Surrounded by verdant rainforest and the sounds of a rushing river contending with a chorus of cicadas, 50 members of the Naso Indigenous group gathered in western Panama last September to protest plans to develop a 30 megawatt hydroelectric dam on the Bonyic River. Behind the dam opponents stood the cloud-shrouded, lush peaks of the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve and International Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose watersheds are threatened by a dam-building binge in the region.
Straddling the border between Costa Rica and Panama, La Amistad has a significant number of endemic species due to the convergence of flora and fauna from North and South America. Divided into Atlantic and Pacific slopes by one of the highest mountain ranges in Central America — the Talamanca — it is a place of diverse landscapes. The 2,200 square-mile reserve includes tropical dry forests, ancient oak forests, lush rainforests, primeval cloud forests, and, at higher altitudes, cold marshes and glacial lakes.
When it was added to the list of World Heritage sites in 1983, La Amistad was praised for its exceptional biodiversity. Robert Hofestede — a former Latin America regional director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) who led a monitoring mission to La Amistad on behalf of UNESCO in February 2013 — describes the park as “one of the crown jewels of nature.”
Local Indigenous groups and environmental organizations are warning that La Amistad is being compromised by dam development plans on both sides of the border. Although no dams are being built within the park, hydroelectric projects will damage — or are already damaging — the river systems that flow out into its watersheds.
Dr. William McLarney, an aquatic biologist and director of the Costa Rican Environmental nonprofit organization, Asociación ANAI, explains: “Even though you don’t set a foot in La Amistad, if you build a dam downstream you affect biodiversity within La Amistad because of the importance of diadromous [migratory fish] life forms.” These fish species migrate between fresh and salt water, breeding in the brackish mouth of the river and then travelling upstream as part of their life cycle. Dam construction threatens to interrupt this life cycle.
At least four dams already exist or are in the advanced stages of planning and construction for the Changuinola River and the Bonyic River that originate in the reserve. The 222-megawatt Chan 75 Dam was completed in 2011 in the La Amistad UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Buffer Zone in Panama. The Bonyic dam is nearing completion and is already causing damage in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The Chan 140 and Chan 220 dams are still in the planning stages. Costa Rica has proposed more than five dams on watersheds in both the Atlantic and Pacific slopes.
75’ 233 megawatt dam on the river Changuinola will cause the loss of migratory fish and shrimp species from 66 percent of the Panamanian portion La Amistad. Up to 16 species of migratory fish and crustaceans could be lost. “This major ecological change is going to have some major impacts,” says Osvaldo Jordan, director of the Panamanian environmental organization, Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD). He says he is “extremely concerned about the removal of migratory fish from the food chain in the upper parts of La Amistad because of the high level of endemism in La Amistad for amphibians, reptiles, and even some birds and mammals.”
Concerned by the numerous dam proposals, ANAI and ACD, along with the US-based Center for Biological Diversity, alerted UNESCO to the situation. In February 2008, UNESCO sent its first monitoring mission to the area and subsequently requested that both Costa Rica and Panama conduct a detailed trans-boundary environmental assessment to study the impact of dam development upon the entire reserve and consider the use of alternative energy resources.
In 2010, UNESCO requested that Panama halt construction of Bonyic and Chan 75 until the transboundary Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) was completed. Panama ignored the request and construction of both dams continued. The power of international agencies is limited, Hofestede explains. “UNESCO cannot do a lot because the management of the park is the responsibility of [Costa Rica and Panama],” he says. “UNESCO cannot impose a fine, it cannot impose a management plan.”
But UNESCO can monitor and oversee a country’s management plan and it can include a property on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger if it believes there are significant threats to a property’s “Outstanding Universal Values.” UNESCO sent a second fact-finding mission to La Amistad last month. The agency will decide in June whether to include La Amistad on the danger list.
International prestige, promotion of eco-tourism, and some economic benefits are all reasons why countries choose to nominate natural sites for inclusion on the World Heritage Site list. Conversely, including La Amistad on the danger list would give Panama and Costa Rica a public relations black eye and could shame them into reversing course on future dam building.
But hydroelectric development is big business. Panama is especially eager to exploit its rivers and often does so at the expense of the environment and Indigenous rights. The livelihoods of Indigenous people living in the vicinity of the dams are being compromised by the loss of fish. In the case of Chan 75, about a thousand Ngäbe people were displaced by the reservoir.
Nearby, the Bonyic dam is posing a challenge to the survival of the Naso. “We did not know that the river was like a highway for biological life,” says Marcio Bonilla, a Naso man trained by ANAI as a parataxonomist to assist in monitoring fish species. Bonilla says the dam has caused social divisions among the Naso, destroyed archeological sites, and impacted tribal members’ ability to fish.
ANAI, which works in collaboration with Indigenous communities, has been instrumental in stressing the importance of river integrity. Although the transboundary Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) has yet to be completed, an interim progress report has recommended that no more dams be built within the watersheds. MacLarney says that, “if implemented, this would go a long way in satisfying our conservation efforts”
An earlier version of this report misstated that the Chan 75 dam could lead to the the loss of 15 species of migratory fish and crustaceans. The actual number is 16. It also misspelled the name of Marcio Bonilla.