Climate journalism is urgent. Help US raise $125,000 by December's end.
On Oct. 20, the Panamanian government of Laurentino Cortizo and the Toronto-based copper mining company First Quantum Minerals signed a contract renewing the company's concession for another 20 years.
Since then, Panamanian society has erupted in protest.
The story has been covered by major media outlets across the world, but here in Canada? Hardly a word. This has Panamanians puzzled. It is, after all, a Canadian mining company that is the chief motive for the most important political and social crisis to rock this country in over a generation.
Every year, tens of thousands of Canadians vacation in Panama. Many of them even own property there. Today, however, the travel advisory is up and for good reason. It is impossible to travel through Panama City on account of the massive daily demonstrations. The beautiful Casco Antiguo, a favourite of tourists, is saturated with tear gas. The major highways of the country have been shut down.
In small towns and neighbourhoods, people have spontaneously gathered to sing their outrage to the rhythms of the tamboritos, the drum at the heart of Panamanian culture. On Thursday, a massive convoy of dump trucks headed into the backcountry to do what the government refuses to do: shut down First Quantum's copper mine. On Friday, a flotilla left from Colón to block the mine's port facilities on the Caribbean.
The protests have put the Panamanian government on the back foot and, in a bid to calm things down, declared a moratorium on all future mining in the country. To little effect. People are demanding the annulment of the contract and the definitive closure of the mine, or failing that, its nationalization.
All of this may seem like a lot of political heat for a copper mine. Panamanians, however, are clear about why they are in the streets: "El oro de Panamá es verde" (Panama's gold is green). They don't see this mine in their future. First Quantum's operation is a very large project, one of the largest copper mines in the Americas. It occupies the ancestral territories of the Ngäbé and the Buglé peoples.
It has punched a 6,000-hectare hole of open pits and tailings ponds in the middle of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Three watersheds have been entirely ploughed under. Communities have been expelled from their homes.
But what cuts even more sharply is the fact that in 2017, Panama's highest court ruled that First Quantum's concession was unconstitutional. The passing of the contract into law has now resolved this problem for the company.
A Canadian mining company is the chief motive for the most important political and social crisis to rock Panama in over a generation, writes Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert. #mining #cdnpoli
Not for the people of Panama. They are asking for something else: a country of cultural and natural riches, of living waters and forests. This mine, they say, will only leave devastation and four pennies in their pocket.
The question they ask me is: What says Canada? The Canadian embassy in Panama has given the new law its blessing, but Panamanians clearly know the difference between citizens and government. Do we support this or do we stand with the people of Panama?
It would be useful if our national media were to provide some serious attention to the case. We could then begin to make up our own minds on the subject.
As part of my job, I have been in a position to follow the story of this project closely since 2009: the destruction of the land, the disruptions to community life, the political shenanigans. Given what I've seen, I, for one, agree that another 20 years of this will only bring immeasurably more harm than good for Panama.
Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert teaches Latin American and environmental history at McGill University. He is the director of the Panama Field Study Semester and has worked with rural and indigenous communities in the area of the mine for over a dozen years.