largest indigenous group, the Ngäbe (also known as the Ngobe), had decided to take a stand against the unlawful encroachment of their homeland, the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca or reservation. Since the time of the conquistadors, the Ngäbe have been pushed to the margins of the country – forced to live on the land that no one else wanted. Twenty years ago the Panamanian government finally ceded what was considered a useless tract of land to them. This became part of the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-designated site that provides habitat for hundreds of rare, endemic, endangered, and migratory species. The Ngäbe had in fact lived there for centuries, so by rights it has always been theirs.

“It is beautiful, over there [by the Rio Tabasará]. You will see a big pool. It’s ours, we are free to walk around here. But they will come and hurt us. They will dig up what’s ours. They want us to never walk here again. But God didn’t make this for them and God is the one who eventually decides, and he left it for us.” – Igone Yimenez, Ngäbe Villager

But now this land, rich in mineral deposits and rivers, is considered priceless. And Ricardo Martinelli, Panama’s authoritarian president who is a close friend of former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, wants it back.

His plan is to open the Ngäbe heartland to foreign mining companies (a massive copper mine planned) and push hydroelectric power projects onto an unwilling population. The problem is that the Ngäbe have nowhere else to go. So the scene was set for a dramatic showdown, which started when the Ngäbe closed the Pan-American Highway in Chiriquí province in the west of the country – bringing Panama to a standstill.

“Although required by law, Barro Blanco failed to conduct a second Environmental Impact Assessment after it increased the originally foreseen capacity from 19 to 28 MW. The increased size causes the additional flooding of 25 hectares and impacts the lands of the Ngäbe-Buglé” said Oscar Sogandares of the Environmental Group Asociación Ambientalista de Chiriqui “The EIA also fails to mention the impacts of the dam on the biodiversity of the exuberant tropical rain forest and wildlife in the Tabasara valley. Several endemic species are facing extinction if the dam is built.”

Their demand: an audience with the president. Martinelli’s response was extraordinary for this relatively peaceful country with a constitution that forbids the formation of an army. The police, who human rights observers say have become increasingly militarized since Martinelli became president three years ago, launched a vicious crackdown, cutting communications with the outside world, and allegedly shooting innocent bystanders as well as peaceful protesters.

Harrowing reports surfaced of rapes and the mistreatment of detainees, as scores of Ngäbe men, women and children were arrested. At least two people were killed and many more were injured. The crackdown lasted for three days and proved so unpopular with Panamanians, that Martinelli was forced into negotiations with the Ngäbe.

Opening fire on Hydroelectric Dam Opponents

The talks were taking place at the National Assembly building in the center of Panama City and dozens of Ngäbe families had set up camp nearby to show support for Silvia Carerra, their elected leader who is known as the Casica.

It was here that my crew and I set up our camera on my first day in Panama to interview some of the people who had traveled hundreds of miles to make their point. We had just started to interview a young woman and child when gun shots rang through the air. The police had opened fire at the demonstrators. There were several shotgun injuries, none serious, but nasty all the same. It seemed inexplicable. Why fire into a crowd filled with women and children, particularly at a time when their leader was negotiating with the government?

It is possible that the government was never that keen to talk to the Ngäbe in the first place and that this was an attempt to provoke a reaction which would force the cancellation of the talks. If that was the plan, it did not work. The Casica had no intention of letting the government set the agenda and the talks continued.

But as I flicked through the channels in my hotel room later that night I was given an insight into the less than perfect relationship between the government and the media here. Panamanian TV media carried the police’s version of events – that drunken Ngäbe youths had gone on the rampage. It was a story that I knew for a fact was far from the truth.

A piece of paradise

from business-biodiversity.euThe next day one of the so-called ‘drunkards’, a teetotaler by the name of Ricardo, invited us to his village. It was a six-hour drive from Panama City followed by a grueling trek through mountain jungle. But nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of Kia – a settlement nestling on the banks of the Tabasará River.

Here the Ngäbe have carved out a little piece of paradise for themselves, and I saw at once why they are fighting so hard to protect it. There is an open air school where children are taught in the Ngäbe language (Ngäbere), which is vital if their unique culture is to survive. And I enjoyed a continuous stream of hospitality as we talked into the early hours under a night sky unblemished by light pollution.

The following morning Ricardo gave us a guided tour of the village, explaining the close bond between his people and nature. I was taken a short distance to the riverbank where a little girl showed us a colony of Tabasará Rain Frogs, one of the rarest species in the world, which are found nowhere else on the planet. If the government has its way, all this will be flooded and the frogs will disappear.

Yet a few miles downstream from Kia, the massive construction site of Barro Blanco is an ugly blot on the landscape. Barro Blanco is a 28.84 MW hydroelectric Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project, financed by European Banks from Germany (DEG) and the Netherlands (FMO) and was approved under the UN’s offsetting scheme in June 2011 despite concerns about accuracy of the Environmental Impact Assessment and local stakeholder requirements. As the enormous dam takes shape, armed guards patrol the perimeter to keep the villagers away. When the dam is complete the village of Kia will be lost as well as the livelihood of some 5,000 Ngäbe farmers.

“The rights of the Ngäbe-Buglé are enshrined in Panama’s Constitution and must be upheld by all projects affecting their territory, including by the Barro Blanco project. We call on all banks and companies involved in this project to suspend their support.” commented Guadalupe Rodriguez from Salva la Selva

From Kia I traveled northwest to visit Ngäbe villagers who had already lost their community. They had been made homeless by another hydroelectric project last year, when the mighty Changuinola River was dammed. The first of several dams constructed by AES Corporation, a Virginia-based transnational company, built within the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. Here I met Carolina. Her house had been built on higher ground than those of her neighbors in the village of Guiyaboa, but it was still not high enough. The village now lies deep underwater and all that can be seen is the roof of Carolina’s house, jutting out of the water like some incongruous monument. She told me that she and countless others had received no compensation for loss of their land, crops or housing.

I traveled on through Chiriqui province, the scene of the crackdown, and met and interviewed survivors and the relatives of those who had been killed by the police. I found it hard to understand why they had died. All the Ngabe had been asking for was an opportunity to talk to the government – a concession that the authorities had to make in the end anyway. It is not surprising that, away from the glitzy skyscrapers of the capital, a terrible sense of injustice and resentment is simmering below the surface.

A roll call of Panama’s wealthy

Back in Panama City, Jorge Ricardo Fabrega, the country’s powerful minister of government, agreed to meet me and explain the government’s side. He admitted that things could have been handled better at Changuinola, but insisted that during the recent crackdowns the police had behaved very professionally. He was keen to underline the importance of hydroelectric energy for Panama’s booming economy and then stated categorically that nothing would be allowed to stop the Barro Blanco project going ahead.

“There’s one thing that I have to make clear,” he said. “We’re not going to cancel Barro Blanco. The Barro Blanco project is under construction and it will continue.” As I listened I thought of Ricardo and the other villagers whose future was being decided by the minister and his friends.

By now news had got around that a filmmaker from Al Jazeera was in the country and someone discreetly passed me a lengthy document detailing the government’s future hydroelectric plans. It was an eye-opener. The sheer number of the projects is startling; if they all go ahead they will surely produce far more electricity than Panama will ever need, no matter how dynamic or fast growing its economy. Which begs the obvious question: What will they do with all this power?

Alongside each project listed were the names of the company directors involved – a roll call of Panama’s wealthiest families. It was not difficult to put two and two together. Electricity is a commodity like anything else and if there is spare capacity it can be sold to energy-hungry consumers in neighboring countries. Someone, it seemed, was going to get very rich. Unsurprisingly, that document has never been made public.

It was then I realized what Silvia Carerra, the Casica, was up against in her negotiations with the government. And on my last evening in Panama, I was lucky enough to meet her. Despite having been up since sunrise debating with other Ngabe leaders, she found time for an interview.

A charismatic 41-year-old, with little in the way of a formal education, she has found herself locked in negotiations with the minister I had just met. This remarkable woman is all that stands between her 100,000 kinsmen and development projects they neither want nor need. It must be a terrible responsibility. I found her candor and determination refreshing. She told me that even after all the government had done the Ngabe would never give in.

Dam Completed in 2017

In December 2016 the Panamanian Supreme Court, whose decisions cannot be appealed, ruled against two legal actions by Indigenous communities. In March 2017 the General Administrator of the National Authority for Public Services declared that the Ngäbe-Bugle General Congress never presented a formal rejection document to the government, meaning dam operations could begin. In the meantime, 11 houses and fields had been flooded by the rising waters of the reservoir. Shortly after the declaration, the hydropower plant began its operation. In August 2017 three Indigenous leaders who had been accused of causing damages to GENISA through their protests were acquitted by a court

Updated 3 May 2021

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