Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Little Fish and Dam

What did the little fish say when he banged his head against the wall? “Dam!”

For the past four years I have been that little fish.

At the urging of Panama’s tourism authority (ATP) and the former provincial director of Panama’s environmental authority (ANAM) my business partner and I built The Lost and Found, a hike in only eco lodge ten kilometers from a massive hydroelectric dam built by Hydro Quebec. Some call the dam Panama’s second architectural wonder. A feature in a Panamanian paper described the dam as having enormous turbines housed in soccer field sized chambers deep underground. Tunnels large enough to park a chain of jetliners burrow through mountains to new water sources. Or so they say. The papers were not permitted to photograph for security reasons.

This same paper says you can arrange tours so I have made repeated trips to their offices in the nearest city, David. But the maple leaf flags from my home country on the executives SUV’s were not as welcoming as the executives themselves. There were never any tours available when I asked. But this was not the rejection that nearly bankrupted me.

My builder, responsible for obtaining all our permits, assured me that he had everything he needed to build. Then our builder quit with the project unfinished, the provincial director of ANAM that urged us to build was fired, our environmental impact assessment was rejected, ANAM fined us and we were told our project was shut.

“Damn Dam”

It turned out the director of the Fortuna dam wrote a letter of objection to what is essentially the minister of the environment, the director of ANAM. We visited her -- she smiled politely, told us she loved the eco-friendliness of the project but that we first needed to convince the Canadian director of the dam.

“Bullshit” said the then director of Panama’s tourism authority, Ruben Blades. The government of Panama is the only authority that accepts or rejects environmental impact statements he told us. He was willing to go to bat for us but (in his words) we had better not be dicking him around. So before we asked for his help we decided to do another, much more thorough ($$$), environmental impact assessment.

For the new study I decided to visit the same environmental engineer that the dam used for their projects. I told him that I thought maybe the dam was worried about the impact we might have on the environment. My plan was to hire him to first make recommendations to limit our impact and then to do our study that we would submit both to ANAM and the dam. He thought it was a great idea but first he wanted to meet with the director of the dam (a friend of his) then he would take our project. A week later the meeting in his office was much more formal. He would not take our project. He said the director of the dam was furious with us but would not say why. He advised us to give up.

We chose another environmental engineer from a list of recommended engineers on the ANAM website. We decided if our second study was rejected we would take Ruben Blades offer of help.

Before Ruben Blades was the minister of the environment he was a famous salsa singer and actor. After his offer for help I began to check out his movies and noticed a trend… early exits. Whereas Arnie lasts the entire first Predator movie, Ruben dies fast in Predator 2. Like his films, by the time we would need a favor from Ruben he had already exited politics. (Arnie is still the Gubenator)

Our second environmental study sat collecting dust through national elections in which Dr. Blades government was replaced. Then our second study was rejected again supposedly because our environmental engineer had not turned in requested adjustments to our study within the fifteen days allowed. Apparently they can take over a year and half to make decisions but when they ask for amendments and adjustments we have to comply within 15 days. But, it turns out, our adjustments were turned in on time and we had proof. How did they loose our paper work? Why was our study sitting there without decisions being made?

We pulled that rejection out of the fire.

“Damn Damn Dam!”

I began to feel like the little fish constantly banging my head against a brick dam.

The dam company is powerful. It generates something between thirty and forty percent of Panama’s electricity. Forty Eight percent of the dam is actually owned by the Panamanian government. They make multiple millions of dollars a year. This did not encourage me.

The Lost and Found sits on an old coffee and citrus farm – an island of titled land inside the Fortuna Forest Reserve. “Titled” is the key word. The process of titling land is remarkably efficient and transparent for a Central American country. A legal surveyor maps the land, neighbors sign off and it is all logged and publicized on the internet along with land values before and after the sale. Our land was titled in the sixties before the creation of the Fortuna Forest Reserve. The vast majority of others in the reserve do not have the same rights as we do.

I wrote an email to the director of the dam asking him if he would like to work together toward the mutual goals of protecting the environment and educating the community. He wrote back saying that everyone in the reserve were considered tolerated squatters with little rights. He asked us to leave. He clearly ignored the fact that we held titled land. The only reason he gave for his objection – he did not want to set a precedent of development. But with one of the rare pieces of titled land in the reserve, this is not logical.

Makes me wonder that when Hydro Quebec proposed the building of the dam if the displaced people knew they would be one day considered “tolerated squatters”. Locals tell me that the dam company itself wrote the law that created the reserve.

The friends I have made in the local community are frustrated by a dam they see as taking a lot and giving little. Before the dam was created every business owner received a brown, wooden sign with yellow print from the dam’s PR team. This is the same color, font and style as signs in national parks so it was not surprising that locals were excited that they now lived in a park. And the businesses that received these new signs did well. Initially they were full with the workers that built the dam. Then they were empty. And now the donated signs are rotting on the side of the road in front of closed restaurants.

It seems to be a pattern outlined in a tell-all by John Perkins titled “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. The book tells story after story of multinationals that exaggerate economic benefits and bribe governments to build a project with most of the expertise foreign and the capitol flowing out of the developing nation.

Two things changed the currents for us: the new president of the republic and the local community.

President Ricardo Martinelli was elected with around sixty percent of the popular vote. He was serious about closing down projects negligent with their taxes. At a project site where tax dodgers were dropping boulders into the Bay of Panama to make more land for a marina he erected a big fence and put up a sign, “Property of the Government of Panama”. Panama needed the money, he announced at a press conference, for better schools and improved health care. His popularity now hovers around the nineties.

He also got serious with the hydro dams. The contracts signed by previous administrations, he said, were biased towards the dams and whose profits were being paid for by Panamanians paying too much for electricity. He couldn’t revisit the contracts but he could tax the dams before they sold power to the grid, either by water usage or per kilowatt of power they generated. Now Panamanians power bills are lower. At least we know the current president and ANAM is not in the pocket of the dams.

I don’t know if the dams were involved in bribery. I cannot pretend to understand the inner workings of the higher echelons of the Panamanian government. But I have seen how locals have responded to the Fortuna dam. Shortly after the election of Ricardo Martinelli I was invited by a local coffee farmer to what I understood from my limited Spanish to be a coffee judging competition in a local village. When I arrived I was surprised to see hundreds of people. I was there at the invitation of the organic coffee farmer who wanted to show the villagers that even if the big Panamanian coffee producers don’t pay more for organic coffee, tourists will. The event slowly turned into a show of support for a town that despite being in the reserve and not far from electricity lines taking power to Costa Rica, they were still without electricity. Seemed I was not the only fish in the reservoir.

When our first environmental impact assessment was rejected after objection from the Fortuna dam I moved to the city to work on our budget overruns. My business partner opened low key mostly for events with the Peace Corps – anything just to feed himself while we waited for approval of our second study. He was at the one roadside restaurant in town and shared organic fruit wine made by the organic farmer, Don Cune. Cune is a character, part drinking buddy and wise grandfather, part crazy inventor. Everyone really does call him crazy and his farm is commonly referred to as Finca de los Locos. He is crazy, first for not using pesticides when he hasn’t yet found a market for his (amazing) organic coffee and second, for all the strange inventions to trap insects around his farm.

A school of fish swimming against the stream banging heads against the dam

Don Cune has become the perfect example of the perfect strategic alliance. Cune does not have title to his farm like The Lost and Found does. He has no sons. His grandson he hopes will continue farming. If he does not, according to laws of land possession for squatters, whoever uses the land owns it. But Cune is also worried his grandson will not continue the legacy of organic farming. The tours Cune runs with The Lost and Found are what make his farm viable. He hopes his granddaughter will continue the tours and his progeny work together long after he passes. His granddaughter has not missed a single English lesson run by our volunteers.

Pronat, a government organization facilitating the titling of land sent representatives to the provinces to encourage locals to consider titling. But when they came to the Fortuna Forest Reserve the agenda was different. It seemed the entire community turned up to learn how they could get titled like The Lost and Found. The community was disappointed to learn they would never get title. In an emotional moment for me, Don Cune stood up and asked that The Lost and Found not be harassed. With our title we were the ones the community looked to to bring tourism.

At present we have three full time workers. I like to note that this is three times as many full time local positions as the dam provides. This is easy for us to say when they have hired only one local person full time. We teach English to our employees that earn more from tours and as we grow, we hire more. I sometimes give rides to locals and just the other day a stranger told me how he makes extra money when Cune uses his horses for our horseback riding tours. Maybe we can get the ball rolling. Cune can make his farm profitable through tourism and more farmers will go organic.

Maybe some of the empty coffee shops will fill again with tourists like they did once with dam workers. Success is the ultimate revenge it is said. If it is the little fish from Canada instead the dam that brings tourism it will be the ultimate way to flip the bird to the multinationals that once asked us to leave.

It may be frustrating to be a little fish banging against a hard wall. But as a foreigner, invited into a school of fish, that learn to swim, jump and eventually cross the wall is a great feeling. The greatest rewards come with the greatest challenges.

On Thursday May 8th, 2010, I went to the offices of ANAM in David and signed the resolution accepting our second environmental impact assessment.