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Protests Against Mining Concession Given To Company Intensify In Panama

Above Photo: Panamanians continue to protest against the contract signed between the Laurentino Cortizo government and Minera Panamá S.A., a subsidiary of the Canadian multinational mining company First Quantum Minerals Limited. SUNTRACS/X.

The Panamanian civil society condemned the contract.

Claim that it threatens national sovereignty, attacks Indigenous communities’ rights, and harms the environment

Since early August, Panamanian trade unions, Indigenous groups, and people’s movements have been taking to the streets in different parts of the country in rejection of a concession contract signed in March between the government of President Laurentino Cortizo and Minera Panamá S.A., a subsidiary of the Canadian multinational mining company First Quantum Minerals Limited.

The contract allows the mining company to continue operations at one of Central America’s largest open-pit copper mines, Cobre Panamá, for 20 years, with the possibility of extending the period for another 20 years. It also authorizes the company to build a power plant, a process plant, and an international port—providing services that would be charged, but from which the state would not benefit. It also grants the right to request and ensure that no one flies over the airspace of the mine up to an altitude of 3,000 meters. It establishes that the mining company will pay the state a minimum of USD 375 million a year as royalties.

Panamanian civil society groups have condemned the contract, claiming that it gives FQM too much power, threatens national sovereignty, attacks Indigenous communities’ rights, harms the environment, and damages the country’s vital shipping canal. The protesters have rejected several aspects of the contract, such as the power to acquire land and expropriate it if the owners do not want to sell it; the continued plundering the country’s natural resources with non-binding public consultation process; and use the same water sources as the Panama Canal, a vital part of both the Panamanian and global economies.

The civil sectors have also criticized the contract for lack of transparency and for breaking the Escazú Agreement, which stipulates that the public should be kept informed throughout the consultation processes, not just at the end. They consider the contract illegal and unconstitutional, recalling the 2017 Supreme Court ruling that declared the previous contract unconstitutional since it didn’t comply with corresponding processes, such as conducting a study on impacts of the mining activity on the environment and the lives of the inhabitants.

Thousands of citizens and members of various environmental, Indigenous, peasant, social and students’ organizations, as well as diverse sector trade unions, hit the streets of the capital Panama City almost everyday, demanding that Panamanian legislators reject the bill 1043 that seeks approval of the contract. On September 27, dozens protested outside the hotel W Panama rejecting the contract and criticizing the luxury hotel where “the bureaucrats meet to talk about the environment.”

Saúl Méndez, general secretary of the Single Union of Construction Workers (SUNTRACS), has suggested holding a referendum on the national issue, stressing that “Panamanians must be consulted if they really want a mining country, whose impact compromises health and the environment.”

“The agreement cedes airspace and territory to foreign companies and this is against sovereignty…We do not want more colonial enclaves like the Canal Zone was for years, which the people also took from the United States with their struggles in the streets,” Méndez added.

A series of public debates took place in the first week of September in Colón so that people in the region could express their opinions regarding the mining concession and the bill 1043. Despite the resounding opposition, the consultations are not binding.

From September 19 to 20, the Commerce and Economic Affairs Commission of the National Assembly visited the facilities of the Minera Panamá in the rural area of Colón province. During the visit, the officials spoke with the directors and workers of the company.

The next day, on September 21, the country’s unicameral parliament resumed the debate on bill 1043, while hundreds of citizens demonstrated outside the legislative palace to voice opposition.

The Alianza Pueblo Unido por la Vida (People United for Life Alliance), one of the organizers of the ongoing anti-mining protests, on September 23, presented a criminal complaint for contempt in the National Assembly against President Cortizo for signing an agreement with a foreign company that is harmful to national sovereignty. The complaint includes Judge María Eugenia López, the current head of the Supreme Court, for her complicit position.

The 2017 decision was entirely ignored by the current government and the FQM began exploiting and exporting copper concentrates in June 2019. Last year, it produced over 350,000 tons of the metal. It now accounts for about 5% of Panama’s GDP, and is responsible for about half of FQM’s total production.

People’s movements and social organizations have affirmed that they will remain in the streets and active on social media networks to continue demanding that the legislators reject the contract. They have also warned that if the parliamentarians fail to fulfill their duty, they will be sued for treason against the Nation according to the provisions established in the constitution.

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