On 15 February 2010, the World Heritage Centre received a report on the state of conservation report from the State Party of Panama. The report appears to have been translated by computer and not subsequently proof-read. As a result, the report is very difficult to understand. The report details the progress achieved in identifying mitigation measures for the four planned hydroelectric dams on the Changuinola and Bonyic rivers: CHAN 75, CHAN 140 and CHAN 220 (Changuinola river) and the Bonyic dam (Bonyic river). Two of these dams, CHAN 75 and Bonyic, are nearing completion. While the report provides details on the legal requirements for environmental assessments in Panama, and lists the terms and conditions of construction permits, it provides little concrete information on the measures proposed to mitigate the impacts of the above dams in order to maintain the migratory corridors of fish and shrimp species within the property.
a) Mitigating the impacts of hydroelectric dams on fish and shrimp species in the Changuinola and Bonyic rivers
The State Party briefly overviews the proposed mitigation measures for the CHAN 75, 140 and 220 dams and the Bonyic dam, which are outside the property’s boundaries, but affect waterways within the property, as an important proportion of these flow into the Changuinola and Bonyic systems:
i. CHAN 75, 140 and 220 dams (Changuinola River): The State Party considers that the migration corridors of fish and shrimp species will not be threatened, given that these species are also found in other areas. The report notes that AES Changuinola, the company constructing the dams, has developed a ‘Proposed mitigation strategy for fish and shrimp’, which recommends two main mitigation measures: 1) construction of spawning channels mimicking the high water flow required by some fish species to reproduce; and 2) aquaculture cultivation upstream of the dam for those fish and shrimp species unable to reproduce due to the dams. In response to the above proposed mitigation measures, Panama’s environmental authority (ANAM) requested AES Changuinola to create an environmental management unit to monitor the impacts of the dam, to undertake other biological studies, and to consider carrying out modelling their likely impacts. The State Party considers that artificial spawning channels are not necessarily a viable mitigation measure for the CHAN 75 dam, currently under construction, and notes that they have requested AES Changuinola to further investigate aquaculture so that both mitigation measures may be applied over the short term. The State Party also details the legislation enabling the Government of Panama to request additional mitigation measures for infrastructure projects or order payment/ compensation for environmental damage.
ii. Bonyic dam (Bonyic River): The State Party notes that the mitigation measures proposed by Teribe Hydroecological S.A. for the Bonyic project are reflected in their Business Plan. However, these general commitments simply state that the company in question will implement mitigation measures, undertake ecological surveys, and build a research station to monitor and study fish in the region.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that the brief report submitted by the Government of Panama does not fully address the Committee’s repeated requests for a detailed technical report on the measures proposed to mitigate the likely serious impacts of the four proposed dams on the values and integrity of the property (as per Decision 33 COM 7B.35). They recall that the life cycles of the fish and shrimp species concerned are reliant on being able to migrate between the rivers within the property and the sea, and note that the dams will create a migratory barrier that, without effective mitigation measures, will most likely result in the loss of up to 16 fish and shrimp species from most of the property’s waterways.
i. Adequacy of the mitigation measures proposed by the State Party: IUCN and the World Heritage Centre consider that the mitigation measures proposed by the State Party of Panama for the proposed dams, namely construction of spawning channels (also known as fish passes) and aquaculture, are inadequate to fully mitigate their likely negative impacts. IUCN notes that few, if any, fish passes for tropical migratory fish and shrimp species have been successfully implemented, and that their elaboration is complicated by the wide variety of body size and seasonality of migration exhibited by the affected species. Moreover, IUCN considers that aquaculture is not an appropriate mitigation strategy as it does not maintain river corridor function and very little is known about the life cycles of the species concerned. The development of aquaculture would necessitate, in IUCN’s view, several multi-year research projects prior to dam construction. While the State Party report suggests that mitigation at the regional scale might be possible, i.e. mitigating the damage to the Changuinola and Bonyic rivers by protecting other rivers, namely the Teribe, this does not in IUCN’s view constitute mitigation as these rivers, which are within the property, are already adequately protected.
ii. The potential secondary and cumulative effects of the dams on the property’s values and integrity: IUCN considers that it is highly probable that the effects of the dams will extend beyond the loss of species, and result in serious secondary impacts on biodiversity within the property. IUCN notes that construction of the CHAN 75 dam in particular would result in the loss of the most numerous and largest fish and shrimp species over 500 kilometres of streams, and would therefore most likely impact predatory birds, reptiles and mammals. Moreover, construction of the dams could increase accessibility to the park, and potentially lead to increased encroachment, poaching and illegal logging. Ultimately, the impacts of the dam upstream would also affect the ecosystems downstream, as the periodic upstream migration of larval fish and shrimp, would be reduced, with concomitant reductions in the amount of food available for predators.
iii. The urgent need to undertake a transboundary Strategic Environmental Assessment of all dam proposals affecting the property: IUCN and the World Heritage Centre urge both the State Party of Panama and the State Party of Costa Rica to consider the collective impact of all proposed dams on the property’s values and integrity through a transboundary Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), including a comprehensive options assessment, to identify the least environmentally damaging solutions for their energy and water resource management needs. Moreover, the Government of Panama is strongly encouraged to follow the recommendations on of the World Commission on Dams regarding dam planning and construction (available at http://www.unep.org/dams/WCD/report/WCD_DAMS%20report.pdf).
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN conclude that it will likely be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to adequately mitigate the habitat loss and fragmentation effects of the proposed dams on the property’s freshwater ecosystem, and that the possible secondary and cumulative effects of eliminating up to 16 migratory aquatic species within portions of the property may significantly affect predatory bird and mammal populations. Until the State Party of Panama investigates alternatives to the four proposed dams through a detailed transboundary Strategic Environmental Assessment process, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend that all dam construction be halted to safeguard the property’s values and integrity.
The potential loss of key migratory fish and shrimp species from up to 70% of the property’s rivers poses a potential danger to the property’s Outstanding Universal Value and integrity, as per paragraph 180 of the Operational Guidelines. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN recommend that the World Heritage Committee consider inscribing the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger at its 35th session in 2011, in the absence of substantial progress in undertaking a detailed transboundary Strategic Environmental Assessment of the different dam proposals affecting the property. The joint report that is due to be submitted by the State Parties of Panama and Costa Rica at the World Heritage Committee’s 35th session in 2011 should provide an opportunity to evaluate the conclusions of an eventual transboundary SEA concerning dam site selection.
b) Other conservation issues of concern – Additional proposed dams within the property
IUCN has received reports that a further eight dams are proposed for the Atlantic slope of La Amistad, as well as one large and several smaller dams for the Pacific slope of the property. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that these dams should also be evaluated within a transboundary Strategic Environmental Assessment.
c) Other conservation issues of concern - Plans to build a road traversing the property from north Boquete to the province of Bocas del Toro
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN are seriously concerned by reports that the State Party of Panama is planning to build a road from north Boquete to the province of Bocas del Toro, in conjunction with intensive tourism development, and note that this project is listed in the Panama Government Strategic Plan for 2010-2016. They consider that this road, if built, would seriously degrade the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. As per Paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines, the State Party should inform the World Heritage Committee about any such plans so that appropriate solutions can be identified.
d) Other conservation issues of concern – presence of cattle within the property
Decision 32 COM 7B.35 (Quebec, 2008) requested the State Party of Panama to deal with the issue of cattle within the property. Decision 33 COM 7B.35 (Seville, 2009) noted with concern that the state of conservation report from the State Party of Panama lacked sufficient detail to be considered as a response to Decision 32 COM 7B.35. No further information on this issue has since been provided. There is as yet no reason to believe that this issue is being addressed. Under these circumstances, the apparent lack of action on behalf of the State Party in resolving the problem of cattle moving about the property remains a source of increasing concern.