Panama dam flooding threatens Indigenous families

Amnesty International has called on Panama to halt flooding in an area where Indigenous families are still living, as negotiations continue over their relocation to make way for a dam on their lands. The Panamanian Vice President’s office announced on 20 May that flooding would commence soon to fill the Chan-75 dam in the Changuinola district of Bocas del Toro province in north-western Panama. Local activists told Amnesty International on Monday that the water level had already begun to rise. While hundreds of Ngöbe Indigenous families have already left the area, some remain in their homes and are still negotiating their relocation with local authorities. “It’s simply unacceptable for the Panamanian authorities to allow this area to be flooded until they can ensure all the Ngöbe families have safely moved away,” said Sebastian Elgueta, Researcher on Central America at Amnesty International. “People are still living in the water’s path, and their lives and safety are in danger.”According to local activists, some of the families contend they have not received the full amount of compensation that had been agreed. Local authorities, including anti-riot police, have been called in to forcibly remove those still living in the area, and several Indigenous homes have been demolished. In a September 2009 report on the Chan-75 dam, the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples found that while the dam would have a “significant impact” on the nearby Indigenous communities, none of them had been properly consulted or afforded an opportunity to give their consent to be relocated. Panama has an international obligation to seek Indigenous peoples’ free, prior and informed consent in such cases.“Across the region, Indigenous peoples have been forced to abandon their ancestral lands, have lost their livelihoods and means of survival, and have fallen into poverty as a direct result of large infrastructure projects and disputes over land,” said Sebastian Elgueta. “Human rights protection and the promotion of economic development are not mutually exclusive and ensuring that they are in tune with each other is one of the most important challenges for the region.”