Current Size: 100%

International Day against Racism - 21st March

On the occasion of the International Day against Racism, the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights points out how dam projects and racism are related, what EU member states have to do with it and why it is necessary to introduce stricter safeguards for the protection of indigenous rights.

Suspension of the Barro Blanco Project in Panama

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination goes back to 21 March 1960. On that day, during a peaceful demonstration in South Africa against apartheid “pass laws”, the police opened fire and killed 69 protesters (Sharpville tragedy).

The international community’s witnessing and condemnation of apartheid as an institutionalized policy in Southern Africa constituted some of the first steps to accepting the need for international protection against racial discrimination and resulted, inter alia, in the drafting of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which was adopted as the first core United Nations human rights treaty in 1965.

Discrimination against indigenous peoples is racial discrimination

CERD is monitored by a Committee composed of 18 independent experts. Over the years, this Committee has proven to be progressive and has produced a considerable amount of jurisprudence, observations and General Recommendations, also regarding indigenous peoples (CERD Committee, General Recommendation XXIII, Rights of indigenous peoples). In particular, the Committee has highlighted that discrimination against indigenous peoples is racial discrimination, and that all appropriate means must be taken to combat and eliminate such discrimination. However, even though the international community has become increasingly aware of the systematic and structural discrimination of indigenous peoples, they often remain among the vulnerable parts of the population and struggle to receive adequate protection and recognition of their rights. Particularly their participatory rights with regard to decisions which affect the use of their lands, territories and other resources are often of concern in this context.

Project on Human Rights Accountability for Climate Policies

This has also been realized as a core issue in ClimAccount (Human Rights Accountability of the EU and Austria for Climate Policies in Third Countries and their possible Effects on Migration), a project carried out by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights together with two German partner institutions and financed by the Austrian Climate and Energy Fund. In the course of the project, three field research missions were selected to investigate the extent of human rights obligations of the EU and its member states in their implementation of climate policies. The first field mission conducted went to Panama, with a focus on the Barro Blanco project registered as emissions reduction project under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.

Barro Blanco is a hydroelectric power plant currently under construction on the Tabasará River in Chiriquí, Panama, in immediate proximity to the Comarca Ngöbe-Buglé (indigenous territory). The project is financed by the Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft GmbH (DEG), the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). The company constructing the dam, a local corporation (GENISA), submitted an environmental impact assessment to the public authorities in 2008, which was approved by Panama’s environmental authority ANAM.

Consultations leave out affected communities

Since that point in time, however, the affected communities of the Ngöbe-Buglé have protested, insisting that they were never adequately informed or consulted about the project or its consequences (at minimum 500 people will be displaced). As the CERD Committee noted in 2010 in its Concluding Observations on Panama, this is not a singular case in Panama as, ‘on several occasions consultations concerning projects for the exploitation of resources, construction and tourism have been left in the hands of the private firms carrying out such project […] [and] the agreements reached through such consultations are partial and not in conformity with the international standards that should govern such agreements.’

Years of protests including temporary roadblocks and demonstrations (which were met with police violence), several lawsuits, a mediation process led by the Catholic Church and the United Nations and international mobilization all did not result in any changes to the project nor did they prevent the project from being registered under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism in 2011. In 2014, the affected communities filed a complaint with the newly-established joint FMO/DEG (non-judicial) grievance mechanism, with the final report still outstanding. However, as the grievance mechanism is newly established, there is currently no clear process on how the banks will react to the outcome report of the grievance mechanism’s fact-finding mission.

Interim success – Hope for protection of indigenous rights

Nevertheless, recent developments have given the affected communities new hope. On 9 February 2015, ANAM suspended the project, which has reached more than 90% completion. The suspension was announced due to breaches of requirements of the environmental impact assessments, such as, inter alia, shortcomings in the agreements with the locally affected people, an absence of an archaeological management plan to protect petroglyphs located in the river, and logging without authorization. As a consequence of this decision, a new round of roundtables has been initiated between the corporation, the public authorities, and the affected communities.

While the final outcome of the pending international grievance mechanism and the ongoing negotiations between the parties are still outstanding, the process of implementing the Barro Blanco project as well as a lack of international accountability mechanism for human rights violations which would also comprise involved foreign banks and firms clearly show the necessity of introducing stricter safeguards for the protection of indigenous rights both on the national and international level.


More information:
Monika Mayrhofer
Jane Hofbauer