Ngobe ask banks to stop financing Barro Blanco dam, prevent more bloodshed

PA130199

A radio documentary made by your editor Okke Ornstein about the controversial Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam under construction near Tole in the Tabasare river, has provoked questions in Dutch parliament. Legislator Jasper van Dijk wants the government to explain why state-owned Dutch development bank FMO is investing in the project while its European counterpart walked away from its commitment to finance it.

“I want to know what the vice-minister has to say in response to this documentary,” van Dijk said on Radio 1.

Meanwhile, a large group of Ngobe residents from the comarca, where various villages will be flooded according to surveys done by the UN, marched on Friday the 12th to demand that Dutch bank FMO and its German co-financier DEG withdraw their support for the Barro Blanco dam.

In the documentary, various Ngobe activists also called on the Dutch bank FMO to cut off the money supply to Genisa, the developer of the dam. Here’s an audio clip in Spanish, featuring Ricardo Miranda, community coordinator of the M-10 movement.

Falling off a horse – The adventures of Wilfredo Arias

Three weeks before that, on September 22nd, the so-called “field verification mission” had started. As a result of the protests earlier this year, this mission had been agreed upon between the conflicting parties as part of a larger effort, headed by the UNDP, to supposedly separate fact from fiction in the Barro Blanco project.

The commission, with members from the UNDP, the Catholic Church, the Government (ANAM, ASEP) and the developer GENISA, started its survey in a massive rainstorm, according to our spies and sources around the Barro Blanco site.

The team was met at the gates along the highway by a group of protesters with protest signs and slogans.

Monday 23rd September the team visited the community Quebrada Caña where they were met with signs on virtually every house against the project. These signs read “Ñagare Barro Blanco” which in Ngobe means, “No to Barro Blanco” and similar slogans against Genisa. Wilfredo Arias, one of the company representatives, requested from community leaders that the signs be taken down. However, they answered him that if this was the opinion of their people, in no way they would contravene. This angered Mr. Arias considerably.

It also happened that Mr. Arias was thrown off his horse. That was when one of the “bugodais” or Ngobe security told him that that was a “bad sign”. Mr. Arias then grew even madder.

Tuesday 24th September there were no activities, as one of the government representatives, a tad overweight at 300 pounds, had to undergo medical treatment since he nearly succumbed under the physical strain of inspecting jungle terrain, and had to be evacuated on horseback.

Back at work on Wednesday, the team also visited the carved stones or “monoliths” next to the banks of the river. There, Wilfredo Arias hinted that these were “counterfeit” and he could easily make them himself. This adequately explains the way of thinking in Genisa circles, where they are used, after all, to counterfeiting things like environmental impact studies and flood lines.

When the UNDP officials gave Mr. Arias a chisel so he could show them how to carve out age-old petroglyphs all by himself, he had to give up after just a few minutes and instantly became the object of ridicule.

On Thursday 27th September and final day the UNDP visited Nuevo Palomar. The group was met with the unexpected visit of more than 80 campesinos and peasants who claimed the company did not take them into account. Mr. Enrique Alvarez, the spokesman for the campesinos, said he stood to lose everything he had and that Genisa had lodged an “expropriation” procedure against him (adquisicion forzoza). Wilfredo Arias said that in no instance the company ever lodged an action against him. Another bad move by the unfortunate Mr. Arias, because Mr. Alvarez subsequently produced the legal papers, confirming the expropriation procedure. Ouch!

The UNDP officials were heard telling Arias he had not even told them anything regarding these procedures and that Genisa had acquired all these lands.

The very same day they all left, and the UNDP team was to meet at their hotel in Las Lajas beach near San Felix. However, they were suddenly given notice to pack up and leave due to a so called “security alert” about protests and highway closures by the Ngobe indigenous people. Of course there were neither protests nor road closures and the “security alert” was entirely fabricated.

A great time, in short, was had by all – mostly at the expense of the Genisa reps who, once again, so adequately demonstrated how Panama’s entrepreneurial class could do with a bit more sophistication and a little less sleaze, maybe.

About the author /


Okke Ornstein is an award winning journalist, TV/Radio producer and photographer from the Netherlands and currently based in Panama. Specialized in high-impact investigative journalism, his work has led to arrests, questions in parliament and the downfall of many frauds and swindles.

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20 Comments

  1. Richard Arghiris

    Cheers Okke, the best news I’ve heard about Barro Blanco in a long time.

  2. Benfatto

    I thought La Casica had an agreement with the government. This one dam in exchange for no further projects. If I am correct, she sacrificed some of her people in order to save the comarca.

    But it is typical to see one corrupt project, the Barro Blanca dam, financed by another scam: carbon credits. That’s what you get when people depend on government to fix their energy needs and environmental projects: neither.

    Panama should just privatize the energy market and have some private company build a big coal-burning power plant near the canal. Problem solved instantly – and considering the huge energy required for building dams, it is probably more energy efficient and environment friendly too.

    • the Editor

      Benfatto: That deal between the Caciqua and the government does not exist. What happened is that Barro Blanco was excluded from the agreement and a separate commission headed by the UNDP was set up to investigate and decide.

      Panama’s energy market is already privatized. That’s why we have such shitty and expensive service by outfits like Union Fenosa and the like. And since the government is basically an extension of Panama’s upstanding business sector, there’s really nobody to keep anyone or anything in check.

  3. jc

    Might be correct the only thing missing is the exclusivity of the “Last Names” that control it be it shareholder etc without the exclusivity it will never happen.

  4. Benfatto

    So Cacique got screwed. Why did they stop protesting?

    I wish Panama’s energy market was privatized. But Union Fenosa is 100% owned by the Panamanian government. In a free market there are no restrictions on starting a business, in this case an energy company. Are you telling me that anyone can start a power plant? Can consumers in Panama choose between different energy companies just like they can choose between cellphone providers and supermarkets?

    Government is the opposite of a free market. One excludes the other. Panama’s businesses elites do not want a free market. It is the same all over the world. They want use the governments power to further their own. It’s a shame most Panamanians look to government to solve problems caused by government. The only way to improve Panama is to have less government. Less violence. And more free market.

    • the Editor

      They stopped protesting because there was an agreement. Part of that agreement was to decide about Barro Blanco later, based on the UNDP commission. The Caciqua didn’t “get screwed”; they simply agreed to disagree and solve it later.

      Panama is what you get when you have a free market (or Somalia, if that’s your thing). Corporations and a ruling entrepreneurial clique run the show and enforce their monopolies through governments they own. Take away the governments and it becomes even easier for them to maintain their rule – less messy, less people to be paid off, no voting. But most corporations actually want the arms-length of a “democracy” like that in Panama, as long as it’s being run by a “gobierno de empresarios”.

      Union Fenosa is not 100% owned by the government. No, not anyone can just start a power plant, and that won’t change if you have less government. Or maybe you think that somehow those who are making the big bucks will simply let go off their position just because someone says “free market”? Of course not. They’ll make deals among themselves to divide the loot and that’s it.

      For an idea of what would happen, you should go back to Thatcher’s England, where they completely privatized and deregulated the energy sector. It resulted in skyrocketing prices, constant power outages, and customers being shaken down to pay more by the energy giants. They scrambled to impose order again. Then of course they had to do it again in California, where it turned into a similar disaster. In Panama, Spanish Union Fenosa became the one to run the privatized energy grid, and prices went up, while there are constant power outages as soon as you’re outside of the capital. I mean, where do people get these ideas?

  5. Eazy

    I keep entering in these discussions and for some reason people still think that privatizing a service will benefit them.
    When a government runs it as a business you can have best of both worlds. A solid product at a fair price and the profit will benefit the country directly. A country could manage utilities, infrastructure, public transport, telecommunication and basic insurance this way, which would decrease the need for taxes significantly. Thinking about that, mining and other natural resource exploitation would be good candidates as well.
    Hell, personally I’d even add social housing projects. So people can buy a home for 25 thousand that’s actually worth 25 thousand.

    Governments can’t run a business? I disagree! There shouldn’t be a difference really, if it’s set up right. The government could be like any shareholder, involved in general and long term strategy, but not meddling with everyday work. Politics should be kept out of the equation as much as possible.
    It could be interesting to calculate all the earnings of these industries and see how much it could lower the tax burden. The downside? A foreign billionaire or 2 less.. ;)

    Actually this has been the structure of a community for thousands of years, in some form or another. In some computer games (like the old Warcraft) you can still find this very principle. Dig gold, cut trees, build factories, ports and increase the wealth and strength of your community. Nobody wonders why that is. It feels so natural. However, translating these ideas to today will make you a socialist, a communist or worse even.
    Governments returning to their basic tasks. Worried about their community first and (foreign) politics later. Wouldn’t that be something?

  6. Benfatto

    Panama has a free market? Don’t make me laugh. Have you tried running a business here? It is easier than in many other so called ‘free markets’ but far from free. I don’t think you know what a free market really is.

    A free market is a market where producers and consumers agree on price free from government interference. Where anybody can start a business and enter a market for any product or service, without restrictions or taxation.

    Panama’s ruling class uses the government to impose restrictions on the market, just like ruling classes anywhere around the world including tribal governments in Somalia. The UK did privatize parts of their energy market, but set price controls afterwards. Again not a free market.

    Now how would Panama’s elite hold on to their positions if government were much smaller? Let’s say we did away with nearly every department that imposes rules and regulations on businesses, how would they stop ambitious competitors from driving them out of business?

    Let’s say I buy a few acres of land with a nice year-rounds stream on it, and build a small dam with minimal impact to provide energy for myself and 10 of my neighbours. Right now ANAM would not allow it and other regulations would prevent me from using the grid. Without government I could do it, make a small bug and my neighbours happy with cheaper energy.

    In the same way someone with more means could build a coal-burning power plant. How would the ruling class prevent this if it wasn’t for government? You see in the end it all comes down to someone holding a gun against another. Take away the gun, and you will get a free market.

    • the Editor

      Panama has what you get when you let entrepreneurs run the show. The first thing they will do if you get rid of “government” is to seize the monopoly on violence and start a new government to protect their businesses. How would Panama’s elite hold on to their positions, you ask, if you make government much smaller? They’d make it big enough again, that’s how.

      This is why Libertarians are dreamers. They think that you should just “take away the gun”, as you put it, without ever realizing whom you’re taking it away from and how easy it would be to get a new one for them.

  7. Eazy

    There is no such thing as a free market. There never was and there never will be. As there are no 100% honest cops, judges or politicians. That’s why they created this great document called the constitution. This document is the guideline and basis for a country, People are “imperfect” by nature. It is better to accept that and anticipate, in the constitution for example.
    No government should be allowed to alter it, or impose laws conflicting the constitution. Alterations should only be allowed when time demands and with a majority of public vote. The exact text of the alteration should be published in due time before voting.

    Corporations should not be allowed to grow bigger than countries and some activities should be kept from them. Selling TV’s is not the same as manufacturing a new genetically modified vegetable. We should start using our brain and common sense rather than our bank account to make these important evaluations and decisions. How anyone can accept that their children are educated by a corporation (private university) is beyond me.

    Privatizing the industries I mentioned earlier, is generally a bad idea. Prices go up, period. There is a need (read hunger) for profit. Investments in these areas usually are significant, so they’re only accessible to multinationals. As a country I’d prefer to keep control of my infrastructure for example, in house.

    The politic structure of Panama is a disaster, that’s for sure. With every change of the government basically the whole service apparatus gets changed. This feeds nepotism, buys votes and prevents this apparatus from functioning properly, as there is no actual knowledge nor experience available,

    The problem is our governments are not functional in general. Not in the way they are supposed to anyway. We allow that. We allow governments to make things complicated, so nobody understands what’s really going on. We allow their trickery and their stealing. To the point where nobody cares anymore. We allow governments to turn our profits into debt.

    Call me a dreamer, but I believe at some point things will change. Probably I will not live to see it. Martin Luther King didn’t either. Another dreamer who dreamed virtual impossible things at the time. If dreamers (basically anyone who wishes for change that does not yet exist) do not speak of their dreams, how can there ever be a change?

    Although I agree with your statement editor that taking away guns is as dangerous as handing them out, at this point in time, I do think we should avoid tagging. Libertarians, conspiracy theorists or tree-huggers, it is so easy to put someone in a corner, tag and bag him. It eliminates the need to look beyond the surface. Looking at myself I could be classified as all of the above. It just depends on who you ask and your personal point of view. Right or wrong is decided by numbers eventually.

  8. the Editor

    I think what Panamanians should demand from politicians is “skin in the game”. Children of politicians and government employees should have to attend public schools, for example. If a project they approve goes 50% over its budget, 50% will be taken off their salaries. Same with the state budget, and virtually everything else.

  9. Eazy

    I like that idea very much. Look who’s dreaming now.. ;)

  10. Benfatto

    I think my proposal of taking away the gun is a bit more realistic. It has been done before and worked for a short while in the US, with a strong constitution with an all important second amendment. You see we both want the same thing, we want government to be afraid of their people.

    To break the monopoly of violence you need a constitution that guarantees right for individuals, but only negative rights (the right to live, the right to your property, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms) So called positive rights for which another person has to be forced at gunpoint to provide, such as a right to housing, right to education, right to minimum income, need to be left out. Otherwise you will again create a class of rulers and subjects. It is the only way to get a peaceful, non-violent society. Not a perfect one, but a moral one where everybody has equal rights.

    And Eazy, profit motive is what drives competition and keeps prices down. Problem is, Union Fenosa has a profit motive, but no competition. It is a government regulated market, and poorly at that. If you look closely at privatizations where prices went up and stayed up, you’ll notice that government is always involved, preventing the market from functioning.

    Even if you don’t want to go as far and maintain a violence based society, there is a direct connection between government size and economic success. Panama would be much better off with a smaller government. Less to power to steal for the elite and more freedom for its people.

  11. Eazy

    “profit motive is what drives competition and keeps prices down.” In a perfect world that is correct. Your local super, the shoe store or your TV repair man, all are subject to that principle. Things change however when we look at the before mentioned industries (a.o.). The number of players is very limited and we can’t speak of real competition. Even when we forget about price agreements (which are commonly prohibited), mechanisms are invented and maintained to justify higher prices.
    On the other end, governments tend to sell their assets at bargain prices. For many years they have invested billions of dollars of taxpayer’s money. To attract buyers they often (need to) enhance the picture. Every which way you look at it, we loose. We have seen so many examples of privatizing these services. The actual success stories are few, very few. Actually I can’t think of a single one.

    As long as governments do not return to their original constitutional tasks, you can forget about any mechanism to work. This also would support a lesser-violent society. Violence arises from conflicting interests. Governments do not share their citizens interests and objectives anymore. National and international domination seems to more a priority than your personal happiness, For this reason it is dangerous to do away with the right to bear arms. At some point your government may not respect your rights, but they sure will respect your gun. Especially when there’s a million of you.

    Indeed this would mean a decrease in size for the government. In Panama we have over 300,000 public servants. Can you imagine that? With a total workforce of about 2 million that would be 30%! Still the cues in the various departments seem endless, crimes generally remain unsolved and the real work is outsourced. So basically we are paying social security…

  12. jc

    politicians and their families should also have to use the public health system

  13. Benfatto

    I’m glad we at least agree on that government needs to be much smaller.

    The reason we many privatizations of government assets fail is because they’re not actual privatizations, like the case of Union Fenosa. In Panama we have one example of a successful privatization: the telecommunications sector. But even that is in spite of Panamanian government, because they make it very hard to obtain a license.

  14. Eazy

    I disagree that privatization fails because of government involvement. Greed and opportunism are more likely to obstruct success. Nevertheless this is not so much why I am generally against. It is my strong believe that a country (read government) needs income. Instead of feasting on the income ( and debts!) of its subjects it seems more natural to provide a range of national services that benefit them. Especially when these services are better, easier and cheaper maintained as a whole, under one umbrella. I explained that earlier.

    The telecommunication you mentioned is yet another example of a failure in my eyes. Panama is still an expensive country in that aspect in fact. Looking at the essentials this is logical. More providers, more overhead, more employees, more installations, need for profit and less (divided) income. The pie is relatively small in this country with under 4 million inhabitants. One company run with integrity could provide a better service for 20 to 30 % of the price of today and still make money. I am sure of that.

    A country with actual assets could increase in value in a natural way. Money would not need to be created out of thin air. Unlike in the “american dream”, it would not be based on debt. The government would be providing to society instead of leaching it. A Federal Reserve could be exchanged by an actual bank owned by the government. Accredited annual statements would inform about the countries economic health. Just like with any other corporation. For large investments money could be borrowed, as long it can be covered by the generated income from these investments.

    In some cases we will need to wait a little longer for progress maybe. Nevertheless it is better to wait a little for progress than for another system collapse.

    Yes, integrity is a lot to ask for. Then again, creating the framework in a constitution is easier than it looks. If only we accept we are human and therefore corrupt by nature, Without exception. One eliminates corruption by taking away the temptation. With today’s tools of communication it should be quite easy to maintain oversight on various levels. Immunity and get out of jail free cards are abolished of course. Secrecy should be guided and monitored and only be allowed in those (rare) cases, where national safety requires it. The word security is intentionally avoided. Over-abused as it is, there is no such thing anyway.

    • the Editor

      This whole Libertarian ideal of leaving things to free market and free competition only works in small places where there’s a level playing field. Where I live, on Taboga, for example, and other such places not yet discovered by corporate globalization. Only small businesses, everybody knows each other, nobody gives a damn about rules. But, if some big player with serious money comes in it’s over, and then there’s nobody to protect the people. This whole romantic idea of owning guns is of course another wacky dream; good luck if you think you can battle it out with private security forces of people/corporations with serious resources, think Blackwater etc.

      Scale things up a bit into the real world, and none of it works any more. Big transnational corporations will secure their dominance, if not monopoly, any way the need to, be it through their puppets in government, or through dictatorships they bought, or at gunpoint. History is replete with examples of that. Weakening government means shifting power to big corporations and banks, it’s just as simple as that. I mean, what else have we been looking at over, say, the last decade?

      To believe in the fairness and equality of a free market for all in a world where decisions about the allocation of 90% of available capital are taken by a small financial cabal of only 1 0r 2% is just delusional.

      Unless you can give a workable answer to the question on how to keep transnationals in check with small government, the whole free-market ideological thing is just hogwash.

      I don’t want a smaller government. I want one that protects me and takes care of citizen’s common affairs and stands between the sheep and the hyenas.

  15. Benfatto

    “I don’t want a smaller government. I want one that protects me and takes care of citizen’s common affairs and stands between the sheep and the hyenas.”

    That is a terrible naive concept of government, especially considering all the great reporting you have done.

    Governments have power over people that companies in a free market do not possess. With the power of a gun government can force all kind of things down your throat, but Coca Cola or Mc Donalds cannot. It is only through the power of government that multinational companies today enjoy the disproportionate amount of control they have. Take away government, and you take away their power. They might try to increase the size of government again, but other than that they are forced to compete in the free market, unable to use violence against ordinary citizens. Don’t you want a peaceful society were the rights of the smallest minority, the individual, are protected?

    “The telecommunication you mentioned is yet another example of a failure in my eyes. Panama is still an expensive country in that aspect in fact. Looking at the essentials this is logical. More providers, more overhead, more employees, more installations, need for profit and less (divided) income. The pie is relatively small in this country with under 4 million inhabitants. One company run with integrity could provide a better service for 20 to 30 % of the price of today and still make money. I am sure of that.”

    That is called a monopoly, and though it sounds logical on paper, it does not work in practice. Without competition their is no incentive to produce high quality at a low price, let alone innovation. Communism has been tried before, didn’t work. Besides you’d take away peoples rights to start a telecom business, and you’d need armed policemen to do so. If you give government the power to infringe on peoples rights like that, there is no limit to it. Either individuals have rights, or we are all slaves, it is your call.

    • the Editor

      “Governments have power over people that companies in a free market do not possess. With the power of a gun government can force all kind of things down your throat, but Coca Cola or Mc Donalds cannot.”

      This shows a profound lack of knowledge about history. A company like Chiquita has used the power of the gun to force things down throats – or kill unionists – as standard operating procedure. Shell would be another good example. Your ignorance about this kills your entire argument.

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