Wednesday, February 15 2012 @ 04:53 PM EST
Contributed by: Don Winner
The ASEP reported yesterday that they are evaluating the issue of concessions for hydroelectric projects, after the controversy that arose during the protests by indigenous groups who oppose the projects. "We are currently in a process of conducting an evaluation of all of the applications we have received, to finally determine the next steps, keeping in mind all legal, economic, environmental, and social issues," said Zelmar Rodriguez, the manager of the ASEP. Chiriqui is the province where most of the hydroelectric projects are concentrated, with 26 hydroelectric projects under construction or design, especially on the rivers Chiriqui Viejo, Chico, Caldera and Chiriqui. The province with the second most number of hydroelectric projects is Veraguas, with 7 that have been approved. There is also one under construction in Portobelo in the province of Colon, and another in the design stage in the province of Cocle. To this are added 44 new applications for the exploitation and development of new hydroelectric projects, at least 30 of them in Chiriqui. None have yet been approved.
The boom - Hydropower fever began in 2006 when the government of Martin Torrijos eased the procedures for granting concessions and most of these rights were given away for free. This attracted the richest man on earth, Carlos Slim, as well as the wealthy families in Panama, and the friends and associates of the Torrijos government benefited from these concessions.
The Torrijos administration granted 27 concessions for new hydroelectric projects, including Paso Ancho, which was granted to the company Hydro Power and Jose Guillermo Lewis Navarro, who was the brother of Samuel Lewis Navarro, who was the First Vice President of Panama at the time. On about the same date the family Kupnik-Lacayo, related to Torrijos, received another free concession to build a hydroelectric project called Bajos del Totuma. Later the concession was sold to the entrepreneur Petter Stern.
Another concession that created a legal problem was the Bajo de Mina hydroelectric project, awarded to the company Ideal SA, of the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, after it was taken away in an administrative process from Cesar Lisac. In November 2010 the Supreme Court ordered that the concession rights should be returned to Lisac. Now the ASEP has resolved to request the "administrative rescue" of the hydroelectric project, and to indemnify Lisac. However, Slim remains in business with another hydroelectric project called Baitun, also granted during the Torrijos administration.
Within groups of local families who received other concessions from the Torrijos government is also the Gonzalez Revilla family, that with the company Panama Power Holding has five hydroelectric projects in construction and design, and the Eleta family, with the company Electron Investment and Cafe Eleta S.A., has another three concessions in the province of Chiriqui.
Meanwhile, the former Vice President Felipe Alejandro Virzi and Gabriel Btesh received a concession on the Tabasará river on 10 January 2008, during the Torrijos administration.
Still pending, since 2006, is another request for a concession from the company Reforestadora Cañazas S.A., a company linked to the current president Ricardo Martinelli. This concession, still pending, is located in the district of Cañazas, Veraguas and will have 9.5 megawatts of generation. According to the ASEP, this project has not yet passed the stage of observations of the environmental impact study.
The administrator of the ASEP said the present Government have given about 13 concession rights for the exploitation and development of hydroelectric projects nationwide. Rodriguez also said during his term in office he has received about 12 applications to exploit and develop hydroelectric projects nationwide that are still under study.
The hydroelectric plants are being rejected by the indigenous ngäbe and buglé Indians and radical environmental groups, but in contrast there are sectors that defend them under responsible management. Yesterday the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Panama held a forum on the issue of hydropower. In it, President of the Chamber of Commerce, Federico Humbert, urged all actors in society to promote a comprehensive analysis on the responsible management of the dams. "We consider it important to promote investments that permit the construction of new plants from renewable sources, as is the case of dams that do not require fuel for power generation," said Humbert. The Chamber of Commerce said yesterday they hope the issue of hydropower is agreed and resolved responsibly without pressure or preconditions. "These plants, require no fuel for their operations, they prevent significant increases in electricity rates for consumers, have less impact on the environment and, if well managed, are capable of being respectful to the communities where they are developed," added Humbert.
According to official data of the ASEP, today 54% of electricity in Panama is generated by hydroelectric plants and the other 46% by thermal plants that use fuel. Although 40 concessions for new hydroelectric plants have been granted, technicians said Panama still will not achieve sufficient volumes to be able to export energy, because the construction of new shopping centers, large buildings with casinos, and the development of the the towns in the interior will use up the new new supply of electricity that will be generated by the construction of the new hydroelectric plants. The Albrook Mall alone demands a maximum capacity of 18 megawatts of energy, similar to a city like Aguadulce, Cocle.
The concessions granted for hydroelectric projects since 2006 come with a 50 year agreement, renewable. Under the rules established by the ASEP during the Torrijos administration, the concession holder can use 90% of the water of the rivers where they are located, leaving only 10% as a reserve of water for human consumption, irrigation and tourism.
The dialogue between indigenous groups and the government, seeking consensus on the wording of Article 5 of the Bill 415, resumed today in the afternoon hours. The discussion of the item concerning mining was passed, however, the debate got stuck when they were considering the part about the hydroelectric concessions in the region, because the indigenous groups also want to include the annexed areas. Right now a proposal is circulating to hold a referendum to determine whether or not the concessions granted in these area should be cancelled.
The protests by indigenous groups began on January 31 with the closure of several points along the Pan-American highway, which left losses in the order of $12 million alone in the province of Chiriqui. The road closure led to clashes with the police and left one person dead. (Panama America)
Editor's Comment: The Panama America newspaper is basically the only outlet for the Martinelli administration. This article is obviously a "venting" as it were. They are saying that all of these hydroelectric projects were cronyism, granted during the Torrijos administration. Apparently the only one that was no approved was that of Martinelli in Veraguas. And the project supposedly linked to the friends of Martinelli was actually granted in 2008, by Torrijos.