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Panama’s hydroelectric boom destroys ecosystems, threatens rural way of life

by Tracy L. Barnett
for Global Sisters Report

Sr. Edia “Hermana Tita” López was living out her mission as a Sister of Mercy, seeking the best ways to serve the poor and disenfranchised of Immaculate Conception Parish in La Concepción on the western end of Panama, when she learned of a plan that would leave many far poorer.

She and other religious in the Vincentian community where she was working in 2005 heard about a “public consultation” in the nearby town of Volcán, and they went to see what it was about. Church and community leaders were shocked to learn that a company was planning to build 11 hydroelectric dams on the largest river in the area, Río Chiriquí Viejo.

Once known for its spectacular whitewater rafting and lush riparian forests filled with wildlife, Chiriquí Viejo was a Neotropical gem. Along its banks, farmers produced much of the food for the nation.

López was alarmed.
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A wall in their river: Flooded Ngäbe communities continue to fight dam

Above: Döegeo Gallardo and Göejet Miranda paddle home through the dead zone that was once a shady, fish-filled river. (Tracy L. Barnett)

By Tracy L. Barnett
For Global Sisters Report

Kiad, Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, Panama – “Bulu Bagama is my positive name. Luis Jiménez, my negative one,” the Ngäbe elder began, standing on an expanse of cracked mud that covered what for generations was his family patrimony. A tumbledown shell of a house lay in ruins, and a few dead leaves clinging to one remaining tree provided scant shade from the sweltering midday sun.

The words, referring to his indigenous name and the one imposed by the dominant Spanish culture, summed up the feelings of betrayal from a people that has fought bitterly for nearly two decades to stop the Barro Blanco dam, a hydroelectric project that to local communities and environmentalists has become a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the current model of development in Panama.

Bulu and his wife, Adelaida González, stood in the mud and recalled that terrible night last August when they awoke to find the waters of their sacred Tabasará River seeping into their home. They scrambled to collect their children and as many of their possessions as possible. Neighbors weren’t so lucky; their houses were completely washed downstream. A child narrowly escaped drowning in those harrowing hours.

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