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Pro Mar, tourism students consider Rio Teta dam's implications

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A ragtag grass roots campaign? Maybe not so haphazard as it may seem…

Moving a few people at a time against a dam project

by Eric Jackson

Panama’s political class and powerful families have this problem. There are too many bright and energetic people out there whom they don’t and can’t control. Some of them exist on the fringes of the political class, some of them are from the families, but mostly the problem is a relatively well educated young middle class for whom there isn’t particularly a place in the plans of the richer, more powerful and generally not as bright people who are used to running this country.

We saw it when Mireya tried to push a road through the Volcan Baru National Park, when one of Martín’s developer friends tried to build a subdivision over the Camino de Cruces, in the argument over the proposed beach and island concession law. Increasingly, we are seeing it with respect to the Rio Teta dam project, as we did on the evening of November 17 in the common area of an apartment building in La Cresta.

There, a handful of people from the environmentalist Fundacion Pro Mar and a couple of dozen tourism students from the University of Panama heard presentations by a family act: Panama Canal pilot and lifelong surfing enthusiast Douglas Allen, his wife Grettel Villalaz (an attorney, a former vice-minister of public works in the Moscoso administration and daughter of a former Supreme Court magistrate) and her brother Janzel Villalaz, a professor of marine biology.

Allen, who has a cottage on the lower Rio Teta and has surfed at the point at the river’s mouth since he was a kid, learned of the dam project in a casual conversation, and went to take a look. He didn’t like what he saw, because it held the prospect of a disruption of the natural flow of sand that creates the point at the river’s mouth --- “Tits Point” --- which in turn creates the wave conditions amenable to surfing.

Grettel Villalaz went to the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) to see the environmental documents, and learned that the dam’s developers had done an end-run around environmental regulations, by labelling themselves as a hydroelectric generation project of less than 1.5 megawatts, enough to light a few homes. She had to file a habeas data suit to get such information as ANAM was willing to part with.

Various people with different educations and experiences were alerted to the situation. One was this reporter, who counts in his background a number of years on a municipal building code appeals board in a Rust Belt city and who presumed from an inspection that the shoddy construction meant that power generation wasn’t seriously what this dam project was all about. One was San Carlos resident, non-traditional law student and activist Roy Navarro, who figured that whatever the purpose, the town’s water supply was being raided and set out to mobilize local opinion and touch political buttons among the San Carlos representates. Internationally, Save the Wave, an environmentalist publication that defends surfing beaches from developments that would destroy them, took up the cause. And Allen’s brother-in-law Janzel Villalaz went down for a look at the river and its biological characteristics.

“It has been an education,” Allen told the assembled students and environmentalists. Under the Pérez Balladares administration’s Law 47 on miniature hydroelectric projects, “any river in the country could be affected.” The more he looked, the more it seemed that an awful lot of them already are.

Grettel Villalaz told of her search for information from ANAM, and the discouraging word she received that the dam was 80 percent done and the proffered opinion that environmental agency had no jurisdiction anyway. “However,“ she pointed out, “the reality is that the project has several phases.” She said that the principal aim seems to her to be the construction of a big lake, and that regardless of Law 47 ANAM does have jurisdiction over projects that involve deforestation on the scale of the Rio Teta dam or when the distance between a generating station and the national power grid connection is more than seven kilometres, which she believes it would be. Representations were made, papers were filed, people who worry that abuse of the “mini-hydroelectric” label could become the preferred route to circumvent environmental regulations --- one of then Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro --- voiced their concerns and ANAM sent out some inspectors. Some small fuel spills and other problems were cited and a temporary order to stop construction was issued. “Really,” Villalaz opined, “the dam construction hasn’t been suspended, but in this season it’s hard to do that sort of work.”

Janzel Villalaz noted that the rivers between Chame and Aguadulce begin in ancient volcanoes and carry in them volcanic sands as well as fresh water upon which many communities depend. But he did his initial evaluations closer to the Rio Teta’s Pacific mouth than its volcanic source, noting that “when you change a river, you change the sea.”

Despite the Rio Teta’s relatively small size, Janzel Villalaz said he found white shrimp eggs along the lower part of the river. White shrimp, as in sea shrimp rather than river shrimp. As in what stands to be affected is an estuary upon which the local artesanal fishing and shrimping industry that feeds a lot of families who fish from their cayucos ultimately depends.

He also worries about changes in the groundwater table when the dam keeps the river from flowing as it has since long before anyone can remember. The reduced freshwater flow can lead to the infiltration of seawater into wells, as has happened in part of Gorgona and Las Tablas. Switching salty water for the fresh stuff can turn a coastal forest into a desert where nothing will grow, like the Sarigua in Los Santos, he warned.

But those are the basic, initial considerations. As the presentations began to take on more of an interactive character between the audience and the presenters, one man said that he has some experience in the electricity generation industry and noted that the sheer size of the Rio Teta dam and the claim that it will generate not more than 1.5 megawatts add up to a power project that makes no intrinsic economic sense.

And as Grettel Villalaz dug deeper, she found that the dam’s promoters had used a 1986 study of another river, the Rio Anton, to get the figures they used for their official estimates of the water flow in the Rio Teta. Then there were phases two and three of the project, one of which would divert the Rio Mata Ahogado from which the town of San Carlos takes its water supply, and which make vague references to purposes of tourist development rather than just power generation. Then there are the discrepancies between the specifications in the plans on file and realities of that part of the Rio Teta dam that has already been built.

Her brother Janzel called for “a real, complete environmental impact study.

One of the students in attendance noted that what is shaping up is a political battle over the resources of a valuable area that are coveted by “powerful people.”

But that didn’t seem to scare anybody very much. The ragtag little group of Rio Teta defenders grew a little that night.



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