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.
Sean Peoples, a filmmaker with the Wilson Center, arrived today in Missoula, Montana to attend tomorrow’s premiere of “Broken Landscape” at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The 13-minute documentary, which Sean co-produced with Michael Miller, explores the aftermath of the unexpected court-ordered shutdown of one of the word’s most lawless and dangerous coal fields, in Meghalaya, India.
Judges have already recognized “Broken Landscape” as one of the ten best documentaries among the 125 films to be shown during the festival. Meaghan Parker, a writer and editor for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program writes: “Selected from over 1200 entries, “Broken Landscape” will also be one of ten short documentaries eligible for selection as best in show – potentially earning a qualification for Academy Award nomination!”
“Broken Landscape,” nearly a year in the making, is based on the reporting I did last year for Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center, our collaborator on the Global Choke Point project. Starting from the quiet sweep of a canoe paddle stirring the contaminated waters of southeast Meghalaya, “Broken Landscape” takes viewers down a makeshift tree branch ladder into one of the region’s deep rathole box mines, where serious injuries are endemic and miners regularly die of cave-ins and drownings.
In April 2014, the National Green Tribunal ordered the mines shut until safety and environmental practices improved. The court order prompted protests and a huge march that was captured on film by Sean and Michael.
“Broken Landscape” describes the panoply of frustration prompted by feudal mining practices — the distress of local villagers afraid of the water; the work stoppage that leaves desperate immigrant miners jobless and homeless; the loss of income sustained by mine owners; the mix of skepticism and despair expressed by journalists with the Shillong Times who understand the enduring consequences of reckless mine practices to the land and its residents.
I returned to Meghalaya in November to report on the leaky enforcement of the NGT shutdown. I’m preparing a new report for posting later this year. Take a look at this first-rate film.
– Keith Schneider
PANAMA CITY, Panama — The Spanish explorer, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, was so inspired by Christopher Columbus’s four voyages to the new world, including Columbus’s last trip in 1502 to Central America, that Balboa undertook his own expedition.
In 1510 Balboa and his men set ashore in the Caribbean rainforest near present day Colombia and established Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the first permanent European settlement in the Americas.
Three years later Balboa, setting out on a search for stores of gold, marched through the rain forest to the summit of Cerro Pechito Parao in what is today Panama’s magnificent Darién Province and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.
For 91 years a heroic statue of Balboa that recreates his claim to the Pacific for the Spanish crown, a scepter outstretched like a cross in one hand, the other clutching his nation’s flag, has occupied an iconic spot along Balboa Avenue, Panama City’s impressive Pacific shoreline drive. The statue emphasizes a central idea about Panama: A Spaniard is the nation’s principal hero.
Indeed, until December 31, 1999, when Panama gained full control of the Panama Canal from the United States, all of the region’s previous 490 years were largely influenced by governments beyond the isthmus. Spain relinquished its hold after 200 years and the isthmus became part of Colombia. Colombia, in turn, ended its oversight in 1903, when with the help of the United States, which was about to start construction of the canal, Panama established itself as a republic.
Panama’s relationship with the United States is, shall we say, complicated. Unlike the allegiance to Spain and Balboa, there are no iconic statues of Americans in prominent public spaces. No statues of Teddy Roosevelt, the American president at the start of canal construction in 1904; or Woodrow Wilson, president at the opening of the canal in 1914; or Jimmy Carter, the president who initiated the process of turning over the canal to Panama in 1977; or George H.W.Bush, the president who launched the 1989 invasion that pushed Manuel Noriega and the generation-old military dictatorship from power.
It’s not that Panama shows America the back of its hand. It doesn’t. Americans retire here in droves now. Panamanians are warm and very much interested in American visitors. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were stationed in Panama to protect the Panama Canal during World War Two. Hundreds of thousands more transited the canal in troop carriers and other Navy vessels to take on the Japanese in the Asian theater.
By and large Panama also recognizes the contemporary value of the United States — responsible for two thirds of the record levels of cargo that transit the canal — to the logistics infrastructure investments that are the foundation of the remarkable 10 percent annual GDP growth that has unfolded here over the last decade.
Still, there’s chatter in the relationship between Panama and the United States. Psychologists and anthropologists, no doubt, would suggest that America’s by-the-book and often stern military management of the canal for 86 years stretched Panama’s patience with colonialism. A clash over flying the Panamanian flag in the canal zone early in 1964 prompted three days of clashes that left 21 Panamanians and four Americans dead. There’s lingering resentment about the number of civilian deaths and the damage sustained by Panama City during the 1989 U.S invasion.
It’s these influences, no doubt, and something more that underlies what Panamanians now think about the U.S. There’s an unmistakable, and understandable chip on Panama’s shoulder today. Freed for the first time from diplomatic and military influences of a foreign government, Panama is proving to itself that it is capable of managing a modern government. It is building a magnificent global city. And Panama is capably operating a vital revenue-producing maritime trade route.
Panama, in short, is a country unleashed with a fervor and approach matched by few other developing nations. Its waters are clean. Half of Panama’s natural forests are still standing. The air is clear. Incomes, home values, and business starts are rising. The rate of unemployment is among the lowest in the world. Panama also succeeded in keeping out of its borders the heavy drug production and export culture that made its neighbors Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador so dangerous.
The result is that this small nation of 3.9 million people has an opportunity to do something rare — developing an operating system that fits the conditions of this time and this place. Panama has a real chance to build the commercial eco-paradise that people here talk about, a nation that respects the land, the water, the law, and its people. TIP — this is Panama.
During a month of travel and reporting in Panama, a number of other characteristic TIP traits emerged:
Warmth and Honesty — Panamanians that I encountered were universally engaging, candid, and trustworthy in every way. Waiters, shopkeepers, drivers, bystanders, hotel personnel, strangers — all were so helpful in translating, finding directions, making change, assisting with SIM cards, you name it. One evening, while exercising in the seaside park along Avenida Balboa in Panama City, my cellphone dropped from the side pocket of my shorts. I discovered it missing an hour later as I approached my hotel, rushed back to the park, couldn’t find it, and beat myself up silently for doing such a dumb thing. I was upset enough not to want to talk to anybody, even Gabrielle, who was with a friend out of town. The next morning the hotel phone in my room rang. It was Gabrielle. “Did you lose your phone?” she asked. “You didn’t call me.” She paused. “Well somebody found it.” A woman named Ilma picked up the phone, dialed Gabrielle’s number, and made arrangements for me to retrieve the phone at a restaurant near the airport, after her morning at church. Ilma and her husband showed up at the appointed hour, handed me the phone, and refused to accept anything from me other than a smile and a hug in gratitude. TIP — this is Panama.
PANAMA CITY, Panama – It was an elaborate, even theatrical display of national pride and elite engineering. On January 19, Panama’s four-quarter, red and blue star flag gleamed in bright morning sunlight as a 2,300-ton steel gate slid into place inside a colossal new lock of the Panama Canal.
It was the first of eight mammoth gates, ranging in height from seven to nine stories, to be installed in the three concrete locking chambers near the canal’s Pacific entrance. Almost 90 percent complete and scheduled to open for commercial traffic in the spring of 2016, the roughly $US 6 billion canal expansion is expected to double the amount of cargo that crosses the Isthmus of Panama, to 660 million metric tons per year.
Thousands of men and hundreds of trucks and excavators, like a colony of motorized ants, swarm through the construction site to bend steel and pour concrete. The scale of the project to excavate new channels, widen existing shipping corridors, and complete three new lock chambers on the Pacific side and three more close to the Caribbean make the canal expansion a 21st-century parallel to building the Egyptian pyramids.
With its much larger locks lifting and lowering much bigger ships for the day-long crossing, the expanded canal is projected to alter global patterns of energy and food production and trade. Analysts also anticipate that the additional transport capacity will shift water use and supply, particularly in the United States and China, the primary producers and consumers of goods shipped through the canal.
The expansion project’s effects on Panama’s economy and management also are extraordinary. Both the Caribbean and Pacific entrances are swollen with new construction. Proposals for big power generating, fuel storage, logistics, and transport projects in the canal corridor are under review by national authorities.
The canal’s ability to drive economic growth is evident in Panama City, the capital, where an impressive skyline of seaside white towers bloomed in the last decade. The Pacific coast city of 1.5 million people has quickly become a modern maritime hub where jobs are plentiful and employees are needed for almost 100 banks holding over $US 100 billion in assets, hundreds of shippingfirms, and busy container terminals.
The canal expansion also is attracting developers of mega-projects along the Caribbean coast who are testing Panama’s regulatory agencies with proposals that could have substantial effects on the nation’s water resources and tropical landscape. The projects include a $US 6.4 billion open-pit copper mine powered by a 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant, a $US and a $US 4 billion residential resort.
“The expansion project is pushing the country in new directions,” said Onesimo V. Sánchez, the manager of the Panama Canal Authority’s economic research unit. “It’s been a long road to discovery of yourself. It’s changing Panama.”
At the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Barack Obama arrives on Sunday in New Delhi, the first American president to honor Republic Day, the day that India’s Constitution took effect in 1950.
During the three-day visit, the president and the prime minister are expected to talk about trade, and technology, and diplomacy. There could even be some kind of statement on climate-changing emissions. India is the planet’s third largest producer of coal, behind China and the United States.
It’s not likely, though, that Prime Minister Modi will be as candid as he needs to be about India’s slipping economic development that’s due in no small part to the country’s worn and soiled condition. Nor can the prime minister be expected to acknowledge that a change in development strategy is desperately needed, one that recognizes the new conditions of this century, and fit what India is and can become.
Consequences of Runaway Development
As it is, the develop-at-any-cost approach that India has pursued for 35 years, an economic construct of the 20th century, has turned India into a mess in the 21st. During four long reporting trips to India over the last two years for Circle of Blue, trips that brought me to 11 of India’s 29 states, I found cities that are grimy. Water is wretchedly polluted. Air is among the dirtiest and unhealthy in the world. India’s countryside is a tyranny of garbage and litter. Roads are in terrible shape.
Doing business in India, especially for the foreign corporations Modi wants to lure to his country, is a test of personal and executive resolve. Two of the most significant impediments are India’s suffocating bureaucracy, and the shortage of electricity.
Indian governments still do most of their business on paper, literally walking thick files from one office to the next for signatures. Decisions on new buildings, mines, power stations, and industrial plants are inordinately slow. They’re also influenced by “chai pani,” tea and water, the not terribly well-hidden payoffs that agency personnel expect and business executives provide.
Electricity demand, meanwhile, is vastly outpacing supply. Brownouts and blackouts are endemic in almost every part of the country. India’s utilities last year produced 237,000 megawatts of generating capacity, less than a quarter of US generating capacity and about 20 percent of China’s. Ten percent of that electricity is stolen and 20 percent more is lost on India’s inefficient and old transmission grid. Four hundred million Indians, roughly a third of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people, live without electricity.Read More