A deal to allow operations to continue at one of the world’s biggest copper mines, high in the Panamanian mountain rainforest, is in limbo. Country-wide protests erupted last week in response to the announced deal and now the government says it’ll put the issue to a national referendum. Is this a new form of democratic accountability, or a government ruse to defuse massive public opposition?
Photo: Panama Vale Más Sin Minería, Twitter
Panama’s rainforests play a central role in the health of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a cluster of protected areas and biodiversity hotspots stretching from southern Mexico to Panama. Smack in the middle of that protected area in Panama, however, is a massive open-pit copper mine owned by the Canadian company First Quantum Minerals.
The Cobre Panamá mine, run by First Quantum’s subsidiary Minera Panamá in the Donoso protected area, has long faced strong opposition locally and across the country. Communities have denounced widespread environmental harm and water contamination from mining operations at the country’s only active industrial mine site. Demands for clean-up and a cessation of activities have the strong backing of social movements organizing to protect the country’s rich biodiversity and prevent Panama from becoming “another mining country.”
Panama’s topography and its narrow, megadiverse territory – which includes more than 500 rivers – makes it highly vulnerable to the tremendous environmental and social harms of industrial mining.
President Laurentino Cortizo’s government is trying to change that, however. In spite of a 2017 Supreme Court ruling finding the Cobre Panamá mining concession unconstitutional – but allowing it to continue operating in legal limbo – the government entered into contract negotiations with the Canadian company to increase royalty payments and extend the life of the open-pit copper mine. Last week, the government announced that a deal had been finalized to extend the mine’s life for another 20 years, sending Panamanians into the streets in record numbers, in the face of violent police repression, to denounce the contract and demand it be annulled. Multiple court challenges have since been filed on the basis that the law that authorized the contract is unconstitutional.
Organizations like the Centro de Incidencia Ambiental - CIAM (the Centre for Environmental Advocacy) and Panama Vale Más Sin Minería (Panama is Worth More without Mining) – a coalition of conservation and environmental organizations, along with educators, workers, health care professionals, youth groups, Indigenous and small farmer communities – are in the streets denouncing the contract. For several years, they have called for a moratorium on all concessions and permits for metal mining throughout the country and the immediate cancellation of the 103 mining applications currently on file.
Despite facing police repression including dozens of arrests and tear gas attacks, demonstrations continue this week throughout the country.
Amidst this impressive display of citizen pushback, several things have happened in quick succession. The Panamanian government announced on October 20 that it would put the issue to a vote in a binding referendum scheduled for December 17. Immediately, organizations like Panamá Vale Más Sin Minería and CIAM denounced the move, arguing the referendum is a political tactic to punt the issue ahead a few months in the hopes that people aren’t so organized.
Ese referéndum de Nito es una trampa. Quiere desmotivar a la gente hasta el 17/12/23. Pareciera que quiere un mes para descansar y ponerse galano. El pueblo está en la calle. Él busca tiempo y salirse con la suya. EL PUEBLO HA SIDO CLARO. ¡NO AL CONTRATO MINERO! #PanamáSinMinería pic.twitter.com/Dt2L4tP6ea
— Panamá Vale Más Sin Minería (@sinmineria) October 30, 2023
Tweet above: The organization Panamá Vale Más Sin Minería speaks out against the announced referendum, saying that it’s merely a trick to buy time and demobilize strong organizing efforts that have been clear in their demands. “The consultation is in the streets! The people are in the streets! We don’t want a mining contract.”
Panama’s electoral college has since said conditions are not ripe to hold a fair referendum in December, leaving the issue in a legal standoff as the Minister of the Interior presents a bill before Congress to mandate the referendum. Uncertainty over the mine’s future sent First Quantum Minerals’ stock price plummeting by 39% this week.
The government has since declared a moratorium on all future mining activity, but has done nothing to address the strong demands from civil society that the contract for the Cobre Panamá copper mine be cancelled.
Efforts to open up Panama to transnational mining
The current government has made mining a priority, promoting it as a pillar of the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government awarded special privileges to the mine to keep operating in spite of clear health risks and the deaths of several workers. The country has been working to create an institutional framework to allow for large-scale, transnational mining projects, while also opening up several tracts of protected land to mining concessions without meaningful consultation.
For its part, First Quantum Minerals is strongly promoting the massive open-pit copper mine within the context of the energy transition, arguing that it is needed to serve the market for electric vehicles and renewable energy infrastructure. Communities say this framing is part of a larger “greenwashing” of the energy transition. Keith Green, country manager for Cobre Panama, claimed in an interview following the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), “Panama can make a significant contribution to meet this global demand for cleaner energy through the Cobre Panamá mine.”
But as protests continue this week, Panamanians across diverse sectors are stating clearly: “Panama is Worth More without Mining.”