The Ngöbe People’s Struggle Against Hydroelectric Dams

This is a five-section article:  Ngöbe-Buglé background information; Ngobe Campaign 2008; June 2009 status of the Campaign; an October 2009 reflective article from a missioner ministering with the Ngobe-Bugle people; and a the  current status of the Ngobe Campaign.

I. Background

Ngöbe-Buglé is a comarca (roughly, “county” though signifying a high degree of administrative autonomy) in Panama. It was formed in 1997 with lands from the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Veraguas. The capital is Chichica. Ngöble-Buglé has a population of 169,130 mainly Guaymí (Ngöble and Buglé).

The comarca is divided in 7 districts:[1]

  1. Besiko (Soloy)
  2. Kankintú (Bisira)
  3. Kusapín (Kusapín)
  4. Mirono (Hato Pilón)
  5. Müna (Chichica)
  6. Nole Duima (Cerro Iglesias)
  7. Ñürüm (Buenos Aires)

II.  Ngöbe Campaign[2]

For centuries the Ngöbe people have lived by the rivers in the remote hills of western Panama, but now the government of Panama sees profit in those rivers, and they have given concessions to subsidiaries of the American company AES to build a series of large hydroelectric dams. The dams would flood the Ngöbe’s traditional territory, destroy their homes and fields, and break apart communities and families. To clear the way for the dams, the AES subsidiary and the Panamanian government are pressuring the Ngobe to sign away their rights on documents they can’t read, and are using unscrupulous techniques to drive them out.

In the fall of 2008, with their Panamanian partners, Cultural Survival representatives filed suit to stop this project, but that was only the first step, and they are anticipating a long uphill battle. Fighting corporations and governments is a challenging and expensive proposition…[3]

III.  June 2009 — Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

In June 2009, after two years of brutal government repression and destruction of their homeland, the Ngöbe Indians of western Panama won a major victory yesterday as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on Panama to suspend all work on a hydroelectric dam that threatens the Ngöbe homeland. The Chan-75 Dam is being built across the Changuinola River by the government of Panama and a subsidiary of the Virginia-based energy giant AES Corporation. The Commission’s decision was the result of a petition filed last year by the Ngöbe, after AES-Changuinola began bulldozing houses and farming plots. When the Ngöbe protested the destruction of their homes, the government sent in riot police who beat and arrested villagers, including women and children, and then set up a permanent cordon around the community to prevent anyone from entering the area. In addition to threatening the community, the dam will irreversibly harm the nearby La Amistad UN Biosphere Reserve.

“We are thrilled to have the Commission take these measures to protect Ngöbe communities,” said Ellen Lutz, executive director of Cultural Survival and lead counsel for the Ngöbe. “We are hopeful that this will help the government of Panama and AES recognize their obligation to respect Ngöbe rights.”

IV.  Missioner’s Article October 2009

“But Let Justice Well Up as Waters” (Amos 5:24)
Dams in the Rivers of the Indigenous Regions

By:  Padre Jose Fitzgerald, CM
Catholic Missionaries of Soloy
Comarca Ngobe-Bugle, Panama

When Maria arrived at the Presidential Palace on October 11, Dia de la Raza, she had a thousand brothers and sisters from Panama’s different indigenous villages behind her, as well as thousands of people of conscience who walked in solidarity toward the presidential offices.  Their arrival marked the end of a long walk from the Ngobe region [“comarca”], some 369 kilometers west of the city.  Maria, a grandmother and indigenous leader, had left the region with a small group, waling in the sun and the rain, proclaiming the possibility of a different relationship with our Mother Earth.  In the end – with the nation’s cameras poised at the palace’s doors – the president neither received the indigenous people nor accepted their petition to suspend the harmful open-pit mining and hydroelectricity projects in the Ngobe region.  Ngobe’s prophetic voice was rejected once more.  Maria returned to her land tired and sick, but still more resolved.  “As children of God, we are responsible for taking care of water and natural resources, so that future generations can live.  The river’s water is not ours to sell.  God is the master of all

Today we are living with many of the consequences of the destruction sustained by our planet in recent centuries.  A worldview like that of the Ngobe can shed light on the mistakes inherent in Western views, which speak of the land and the “use” of its resources without taking into consideration the overall integrity of God’s creation.  The Ngobe worldview seeks harmony with God and all others, and with all creation.  Human beings do not exist apart from or beyond creation, but as an integral part, created in the image of God the creator.  The Ngobe respect water not only for its daily use (drinking, bathing, washing, watering plants and crops) for as a blessing from God that we must care for.  Water is central to the history of the Ngobe and their myths.  Because of their relationship with water, the Ngobe are well aware of the effects a dam has on a river   – the death of the river and of all life that relies on it.  Although hydroelectricity companies use the indigenous people’s extreme poverty to promote their harmful projects with a promise of “progress,” the concept of “selling” a river when the price is right goes against the concept of God as Master of Creation, and against the responsibility to care for it and pass a fully functioning world on to future generations.

As we well know, most of society has historically not accepted the dignity of indigenous peoples in many aspects, no has their dignity as persons and as peoples been accorded full rights.  Those who think of the Earth’s resources simply as “marketable goods,” in which a river’s water derives its value from the money it can produce, see the Ngobe’s worldview as an obstacle.  If the world of globalization sees the rivers of the Ngobe region only as an opportunity to make money, and the Ngobe see water as having a value that is not only economic but cultural and spiritual, them to whom should we listen?

The voice of the Ngobe has much to say about progressive models whose pathways ultimately lead to death.  We cannot, for example, speak of a hydropower dam as “clean energy” in this day and age, especially in a tropical environment like the Ngobe region.  It is a technology from the last century, with serious environmental effects, not to mention the sociocultural effects on indigenous peoples.  Although countries like the United States and those in Europe are familiar with the negative consequences of hydropower dams, we continue to promote these projects in “the countries of the south,” which lack sufficient laws to protect the environment and the lives of those who suffer more when a river becomes polluted, as have the Ngobe.

The time has come to think beyond “renewable” energy and promote development models that invite all of society to take more responsibility.  The time has come to decentralize electricity generation, using good technology such as solar and wind energy instead of production based on oil and dams in our rivers.  By continuing to use the production that is cheapest (hydroelect4ic dams), we put market values before human values.  We are more than consumers, and the river is more than a machine.  The time has come to establish energy efficiency and savings policies that set our course on a balanced path between demand for energy and energy generation.  The time has also come to listen to the voice of those who live in greater harmony with the rest of creation, helping us to imagine another possible world.  Let us listen, then, to Maria inviting us to think about the intimate connection between energy policy and the river that her grandchildren will encounter tomorrow.

The Church…especially cherishes the indigenous for their respect for nature and love for mother earth as a source of food, common home, and altar of human sharing.

(Document of Aparecida, No. 472)

V.  Footnote: Panamanian Government Steps Up Dam Construction on Ngöbe Lands January 15, 2010

As noted in the “June 2009” section above, the March 2008 Cultural Survival and Panamanian partners’ petition filed on the Ngöbe’s behalf in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights resulted in the Inter-American Commission’s demand that Panama cease all work on the dam until the matter was resolved.

Instead, the government stepped up construction. Both the previous government and the new Martinelli government informed the commission that they had no intention of halting construction, and indeed each time the commission calls for an update or holds a hearing, AES-Changuinola steps up the construction pace. All of the Ngöbe are adamant that construction must stop until the case is resolved, but their demands are ignored.  To read more on this, go here.


[1] See Wikipedia.org

[2] The source for the following two sections is the Cultural Survival website at http://www.culturalsurvival.org.   Additional information can be found by searching for “Ngobe” or “Ngobe Campaign” on Google.  Videos are available at http://www.youtube.com by searching “Ngobe” or “Ngobe dam protest.”

[3] Ellen L. Lutz, www.culturalsurvival.org



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