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Submitted by: Center for Biological Diversity
Posted: Aug 24, 2007 – 08:26 AM EST
SAN FRANCISCO - August 24, 2007 - The Center for Biological Diversity, along with more than 50 indigenous and environmental groups representing over a million people from around the world, has sent a letter to Virginia-based AES Corporation demanding it withdraw from three controversial hydroelectric projects that are threatening La Amistad International Park in Panama, dependent wildlife, and local communities slated to be displaced by flooding.
La Amistad International Park, designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations, forms part of the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet. It is home to at least 40 species of fish , 250 species of reptiles and amphibians, 215 species of mammals, and 600 species of birds, including the resplendent quetzal and the harpy eagle.
La Amistad stretches from the Talamanca mountain range, from which rivers such as the Changuinola and its major tributary the Teribe flow through the largest intact tropical rainforest left in Central America into indigenous Naso and Ngobe territory, emptying into the Changuinola estuary and the Caribbean Sea. Both the rivers and the estuary harbor important fishery resources utilized by indigenous and non-indigenous Panamanians.
AES Corporation, based in Arlington, Virginia, has been financing three proposed dam projects on the Changuinola River, located on the border of the park, and its subsidiary in Panama, AES Changuinola, S.A., would operate the three dams. A fourth dam would be operated by Hidroecologica del Teribe, S.A., a subsidiary of the Colombian-owned Empresas Publicas de Medellin, on the Bonyic River, a tributary of the Rio Teribe.
Stream monitoring studies have shown that the construction of even one of the dams would be catastrophic for aquatic biodiversity. Many of the fish and all shrimp species living in these rivers must migrate between the ocean and freshwater to complete their life cycles; the dams would block their migration and effectively extirpate up to 11 aquatic species from the Biosphere Reserve. Such a loss would likely have devastating and cascading consequences for indigenous culture and livelihoods and for biodiversity throughout the area. (Click here to read a "technical paper" detailing the potential consequences.)
Thousands of Ngobe people stand to have their villages flooded, and will be forced to relocate. The Center has been working with indigenous leaders from both the Naso and Ngobe communities and with other environmental groups to send a strong message to AES Corporation, its partners, shareholders, and the Panamanian National Environmental Authority. The dams are widely opposed by the people living near the construction sites as well as by public-interest groups around the world. Three letters were sent to AES Corporation, including one endorsed by over 50 non-governmental organizations, one explaining a recent violation of indigenous Ngobe rights relating to the dams, and one from the Ngobe imploring the corporation and its shareholders to cancel the dam projects. In their letter, the Ngobe ask AES: "Will you facilitate the elimination of our lifestyles... Will you allow the flooding of our homes and families?" The letter was signed by 144 people, representing many from the villages which would be flooded.
Over the past several years, and particularly in recent months, AES Corporation has had negative publicity relating to its global operations. The corporation is a self described "global power company" that operates in 28 countries. It has faced lawsuits in the Dominican Republic for alleged dumping of rock-ash on beaches there, and eventually pulled out of the controversial Bujagali dam project in Uganda for issues similar to those in Panama. Protests were held in July 2007 in El Salvador when more than 5,000 people marched in opposition to a proposed electric plant in that country. The Center for Biological Diversity and its associates, through these letters, are urging AES to live up to its "commitment to be environmentally responsible."
Controversy has persuaded other financiers to move away from the Panama dam projects. In 2005, the Inter-American Development Bank pulled its funding of the Bonyic Hydroelectric project following environmental and social concerns raised by the indigenous Naso community and environmental groups.
Said Peter Galvin, conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, "We are hoping to demonstrate to AES and its partners that the international community supports local efforts to preserve indigenous livelihoods and the extraordinary biodiversity of the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve. We urge AES to follow the Inter-American Development Bank's example and pull out."
Furthermore, recent studies have begun to demonstrate that while hydroelectric projects are often promoted as "clean" and "green" energy sources, the resulting impounded reservoirs above the dams are likely to be large contributors of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Thus, hydroelectric dams may actually increase global warming.
The threats to the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve are serious and immediate. Only by raising the level of international awareness and commitment to protect biodiversity and to help indigenous people ensure their future can this extraordinary Biosphere Reserve be preserved.
For more information on the Center for Biological Diversity's work in Panama, click here.
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