Monday, September 22, 2008
THE GREAT FLOOD IN PANAMA by Benjamin Shors
Length: 5,000 words
Issue: June 2008
Several months ago, in a rural rainforest on Panama’s Changuinola River, an illiterate farm widow named Isabel Becker met two strangers at her dirt-floored home. An ethnic Ngobe Indian, Becker, 59, speaks her tribal language but no Spanish, so she didn’t understand the discussion—even when, she says, her visitors took her to Panama City and held her for 12 hours in a meeting room before coercing her to affix her thumbprint to a document exchanging her property rights for $9,500 plus a temporary $100 monthly stipend. This summer, she stared down local officials, laborers, even a bulldozer roaring into her yard. She’d become a tiny pawn in a massive hydroelectricity project, Plan Puebla de Panama, that aims to build an 1,100-mile network of 400 dams in southern Mexico and northern Central America.
Becker had been confronted by AES Corp., the largest utility in Panama and one of the biggest anywhere. Based in Arlington, Virginia, and founded by two charismatic Nixon Administration alums—Roger Sant, a philanthropist, and Dennis Bakke, an evangelical whose Joy at Work, promoting Christian values in a “fun” workplace, gets plugged on The 700 Club—AES hasn’t been covered significantly since a June 2003 Washington Post article. But it’s quietly thrived in the interim, with revenues growing 70 percent over four years to more than $12 billion in 2006, while it’s cultivated an image of environmental and social stewardship that belies allegations of misconduct in African and Central American projects, participation in Cheney’s Energy Task Force, and its status as America’s 51st worst corporate air-polluter. For Panama, AES plans a $300 million, three-dam project that indigenous activists say has already created illegal roads and destroyed banana and cacao trees. And the activists fear it will displace 5,000 Ngobe to fend for themselves on reservations, shanties, or Panama City streets. Yet the proposal isn’t a simple tale of victims and villains. AES promises to funnel dam money into local education, health care, and thousands of temporary jobs. And Panama—with an economy that grew more than 8 percent last year, even as hospitals and businesses use generators to circumvent frequent blackouts—is desperate for domestic electricity that will increase its regional political and commercial influence.
If AES disentangles itself from Panamanian red tape and corruption, it could break ground within months on these dams, further securing its leadership in Latin American hydroelectricity. How AES applies its Christian ethics to dealing with the disenfranchised locals will set the tone for all hydroelectric development in a region yearning to update its infrastructure. And the Ngobe have cause for alarm. Hydroelectric projects displaced 40 million worldwide throughout the 20th century. (China announced this week that construction of its Three Gorges Dam would displace at least 4.5 million people.) Mexican farmers are fighting a 531-foot dam that would displace 25,000; Guatemala is considering reparations from a 1982 hydroelectric project allegedly stained by kidnappings, torture, and massacres. In Panama, the endangered Naso Indians, an indigenous kingdom (one of the last in the Western Hemisphere), was approached in 2004 by a Colombian utility whose plans for a 30-megawatt dam led to a midnight coup, destroyed crops, and families that no longer speak—but still no guarantees that a dam would bring the locals hot water or electricity.
This critical juncture for Central American hydroelectric development and self-sustenance, and for AES’s fortunes, is encapsulated by this unfolding morality play that will demand deeper reporting. Shors published a report in The Miami Herald last week that, lacking AES participation, was a human-interest story. Now he’d like to tackle the more complex, nuanced corporate dilemma unfolding in Panama and D.C. AES might step forward, as Shors has already addressed the tribes’ viewpoint; if he returns to Panama, the company hopefully will explain its plans to develop power sources while enriching the rural population. Shors, an environmental journalist who’s written for U.S. News and The Seattle Times, has scores of sources among the Ngobe (and the Naso, including King Valentin Santana and his exiled predecessor, King Tito Santana), and Panamanian academics, human-rights advocates, and government officials who can further discuss the dam project. If AES gets onboard (and even if it doesn’t), we’ll have a gripping, morally ambiguous narrative full of difficult questions and even more difficult answers.