The myth of the micro hydroelectric plants. The Panamanian case ...

The myth of the micro hydroelectric plants. The Panamanian case ...

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By Gustavo Castro Soto

The case of Panama is an example of how, under the argument of generating clean energy, they substitute the construction of large dams for options that also have an impact in social, economic, cultural and environmental terms. While nature and people run out of water, companies receive large tax benefits and soft credits.

The last ten years have been marked by mobilizations and protests against large dams. Since 2000, especially in Latin America and with a great boom in Mesoamerica, the movements have formed networks and strong resistance against these mega projects. Many dams have been stopped thanks to resistance and social mobilization from Panama to Mexico.

The resistance managed to question the discourse that large dams equate to development.

Governments, construction companies and multilateral banks then changed their strategy with the impulse of the construction of micro hydroelectric plants under the argument that they have less impact. But even more, that they are clean energy.

With this, they managed to access better financing, justifying the micro hydroelectric plants as Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, and which currently in Central America exceed 50 projects while in Mexico they still do not exceed ten.

The multilateral banks of supposed development such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), were given the task of granting soft resources to companies that, thanks to them, supposedly provides development without generating global warming. As if that were not enough, governments offer tax incentives for generating “clean energy” such as exemption from payment of transmission fees, elimination of equipment import taxes and other tax incentives.

For this, there are certifiers such as the Spanish Association for Standardization and Certification (AENOR) (1) that certifies transnationals and justifies them as Clean Development Mechanisms and that reduce CO2 and, therefore, global warming. (2)

As it has done with the Cañazas Hydroelectric Project in Veraguas, Panama, with a capacity of 5.94MW. (3)

There are several ways to implement a micro hydro. There are those that divert the waters of the river, make it pass through a turbine and then return it to its course downstream; those that divert part of the river and pour it into another river; those that put the turbine in the same river without diverting it; those that are managed, cared for, administered by a community to give energy to the community itself, etc.

Here we refer to those implemented by a company, which divert rivers without making a reservoir and transfer them to other rivers and even with several small hydroelectric plants in a short section of the channel. An environmental disaster that is inserted in the private power generation plans within the framework of the Mesoamerican Plan (formerly Plan Puebla Panama) to provide private investments with electricity.

Micro hydroelectric plants in Panama

Based on the field experience in Panama, during the V Redlar Mesoamerican Meeting in April 2209 (4), we had the opportunity to learn about the implementation of micro hydroelectric projects under the privatized business scheme.

The visit took place in the districts of Boquete, Chiriquí and Gualaca. In the case of the Caldera River, on the Wilson Bridge, the Estrella-Los Valles Hydroelectric, built by Skanska, whose current owner is the North American transnational AES, was built in the 1970s. A small dam would divert part of the river to feed the transfer tunnel to the turbines kilometers below, assuming that in floods the water would overflow the riverbank to leave an ecological flow.

Today the water is so little that it cannot overflow the board so that everything goes through the tunnel for the generation of energy.

The effects on flora and fauna are strong as the entire downstream flow is dry.

On the Chiriquí River, the “Mendres” Hydroelectric Project is under construction in the vicinity of the Caldera town. They have sliced ​​through the hills to build a channel through which they will carry the river water to the turbines while another part of the flow will pass through tunnels. Environmental destruction has generated many deforested areas. The river has been hijacked.

Nearby, the Estí Project in the hands of AES has been operating for four years between the districts of Boquete and Gualaca. The river has been dry and only the stones in the channel can be seen. Ranchers have been forced to bring water for their livestock by means of cisterns. The natural resource has been privatized and companies prevent the population from drinking water from the river.

On the Río Piedra and Río Chico, the Pedregalito Project is also under construction, between the districts of Boquerón and Chiriquí. The riverbed already has little water and the machines work at their best to extract a few more mega watts from the water.

The companies generate a psychological war against the population.

Large advertisements are displayed on the roads with multiple prohibitions and captions such as: "private", "danger", "do not swim", "do not take pictures", "do not stop", "do not drink water", "you are being recorded" , etc.

On the Río Piedra another project, Bocalatún, which diverts the river through a tunnel for several kilometers and then continues through open transfer channels to reach the engine room where there are two 5 MW turbines.

This energy is sold to Unión FENOSA and does not employ more than 5 people. The large machines on the river bed are moving the rocks to channel the water towards the gates that channel the water through the large pipe.

Lastly, the Gualaca Project under construction by Suez Energy. In the same way, machinery, roads, infrastructure and channels are deployed to divert the water to the turbines.

In this region of Panama, immensely rich in water resources and biodiversity, there are at least 80 concessions for the construction of micro hydroelectric plants in private hands and by large transnational companies that sell energy to the regional grid. Deforestation is immense and the impact on rivers and their ecosystems is already irreversible in some cases. The floods are more and more constant.

While these private projects are being generated, many communities do not have water or electricity. Other regions have lost their fishing and mangroves have been seriously affected. Amid so many water resources, the City of David continually suffers from a lack of water availability. Rural life has been severely affected and many communities divided. Animals do not have to drink water and neither do communities.

The population cannot drink water from the privatized and concessioned rivers for 30 or 50 years and the ranchers are forced to bring water for their cattle in tanker trucks since the river is completely dry due to the micro hydroelectric plant that has artificially diverted the river upstream.

Artificial rivers, piped, channeled, polluted, waters from different rivers are mixed in a single reservoir to generate energy and then they are returned to other flows. The alteration of the temperature and quality of the water necessarily affects the flora and fauna of the local ecosystems. Powerhouses, road infrastructure, long canals to transport the water that break the wildlife corridors run through the forests of Panama like veins.

The projects lack environmental impact studies or are accused by organized civil society and environmental groups of being badly done and rigged; no mitigation measures or other environmental responsibilities; with errors, copying other studies from other projects, or inventing supposed surveys of the communities are some of the complaints from local people. There are rivers that have several concessions for micro hydroelectric plants in a not very long stretch.

Carlos Slim's micro hydroelectric plants

Carlos Slim's Bajo La Mina hydroelectric project in the Chiriquí Viejo river basin, near the border between Panama and Costa Rica, is built on the basis of government corruption. This hydroelectric project consists of two generators of 27 MW each and would have a cost of 1,470 million Mexican pesos. The project began construction on July 27, 2007 and is expected to begin operations between 2009 and 2010. The other of Carlos Slim's projects is called Baitun.

The Carso Group, under the local company CILSA, is accused by Panamanian organizations of violation of labor rights, hiding at least 18 serious work accidents and three deaths during the construction of the work. The workers, according to Frenadeso, also point out that they are not being paid properly, that security measures in the tunnels are scarce, that there are no oxygen reserves, or that they do not have water or extinguishers. Similarly, there are complaints that workers do not have a copy of their employment contract and that money is deducted from their salary for insurance that does not work. The correspondents of Frenadeso Noticias have been harassed for trying to obtain information about the labor situation in the Carlos Slim project, and the workers have also been threatened.

With 31 million 780 thousand dollars, Slim won the tender to build the Bajo La Mina plant and the concession for the "generation, transmission and sale of energy through the waters of the Chiriquí Viejo river in Panama" for 50 years, renewable for another 50. However, it also has a lawsuit since October 2008, by the legal representatives of the company La Mina Hydro-Power, owned by Complejo Hidroeléctrico Progreso SA, demanding the nullity of the concession and compensation for the six million dollars that were invested in the studies of the project that years ago was his. Slim is also accused of bribery and plagiarism of the plant's construction plans. As if that were not enough, thirteen environmental organizations have also filed a lawsuit with the Public Prosecutor for Environmental Crimes against CILSA, "for ecological damage to the Bajo La Mina project."

Frenadeso and other environmental organizations in Panama have denounced that Slim's project contaminates the river waters by using uncontrolled chemicals to forge the river diversion tunnel. It also does not have chemical treatment tanks and they are dumped with the sediments to the Paso Canoas water treatment plant, in the Barú district, on the border with Costa Rica. This "is causing serious damage to the water treatment plant, potentially affecting the lives of 45 thousand people, who are those who depend on this water treatment plant." (5) Frenadeso has also denounced the impact on the health of the children in the population.

However, in addition to the indiscriminate felling of trees and kilometers of drilling in the mountains, Carlos Slim is accused of damaging pre-Columbian settlements as important archaeological sites have been destroyed. In addition to affecting the lives of the indigenous communities of the region who cannot drink water from the already privatized river. For this reason, in Panama, the resentment that the population has towards the Mexican magnate can be verified. (6)

More projects….

In Panama, due to the financial crisis, in January 2009, 41 requests for hydroelectric concessions were canceled. However, 15 are under construction and 12 are in final studies, in addition to another 80 concessions that are in various phases. (7) Hidro Caisán, S.A. builds a hydroelectric project on the Chiriquí Viejo river valued at 135 million dollars. For its part, Hidroecológica del Teribe plans to generate 30 kilowatts with another project that aims to finish in 2011 with an investment of 67 million dollars and for which it destroys the environment to build access roads to the Bonyic sector of Bocas del Bull. Hidroeléctrica Alto Lino, S.A, projects its hydroelectric plant with an investment of five million dollars in the Caldera River.

The Spanish transnational Unión FENOSA (Edemet-Edechi) is carrying out an electricity generation project called Algarrobos on the Casita de Piedra river, located in Boquete, arguing that this will reduce carbon pollution by 37,213 tons per year. (8 )
The environmental and climate impact is further exacerbated by the combination of other larger dams. Such is the case of the Changuinola 1 (Chan 75) project of the US transnational AES, which is 35% complete and aims to generate 223 megawatts (MWH). Excavations, machines and the construction of the diversion channel of the Changuinola River already brings serious consequences. On the other hand, with the Chan 75 project that it intends to start with its electricity generation for 2011 they justify it as a project that will avoid the emission of more than 600 thousand tons of carbon dioxide.


Although these types of hydroelectric plants do not flood large amounts of land, forests and biodiversity, they also displace the population due to lack of water and poverty; they end up with the wetlands, the mangroves and the living resources of the local people. It also deforests what in itself releases CO2, breaks with biodiversity corridors, pollutes water, and dries up rivers. Especially when in the same basin there are several micro hydroelectric plants one after another.

The case of Panama is an example of how, under the argument of generating clean energy, they substitute the construction of large dams for options that also have an impact in social, economic, cultural and environmental terms. While nature and people run out of water, companies receive large tax benefits and soft credits.

However, the social struggle has also managed to stop some projects. Such is the case of the mini hydroelectric plant on the Mamoní river located in Chepo, which was to be built by the company Elektra Noreste and would involve an investment of 21 million dollars and would generate 9.9 megawatts at the “El Salto” site.

It is urgent that, given the massive deployment of micro-hydroelectric projects, the social movement continues to mobilize but also to build and find alternatives for the management of energy and natural resources. It is possible and urgent to find other models of decent life, decentralized and with environmental responsibility.

Gustavo Castro Soto placeholder image - Others Worlds, A.C. -
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico; May 13, 2009



2- AENOR defines certification as “the action carried out by an entity recognized as independent from the interested parties, through which the conformity of a company, product, process, service or person with the requirements defined in standards or specifications is manifested techniques. " AENOR is accredited by the National Accreditation Entity (ENAC) for the certification of ISO 9000 quality systems, ISO 14000 environmental management systems, environmental verification and QS 9000 quality systems for the automotive sector. Refering to
Product certification is accredited for the certification of 22 sectors. With AENOR you have the possibility of obtaining a certification based on the principles of independence, impartiality, transparency and objectivity, recognized internationally, which will open the doors to new markets and which will contribute to improving your processes, products and services and, with it , the satisfaction of its customers.


4- Latin American Network Against Dams and in Defense of Rivers, their Communities and Water (Redlar). The V Mesoamerican Encuentro was held from April 22 to 25, 2009 in the District of Boquete, Panama.

5- Statement by Guillermo Ardila Cuenta, director of the National Aqueduct and Sewer Institute (Idaan) in Chiriquí (March 12, 2009).

6- For more information see

7- Report by Dani Kuzniecky, Minister and Secretary of Energy (March 16, 2009).

8- Posted on April 14, 2009 by Editor.

Video: Homemade Water Turbine (June 2022).


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