U.S. Energy Company Plan to Dam Panama Rivers Sparks Demonstrations
WASHINGTON (March 14, 2006) -- Thousands of Panamanians gathered today across the province of Bocas del Toro in Panama to protest dams planned by AES, a multinational energy company based in Arlington, Virginia. The dams, the protesters charge, would displace indigenous communities and destroy important habitat for dozens of animal species.
The demonstrations highlight tension over foreign ownership of Panamanian assets and reflects growing public distrust of a trade agreement the Panamanian government is negotiating with the United States.
"Panamanians are worried that this trade deal is just a smokescreen for more foreign control over their resources," said Ari Hershowitz, director of the Latin American BioGems campaign at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a U.S.-based conservation group. "There's the potential for AES and other multinational companies to use the agreement to gain control over rivers near the Caribbean coast and displace native communities." (For more information about NRDC's BioGems Initiative, go to www.savebiogems.org.)
Trade talks between Panama and the United States have stalled twice; the latest round of negotiations collapsed in January. The protests today were timed to coincide with a visit by Panama's minister of commerce, Alejandro Ferrer, to the United States to jumpstart negotiations, arrived in the U.S. to try to revive negotiations, and are likely to make it more difficult to revive the talks.
In January, AES announced plans to build a 150 megawatt hydroelectric project in the Bocas del Toro province of Panama. The plans include four dams, which will displace thousands of indigenous people from their ancestral lands, and flood areas that provide important wildlife habitat within La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, an internationally recognized area for conservation.
According to local environmentalists, Panama's environmental agency approved the project in violation of the country's laws.
"These projects don't meet the minimum requirements for scientific quality or public consultation," said Osvaldo Jordan of the Alliance for Conservation and Development, a national environmental group based in Panama City.
The alliance has asked NRDC and other U.S. conservation groups to help make its case to AES and U.S. trade officials. In response, NRDC has placed the La Amistad Reserve, which overlaps Costa Rica and Panama, on its BioGems Watchlist, and is planning to launch a campaign to help Panamanians fight the dam projects.