CHANGUINOLA, Panama – Rain clouds regularly settle atop the 1800-meter (5900-foot) summits of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the mountain spine that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province. When the mist clears, the full measure of the blue sea, powerful rivers, and splendid forests full of toucans and cacao trees is visible and stunning.
In the five centuries since Christopher Columbus alighted on the beaches of Bocas del Toro in 1502, western Panama’s water-rich tropical bounty has enticed outsiders, built financial fortunes, and led to periodic and fierce popular resistance. In 1899, for instance, American growers tore down tens of thousands of hectares of rainforest and planted the trees that produced the Chiquita-brand bananas that are still shipped from the port at Almirante. From time to time, including a violent confrontation with government security forces in 2010 that left one person dead, Chiquita’s unionized workers organized big disturbances and determined strikes over wages and working conditions.
That same stubborn spirit, widespread across this province of 126,000 residents, still animates the region. It stirs a decade-long battle in the Changuinola River watershed driven by the construction of hydropower projects and by Panama’s shifting views about energy production, economic growth, social fairness, and the value of its prodigious wild forests and water resources. No other Central American country is reckoning with these often-conflicting features of national life with as much consideration and consequence as Panama.
“This is an exciting period for this country,” said Osvaldo Jordan, a 43-year-old biologist and political scientist educated in the United States who leads the Alliance for Conservation and Development, a human rights organization in Panama City.
“Twenty-five years ago we were a military dictatorship. Fifteen years ago we gained control of the Panama Canal. The last ten years our economy has grown so fast. We have choices to make. There are different definitions for defining modernity. The biggest challenge for Panama is to find the right definition.”
Unrest Over Water Power
For many of Bocas del Toro’s indigenous citizens the definition does not include big hydropower projects.
Since 2003, the tiny Naso indigenous community has fought to a standstill construction of the 33-megawatt Bonyic dam on the Teribe River, a tributary of the Changuinola. The project, undertaken by Hidro-Teribe, a subsidiary of Colombian public utilities company Empresas Publicas de Medellín, also is opposed by Panamanian and Costa Rican environmental organizations because of its proximity to La Amistad International Park. The 401,000-hectare (1,550 square miles) park spans the Costa Rica-Panama border, protects countless species of tropical plants and wildlife, and is the largest nature reserve in Central America.
Not far away, Ngobe villagers are organizing to halt construction of Changuinola II, a 213-megawatt, $US 1.1 billion dam that Panama has approved in a bend of the Changuinola where the free-flowing river cuts between high cliffs of white limestone. Norberto Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, gained government permission this month to build the project, which indigenous villagers say they intend to stop.
Both resistance campaigns are informed by the consequences to the river and native villages from building the $US 630 million, 223-megawatt Changuinola I dam. The AES Corporation, a Virginia-based global energy developer, opened the dam and its power station in 2011 after four years of construction that generated active protests and long blockades of construction routes. The dissent attracted international attention and a rebuke from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission before it was put down by national security forces, which beat protestors bloody.
“Nothing good came from what happened here,” said Bernadino Morales, a 27-year-old college graduate and protest organizer whose family farm was inundated by the 1,400-hectare (5.5-square mile) backwater lake behind the dam. “The river is gone. One thousand people were forced to move. A lot of forest is under water.”
Neither AES executives nor Panama government authorities responded to phone and email requests for interviews for this article. In published reports and prior interviews with Panama reporters, dam developers and regulators insist that they are building projects according to high standards of environmental protection and with regard to fairly compensating families forced to move.
The dam developers also note that they are performing a national service. Panama, they say, needs the power. And water-powered electricity prevents millions of tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere that otherwise would be produced from the same levels of oil- and coal-fired electrical generating capacity. Government statistics indicate that the carbon savings from the Changuinola I dam alone amounts to over 600,000 metric tons a year, or approximately the level of carbon pollution produced by a coal-fired fossil thermal power plant of similar size.