Panama

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River Tabasara, Comarca Ngabe-Bugle, Panama

The following is a press release from Carbon Market Watch, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)and M10, a grassroots resistance movement, on the current situation regarding the Barro Blanco dam and the affected indigenous communities living alongside the River Tabasará in western Panama.  

Washington DC, Kaid, Bonn, 24 May – Today the floodgates were opened on the contentious UN backed Barro Blanco hydro dam in Panama, sparking forced removal by authorities of indigenous Ngäbe communities that are living in protest camps near the dam site. With construction finished, GENISA, the company that owns and operates the dam, has begun to flood the reservoir today, which will inundate six hectares of indigenous territories.

According to the Movimiento 10 de Abril (M10)—a group representing indigenous peoples directly affected by the project—35 community members including women and children, were arrested and are currently being held in police custody in the Missionary Center of Tolé. Following the arrests, backhoes moved into the area to tear down their encampments.

Local Ngäbe organizations are now on high alert and are planning on taking further actions to oppose the dam, which is financed by the German and Dutch national development banks (DEG and FMO) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. Already fearing that the situation will escalate, international NGOs launched a petition in April 2016, calling on President Juan Carlos Varela to ensure that the affected Ngäbe people are free from intimidation and repression. The petition has been signed by 84,000 people to date.

“We, the affected communities, have never given our consent to Barro Blanco. This project violates the Panamanian Constitution and our indigenous rights. ASEP has not warned us about the imminent flooding that will destroy our crops, some of our houses and kill our livestock.” Declared Manolo Miranda, spokesperson of the M10.

National and international organizations are deeply concerned for the personal safety and security of the Ngäbe people and call on Panama to protect their rights including the rights to security and peaceful assembly.

Panamanian authorities must protect the rights of the Ngäbe people who have not consented to this project,” says Alyssa Johl, Senior Attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law.  “We urge the Panamanian government to ensure the personal safety and security of the Ngäbe people and otherwise fulfill their human rights obligations. The world is watching.”

In 2015, Panama recognized that the Barro Blanco project had been approved in violation of the Ngäbe’s social and cultural rights, and the government temporarily suspended the construction of the project. A few months later, the government fined the project developer $775,000 for failing to adequately consult, relocate and compensate those adversely affected by the dam.  To this day, the government has not reached an agreement with the communities.

Barro Blanco is an UN-sponsored project that is designed to support sustainable development in poorer countries while enabling wealthier countries to achieve emissions reductions cost-efficiently. However, Barro Blanco demonstrates how climate mitigation projects can have adverse impacts on peoples and communities and the environments on which they depend.

The Paris Agreement recognized the need for human rights protections in climate action and created a new Sustainable Development Mechanism (SDM) under which all countries will be able to generate and/or use credits to offset emissions. Parties of the UNFCCC are currently meeting in Bonn to discuss the modalities and procedure of the new SDM.

“Barro Blanco is a clear example of why human rights protections must be included in the newly established SDM. The SDM must learn from the CDM’s mistakes. As the Paris Agreement committed to protect human rights, Parties must ensure that another Barro Blanco never happens again” says Pierre-Jean Brasier, Network Coordinator at Carbon Market WatchA report to be published this week by Carbon Market Watch and Misereor also highlights the need to incorporate human rights into climate action, including the case of Barro Blanco.

A report to be published this week by Carbon Market Watch and Misereor also highlights the need to incorporate human rights into climate action, including the case of Barro Blanco.

Contact:

M10
Manolo Miranda
+507 6563-2790

Carbon Market Watch
Pierre-Jean Brasier
+32 484 61 29 76
pierre-jean.brasier@carbonmarketwatch.org

CIEL
Alyssa Johl
+1-510-435-6892
ajohl@ciel.org

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Millions of leaked documents reveal how dozens of politicians and public officials from countries across the world have been stashing cash in offshore havens.

The 11.5 million leaked records, dubbed the “Panama Papers,” show that some of the world’s most well-known heads of state, politicians and celebrities – including Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the prime minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson – have millions of dollars squirreled away in offshore accounts.

The leaked documents, which were reviewed by journalists from more than a hundred international news organisations – such as The Guardian, the BBC and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – reveal that major banks have been key in creating evasive companies in Panama and other locations.

According to the ICIJ, more than 200,000 offshore accounts are listed in the leaked documents, and banking giants, including UBS and HSBC, have set up thousands of shell corporations for international clients.

The records, ICIJ says, illustrate how international law firms and big banks are “selling financial secrecy to politicians, fraudsters and drug traffickers as well as billionaires, celebrities and sports stars”.

The documents have been leaked from a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca.  With a “global presence,” Mossack Fonseca has branches dotted across the world in places such as The Bahamas, Jersey, Hong Kong and Liechtenstein.

The company is expert in creating shell companies, and according to The Guardian and the ICIJ, the leaked files contain information about some 214,000 offshore accounts which are connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories.

As the ICIJ states, with many of Mossack Fonseca’s clients there is no evidence to suggest that the shell companies are being used for illegal activities. The documents also show, however, that Mossack Fonseca’s client list includes drug traffickers, tax evaders and scam artists.

In one case, at least two South African businessmen involved in a $60 million investment scam, which included embezzling money from a benefit pool for the widows and orphans of deceased mine workers, used Mossack Fonseca to create offshore corporations.

Mossack Fonseca has denied any wrongdoing. The Panamanian law firm said in a “Fact Sheet,” which is available online, that “our firm, like many firms, provides worldwide registered agent services for our professional clients (e.g., lawyers, banks, and trusts) who are intermediaries. As a registered agent we merely help incorporate companies, and before we agree to work with a client in any way, we conduct a thorough due-diligence process, one that in every case meets and quite often exceeds all relevant local rules, regulations and standards to which we and others are bound”.

In the wake of the massive document leak, international accountability and anti-corruption organisations are calling for greater transparency.

According to a press release from non-governmental organisation, Transparency International, José Ugaz, the organisation’s chair, said: “The Panama Papers investigation unmasks the dark side of the global financial system where banks, lawyers and financial professionals enable secret companies to hide illicit corrupt money. This must stop. World leaders must come together and ban the secret companies that fuel grand corruption and allow the corrupt to benefit from ill-gotten wealth.”

The ICIJ has said it will release a comprehensive list of companies and people linked to them in early May. For more information about the “Panama Papers,” Mossack Fonseca and corruption scandals, visit the ICIJwebsite.

Activists gathered at the gates of Barro Blanco.

A 30-strong splinter group of Ngäbe from the M10 resistance movement has blocked the entrance to the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam in western Panama, preventing workers from entering the site. The 15 year struggle of the Tabasará river communities to protect their livelihoods, their culture, and their ancestral heritage now appears to be entering a tense new phase. With negotiations exhausted and the dam 95% complete, M10 has an issued an ultimatum for the government to cancel the project by Monday, June 15, 2015. It is unclear how the government will respond.

“Being Ngäbe-Buglé cultural patrimony,” said Clementina Pérez, part of the group camped at Barro Blanco’s gates. “Our river, our mother earth, our ecology, our existence, we are here to make known to the national and international community that this patrimony belongs to us and to the church of Mama Tata. With the conservation of peace, liberty, justice and unity, liberation and social justice… [we ask] the President of the Republic the cancellation and removal of the dam from our communities, our river and our mother earth, which belong to us as original people of the Americas…”

Funded by European banks – the German Investment Corporation (DEG) and the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) – the dam is set to inundate a string of Ngäbe and campesino communities, all of whom have voiced their objections from the outset. The flood will destroy ancestral petroglyphs, fertile agricultural grounds, and Mama Tata cultural centres, including a unique school where the emerging written script of the Ngäbere language is being developed and disseminated. The dam will significantly impact the river’s marine life, wiping out migratory fish species which many communities – both up and down stream – rely upon for essential protein. None of the Tabasará communities have provided their free, informed and prior consent to the dam, a fact recently confirmed by the FMO’s own independent complaints mechanism (ICM).

“Lenders should have sought greater clarity on whether there was consent to the project from the appropriate indigenous authorities prior to project approval,” said an ICM report, published on May 29, 2015. “[The plan] contains no provision on land acquisition and resettlement and nothing on biodiversity and natural resources management. Neither does it contain any reference to issues related to cultural heritage…”

The report is the latest in a series of professional analyses that pour a thick layer of scorn over the dam project’s owner, Generadora del Istmo (GENISA). Demonstrably unlawful, GENISA has been condemned by numerous independent investigators, the United Nations, several international NGOs, and Panama’s own environmental agency, ANAM, who found a raft of flaws and short-comings in their environmental impact assessment.

But despite failing their own due diligence, the banks appear to have shrugged off the ICM report with an insipid call for ‘constructive dialogue’ and ‘a solution for a way forward’. In February this year, the FMO chose to threaten the government of Panama after building work was temporarily suspended on the recommendation of ANAM. Writing to the Vice President, the FMO warned that the suspension “May weigh upon future investment decisions, and harm the flow of long-term investments into Panama.”

The government seems to have taken this threat to heart. Panama’s president, Juan Carlos Varela, who was elected to office in 2014, flip-flopped on Barro Blanco before finally falling in line. Last week, while proffering flimsy reassurances about having found a human rights solution, his government left the negotiating table and signaled an end to the suspension of works. M10 claims the work never stopped and has been continuing clandestinely. They are now mobilizing for action.

Clementina Perez (Photo credit: Oscar Sogandares)
Clementina Perez (Photo credit: Oscar Sogandares)

“If this situation is not resolved,” said Clementina Pérez, “We will go to the Panamerican highway to ask together, at a national level, the cancellation of Barro Blanco…”

Rising with stark grey walls above the denuded banks of the Tabasará, Barro Blanco has become a symbol of the previous administration, its fundamental violence and contempt for the rule of law. The former President Ricardo Martinelli – now on the run in the United States and facing a corruption probe back home – provoked no less than four major uprisings as he grasped for land and resources in Panama’s indigenous territories. Heavy-handed repression resulted in the deaths of several protesters and bystanders, including an unarmed teenage boy who was shot in the face by police. Barro Blanco is the visible legacy of a proudly thuggish President who serially abused Panama’s Indigenous Peoples and plundered the country at will. Thus far, Varela has been keen to strike a more decent and humane tone. How he now handles the crisis evolving on the banks of the Tabasará River will be a demonstration of his sincerity, or lack of.

Community members affected by the Barro Blanco dam attending a meeting in May 2011. Photo: Richard Arghiris

A dialogue table to discuss the future of the controversial Barro Blanco commenced yesterday (February 20) in Tolé, Panama.

The meeting is being attended by High Level Government Commission, the UN, and representatives from the indigenous Ngäbe communities impacted by dam in the hope that an agreement over the future of project, which is already 90 percent complete, can be reached.

On February 9, the chancellor and vice-president of Panama, Isabel de Saint Malo, announced that the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) was suspending the construction of the 28 megawatt dam because it had violated the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
This followed plans announced by the affected communities that they would be blocking the Inter-American Highway during Carnival — the action was abandoned after the government’s announcement.

In a press release, the vice-president stated: “The government will guarantee the respect and rights of the communities as well as legal certainty.”

Absent from the dialogue table was GENISA, the Honduran-owned company responsible for the megaproject. In a press release, the company stated that it had not received an invitation from the government but would like to be part of the discussions.

In 2007, the Panamanian government granted GENISA a concession to construct the dam on the River Tabasará in western Panama. The project will  create a reservoir, inundating 258 hectares of land which will displace six households, a school, and farmland as well as destroying hectares of forest. The communities, who have been struggling to get the project cancelled for years, will also lose the use of the river for fishing.

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Kusapin, Comarca Ngabe Bugle

Large tracks of pristine coastal land in the remote Kusapín district of the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé in western Panama have be sold to foreign developers. An area of biological diversity with verdant forests, white sand beaches, and mangroves, Kusapín is located on the Caribbean coast – in 2004, its wetlands, an important nesting site for turtles, became a national reserve. Ngäbe families have lived on the land for generations, growing crops and fishing out at sea. But now 2100 hectares of land have been sold to developers, including Costa Rican businessman and politician, Antonio Álvarez Desanti. In 1997, after a long struggle, a comarca was awarded to the Ngäbe and the Buglé (a cultural similar but linguistically separate group numbering about 3000). Some 150’000 of the country’s 200’000 Ngäbe live in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé which encompasses 6968 squares kilometres of land, with three regions and seven districts. Land within the Comarca is collective and protected by a law that deems it “unalienable,” but this law has not stopped comarcal land from being sold.

According to an investigative article in one of Panama’s national newspaper, La Prensa, the land was originally acquired through a process of “prescripción adquisitiva de dominio.” This process allows occupants to apply for titles for privately held land if it has been occupied for certain amount of time and the original owner agrees to the titling or their whereabouts is unknown. In Kusapín, the land was bought for just three cents per meter by three lawyers, Evisilda Martinez, her husband Francisco Antonio Castillo and Nisla Janeth Ortega. The land, which consists of eleven fincas, was then titled and sold for millions to eight different companies. According to La Prensa, there were anomalies in the land sales– one issue being that the “prescripción adquisitiva de dominio” process normally takes years but in this case it was unusually fast, taking just a few months. Four of the eleven fincas were sold to Desanti, president of Desarrollo Ecoturístico Cañaveral, for millions although the exact amount is undisclosed. Desarrollo Ecoturístico Cañaveral is investing some 40 million dollars into the 685 acres of beachfront land for a tourism project that will include hotels, condos, and houses and is currently seeking hotel chains and investors.

According to its website “Cañaveral seeks to create a unique natural and cultural destination with a complete awareness of the fragility of our planet’s ecosystems and with the solemn purpose to preserve the cultural diversity of its surrounding communities.” Desanti claims “the whole community consultation process is properly documented by the district authorities.” But local Ngäbe resident Samuel Tugri told La Prensa that the community were outraged and felt deceived. “They said they would make a program to help people, but they really wanted our signatures to sell [the land]. They lied to us and now we have realized this,” he said. Community members also reported that unlike those who had so quickly acquired land titles, they had been attempting to obtain titles for years without success. La Prensa journalist Prieto-Barreiro Ereida claimed that Desanti could be taken to court. Speaking to Costa Rican paper Diario Extra, Desanti said that he bought the land in “good faith” and was unaware of any lawsuit against him. On 27 July, a regional meeting will held in the Kusapín district Comarca to discuss the development project and by the 23 August the community will decide whether to accept or reject it.