Explosive Unrest: Panama’s Largest Copper Mine Sparks Protests, Arrests

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By LatAm Reports Editor

An extended 20-year concession granted to a Canadian firm, Minera Panamá (a subsidiary of First Quantum Minerals), for the largest open pit copper mine in Central America has sparked significant unrest in Panama. This decision led to intense confrontations between the police and demonstrators, resulting in injuries, dozens of arrests, and significant disruption on major highways. The turmoil reached the Marriott Hotel in the capital during Climate Week for Latin America and the Caribbean, attended by environmental officials, NGO representatives, and regional leaders.

Protesters displayed messages like “Climate change and mining kill,” expressing their disapproval of the mining agreement between the Panamanian government and Minera Panamá. The legislative body endorsed this concession just last week. Raisa Banfield, of the Sustainable Panama Foundation, criticized the agreement, saying it’s disadvantageous for Panama in numerous ways.

The widespread disapproval stems mainly from two issues. First, there’s a perception that the contract was hastily processed without adequate community consultation. It took a mere three days from its introduction to approval. Banfield states that the public couldn’t sufficiently review the contract before it was debated. Only after it entered the National Assembly did a discussion involving public participation commence.

Roberto Ruiz Díaz, an attorney and past diplomat, believes this process breaches the Escazú Agreement, to which Panama is a signatory. He emphasizes that a venture of such scale required broader public input. The Cobre Panamá mine spans roughly 12,000 hectares in the Panamanian Caribbean, inside the Mesoamerican biological corridor, a conservation area. The mine has been operational since 1997. However, a fresh 20-year agreement has now been approved, which might be prolonged to 40 years.

Environmental advocates have raised concerns about the mine’s potential impact on local water sources, which could also affect the Panama Canal’s future expansion. Additionally, Bloomberg has reported six ongoing investigations into the project for potential environmental, heritage, and administrative violations, along with 11 complaints. Minera Panamá hasn’t commented on these findings.

Roberto Cuevas, leader of the Chamber of Mining of Panama, argues that the mine’s location within a protected zone has been beneficial for conservation. He points out that the government had previously not allocated resources for this area’s protection. He believes the company’s detailed environmental plan ensures sustainability and emphasizes the potential job losses if the contract hadn’t been extended.

Panama’s connection with this mine dates back to 1997. It faced legal issues in 2008 and was declared unconstitutional in 2017. However, Minera Panamá commenced copper exports in 2019. Negotiations for a new contract began in 2022, with the public becoming aware in March 2023. The updated contract mandates tax payments by the company and contains provisions for mine closure.

Many believe this contract warrants further scrutiny. So far, it’s been legally contested thrice. Environmentalist Serena Vamvas emphasizes the broader implications of this decision, questioning Panama’s potential transition from a transit-based to an extractive economy.

President Laurentino Cortizo, addressing the continuing demonstrations, highlighted the negative economic impact of the protests and defended the mining agreement, citing its job preservation and revenue generation benefits for retirees.

As dissent grows with slogans like “Panama is not for sale,” various sectors, including doctors and teachers, have joined the protest. Local news reports indicate product shortages, increased security measures, and forceful dispersion of protesters.