A dozen Indigenous people detained the president of Panama at a school on Tuesday to protest a deal he signed that could lead to the building of a highly controversial Barro Blanco Dam project in Chiriqui Province. Construction on the hydroelectric dam, which is nearly finished, was frozen last year in response to protests.
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President Juan Carlos Varela was detained after he was about to give a public speech praising a recent deal with some Indigenous leaders to resume construction. Opponents of that agreement threw stones at police cars, injuring four officers, reported local media.
The president's security team immediately took Varela and Indigenous representative Silvia Carrera inside a nearby school, where they were forced to stay for two hours while the Indigenous dissidents threatened to not let them out until the agreement was "burned down."
The dissidents are part of Indigenous group Movimiento 10 de Abril, or M-10, a movement representing communities affected by the dam. The M-10 denies Carrera the authority to represent them, saying she is “sold to the government."
They blocked the school's main entrance for two hours, until Varela threatened to arrest the dissidents if they did not let him go.
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“This is just an isolated incident promoted by a dozen disrespectful Indigenous people that do not officially represent the Ngabe Bugle community,” the president said after he was released. He affirmed that the hydroelectric project will soon be resumed, in accordance with the deal signed with the official Ngabe Bugle authorities as soon as Congress ratifies the text within the next 30 to 60 days.
Under the deal, the government will seek another independent firm to carry out the project and remove the license initially assigned to Panamanean mining firm Generadora del Istmo S.A., or Genisa.
Until the government finds a new contractor, Genisa's shares will be placed in Panama's National Bank. European banks are also funding the project, including Germany's DEG, Deutsche Entwicklungsgesellschaft and Netherlands Development Finance Company.
The government has also agreed to cancel all the licenses for hydroelectric projects planned on the Tabasara River. Future projects will also be subjected to popular consultation and require approval from official Indigenous and campesinos authorities.
But according to M-10 leader Ricardo Miranda, the floodgates on the dam were already opened in some places on Saturday afternoon in order to start filling the reservoir, flooding the lands of dozens of nearby families.
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Barro Blanco dam, whose construction is 95 percent finished, will flood nearly 15 acres, or 6 hectares, of Indigenous lands surrounding the site of the dam on the Tabasara River.
The Ngabe Bugle communities affected by the project—representing about 170,000 people—have argued that their rights to free, prior and informed consent under International Labor Organization Convention 169 have been violated and that they never gave permission for the dam.
Critics of the dam fear that the project will displace tens of thousands of people, harm the local agricultural sector, and flood Ngabe Bugle land and traditional sacred sites. The Tabasara River is fundamental to the livelihoods of the local Ngabe Bugle people, who rely on it for water, fishing, and agricultural production along its fertile banks.