Environmental Conflict: The Situation in the Chiriqui Highlands March 2010

March 2, 2010 —

The Thickening Plot

Peace Corps policy prohibits volunteer participation in political activities. Panamanian prohibits political activity by non-citizens. I am reporting here on activities that are occurring in the region in which we are working but we  maintain a neutral posture.

The Old Chiriqui River (Rio Viejo Chiriqui) runs from the mountains outside Cerro Punta, all the way to the Pacific Coast. To call it a river might give the wrong impression. At least from Cerro Punta to our area you can walk across it. It sometimes moves swiftly but no one would call it a river on the scale of the Mississippi. In English we would call it a stream.

The Panamania government has contracted with at least two companies so far to install hydroelectric electricity generating plants. One project is well along towards completion. The one in our area has been started, a least to the extent of the letting of the contract, the completion of the required environmental impact statement and the like, at least some work on the river bed and some work on the dams.  The plans call for somewhere between 6 and 14 such projects, depending on who you ask, on a river that runs approximately 80 miles in length.  The portion of the river in our area will be routed through a 10 foot diameter tunnel for a distance of about 5 miles total in two separate tunnels.

Rio Viejo Chiriqui near Volcan not far from the dam

The project consists of two plants, The Pando and the Monte Lirio.  According to the environmental impact study commissioned by the company,

The Pando and Monte Lirio plants are two hydropower projects configured in cascade on the Chiriquí Viejo River… The Pando hydropower plant (HPP) is located about 4 km west of the town of Volcán, Bugaba District, Chiriquí Province. It includes a 28-meter high dam and a reservoir of 440,000 m3 of usable volume with an average storage of 8 hours and covering an area of 18 hectares, which will allow daily peaking power production; a 5.1 km-long derivation tunnel; and a powerhouse with an installed capacity of 32.9 MW…

The Monte Lirio HPP is located just downstream of the Pando HPP tailrace, about 1 km from Plaza Caisán town, Renacimiento District, Chiriquí Province. It includes a 15-meter high dam but no reservoir; an 8 km-long derivation tunnel; and a powerhouse with an installed capacity of 50.4 MW.

The local environmentalists, or at least some of them, want to change the law so that a hydroelectric project can only take 50% of the river flow, instead of the current 90%.   They are also demanding an environmental study of the impact of the entirety of the 12 or more projects (we have heard varying numbers starting as low as 6.)

Electron Investment S.A. is a Panamanian corporation established for the purpose of constructing the project in our area. As seems common in Panama, they are distributing money to local communities for various projects. .  On March 1 and March 2nd I attended meetings with them at the request of our local community.

On Monday the meeting (the second) was attended by representatives of most of the Renacimiento.  EISA had established this committee a month ago in conjunction with the mayor of our region. The committee meets to approve applications for community projects followed by a vetting process performed by the company to determine feasibility and to compare the various projects approved by the committee.  There were several projects approved having to do with extending electrical service to some more remote areas.

On March 2nd we met with EISA here in our town.  This was to discuss other possible projects in our community, our groups role in the anti-hydroelectric project movement, and to discuss reforestation.   During the meeting EISA expressed an eagerness to work with environmental groups such as ours and dismay with the hard line that others were taking.

EISA has stated their commitment to reforesting the area which will be effected by the installation of around 5 miles of tunnels. This will lessen the environmental impact of the project. Our agro-environmental group has experience in reforestation, although not of the scale of the entire project we are talking about here. But they would like to be in the running for such a project.

EISA learned, however, that some members of our group attended a meeting to discuss whether the areas environmental groups should oppose the hydroelectric projects that the Panamanian government has seemingly sprung on the people.   EISA was not sure if attendance meant support for the subsequent statements made by the organization formed as a result of that meeting, whose acronym is APRODIPA.  Our group, however, has not signed any protest documents nor agreed to do so at this time.  In the meeting EISA seemed to accept our groups statement that it had not signed onto any protest agreement.  Our president, however, did state that the 90%-10% was not right and supported the study of the environmental impact of the project as a whole.

The newly formed enviromentalist group APRODIPA is strongly encouraging our agro-environmental group to join the protest.  If our group enters into any agreement to assist EISA then further projects with the local environmental groups might be in jeopardy.

Our group has decided to not make final decision on the matter until they know more.  Proposals to reduce the amount of water the projects can use and other such mitigating factors might change the political situation. They may or may not be interested in the reforestation project or part of it depending on the offer.  They might decide it’s not worth doing for practical reasons, such as too little money for the work involved, or the intent to use non-native species, or perhaps an upcoming environmental study of the impact of the projects as a whole might clearly show a very negative impact.  By law only individual projects had to have impact studies.

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