Village of the Dammed in Panama

Source: In These Times

In Panama, the Ngäbe-Buglé fight to save their river and their land.

Walking along the stone and dirt road that follows the Tabasará River to the construction site of Panama’s controversial Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam is a bit like stepping into a Gabriel García Márquez novel, one titled Chronicle of a Battle Foretold. The road is blocked by huge felled trees and seemingly endless piles of rocks and boulders. You know the battle’s coming, but you don’t know when, or how violent it will be.

The roadblocks were put in place by indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé activists who say that the private Panamanian company that’s building the Barro Blanco dam, Generadora del Istmo S.A. (Genisa), built the road so Panamanian police can cross the rough terrain and evict potentially hundreds of Ngäbe-Buglé protesters. The Ngäbe-Buglé firmly refuse to leave the land—their land—that is slated to be inundated by the dam. The trees, rocks and boulders they’ve used to block the road might not pose much of a challenge for Genisa’s heavy equipment, but the gaping hole that they tore through Genisa’s makeshift bridge over the deep, fast-flowing Tabasará could be a real problem.

High up on a bluff overlooking the Barro Blanco construction site and the scarred Tabasará, hundreds of Ngäbe-Buglé demonstrators have constructed a makeshift protest camp replete with banners and flags and one small, rudimentary, three-wall structure made of palm fronds. Scores of protesters sleep under the stars on tarps and pieces of cardboard. They eat handfuls of Froot Loops, and refried beans are dished out of a five-gallon bucket into cutaway plastic soda bottles.

A few hundred yards away on another rough dirt road, a small contingent of police wearing shirts that read “ANTI-DISTURBIO” (anti-riot) keeps an eye on the camp.

Defying heat in the upper 90s, a young man sitting beside me is covered from head to toe, masking his identity. Only his eyes show. “Where are we supposed to go?” he says. “This is our land. We live here. We have always lived here.” This refrain is repeated over and over by the Ngäbe-Buglé.

Construction of the hydroelectric project began in 2011, and resistance to it has been fierce. On several occasions Ngäbe-Buglé activists and their indigenous, Latino, labor and supporters have blocked the nearby Pan-American Highway, Panama’s chief economic lifeline. In one 2012 action, they grabbed national headlines by shutting down the road for more than eight days. But they’ve paid a heavy price for their militancy. At least two protesters have been killed in clashes with police. And now, with construction of the dam approaching completion, the stakes are even higher.

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