If You're Going to Throw Rocks, At Least Take Off the Mask... Sunday, September 10 2006 @ 05:17 PM EDT Contributed by: Don Winner
Last month someone launched a serious smear campaign against the red frog Beach development in Panama. I try to follow the projects but there are so many that it's hard to keep track. The red frog development has been taking flack recently thanks to striking construction workers and environmental protests. The developers recently held public hearings to begin the process of applying for approval from Panama's National Environmental Authority (ANAM) to begin construction on the second phase of their project. In general I am pro-business and support development as long as it's done according to law. It is the responsibility of the government to establish environmental law, review and approve plans, and then enforce the law and apply corrective measures when necessary. Environmental activists use the media to generate negative messages to impede development, and there are those who feel that the only good development is no development at all. The part that I really, really don't like is the tactic of slinging mud and stones from behind a mask of anonymity. (more...)
Bottom Line Up Front: I have been looking into the issues surrounding the red frog Beach development and as far as I can tell they are a legitimate and serious business organization in Panama that is building a large complex of houses and a golf course in Bocas del Toro. There have been several allegations in the media regarding this development lately which have prompted me to investigate further. It's becoming clear is that there are some experienced environmental activists who have moved from the United States to Panama and possibly Bocas del Toro that are against this development and are doing everything they can to either stop the development or at the very least to throw some sand in the gears. This most recent outbreak of negative press resulted in a coincidence of events - the public hearings pertaining to the preparation of the environmental impact statement for the second phase of the development, and a labor conflict with management.
Labor Dispute Settled: Having the labor dispute at the same time as the public hearings for the second phase of the project created the unlikely scenario of SUNTRACS workers protesting along-side of the indigenous groups who want to stop the project completely. The striking workers don't want to stop the project at all, they just wanted more money in order to build the development. But in any case the labor dispute has since been settled.
Environmental Issues: Many of the complaints about the red frog Beach development revolve around environmental themes. Specifically there are several issues that appear repeatedly that I wanted to get clear:
The Chain Reaction: This most recent flap over the red frog Beach project first came to my attention on 16 August 2006 when a person I've never heard of before named "Delia Hitz" posted an email about the red frog Beach project to the Panama CEW Yahoo! email group. I knew about red frog and had checked out their website but was basically ignoring them. I wondered if they had gotten tangled up in any of the Rights of Possession land deals that were going on a couple of years ago but really didn't know much about the project. But this email caught my attention. Someone using the email address email@example.com posted posted this email to the "Panama CEW" Yahoo! email group on 16 August 2006:
- Does red frog Have an Environmental Impact Study? Yes. There is a section of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) called the National Direction for Environmental Evaluation and Approval (Direccion Nacional de Evaluacion y Ordenamiento Ambiental (DINEORA.)) The office is managed by Ing. Diana Velasco who I've interviewed before on another issue. Today I spoke with Ing. Benito Ruso who works in the DINEORA office and is responsible for following the different environmental impact studies through the process. According to ANAM The red frog Beach project has an approved environmental impact study for phase I, DINEORA #IA069-04, which was approved in 2004. The DINEORA office is responsible for receiving and evaluating the environmental impact studies but not enforcing them. Ing. Ruso sent me to another department within the ANAM to answer questions about enforcement. He confirmed that red frog has submitted an environmental impact study for Phase 2 of the project which is currently under evaluation. He said that as far as the ANAM is concerned red frog is in complete compliance with all applicable environmental laws and regulations with regards to the application and approval process, and that their application is being processed normally. The hearings that were held in Bocas del Toro on 22 August 2006 were part of that process. As a side note, in an earlier interview the DINEORA office told me they receive more than 700 environmental impact studies every year.
- Was red frog Fined by ANAM? Yes. Within the ANAM the National Direction for Environmental Quality Protection (Dirección Nacional de Protección de la Calidad Ambiental) is responsible for actually protecting the environment and to ensure that companies are complying with the environmental impact studies as approved. This department of the ANAM is managed by Ing. Gisela Cordoba who said that red frog was fined $10,000 for cutting down some trees on their property. She explained that at the time red frog's initial environmental impact study was still being evaluated and they had removed some trees before the impact study was approved. When I asked her when this happened she said "...a long time ago" and indicated that as far as ANAM was concerned, they paid their fine and this issue was history. Lic. Carmen Vicente, the Legal Director for red frog confirmed the fact they had paid the fine.
- "Administrative Process" Lic. Cordoba explained to me that they have field inspectors that routinely visit construction sites all over the country to ensure that construction companies are in compliance. She said that if there are any problems discovered during these routine inspections then an "administrative process" is initiated and the problems are documented. She said that this is a normal procedure and it's how they enforce environmental protection laws.
- "Has ANAM Suspended Construction at red frog?" Again, according to Lic. Cordoba, "No, absolutely not. There is currently no order in effect to stop the construction on the job site and they are proceeding as normal."
- "So, why have I seen ANAM and red frog in the news?" In May of 2006 ANAM inspectors made a routine field inspection of the construction site. During that inspection the field personnel observed some problems with erosion control that required attention and the initiated an administrative process to document the problems. Since then the management of red frog has taken measures to correct the problems and have applied for reconsideration. Both the initial report and request for reconsideration are currently under review by ANAM. Lic. Cordoba told me that any resolution or decision is automatically suspended while the company's request for reconsideration is being reviewed.
- "Paz y Salvo" Finally, Lic. Cordoba told me that as far as ANAM is concerned the red frog development is in complete compliance with all environmental protection laws.
- From: firstname.lastname@example.org
- [mailto:email@example.com] On Behalf Of firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sent: Wednesday, August 16, 2006 3:46 PM
- Subject: [panama_c_e_w] red frog Beach Club
- Body: "This enormous, 800-residence development (with two hotels, a 250 boat marina, and numerous beachfront houses) is currently in the public comment period, with ANAM to decide on approval after August 21. To learn more about the certain negative environmental impacts this big resort will have, as well as its impacts on the local communities, please visit: www.stopredfrogbeachclub.com and www.almanaqueazul.org/archivos-sobre-bastimentos for a PowerPoint presentation (click on Watch It Here). If you oppose this development, you may send written comments to ANAM and others before August 21. See the stopredfrogbeach.com website for electronic addresses. ALSO, if you live in Bocas, the Public Forum will be held on August 22, Tuesday, at 2 pm at the IPAT headquarters in Bocas town.
- About Panama CEW: There are several email Yahoo! email groups that are dedicated to discussing Panama in English. The most notorious of them is Panama CEW primarily because it's a "no holds barred" forum. Anything goes and there are no limits on language or conduct. The only people that get tossed off are spammers. This particular forum is best described as "drunken teenage monkeys playing with pistols." It serves a purpose as a pressure release valve but tends to be dominated by a handful of very vocal and highly opinionated sophomoric delinquents. The group is pretty much worthless for anything other than entertainment value, but it's the perfect place to stir up some muck, which is exactly what this email was intended to do.
- Who's Delia Hitz? I own several of the Yahoo! groups and monitor the traffic from thousands of members. Anyone with a cause or an issue usually creates a name for themselves and the "regulars" are easily identified. But I had never heard of this "Delia Hitz" person, so I tried to check it out. If you look at the Yahoo! profile for the person that posted this email "email@example.com" you will see it was "Last Updated" on 16 August 2006. So, if it was created earlier and if there was any information about the user it was removed on that date. OK, so what?
- Google Search? Nada. Don't waste your time. A Google search for "firstname.lastname@example.org" produces no returns. As far as I can tell this email address was created specifically to post the email below and has never been used for any other purpose.
- Experienced Environmental Activist: If you google "Delia Hitz" and Panama you will come up with this document from The Bay Institute (TBI), which describes itself as follows:
- "The Bay Institute uses a combination of scientific research, political advocacy, and public education to work toward the environmental restoration of the entire watershed which drains into San Francisco Bay. This watershed includes the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin Rivers as well as their tributaries, Suisan Marsh, San Pablo Bay, and San Francisco Bay. The land area covers 40 percent of California. Nearly half of the surface water in California starts as rain or snow that falls in this area, and about half of that is diverted for use on farms, in homes, and in factories."
- "Good-Bye to Delia Hitz": According to the Spring 2006 Edition of TBI's newsletter, apparently the experienced environmental activist recently moved to Panama:
- "TBI also bids “bon voyage” to Development Associate Delia Hitz, who has left her position to travel, consult, and volunteer in Panama and Ecuador. Ms. Hitz joined the staff in 1998 as Office/Financial Manager. We wish her well on her adventures!"
- Professional Activist: It turns out that Delia Hitz has apparently spent more than 15 years as a professional activist, most recently on issues pertaining to runoff and the environment. Looking a little further into the "Delia Hitz" angle I found the following:
- Staff - www.bay.org/staff.htm Published on: 4/10/2006 Last Visited: 4/10/2006 Development Associate -- Delia Hitz. Delia Hitz Development Associate email@example.com Delia Hitz is the primary grantwriter for TBI's STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed) Project. She also works on special events and coordinates the auction for the organization's annual fall fundraiser. Before moving to the Bay Area in 1996, Ms. Hitz led the Mothers & Others' Shoppers' Campaign for Better Food Choices in San Diego, a regional public education effort to expand the market for organic foods; directed the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility; and worked as researcher for the California Museum of Science and Industry's exhibit on the Urban Environment. Ms. Hitz has a B.A. in Religion from Bowdoin College and an M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago.
- Rainwater Runoff: In January of 2006 this article appeared in the Marin Intependent Journal and quoted Delia Hitz, who spoke out against rain and runoff:
- "Delia Hitz, with the Novato-based Bay Institute, which works to restore creekside vegetation among other projects, said the role of runoff can't be minimized. "The runoff goes right into the creek and that increases the flooding," she said. "When there is development and cement, the water does not have a chance to sink into the ground. It goes into the creek and increases its speed and volume."
- Pestisides and Ground Water: In February 1995 Delia Hitz wrote this article for the San Diego Earth Times. Her growing resume of activism included at that time:
- "Delia Hitz recently moved to San Diego from the Los Angeles area, where she specialized in public outreach, education and community organizing. In 1993, whe was the Executive Director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Physicians for Social Responsibility. Currently, she is heading up the Shoppers Campaign for San Diego Earth Day."
Does Delia Hitz Live in Bocas? Now I'm off to find out if Delia Hitz is a newly arriving English speaking expatriate who's purchased land or a house in Bocas del Toro. If not, is she living here in Panama? In reading the text of her email to CEW on 16 August it appears that she's a local resident and was probably planning to attend the meeting. In any case I have made several attempts to contact this person. All of her old contact information in California is no longer valid. Phones have been turned off and are now wrong numbers (other people answer and have no idea who I'm talking about.) I placed several phone calls to The Bay Institute where she apparently worked until last spring and was never able to speak anyone (got nothing but voicemail for the entire staff.) I sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org asking her to contact me to talk about red frog, and so far have not received a reply. And honestly, I doubt that I will.
Slimeball Website: I followed the links and checked out the www.stopredfrogbeachclub.com website. It was very "over-the-top" and full of incorrect information, disinformation, and was obviously designed as a militant anti-development effort with an environmental slant. You should know that the website that's up there now is not the one that I saw back on 16 August 2006. They stripped it down to a basic shell and just left up a couple of links to news articles about the red frog development.
What About the "Blue Almanac?" The other website referenced in the email is www.almanaqueazul.org. The purpose and function of this website is to help people, primarily surfers and beach bums, find little known, hard to reach and out of the way beaches all over Panama. It's mostly in Spanish but it is for the most part an excellent resource and very well done. Their goal is to document every grain of sand in Panama and as such they naturally have a strong environmental slant. The "Blue Almanac" website is very nicely done, well maintained, and full of excellent material about beaches in Panama. 99% of the website is in Spanish, and the article about the red frog development is some of the only English language content on the website.
The red frog article on Blue Almanac: There is an article published on the Blue Almanac website that you can view here in English. But when it comes to the red frog Beach development the people behind this website have taken a solidly anti-development position, based on a non-specific agenda of environmental issues, labor issues, and the complaints of local inhabitants. In the article there is no attempt to see both sides of the issue. They don't address the basic and most important issues. For example they fail to mention that the owners of the red frog Beach development hold proper and legal title to the land they wish to develop, and that they have applied for and received all proper and legal approvals (including environmental impact studies) in order to build this development.
Who Owns Blue Almanac? That's a fair question. If there's going to be a debate about the potential environmental impact of the construction of a residential complex in Bocas del Toro, everyone is entitled to their opinion. The owner and operator of this website is Mr. Mir Rodriguez, who describes himself as "many years as an environmental activist both locally in Panama and abroad. Now working on a guide to environmental and community tourism on the beaches of Panama, which are under intense development pressure." I sent an email to Mr. Rodriguez as well and I am awaiting a response. I think I know where he stands on this issue, and would like to hear his take on all of the other beachfront developments in Panama.
Selective Complaining: You know, I really don't have a problem with an individual or organization arguing in favor of responsible development, environmental issues, "fight for the little guy," or resist development in general. But in my humble opinion those people and organizations should remain consistent in their message. When there are crossed or mixed signals then the reader can easily become confused. Like, when an organization ruthlessly attacks one development and then fails to say a word about other similar developments that are in various phases of construction all around the country. The reason why is obvious when you examine the list of "contributors," people who write for and have submitted articles to the Blue Almanac website.
Radical Anti-Gringo: There's more on the Blue Almanac website that's troubling. When I was doing my homework on "Delia Hitz" for a moment there I though I had found my girl when I read this comment posted by "Dalia" to the Blue Almanac website in the "comments" section on 20 August 2006 with regards to the red frog article (originally posted in Spanish:)
- "It is indignante that people with little or no education on the value of nature come to destroy our atmosphere and the wealth that God has given us. And I wonder myself what we can do against this? I see there are complaints but nothing happens and they continue building. It is necessary to remove to those gringos, who don't care about anything and destroy, who think that with their money they can do whatever they want without any regard for the damage they are causing. Personally I'd love to help this effort to stop them but - How can I add my little grain of sand?"
Meet Dalia, Photo Taken at the Playa Blanca Resort
- Does "Delia" = "Dalia" ? For a little while when I started investigating this article I thought this "Dalia" was the same person as "Delia" who posted the original email to the CEW group. If you check out "Dalia's" blog on myspace you'll see that she says she is studying "Ecological Geographic Tourism in the University of Panama." She's a 20-something model and college student at the University of Panama who has a couple of conflics of interest. So, I guess it's OK for her to use the Playa Blanca resort as a backdrop for her modeling career, but not with regards to "these gringos" who need to be removed from the country. In any case, I really don't think that this girl is behind the whole "anti-red frog" campaign, and that the Delia/Dalia thing was just a coincidence.
Ok, So Back to Square One: The question remains, who are the people behind the www.stopredfrogbeachclub.com website? Right now it's really nothing more than a colleciton of news clippings about the red frog Beach development that have appeared in local media. But if anyone is going to go after a development like this and take the time to put up a website, why didn't they include an "About Us" section?
- Whois and IP Lookups: Not much help there. The website list hosted on "A Small Orange" Internet service provider, is current and active, and was registered on 15 July 2005. But all of the contact information is standard hosting company stuff. So, no help there.
Defensoria del Pueblo: I saw an article this weekend in the news that someone had filed a complaint with the office of the Defensoria del Pueblo in Panama City. I called and spoke to Ing. Jorge Martinez who is handling the case. It was interesting to learn that anyone can file a complaint with the Defensor del Pueblo, and organization primarily concerned with human rights. In this case, Ing. Martinez explained that environmental questions are considered to be a "third generation" human rights issue in that any potential damage to the envorinment will effect the rights of future generations. He said that the persons or organization that submitted the complaint requested to remain annonymous, but that the complain was based on environmental concerns. In the end he said his office would investigate the complaint but that the issue would be resolved by the legal authority, which in this case is the ANAM.
Still More to Learn: I called and spoke to a couple of people I know who are interested in the environment, biologists and scientists but not necessarily political activists. The are a couple of fundamental truths in effect;
- Any Development Harms the Environment: You can't build a house, in Panama or anywhere else, without altering the existing environment. It simply can't be done. What you can do is implement elements into the plan that will minimize or cushion the potential for detrimental or negative impact.
- There Are Decision Makers: In any situation there are competent authorities who are legally charged with listening to all sides and making a balanced decision. In the end this entire issue will probably come down to a legal decision, and that will be that. In the meantime there will be more headlines and press as both sides fight for position with regards to public opinion.
- "Not In My Backyard" The people who are most likely to oppose the red frog development are those who currently live in the area.
That's It for Now: I'm not done with this one yet. If anyone knows Delia Hitz or Mil Rodriguez please ask them to drop me a line.
SOURCE: Panama Guide