Panama protests to protect ecosystems and canal against pending mining deal

Panama protests to protect ecosystems and canal against pending mining deal

  • Demonstrations are taking place daily in Panama against a new deal with the Cobre Panamá copper mine in Colón province.
  • The protesters argue it gives mine operator First Quantum Minerals too much power and will lead to environmental damage over the next 40 years.
  • They also claim the mine threatens the Panama Canal and global trade as the mine may vie for the same water sources as the canal.
  • Panama’s National Assembly will vote soon on approving or rejecting the contract; with a general election due in 2024, protesters hope they can kill the deal by pressuring candidates.

PANAMA CITY — Panama has been gripped by mass protests against a government deal with Central America’s largest copper mine amid claims it sacrifices national sovereignty and will damage the environment and the country’s vital shipping canal.

Demonstrations started in early August in Panama City and quickly expanded nationwide, bringing together environmentalists, students, workers’ unions, politicians, Indigenous people and campesinos. Thousands have marched through the capital city in recent weeks ahead of a National Assembly vote on the agreement.

The protesters oppose a new contract the government has signed with First Quantum Minerals (FQM), a Canadian mining giant that operates the Cobre Panamá open-pit copper mine in a rural area of Colón province, where around 15,000 people live.

Protesters complain the new mining deal lacks transparency and threatens Panama’s sovereignty. Image by Daniel Harkins.

The deal was demanded by the government as royalties paid to the state since operations began in 2019 have amounted to a tiny fraction of the mine’s profits. FMQ has now agreed to increase these to a minimum of $375 million annually. But protesters allege the contract also allows the mine to continue damaging the environment, gives too much power to the company, and will threaten water resources and the Panama Canal — a vital part of both the Panamanian and global economies.

The deal, which would run for 20 years and can be extended another 20, has also been criticized for a lack of transparency and for breaking the Escazú Agreement, which stipulates the public should be informed throughout consultation processes, not just at the end. Critics also argue the deal gives the company the right to appropriate land in future and restrict overhead flights.

“It is a contract to basically completely put up for sale our entire national park system and watersheds that are critical for the survival and operation of the Panama Canal,” said Juan Carlos Monterrey, Panama’s former lead climate negotiator and executive director at Geoversity, an NGO that supports conservation communities. “Ultimately what we’re risking is global trade and global economic stability.”

Monterrey said the canal and the mine will compete with each other for water resources in a country that’s the largest per-capita consumer of water in Latin America and has been suffering from a bad drought this year due to the climate crisis and El Niño. The drought has caused drinking water shortages and traffic restrictions on the Panama Canal, reducing its revenue by $200 million.

The Panama Canal, the country’s vital economic pillar, could also be threatened by mining operations. Critics of the deal say the mine will compete with the canal for water resources. Image by Daniel Harkins.

The canal, which facilitates 3-6% of global maritime trade, is powered by fresh water from two artificial lakes that also supply more than 50% of Panama’s drinking water. Authorities have long foreseen the need for new water sources as levels in these reservoirs fall due to climate change. FQM, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, said its mine doesn’t draw water from the current canal watershed. But canal authorities are currently looking for new reservoirs and may need to extend into other watersheds and protect forests.

“You just don’t capture water through pipes, you harvest water through forests, and all the ecosystems are interconnected … everything in nature is super related,” Monterrey said. “So I’m now going far and beyond the climate and the environmental issues to oppose this. This is a contract that basically allows this company to create a new country within our own boundaries.”

Panama Canal officials have sent mixed responses. On Aug. 20, the administrator of the Panama Canal Authority, Ricaurte Vásquez Morales, said he’d been told “mining will reduce the amount of water available for the canal.” His comments were supported by former administrator Jorge Luis Quijano, who said the canal “could be affected in the future” as new watersheds are needed. Later, an unsigned statement from the authority said the mine’s watershed doesn’t interact with the canal’s.

Monterrey said he believes the authorities won’t criticize the mine as the canal is “controlled by appointees from the large economic and political forces of Panama.”

“If there is an organization, if there is a group of leaders, that can move the needle on this topic, it’s the Panama Canal Authority,” he said. “And they have just proven not to have the drive to actually say what needs to be said.”

The Cobre Panamá mine has a complicated history marked by environmental complaints. The original mining concession was granted in 1997 and acquired by FQM in 2013. Four years later, Panama’s Supreme Court ruled the concession was unconstitutional, but the decision was ignored by the government and FQM continued to invest billions to make the mine operational, finally beginning copper exports in 2019.

It now accounts for around 3-5% of Panama’s GDP, allowing its operators, in the words of Monterrey, to “act as a force even greater than our own government.” Indeed, a member of the legislative committee currently scrutinizing the deal has complained of preferential treatment given to employees of the mine during hearings in the National Assembly. He said they’re given their own room to rest and eat while outside police fire rubber bullets and tear gas at those opposed to the contract.

Serena Vamvas, 32, an environmentalist leader, almost lost an eye from a rubber bullet during one demonstration in late August.

Protests have brought together environmentalists, students, workers’ unions, politicians, Indigenous people and campesinos. Image by Daniel Harkins.

“When they hit me the first time it was close to my right eye. I actually only felt a sting at first,” she said. “The doctor said that I got lucky — one centimeter closer and I would’ve lost my eye. I felt very angry at first but it made me realize that for the first time I felt what our Indigenous brothers feel when they get repressed in the interior of the country.”

Vamvas said she opposes the mining contract because of the environmental damage caused by open-pit mining. Her argument is supported by reports of environmental breaches, claims from locals of rivers changing color, and testimony from scientific body Ciencia en Panamá, which warned of possible  air pollution and water contamination. The only consultation with locals has been a four-day visit from legislators examining the deal. Residents told them they had seen no benefits to the area from the mining.

No date has been given for when the vote on the contract will take place. The ruling party, the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), controls both the executive and the National Assembly, meaning many opponents of the mining contract aren’t optimistic about it being overturned. But with a presidential election due in 2024, and Panama in the middle of campaigning, they see opportunity in keeping up the pressure.

“The protests must continue because there are three levels of approval at the National Assembly and then the final signing is done by the president,” Monterrey said. “Most of the [election] candidates were not even thinking about it or talking about it … but now it is not only an electoral matter, it is the electoral matter.”

Vamvas has decided to take matters into her own hands and is running for local elections next year as an independent.

“Politicians are worse than ever, corrupt in every way,” she said. “They sell our land for nothing. But what makes me feel hopeful is that we are starting to wake up.

“Sometimes we really need to fight for what we love — and not in a metaphor, fight for real. Like they say here, ‘La pelea es peleando’” — the fight is fighting. “And this is the most important fight of our times. Even if we are scared we will do it.”

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