Flood gates from a reservoir were opened and washed homes away in August and, according to Indigenous Ngabe protesters in Panama, they were then harassed, shot by police, and now attack dogs have been used at recent protests. Despite these challenges, the protestors are not backing down from their 10-year struggle to prevent a massive hydroelectric dam on their land.
The Ngabe activists and allies are fighting against the controversial Barrio Blanco Hydroelectric Dam project which has again been halted due to multiple protests around the country.
Indigenous activists have been fighting against the project since 2011 but on August 22 both Ngabe-Bugle Chief Silvia Carrera and Panama President Juan Carlos Varela signed an accord that supposedly put the conflict to rest.
Protests against the contract started the next day, when Ngabe activists asserted that the Ngabe communities directly affected by the project, such as the people in Kiad, were not consulted and were against the plan which would displace hundreds of families and cause environmental damage.
In a radio interview on August 23, Ricardo Miranda a spokesman for the National Youth Council of Panama stated that, “...we do not agree with the accord and we want the president to know that we will not back down.”
Miranda also asserted that the President was “behind the violence” against the protestors and noted that they had started to bring attack dogs to the demonstrations.
“We reject this plan and we say that Mrs. Carrera did not have the legal right to sign that accord,” he said.
By early September, Ngabe protesters had staged several demonstrations around Panama. One of the larger protests occurred in the town of Gualaquita between August 25 and 26 when according to various sources, close to 20 Indigenous and several National Police officers were wounded and five arrested in the conflict.
Protests continued at the University of Panama in Panama City and other sites. Miranda also noted that as of September 7, police were still holding Kiel activist Clementina Gonzalez without cause. Gonzalez' community had already faced displacement from the initial flooding of the Tabasara River basin.
In the meantime the Human Rights Network of Panama (HRNP), representing 25 environmental, legal, ethnic and religious advocacy groups, has requested that the Panamanian government suspend the Barrio Blanco project. The HRNP wants to help set up an independent commission to investigate potential environmental and human rights violations.
In the introduction to their press statement issued on August 30, the HRNP stated, “In our tour of the affected communities we can testify that we saw grave and irreversible environmental damage and serious violations of the human rights of those victims being the indigenous and rural people living near the Barrio Blanco project.”
They also urged the government to investigate the police actions in Gualaquita and to prohibit the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and other weapons in their dealings with protesters, as well as to verify the medical status of those protestors who were victims of the police actions.
As of press time there was no announcement from the Panamanian authorities about any other negotiations with protesters.