Barro Blanco Hydroelectric Dam Threatens Indigenous Communities, Panama

Despite both local and international opposition, the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam project on the Tabasara River in the Chiriqui Province of Panama remains a source of controversy. If completed, the nearly $80 million project will displace indigenous Ngäbe families and result in significant impacts on the local communities – including flooding cultural, religious, and historical sites.

Neither the Panamanian government nor the company building the dam, Generadra del Istmo S.A. (GENISA) adequately consulted the indigenous communities that will be affected by the project, in violation of the community’s right to free, prior, and informed consent. The dam also threatens to violate the human rights to property, housing, food, water, culture, and education. Further, once the dam is completed, the Tabasara River will be converted from a functioning source of water and food into a stagnant lake ecosystem. The Ngäbe have formed a strong campaign (“la lucha contra Barro Blanco”), which CIEL supports in coalition with other national and international NGOs.

Barro Blanco project is a prime example of how policies intended to solve one problem can cause unintended but devastating impacts on local communities and ecosystems– in this case, a hydroelectric dam designed to reduce carbon emissions will cause irreparable harm to the Ngäbe people whose lives and livelihoods depend on these lands and resources. Barro Blanco was registered under the UN’s carbon offsetting scheme known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and was thus eligible for carbon credits. Established under the Kyoto Protocol, the CDM has no standards to protect against human rights abuses and does not provide a means for affected people and communities to register complaints. In late 2016, under pressure from communities and international allies like CIEL, Panamá withdrew the project’s registration as a CDM project.

CIEL has supported local communities working to ensure that projects like Barro Blanco are in compliance with national and international law. At the international level, CIEL highlights the case of Barro Blanco to expose the human rights concerns that must be anticipated and addressed before funding flows or accreditation is given from climate finance initiatives (like the CDM) or development banks (in this case the German Investment Corporation (DEG), the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CBIE).