5,000 Indigenous Peoples Ignored In Grab for Carbon Credits

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A community leader speaks to his people and visiting NGO representatives about Barro Blanco project


As far back as the 1970s, civil society groups and the Ngobe indigenous people have been fighting to protect the Tabasara River and the lands belonging to them from destructive dam projects. The most recent such project is the 29 MW Barro Blanco Hydroelectric Project in western Panama. 

In late 2010, groups from across Panama and Europe were successful in prompting an investigation by the European Investment Bank (EIB) into human rights abuses, which forced the dam developer, Generating of Istmo SA (GENISA), to pull out their EIB loan request.

However, that has not stopped GENISA’s determination to find another funder. GENISA has now set its eyes on carbon credits available through the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). But in order to get credits, it must first receive validation from a Designated Operational Entity, who then submits a validation report to the CDM’s Executive Board and a request for the Board to register the project. GENISA has found a complicit ally in the form of the validator, AENOR.

Existence ignored

In GENISA’s environmental impact statement, no communities would be impacted by the Barro Blanco project – thereby completely ignoring the 5,000 indigenous inhabitants that depend on the Tabasara and would be affected by the dam, such as the community of Nuevo Palomar, home of the region’s official elementary school (which would be flooded).

Razed mountainside for the Barro Blanco, June 2010


AENOR’s validation report and its site visit only considered the opinion of the non-indigenous population. They also ignored letters from civil society detailing the human rights abuses by the company and the lack of adequate consultation with indigenous groups. In this regard, the validation process for Barro Blanco violates the international principle of free, prior and informed consent contained in ILO 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

While AENOR acknowledges the receipt of comments on this issue from the group Alianza para la Conservacion y el Desarrollo (ACD), it failed to take into account a second submission of comments by ACD and the Asociacion Ambientalista de Chiriqui (or Environmentalist Association of Chiriqui; ASAMCHI). Whether they purposefully ignored them or the comments did not reach them, is unclear. (The CDM comment system is notoriously user-unfriendly – not to mention that they expect affected people to have fast internet access and speak in English, two requirements for submitting comments on CDM projects through their system). What is clear is that AENOR is helping GENISA promote a project that ignores the voices and rights of the Ngobe community, while pretending that they were never informed about the opinions of these stakeholders.

Kept in the dark

Girl recites from a textbook of ancient Ngabere


In a recent field visits by ASAMCHI and Bankwatch, the NGO groups met with the leader of the April 10 Movement to Defend the Tabasara (M10), Italo Jimenez, who described how engineers from the dam tried to bribe him to leave the fight to protect his rights. He also told them how GENISA’s environmental impact study had “interviewed” local residents who had been deceased for 50 years.

Italo declared that his people were not only against the dam, but also against the infamous Cerro Colorado mining project, which would pollute the Tabasara River’s tributary, the Cuvibora River.

According to Oscar Sogandares Guerra of ASAMCHI,

“other speakers, such as Leidis Rodríguez, explained how the communities were kept in the dark, especially when the company held their public consultation. Fliers were sent only to inhabitants in the town of Tole, while the indigenous communities were kept uninformed.”

GENISA’s next move – and ours

Having temporarily lost EIB’s funding, GENISA has cast its hopes with the CDM and its record of approving projects that are both unsustainable and non-additional. At the same time, civil society groups in Panama await the final report from the EIB’s fact-finding mission. Along with International Rivers, CDM Watch, and the Counter Balance coalition, they have also submitted a letter to the CDM Executive Board urging them to reject the project and deny it funding through the form of carbon credits.

In the latest twist, protests in the last five days against the infamous Cerro Colorado mining project, which also directly affects the Ngobe people by polluting one of the Tabasara’s main tributaries, ended in bloodshed. According to ASAMCHI, there have been two unconfirmed deaths (including one of a young girl who died from tear gas fumes) and over a hundred injured. Despite an injunction by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights against the project, the government of Panama continues to ignore the rights of the Ngobe.

The CDM Executive Board should sit up and pay attention.

More information

  • Read the letter to the CDM Executive Board highlighting the lack of participation, human rights abuses, and weak additionality arguments for the Barro Blanco.
  • Recent news (in Spanish) on the protests against the Cerro Colorado mining project.
  • Videos of the protest by ASAMCHI.
  • “The endangered Tabasara River,” The Panama News, an account of ASAMCHI’s 2010 visit with the Ngobe people.
  • “Tabasara Revisited,” The Panama News, an account of ASAMCHI and Bankwatch’s subsequent visit, with photos of the meeting.