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Damming Human Rights in Panama

Their houses will soon be underwater—literally, not financially—if the Barro Blanco dam on the Tabasará Rriver in Panama is completed.

The dam will flood homes and religious, historical and cultural sites in the territory of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples, according to a report by the United Nations Development Programme. Weni Bagama is one of many indigenous people who depend on the flowing river for their fish-heavy diet and for freshwater for drinking, cooking and sanitation. The dam project will transform their vibrant food and water source into a stagnant lake ecosystem.

"The Barro Blanco dam will directly affect Ngäbe people, yet we were not even consulted about the project before it was approved," says Bagama, a Ngäbe leader of the Movimiento 10 de Abril, a community-based movement defending the river from development projects.

"In our territory, we depend on the land as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters … For us, the environment and the land and indigenous peoples have a link because they all need each other." – Weni Bagama, Movimiento 10 de Abril

"Panama's actions violate international law by ignoring the Ngäbe-Buglé's rights to consultation and consent," asserts Earthjustice attorney Abby Rubinson, who is bringing this to the attention of the Supreme Court of Panama. She points out that indigenous people have heightened protection under international law.

On August 30, 2013, Earthjustice, along with the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) and the Center for International Environmental Law, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a Panamanian lawsuit brought by Bagama and others, challenging the Barro Blanco dam's approval.

Bagama explains, "In our territory, we depend on the land as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. Day to day, the indigenous community lives the experience of violations of our human rights and environment. For us, the environment and the land and indigenous peoples have a link because they all need each other."

"Earthjustice is using international laws to protect the Ngäbe's rights to know about and participate in decisions that may utterly disrupt their lives." – Abby Rubinson, Attorney

"Panamanian laws, just like those in the United States, require an open and inclusive process in developing large public projects—but that process was not followed with the dam project," says Rubinson. "Earthjustice is using international laws to protect the Ngäbe's rights to know about and participate in decisions that may utterly disrupt their lives."

The dam also poses climate change problems. The project is registered under the U.N.'s Clean Development Mechanism, a carbon-offsetting scheme established by the Kyoto Protocol. In theory, the CDM—with its dual objectives of reducing carbon emissions and achieving sustainable development—could be a valuable tool in the fight against climate change. Among other problems, however, the CDM fails to ensure that its projects do not violate human rights.

"Mechanisms to address climate change should do more than provide economic benefit for the companies developing them," Rubinson says.

"They must ensure protection of human rights and equitable solutions on the ground. We hope this case exposes the injustice of this destructive dam before it is too late, and guides the consideration of future international CDM projects."

Written by Kari Birdseye. First published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.