Kiad, Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, Panama — "Bulu Bagama is my positive name. Luis Jiménez, my negative one," the Ngäbe elder began, standing on an expanse of cracked mud that covered what for generations was his family patrimony. A tumbledown shell of a house lay in ruins, and a few dead leaves clinging to one remaining tree provided scant shade from the sweltering midday sun.
The words, referring to his indigenous name and the one imposed by the dominant Spanish culture, summed up the feelings of betrayal from a people that has fought bitterly for nearly two decades to stop the Barro Blanco dam, a hydroelectric project that to local communities and environmentalists has become a symbol of everything that's wrong with the current model of development in Panama.
Bulu and his wife, Adelaida González, stood in the mud and recalled that terrible night last August when they awoke to find the waters of their sacred Tabasará River seeping into their home. They scrambled to collect their children and as many of their possessions as possible. Neighbors weren't so lucky; their houses were completely washed downstream. A child narrowly escaped drowning in those harrowing hours.
They had been given no warning, he said, and since negotiations with the government and dam builder were ongoing, the family had thought they were safe. The affected communities of Kiad, Nuevo Palomar, Quebrada de Caña and Quebrada de Plata weren't consulted about the flooding of their lands, they say, which directly affects around 500 people but also has an important impact on the entire Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, an autonomous territory that is home to more than 150,000 individuals of the Ngäbe and Buglé indigenous groups. The Tabasará River in itself is sacred for them, as is the ceremonial site that is now submerged.