“As indigenous people, we have always depended on the environment . . .”

also posted at Truth & Progress

The quote in the title is from a letter which in its English version begins

Dear AES Shareholders:

We are addressing you on behalf of more than 15 indigenous Ngobe communities which live on the banks of the Changuinola River, located in Bocas del Toro Province, Panama. We have lived along this river for many years, this river which borders La Amistad International Park – a World Heritage site shared by Panama and Costa Rica. We work the land as our ancestors taught us, cultivating oranges, corn, bananas and other crops which grow together with the small number of animals we raise. But also, the fish and shrimp of the Changuinola River are an important part of our diet and our culture.

Currently, our lifestyle and the ecosystem surrounding us are facing a grave threat: the construction of three hydroelectric dams on the river, located above and below our communities. These dams, called Chan 75, Chan 140, and Chan 220, are being financed and constructed by AES Corporation. While some of us have been temporarily employed to clear trees and prepare the ground for construction, the reality is that in the long term these dams will have disastrous effects for us.

The dams are expected to rapidly eradicate up to eleven species of diadramous fish and shrimp on which the Ngobe traditionally rely. For a technical analysis, see Probable Effects on Aquatic Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function of Four Proposed Hydroelectric Dams in the Changuinola/Teribe Watershed, Bocas del Toro, Panama, with emphasis on Effects within The La Amistad World Heritage Site (22-page pdf)

AES’s Panama page, which features a smiling young Indian boy, sounds benevolent enough:

. . . we’re not just running a business, we know that the impact of our work goes far beyond that. Bringing electricity to places that never had it before, working for the social good-these are often profound outcomes of our business. Providing electricity can radically improve the quality of life, especially in developing countries, and especially because AES does so reliably, safely and responsibly.

The Center for Biological Diversity and 50 other groups see a contradiction between the rhetoric of AES and the effect these dams, already abandoned by all other investors, will have on indigenous people and on La Amistad park. Here is a snippet from their letter to AES:

The huge social cost to displaced people has been documented around the world for similar hydroelectric projects, and along with the environmental consequences of these dams, this issue carries massive human-rights implications. For instance, relocation discussions have not been conducted following the cultural norms or the native language of the Ngobe; rather discussions have occurred in Spanish, a language many Ngobe do not speak. Furthermore, the Ngobe do not know to where they would be relocated. If they are moved to a city, many do not have the education required to obtain adequate employment to make a living wage. Alternatively, some Ngobe might decide to move onto land inside PILA, thereby increasing the threat of causing harm to its biodiversity. As such, it must be emphasized that the dams’ impacts on the human populations along the Changuinola River and the animal populations throughout the region would be catastrophic.

You decide. If you agree with the Ngobe and the CBD, you can start by sending this letter to AES and Panamanian officials:

Save Panama Biosphere Reserve From Dams

Tomorrow, we’ll bring the question of indigenous rights back home, to Washington state.


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    • melvin on September 14, 2007 at 14:16

    The Ngobe are urged to abandon the old ways and  join the consumer bandwagon. The Makah are told they can’t hunt anymore because they drive cars and use washing machines.

    No one says the Japanese no longer have any claim to a culture of their own because they live in highrises and wear western dress.

    • Robyn on September 14, 2007 at 14:17

    Bringing electricity to places that never had it before…

    …so that the people there can refrigerate the fish that they no longer can catch. 

  1. What they really want to do is saddle the nation/people with debt for it all, to replace land ownership with overcapitalized tenancy as they have so successfully accomplished in the US.

    I’m from bona fide coffin boat Irish stock whose land was stolen by the British, marched onto coffin boats, tried to farm in Tennessee until Union troops confiscated everything.  Off they went to work in the mines of Butte, Montana, basically giving up on ownership.

    They do this.  Most of the farms in the US recently were lost due to banks’ seductions of “more productivity” vis a vis more debt… then they wriggle the cat’s cradle and make sure commodity prices go down, families foreclose on farms, and back to renting again.

    Is it OK with everyone if the banking voodoo just perishes from the earth?  They do steal everything from the poorer people that way.  It isn’t about the dams.  They couldn’t give a hang about anyone getting water.  It’s about manipulating the entire country with debt.  Every time.

    • pfiore8 on September 14, 2007 at 16:53

    melvin… and how many ways can we just break into pieces… and still put humpty dumpty back together again?

  2. this shit makes me sick.

    of course, as you point out in your closing, not only our (u.s.) history, but also our present day (!!?!) are replete with examples of this sort of cultural/economic displacement. ‘nother example: a proposed raising of california’s shasta dam threatens not only more economic insult to the native winnemem wintu, but on top of that, would inundate sacred, ceremonially significant sites.



    i can’t even wrap my mind around the thinking behind the imposition of these onslaughts…it’s like: quick! let’s snuff out all traces of nature- and limits- honoring cultures before we have to actually stop, pay attention, and LEARN something!

    melvin, thank you for this great piece. i’ll look forward to your washington state piece tomorrow (thank you too, btw, for your having thought to include me on your pre-launch email heads up to docudharma).


    • lori on September 14, 2007 at 17:35

    Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
    Beware of Greeks bearing gifts–an allusion to the story of the wooden horse of Troy, used by the Greeks to trick their way into the city. It is recorded in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 2, 19 BC:

    Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.

    Of course that English version is a translation. Another translation, by John Dryden, has “Trust not their presents, nor admit the horse.”

    The same thought was also recorded by Sophocles (496 – 406 BC), in Ajax:

    Nought from the Greeks towards me hath sped well.
    So now I find that ancient proverb true,
    Foes’ gifts are no gifts: profit bring they none.

  3. ( Oaxaca Governor = mini George Bush)
    is talking about a dam on the Rio Verde of Oaxaca, which would flood the Rio Verde Basin…displacing thousands of indigenous people.

    It would also be an ecological disaster, and would additionally destroy one of the richest and most important archaeological zones ( still largely unexplored, but what has been found is very ancient and important) in Mexico.

      We are gearing up TO FIGHT THIS.

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