By Rekha Chandiramani – Nov 16, 2023
October 18 was a Wednesday. The sun dazzled the asphalt of the street surrounding the National Assembly of Panama in Plaza 5 de Mayo in the capital’s center. But it was not just any day. Dozens of social activists, environmentalists, and students stood with banners and megaphones, protesting peacefully outside the chamber. The reason? That day, the bill that would legalize the massive copper mining that the Canadian First Quantum is already extracting in the north of the country began to be “discussed” in the second debate, In quotes, because it was never really discussed. The Assembly had approved the project two days before in its first debate during a brief session.
Although, legally, the sessions must allow the presence and participation of the public, the police force sealed the premises with fences and a shield. No one other than the deputies could enter. That day, Aubrey Baxter, photojournalist and member of the environmental collective Ya es Ya, the Panamanian chapter of International Scientific Rebellion, lost his right eye when a police officer shot him with a pepper pellet from less than five meters away.
#EsNoticia🔴 La marcha pacífica que se llevaba a cabo en las inmediaciones de la @asambleapa en rechazo al contrato minero, termina en enfrentamientos entre los manifestantes y las unidades de @ProtegeryServir. pic.twitter.com/Zp3xFV7lkl
— ECO TV (@ecotvpanama) November 2, 2023
Events like this have forced the international media to change their focus on Panama, a country better known for its economic exceptionalism than for its social crises. But today, it is immersed in a popular outburst that has escalated to levels not seen for at least 30 years, when the same Panamanian population rose up in unison against the dictatorial regime of Manuel Antonio Noriega.
This time, Panamanians joined in unison to condemn the mining contract that legalizes the extraction of copper and other minerals already being exploited by Minera Panamá, a subsidiary of the Canadian company First Quantum, which has a concession of almost 13,000 hectares in the north of Panama, in the heart of its Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. There, it extracts copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum in two huge open pits. It began exports in mid-2019 and has already invoiced more than $10 billion just from its Cobre Panamá mine in Donoso.
— pictoline (@pictoline) October 30, 2023
In 2017, the Supreme Court declared the Law 9 contract that protected the First Quantum concession unconstitutional, but the ruling was never executed. Both the mining company’s lawyers and the government of then-president Juan Carlos Varela filed a series of appeals in the Court that delayed the final decision, only becoming final at the end of 2021 when the Court reaffirmed the unconstitutionality and denied all appeals. However, this did not stop the company from beginning to extract and export, even without a contract. Both Varela and the current president, Laurentino Cortizo, allowed it to continue operating under euphemistic statements and figures such as the supposed defense of “legal security,” jobs, or its contribution to the country’s GDP.
The Cortizo government appointed six of the nine judges currently in the Court. The same government took four years to publish the ruling of unconstitutionality in the Official Gazette. Meanwhile, it was “negotiating” a “new contract” behind the backs of Panamanians who, in various surveys, dialogues, and studies, have made clear their opposition to open sky mining in Panama.
The issue is not new. Since 1998, several lawsuits against Petaquilla Minerals, the original concessionaire, attempted to stop the construction of the mine now in the hands of [Canada’s] First Quantum. The Court took almost 20 years to issue a ruling, This delay allowed the consolidation of a de facto commercial relationship that favors the mining company, which has exploited the deposit without paying royalties or taxes since 2019.
To make matters worse, the new contract was negotiated without considering the multiple problems that citizens today have. Among them, climatic vulnerabilities, the risk of contaminating water sources, fear of displacement of surrounding communities, air pollution, the devastation of virgin forest in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the disappearance of thousands of species, and all the damages that come with open pit mining in a rainy tropical country of only 29,157 square miles. Last year, the newspaper La Prensa reported that Minera Panamá caused at least 209 environmental damages recorded by the Ministry of the Environment.
La minería a cielo abierto en este país no es viable ambientalmente porque compromete la vida de la biodiversidad y de varias generaciones. Varios países ya lo han prohibido. @biomuseo pic.twitter.com/KHHSf8ubSL
— Anibal Fossatti C. (@anibalfossatti) October 29, 2023
Ignoring the environmental damage and without complying with the popular consultation [the main reasons why it was declared unconstitutional the first time], the government presented a second version of the contract to the Assembly on October 16. The first version was withdrawn due to the population’s rejection of its Leonine Clauses. The second version passed the three debates in the Assembly in less than a week and was signed and published in the Official Gazette on Friday, October 20. Thus, the new contract Law Number 406 was born with lightning speed. All in the same week that Baxter lost his eye.
From that moment on, the protests against open-pit mega-mining in Panama intensified. Day by day, more sectors have joined: young people, doctors, trade unions, professionals, environmentalists, and citizens in general. The images on social media speak for themselves, condemning the mining contract from the provinces of Chiriquí, in the west of the country, to Darién, on the border with Colombia.
As the days passed, the struggle began to claim lives. As of November 9, four people had died directly related to the anti-mining protests and street closures. The first was Agustín Rodríguez Morales, a 49-year-old teacher protesting on October 26 in Colón, the province where the mine is located in the north of Panama. The second was Milton Cedeño García, a 42-year-old indigenous teacher in Horconcitos, Chiriquí province. The two most recent martyrs of mining have been Abdiel Díaz and Iván Rodríguez, shot to death in the Chame district near the capital by a US-born lawyer with a criminal record who was traveling on the highway and wanted to open the road [at gunpoint] while the teachers protested [killing them in cold blood and in front of cameras].
Hombre mata a dos #manifestantes durante #protesta en #Panamá
La policía publicó una foto del sospechoso del doble crimen, ya detenido e identificado como #KennethDarlington, de 77 años. (gs)https://t.co/PxiuTCSgaX
— DW Español (@dw_espanol) November 8, 2023
That tragic outcome confirmed that the Panamanian government has imposed the mining contract to the point of bullets, police repression, propaganda with state funds, criminalization of environmentalists, and illegal arrests for exercising the right to protest. Both the Ombudsman’s Office and the IACHR denounced the excessive use of force by police forces.
After a week of increasingly intense protests and the first death, the government reacted tepidly by presenting to the Assembly a project for a moratorium on future mining concessions after accumulating more than 100 requests from different sources. The deputies apologized for approving Law 406, with many confessing that they had not even read it. They tried to correct their “error” by including an article to repeal it, before giving in to pressure from some jurists and groups, including environmentalists, who decided to wait for a ruling of unconstitutionality for Law 406, which has already accumulated more than eight lawsuits in court.
However, the protests have not stopped. People no longer believe in an institution that, beyond the legal formalities, continues to guarantee the continuity of the mine’s operation, which the company promised in communications to its investors and as publically stated by the Mining Chamber. It was not in vain that the Cortizo government said Panama would no longer be a country that mines, but rather a mining country.
This fundamentally contrasts with the canal economy, a transit economy that fundamentally depends on the availability of fresh water for the operation of the interoceanic waterway. The immense line of boats waiting to cross also shines the spotlight on the future sustainability of Panama, a country in which three out of every 10 inhabitants do not have a permanent water supply in their homes. Water would no longer be shared only between the population and the canal since open pit mega-mining also consumes enormous quantities.
That is precisely what thousands and thousands of Panamanians who have been occupying the streets for three weeks reject. They shout the slogan that Panama is worth more without mining. The teachers add that “the bloodshed will never be forgotten.”
Translation: Orinoco Tribune
- orinocotribunehttps://orinocotribune.com/author/orinocotribune/February 24, 2024
- orinocotribunehttps://orinocotribune.com/author/orinocotribune/February 22, 2024