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Challenging a Panamanian Dam Project for Violating Indigenous Rights

Weni Bagama and two of her children, whom the Barro Blanco dam will force from their land.

Weni Bagama and two of her children, whom the Barro Blanco dam will force from their land. The sign says “No Barro Blanco” in the indigenous Ngäbe language. Bagama is a Ngäbe leader of the Movimiento 10 de Abril, a community-based movement defending the river from development projects.

Abby Rubinson / Earthjustice

Case Overview

Supporting a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Advocacy Center, Panamá (CIAM), the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Earthjustice argue that the Panamanian government violated international law by approving the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam project without adequately consulting or obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the affected Ngӓbe-Buglé indigenous peoples, and without adequately reviewing the environmental impacts to their lands.

Once completed, the dam is projected to flood homes and religious, archaeological and cultural sites in the Ngӓbe-Buglé territories. The Barro Blanco dam will transform the Tabasará River from a vibrant source of food and water into a stagnant lake ecosystem, and will lead to the forced relocation of several families. Following a visit with indigenous communities in Panama in July of 2013, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya concluded that the government should have ensured adequate consultation with the Ngäbe people before authorizing the project.

The Barro Blanco project has also received criticism related to its registration under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a carbon-offsetting scheme established under 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. However, among other problems, the CDM fails to ensure that its projects do not violate human rights.

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Damming Human Rights in Panama

The homes of the Ngäbe-Buglé indigenous peoples will soon be underwater—literally, not financially—if the Barro Blanco dam on the Tabasará Rriver in Panama is completed.

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