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Protests in Panamá – Outburst Over Mining Contract Sparks a Supreme Court Case

Panamá no se vende. The phrase, which translates to “Panamá is not for sale,” has been proudly carried through the streets of Panamá by protesters following the government’s establishment of Law 406. The law, which passed on October 20th, established a twenty-year mining contract with Minera Panamá, the subsidiary of the Canadian company First Quantum. The demonstrations garnered public support from a coalition of movements, including the Indigenous rights movement, teachers’ unions, and labor rights organizations. These demonstrations have resulted in the arrests of dozens of citizens, as President Cortizo stated that “calls for anarchy” are unacceptable.

  The government began drafting the new contract following a legal challenge made by the Environmental Advocacy Center to the country’s original 1997 deal with the company. The challenge prompted the 2021 Supreme Court Decision that deemed the company’s original contract unconstitutional. The new deal authorizes the company to extract from an open-pit mine in Colon for 20 years and creates the possibility for an additional 20-year extension. In exchange, the company has to pay the country $375 million annually, pay taxes, and dismantle mines that are no longer in commission. 

Proponents of the deal outline the potential financial benefits of the contract. On the 24th of October, President Cortizo stated that the deal was a victory as it “guarantees much better terms and conditions for the country.” He highlighted that the contract would save over 9,000 jobs and contribute to the country’s social security system. The government fears that withdrawing from the deal could cause the expected GDP rise to drop from six percent to one percent. Roberto Cuevas, the president of the Chamber of Mining of Panamá, has also openly expressed his support for the contract. He claims that in addition to the financial benefits the president outlined, the deal will ensure the conservation of the protected land the mine is on. He notes that the company will provide adequate financial resources to protect the land and will have to follow more than 100 regulatory standards that will conserve the land. However, many believe the government’s promise of environmental protection is not credible. 

While many government officials and executives from the mining company have highlighted the positive financial outcomes of the contract, 250,000 Panamanians have taken to the streets to protest the deal. Activists have continuously outlined the environmental impacts the operation of this mine would have on the citizens and wildlife that live in and around what is supposed to be protected land. The mine has already destroyed 3,000 hectares of land in Panamá’s Atlantic Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a biodiverse region integral to the region. The site, which occupies 12,000 hectares of land,  will threaten vital waterways and significantly increase air pollution in the area, placing both Indigenous populations and the country’s endemic species at risk.

Opponents of the contract also highlight its unfair nature, as nine lawsuits claiming it is unconstitutional have caught public attention. Lawyers and advocates highlighted that the approval process of the law, which took place in a 72-hour span, went against the Escazú Agreement because of a severe lack of public participation and failure to acknowledge the wants of the citizens. Additionally, Panamanians are concerned over the breach of sovereignty the contract legalizes. The president of Sustainable Panamá, Raisa Banfield, outlines how it would turn the land into an enclave reminiscent of the Panamá Canal Zone, which the US held under its control until 1999. He believes that “it is not a contract, but a treaty.”

Following public opposition to the contract, on November 3rd, the government passed Bill 1110, a moratorium on any new mining concessions. However, to protect their interests, the government removed the article banning the creation and extension of the contract with the Canadian company. While the moratorium aimed to appease the public and lessen the political tensions, widespread protests continued. After weeks of public demonstrations, the nine lawsuits reached the Supreme Court, which began deliberations about overturning Law 406 on November 24th. The court decided on November 28th and declared that the deal was unconstitutional. Due to the passage of Bill 1110 and this ruling, the government will be unable to craft a new agreement in the future, a significant victory for environmental advocates and Indigenous rights groups alike. 

 

Emma Fulton is from Houston, TX, studying Public Policy

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