Osvaldo Jordan

Interviewee: Osvaldo Jordan
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: Panamá City
Date: 14th July 2014
Key Words: CHAN75 hydroelectric project; Ngöbe people; Barro Blanco; Changuinola 2; Partido Popular; civil society; Naso people; Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD); Bonyic hydroelectric project.



Martin Mowforth (MM): OK, we’re recording.(Laughter)

So, Osvaldo – 8th July, 2014 – first, a number of questions about Panamanian issues, but before that, for my own sake, can you explain to me what you were explaining earlier about the situation with the CHAN 75 in 2010? When I was there, I visited Felix Sánchez and various Ngöbe people with my research assistants from England. Can you explain what you explained to me in the restaurant?

Osvaldo Jordan (OJ): Yes, of course.

Let’s say the hydroelectric construction project CHAN 75 was rejected and opposed by many people and, as many people know, in January 2008, the project was blocked for nearly a month and the blockade was violently suppressed. So, from then on, the business strategy was to convince various leaders:

  1. Don’t trust the solidarity groups who were fighting
  2. Negotiate independently and eventually this will not be so obvious as a principle – but it was.

Eventually, they would receive compensation from the company almost at a business level, no? Then from, let’s say, April 2008, a Ngöbe person appeared, not from the area, called Samuel Carpintero, and he began to work with the communities. He had been working for the United Nations, so because of this he knew the situation, but he used that information to get to the area, and he promoted the first process of dialogue with the Government, which was between July and November 2009. At that time we said it wasn’t sufficiently extensive or legitimate, but they signed an agreement in November 2009, in which the Government promised certain territorial recognitions, certain compensations, and this led those affected to grant permission for the hydroelectric construction.

MM: We met him.
OJ: Exactly. The agreement. So this was a little manipulated, we might say, but it still seemed normal. The following year the same leaders who signed the agreement, those representing each community, started a company which they called in English – or at least it was the name that appeared in the Panamanian Public Register: ‘Novel Lake’ [?] and in Spanish they used the acronym DANG. Now DANG was never clear which services it was providing. They received a contract for more than a million dollars from AES (Associated Engineering Services), for the cleaning of the reservoir. But apart from that, they provided security and other services. They even acted as intermediaries in many of the negotiations, and many of those affected say they took money which should have been for those affected. So, as part of those security services at this time, which basically lasted from the middle of 2009 until 2011, they controlled access to the area of the dam.

During the talks they also modified laws and last year, well, this year, more or less the month of February, the public services authority announced a resolution to authorise an ‘easement rite’. In the Barrio Blanco area, they called it an easement right of way. Thus, you could, in other words, I think it meant that the Ngobe people did not lose their property which was delimited within the comarca, but they had to give access to the hydroelectric construction, the reservoir. That gave rise to a mobilisation, the 10th April Movement, for the defence of the River Tabasara, which started to mount a resistance campaign from the beginning of February, continuing for several weeks. It still continues, but in the month of May, the company took them by force, forced them back. Basically, the camp, the initial camp was extended, then the company took back by force certain properties which had previously been acquired by the company. So, in this process, right now in June, the Supreme Court has made a decision, which eliminates the resolution of ASEP[1]. So the Genisa company no longer has its Honduran shareholders. The family is Honduran; the company no longer has any legal right to throw out the Ngöbe from the Bägämá area. But the construction continues.

MM: Yes

OJ:  And it’s very advanced and becoming a fact. Now there has been a change of government, the new authorities are going to have to take this on board. And then, basically the problem in Barro Blanco is not resolved. Likewise, the Government has driven Changuinola 2, without respecting the Saber Accord, without an adequate consultation process; nor is it paying enough attention to the land speculation in the coastal region and in the comarca. Nor, in my opinion, has it fulfilled in good faith the review of the Chan 75 Agreement. So, certainly there had been good faith on the part of the indigenous Ngöbe people, even against the will of many other people, other leaders, opting for a solution through dialogue and negotiation. Unfortunately the Government didn’t stick to its word. So, for this reason, I think, there is a possibility of new confrontations because the conflicts haven’t been resolved.

MM: Yes, OK.
OJ:  They have been extended.

MM: OK, thank you for the explanation. Look, last things, but briefly. OK?

First: Could you tell us a little about the papers and actions of the ACD? (Alliance for Conservation and Development) And second: your hopes for the PP, Partido Popular.

OJ: Ah (both laughing). Yes, well, they are two very different subjects because one of the questions I think reflects the current moment.

MM: Yes, I understand.

OJ: So,we need to make a distinction between the Government and civil society.
MM: Yes, absolutely.

OJ: At this time, many of the environmental activists in Panama, including those we have seen in the book, The Violence of Development, some of those mentioned have been in the Government. That’s very good, but also there is a problem, because we have to have an independent civil society, don’t we? So, I founded the Alliance for Conservation and Development on June 6th, it ought to have been on June 5th, but it was on June 6th 2001. We began as a voluntary group of young professionals, concerned with the situation of marginalisation of communities, and we wanted to have a project for sustainable development.  Eventually there were two big changes. One was: cataloguing incidents of conflict, and this was never our plan, but when the Naso asked for our help, we decided not to turn our backs, but supported them in the case of the Bonyic hydroelectricity project, eventually in the whole region; and then with the problem of San San and San San Druy. I believe you also got to know about this when you were there?

MM: Yes.

OJ: Clearly, a preliminary injunction from the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights. We became involved in the incident, but we also became involved in a professional manner. So, in the heat of the battle we begin to look for resources, we created the office, and thus ACD became a more formal NGO. This allowed us to do some very valuable work between the years 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. Already we were declining, and already by the year 2010 we were really in a very complicated situation, but there were already projects which had been closed down. In 2011 we closed practically all the projects and in 2012, 2013 and 2014 we haven’t had projects as such, it’s been three years without projects. That means we don’t have staff, but, as legal actions and incidents don’t stop, we have continued working as volunteers.

MM: Yes

OJ: So, certainly, we went back to the way we had started.

MM: Yes. Just like ENCA.

OJ: Yes? Look, I don’t know. But we returned to being volunteer activists. It’s difficult, we all have work, as professionals we also grew a lot, and, well, people did very valuable work in many places. But still there is a solidarity and one of the reasons, in my personal opinion, is that ACD must survive. It’s why I call it ‘the critical voice of Panamanian environmentalism’. We dare to undertake issues, to highlight situations that the other NGOs in Panama don’t want to face.

MM: Yes, mmm.

OJ: Exactly. So, we feel this is a space we have to occupy, we have the backing of the community leaders; they have never stopped believing in the work we have been doing. New people are always arriving, aren’t they? They want to join. So I think I have to carry on the work. In 2004, on a personal level, I joined a political party. My ambition has always been to become a politician. I believe in political parties, not in independent movements, because I think political parties have identifiable policies and have to be accountable. An independent is adrift, and so, could be very committed and responsible but a swindler, couldn’t he? So, I prefer to work through a political party and I found that the Popular Party, the Christian Democrats, is the most serious and most responsible party that there was in Panama. And I shared much of the fundamental Social Christian ideology, above all the solidarity, the search for the common good. So, then I enrolled, and while I was in the United States studying for a doctorate, at the same time we were active in the ACD, I continued as a member of the party, but I couldn’t join in with much because I was outside the country. So, now, four years ago when I returned, I became active in the party and I thought I was going to seek selection as a candidate in 2019. But when some of my colleagues retired to go as independents, the possibility was open that I would enter as a candidate, and I participated as a candidate supporting the coalition that today has the Presidency of the Republic and also in a certain way we have the Assembly of the Panameñista Party of Juan Carlos Varela, and the Popular Party in which we are based. So, at this time, I am hoping to serve the country in a Government coalition which hopefully will match the work that I did with the Civil Society. But we have to accept the fact that ACD has to maintain itself as a separate and independent entity. ACD members belong to different political tendencies, so never, never do they, nor I, try to impose a political vision. Moreover, we speak little of partisan politics, we talk about the analysis, maybe because we all come from a very academic root. What we are trying to do is to analyse the reality and to try to find solutions. So this is going to be an interesting period and we will see what happens.

[Traffic noise and both talking at the same time]

MM: OK, perfect. Thank you very much Osvaldo for all your words. And, can I have your permission to include your words on the ‘Violence of Development’ website?

OJ: Absolutely.

MM: Perfect. Thank you very much.

OJ: Absolutely. Why not? And thank you too for this, for asking some of the questions we most wanted to ask when we started to work. I’ve just remembered another activist, whom I really respect, here in Panama, in another organisation. When we started to work at one moment, given that we saw what was happening in the archipelago [lot of background noise], which is an issue that we haven’t discussed much and we said then this is not an environmental issue, and this is a rights issue, human rights and environmental rights.

MM: Yes, absolutely.

OJ: Of course, and it’s what we have been doing from that time, 2007, and I think we have taken the right course.

MM: Yes. Perfect. Thank you very much.

OJ: No, thank you.

MM: That’s it. I think that’s been a very short interview.

OJ: Yes.

[Inaudible and a lot of noise. The two talking and walking, but the noise making it hard to understand.]

Snippets of conversation walking and in the vehicle:

OJ: I went to Cambridge.

MM: Oh, yes?

OJ: I think it was about the year … 2000. Yes there was a meeting in the World Conservation Centre.

MM: Ah, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

OJ: Yes, in Cambridge

(A woman talking on the radio)

MM: They monitor protected areas there.

OJ: And there was a person there I respect quite a bit too, who worked at Birdlife International, called Marco Lamborgini. [Unintelligible]. I think he has a much higher position now. He was also here, I worked as a representative of Panama and [inaudible], but by chance. It’s funny, now that I think about it, there was one of the partners there [unintelligible]. He is British, and he is one of the instigators. Because most of the environmentalists in Panama are quite conservative. [Unintelligible]. And he got into issues like transgenics, a lot of issues that were not the usual ones in Panama. At that time he was the campaigns director of [unintelligible], he was like the rights’ advocate. It was only him, only him. But I learned a lot from him, and he was one of my teachers on campaigning. That was a very important formative period for me and then I founded ACD.

MM: And are you still in contact?

OJ: Only a little.  But now, as I’m talking about him, I ought to ring him. Yes, because he’s a bit withdrawn. He lives here in Panama. And then he was working for an export company, Praline, but he was a voluntary environmentalist. So, now that he’s a retiree, he isn’t very public, but I ought to go and visit him now that I have a bit of time, and talk and analyse. I only rang him once because AES tried to buy off all the NGOs, including ACD, but very directly at that time  … At some point they made a statement that they had the support of [unintelligible] or something like that. Then I told him to look what they were doing. And he talked to the director, and the director made a disclaimer. She made a disclaimer, at no time did we approve, nor did we give permission. It’s a lot to do with marketing. ….
[Much noise, unintelligible.]
He is, I would say a pioneer of the environmental movement in Panama. And we give him a lot of credit, because, for example, the subject of the commons [unintelligible] we introduced into the law because of him. …. Of course, there must be public consultation where everyone is represented and can talk about all the problems before approving the project. That was not the spirit ….

[Both talking, not understood. Many noises and other voices (radio)]


[1]  National Authority on Public Services (ASEP) is Panama’s public services regulator and is responsible for regulating and monitoring the provision of drinking water, sewerage, electric power, telecoms, and radio and television services, as well as natural gas transmission and distribution. In July 2017, Osvaldo informed me that in 2016 the Supreme Court reversed the decision discussed here that had previously blocked the displacement of affected communities by the dam.