Promoting Sustainable Development in Panama


20 minutes

Despite my lifelong access to electronic communications, news media, and other avenues of cosmopolitan knowledge, I still failed to appreciate how tangibly intertwined my life was with those of others around the world. I read of famines in Zimbabwe, suppressed protests in Brazil, and water crises in Uganda. I wanted to help. But whenever I learned of unfortunate circumstances in faraway places, that is precisely how I viewed them: unfortunate and faraway. I saw myself as having little to do with them, and I figured they had even less to do with me.

Likewise, my academic background taught me about globalization’s economic, cultural, and even political elements, but they seemed to impact me only peripherally: in the forms of my family’s Toyota, my sixth-grade Tamagotchi, transnational internet chat rooms and videos on YouTube, the international students in my dorm, and the global campaigns to cure AIDS and curtail climate change. These things were present and even important in my privileged life, but integral? Not necessarily. I recognized that humanity occupied a single earth, yet lived as though the planet were divided into worlds that were interactive but not intermeshed.

I recognized that humanity occupied a single earth, yet lived as though the planet were divided into worlds that were interactive but not intermeshed.

However, by funding my summer volunteer work with a Panamanian non-profit environmental organization, the InterExchange Foundation helped me reexamine my role as a global citizen whose daily life both affects and is affected by the daily lives of countless other individuals, communities and countries throughout the world. Furthermore, the opportunity provided by the grant enabled me to better appreciate globalization as a concrete process that not only facilitates communication across continents, but intimately links the livelihoods of diverse and geographically distant peoples who themselves may be only marginally aware of one another’s existence or of the interdependent bonds that so profoundly fuse their fates.

The Christianson Grant financed my summer internship at the Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD), a Panamanian non-governmental organization based in Panama City devoted to promoting sustainable development. The group’s mission has two parts: preventing ecologically and socially destructive undertakings, and advancing environmentally and culturally responsible alternatives. I had arranged to work with ACD’s environmental attorney on a case for submission to the Latin American Tribunal on Water, contesting the construction of four hydroelectric dams in Bocas del Toro, a province in western Panama. Our claims would focus on human rights violations and the anticipated social and environmental damages that would result from the completion of the projects.

The dams in question are situated in ecologically invaluable territory. All four are planned for the Bosque Protector Palo Seco protected area, itself a buffer zone on the outskirts of La Amistad International Park, a binational World Heritage Site managed jointly by the Costa Rican and Panamanian governments. The area constitutes part of Central America’s largest tract of contiguous forest, and hosts at least 600 species of birds, 215 species of mammals, 115 species of fish, and 263 species of amphibians and reptiles, of which at least 41 are endangered species and in total comprise roughly 4% of the world’s known biodiversity. Three of the dams are located along a single river and managed by a subsidiary of the U.S.-based AES Corporation, while the fourth is positioned on a different river than (though within the same river basin as) the others and is owned by a subsidiary of the City of Medellin, Columbia. Only one of the dams has entered the construction phase.

Moreover, the affected area is home to more than just wild game; the Ngöbe Buglé, Panama’s largest indigenous population, occupies much of the land slated for three of the dams’ reservoirs, while the Naso Teribe, the last known monarchy of the Americas, stands to lose much of its territorial integrity to encroachment by the fourth dam and its associated environmental impacts. In fact, the dam company and the Panamanian government’s promotion of the projects has already generated such explosive controversy that the Naso king was dethroned for authorizing the construction against the will of his people. In all, the four projects will displace approximately 5,000 indigenous residents, flood untold quantities of fertile alluvial soils upon which the local populations’ subsistence agriculture depends, block the migration of the diadromous fish and crustaceans that serve as a crucial source of protein, and irreparably alter the ecosystems that support the region’s human and non-human inhabitants.

But the environmental and social problems that the dams would create in such a biologically and culturally rich protected area are not the only reasons the indigenous residents and supportive NGOs like ACD oppose the dams so adamantly. The companies responsible for developing the projects, and AES in particular, have failed to adhere to international conventions for dam building as well as national laws regarding the treatment of indigenous populations, and have already infringed on the human rights of the dam-affected residents. For instance, dam company employees have defoliated local residents’ subsistence farms within the planned flood zone without obtaining free, prior, and informed consent from the inhabitants, while the Panamanian police force physically beat and jailed over 50 men, women and children who had gathered peacefully to protest AES’ mistreatment of their communities and the government’s refusal to defend them.

I had learned of Panama’s hydroelectric projects and the corresponding social and environmental issues one year before during my junior semester on a Panamanian study abroad program. However, the program’s financial and temporal constraints prevented me from devoting as much time to researching the dams as I would have preferred, and so I used what little time I had to collect as much data (mostly personal observations, photographs, and interviews) as I could. I had neither the time to carry on particularly protracted conversations with residents, nor a sufficiently comprehensive conception of the dam situation to fully appreciate the responses I received or to ask more than only superficially probing questions. Upon returning to the United States I reviewed the relevant literature and familiarized myself with similar issues elsewhere so that I could position the controversy in Bocas del Toro within an international context of dam-building, development and displacement.

Over the next eight months, my senior thesis efforts synthesized my own fieldwork with others’ publications in the field. Upon finishing, I recognized that I owed it to myself and to my allies in the affected communities to return to the dam-affected area, present what lessons my research had elicited, and engage my no longer merely precursory knowledge of the projects to the extent that it could assist those who had granted me the opportunity to study in the first place.

I contacted ACD, an organization I had encountered through my thesis work due to its vocal advocacy on behalf of the dam-affected communities, and arranged to work with Susana Serracín, the group’s environmental attorney. The deal was mutually beneficial: ACD would receive my free (albeit woefully unqualified) labor while I would enjoy the priceless legal experience gained from on-the-ground casework for a cause I not only believed in, but had spent the previous year absorbing, analyzing, and advancing from the archival confines of my college library. My specific responsibilities were as of then still ambiguous, but Susana assured me I would receive more than my fair share of educational and practical experience.

And so I arrived in Panama City, armed with the knowledge I had acquired through my senior thesis research and fueled by the passionate empathy I felt for the affected communities, yet still unprepared for the intellectual and emotional challenges I would face as I entered the unfamiliar legal and cultural realms of Panama. When I first knocked on the office door, it turned out that Susana was at an out of town conference and so the executive director let me in and handed me my first few assignments. They were mainly translational tasks: compressing my 167-page thesis into a more palatable executive summary in Spanish, rewriting a funding proposal for a Naso cultural center submitted to an Anglophone NGO so that the Naso themselves could comprehend the document, and re-organizing primary documents in ACD’s archives. While not necessarily the most glamorous duties, they oiled my rusty language skills, re-acquainted me with the relevant issues and evidence, and introduced me to the hyperactive, underfunded and always uncertain juggling-act that characterizes the daily existence of a non-profit NGO.

When Susana returned during the following week, she explained what exactly it was that she wanted me to do. “You’re going to be in charge of preparing the file for our case against the four dams in the Latin-American Water Tribunal,” she informed me in Spanish. Not sure whether to be stunned with the overwhelming responsibility I had been given or to ask her to repeat herself in case I had misheard, I just nodded hesitantly and mirrored her smile. She then handed me a 10-page guide to the 21 mandatory components of a Tribunal case file, which included topics such as the dams’ historical context, economic context, anticipated ecological impacts, social consequences, and proposed mitigation measures. She explained that after I addressed the points, she would draft the accompanying lawsuit based on the information and documentation I presented in my portion.

As I thumbed through the booklet, I questioned what exactly I had gotten myself into. Having little in the way of a legal background and even less with regard to lawsuit experience, I found myself in the unprecedented position of having a lawyer rely entirely upon my work to develop her case. Consequentially, I recognized that depending on my prowess in assembling facts in a convincing fashion, 5,000 indigenous residents and the intricate ecological fabric that underlay their lifestyles could suffer irrevocable damage.

Of course, the Tribunal’s decision was not the only determinant of the dams’ future: its authority was respected but not absolute, and even the most positive reception by the Tribunal would only provide another piece of moral ammunition for the campaign to persuade the Panamanian government to address the projects’ social and environmental problems, if not halt construction altogether. But still, the thought of even a moderate victory depending upon my inexperienced and unrefined abilities concerned me.

And while such an undertaking would have been sufficiently challenging back home in the United States, where information is centralized on the internet and in libraries, which can deliver hard copies of any texts not already shelved almost immediately, I enjoyed no such informational expediency in Panama. My research would involve leafing through countless yellowing newspaper clippings in ACD’s archives, scanning volume after volume of conservation manuals and Environmental Impact Assessments, repeatedly reviewing file folders for documents that I was assured “must there somewhere,” and then locating what citations I could on the Internet. Needless to say, the fact that all my work was in Spanish did not expedite the process.

But archival evidence can only take a case so far. After a few weeks of powdering my nose with dusty documents, the moment came for me to visit the dam-affected areas to investigate the perceptions of local residents, to take their testimonies, and to record my own first-hand impressions of the facts on the ground. I rode a 12-hour overnight bus to Bocas del Toro where I hopped another bus and then hired a taxi to drive me an hour and a half into the mountains, as far as the last rocky road reached. I planned to meet a guide in a remote rural village, known as Valle de Riscó, who would lead me to el otro lado, or the other side of the mountains where his farm lay among the four villages to be inundated by the first dam. I packed little more than my tape recorder, notebook, camera, and hammock, as I prepared for the perilous four-hour hike up a 1,000-meter mountain and then down its slippery clay bank to the riverside communities.

The taxi deposited me where the road ended, and I made my way to my friend Fernando’s home: a wooden frame on stilts supporting a roof thatched with penca, or a waterproof palm leaf. Underneath the house dwelled the family’s fauna, including pigs, roosters, ducks, and dogs. Fernando’s wife recognized me from my last visit - nearly a year before - and immediately welcomed me in. She informed me that Fernando had already left for his daily farmwork, but he would be back that evening and would be happy to accompany me to the dam-affected communities. It was only 8:00am, and without the academic chores and rushed agenda that characterized my previous voyage, I hoisted my hammock and settled in to enjoy the family’s hospitality.

My day in Fernando’s home illuminated an aspect of Ngöbe life that I had never witnessed beforehand, as I had never before had time to relax and absorb the calm of a domestic atmosphere. His wife cooked breakfast and readily shared with me a serving of a boiled vegetable that appeared to be some sort of relative of the coconut. As men marched by the abode’s carved-out window with machetes slung over their shoulders, presumably towards their farms outside of the village, several woman and their daughters began to congregate within our house. They chatted and joked together, frequently looking at me and then bursting into giggles. Other than one story I deciphered about a woman whose husband left her for a younger woman after he received cash payment from the dam company in exchange for the right to flood his farm, most of the conversation was in Ngöbére, the population’s native language.

While I could not interpret the vast majority of their words, I synthesized their facial expressions, gestures, and vocal tones, with the occasional Spanish phrase I was able to pick out in order to gain at least a general understanding of their conversation. Moreover, I became especially attuned to their behavior and interactions, eager to perceive whatever cultural nuances I could to avoid embarrassing myself by committing unknowingly any sort of faux pas. For instance, I quickly noticed that upon entering a home, the norm is to wait several minutes before addressing the owner of the household. This clashed with my relatively extroverted upbringing in which an immediate handshake and smile were considered essential keys to entering any living space.

At home in the United States, it was never necessary to pay such close attention to communication or other social details, and the practice I would receive during my time with the Ngöbe - and even back at the office in Panama City - would dramatically improve my sensitivity to those around me, while also boosting my confidence and comfort in my ability to navigate and acclimate to unfamiliar situations. Even today as I interview for jobs and admission to law school, the experience aids me. No matter how prestigious the law firm or intimidating the admissions officers, whenever I enter a room to interview I find solace in the knowledge that not only will the interviewer be addressing me in English, but also that I can abide by the cultural norms I have been brought up with without fear of offending anyone or shaming myself. Thus, even the most minute aspects of my experience volunteering abroad, in this case sitting in households, equipped me with a set of tangible skills that continue to benefit me.

I also had time to participate in familial activities that did not pertain to the dams, but which added to the experience of cultural emersion. Because I was not unceasingly devoted to interviewing and note-taking as I was during the past year, I was able to help sweep the floor, assist the children with their math homework, and even accompany Fernando’s wife on a casual stroll through the village to visit the school. After returning to the homestead, she explained to me the significance of our walk. In Ngöbe culture, it is typically considered taboo for a woman to appear in public alongside a man outside of her family. However, she revealed to me, in bringing me along she signaled to her neighbors that I was indeed a welcome part of their family, effectively ushering me across the normally formidable boundary between foreigner and friend. Without the hurried itinerary and accelerated assimilation that characterized my last trip to the area, I was granted a degree of trust and acceptance significantly more profound than that which I had achieved before.

Fernando returned, and the next morning we set off for the affected area. As we walked together along the winding footpath, a monsoon hit, making the ascension exponentially more difficult as all semblance of traction disappeared into milky streams of wet clay. I tried to look on the bright side, and noted that the frictionless turf made my descent much more rapid, albeit significantly more painful, as I literally glided downwards in a seated position, stopping periodically as my backpack and belt snagged protruding roots. I became increasingly coated in mud.

Eventually, we reached the bottom: Fernando was damp but dignified, while I could have passed for the Swamp Thing. I was relieved to have arrived at the village, known as Valle del Rey, but as I surveyed the lush panorama, something was off. To begin with, there were fewer houses than there had been before. The resettlement process had begun, and already homes had been leveled and trees uprooted. Rust-colored sod sat where bellowing trees and stout shacks had stood before. There was also a paved road where before only a footpath had existed—apparently the addition was so that construction trucks could reach the dam site.

I asked the residents about the project’s rapid pace and whether community members still refused to negotiate with the company, as had been the case in the past. They told me that while the vast majority of the population opposed the dam, AES employees threatened that construction would occur with or without their consent, and that if they wished to receive any sort of compensation they would have to accept an agreement approved by the company. Furthermore, the residents complained that ACD and the previously supportive NGOs had forsaken them. They knew a lawsuit was in the works, but because they could not observe the abstract and lengthy legal process develop, they felt abandoned. “ACD is not here supporting us every day, it is not part of our daily reality,” they would remark. “But AES [the dam-building company] is.” Thus, residents were signing away their land, but only because they believed they had no other option.

I boarded with the family of one of the community’s elder leaders. I spent the days lounging in my hammock and listening to him and his wife tell tales about the dam process, their own lives, and the community’s history. One day, his wife approached me with a request: because of the likelihood that their village would be underwater within the next five years, she asked if I would record the oral histories of its founding members and produce a document that would preserve the community’s past. The upcoming deadline of the Tribunal suit prevented me from committing to write the document myself, but I was eager to hear their stories and to contribute what I could, and so I agreed to conduct several recorded interviews with key community figures. While I passed the tapes on to another student who would transcribe and expound on them, the privilege of listening to some of the community’s oldest and most active members reflect on their lives and on the history of Valle del Rey was one that exposed true pride in achievement. They spoke of the year they splintered off of a neighboring village to establish Valle del Rey, their construction of a local school, and the effort they had invested to make the land their home.

As I lived in Valle del Rey, everyday tasks turned my thoughts to the subtle implications that permeated them. I bathed in the brisk river, and wondered to what extent energy used to heat and cool homes and bathwater in my native country created a demand for hydropower projects like the ones here. Was my house’s air conditioning partially responsible for the abysmal condition of the displaced Ngöbe? With a series of regional initiatives that resulted in a unified electric market between the U.S., Panama, and everywhere in between, the possibility was more than likely. I sucked on sweet sugarcane nectar, and recalled the depressing accounts of the residents already resettled, whose replacement farms fell far from fulfilling their expectations: one family lacked access to clean water, and photographs showed the entire family, the newborn baby included, to be ill with nasty skin infections due to their use of contaminated water for domestic chores. Another family received a less fertile agricultural plot six hours away from their new home. Commuting there and back would require twelve hours of tiring travel and leave the father with twelve hours less to spend with the family. How could any of the resettled residents expect their future sugarcane to grow as lusciously as the one I was now feasting upon with their less fertile soil, more distant farms, and lower quality of life?

Soon thereafter I returned to ACD’s office in Panama City, and set about integrating into the case residents’ testimonies of abuse by the government and the police, their accounts of degraded resettlement sites, and the snapshots I had taken of the first dam’s most recent developments. For the next month, Susana and I worked relentlessly, balancing statistical figures and scientific findings on the dams’ predicted damage with sobering personal accounts of intimidation and mistreatment. In all, the report to the tribunal contained over 150 pages in addition to a 30-page appendix of photographic evidence.

As we sealed the envelope to be submitted to the Tribunal, I sighed, but not with relief. Yes, the deadline had come much too quickly, but that did not explain my uneasiness; writing a thesis taught me to acknowledge that many long-term projects would be finished without ever being “completed.” The pang of doubt came from another regret about something that had not yet happened, but now that my summer tenure was officially concluded, could and very probably would. I was afraid I would fade from a good ally to a good memory. One of the take-home lessons from my stay in Valle del Rey was the value of constant communication and engagement with those on the ground. Residents were losing hope in their ability to defend their homes because they felt neglected by the NGOs that had promised their support. While ACD had in no way forgotten them and was actually campaigning actively on their behalf, I feared that in the States I would slip back into an easy numbness. I did not want to be just another temporary advocate who struggled on the residents’ behalf when it was convenient for me, only to distance myself from those who opened their homes and hearts to me when my official internship ended. I had pledged to confront an issue alongside them, and the threat to their livelihoods would not end with my internship or with the filing of the Tribunal case.

As I write from my home in Chicago, I am still frightened, but no longer by my capacity to maintain a presence or support my friends in the dam-affected communities. While globalization has fused the connection between the demands made by my air conditioner and the electric potential of Fernando’s river, it has also brought along the tools necessary to combat its more malicious symptoms. Before leaving Panama, I deposited the cell phone I had purchased during my internship at the ACD office with instructions to deliver it to Fernando at the next opportunity. Thus, I can now contact Fernando directly to offer words of encouragement and to listen to whatever he might have to say. As an increasingly aware global citizen, I am better able to consider the international implications of even my most minute actions. Every time I reach to lower my house’s the thermostat on a toasty summer day, I hesitate, and even if I do decide that the insufferable Chicago August leaves me no choice but to turn up the air conditioning, my mind inevitably travels back to Panama, and I am wrestled away from even the smallest hint of apathy. If nothing else, the reminiscent moment reminds me to call Fernando.

The fear I feel is not that I will lapse into willful ignorance - I’ve realized that the personal bonds I formed with friends in the affected communities will undercut any chance of that - but I worry that despite all the high-tech communication, despite the almost infinite information available to those who seek it, that willful ignorance and comfortable apathy will paralyze those privileged enough to ignore these issues, and that they will refuse to acknowledge the ineluctable link between their communities and the communities across the globe, between the consumers and the suppliers, between the air conditioners and the rivers. That link is bidirectional, and both sides have a part to play in working together to advance towards a sustainable and humane future. Acknowledging that link is not enough. Most anyone you ask will admit they participate in a mass consumerist unsustainable lifestyle. While logically they recognize the cruel implications of doing nothing to mitigate their lifestyles’ impacts, it is only when it one’s friend is at risk of displacement, when one bathes in a river to be dammed, when those “marginalized communities” have thrown open their doors and welcomed one into their struggle, that the affinity is enough to inspire long-term and significant action. Nothing motivates action like a personal connection.

Not that is it necessary to travel to a foreign country to witness oppression, environmental racism, a multiplicity of cultures, or the ugly underside of socio-economic inequality; nearly any inner-city neighborhood or post-industrial community will reveal all of the above. Likewise, as globalization makes borders increasingly porous, geography becomes less of a barrier to cultural exchange. Still, sometimes seeing both ends of such an extensive intercontinental connection can make all the difference between apathy and action. InterExchange funded a trip that enabled me to understand my lifestyle as a direct part of a problem, and so now as I endeavor to support those seeking the solution, it’s personal.

Jeff S. Jeff S.

Jeff volunteered in Bocas del Toro, Panama with the help of a Christianson Grant, from the InterExchange Foundation.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
Exclusive partner of the Erasmus Student Network for J-1 Visa sponsorship of internships in the U.S.
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Generation Study Abroad
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation