Panama: Widespread protests against the biggest copper mining concession
Protests amid contract renewal at the largest copper mine in Central America
Since August 2023, there has been a significant surge of protests in Panama in opposition to the contract between the Panamanian Government and Minera Panamá, a subsidiary of First Quantum Minerals Limited, a Canadian multinational mining company.
Civil society, including indigenous communities, peasant organisations, union activists, teachers, students, former political leaders, constitutional scholars and religious leaders, have expressed concerns about the social and environmental consequences. They have called for the rescinding of the mine’s new contract and have demanded a national referendum on the issue.
In March 2023, the Panamanian government reached a 20-year extendable deal with Minera Panamá to continue operating a copper mine in Colón province, a biodiverse region located 75 miles (120 kilometres) west of the capital. This is the largest open-pit mine in Central America and accounts for around 4% of the country’s GDP.
Concerns regarding environmental impact have been on the rise in recent years. On 17th July 2023, the Environmental Advocacy Centre (Centro de Incidencia Ambiental, CIAM) filed an appeal for legal protection against the government’s agreement with Minera Panamá before the Supreme Court of Justice. CIAM alleges that the government’s decision violated the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement), which Panama ratified in 2020.
On 28th August, hundreds of people gathered in front of the National Assembly as the first of three debates took place to approve Bill 1043, which sanctions the concession agreement. According to the EFE news agency, a small group of protesters removed the protective barriers placed around the parliamentary building and threw paintballs at the police, who responded with tear gas. There were some minor injuries.
In September 2023, following the debates in the Commerce and Economic Affairs Committee of the National Assembly, civil society mobilised to urge lawmakers to reject the agreement. Specifically, on the 5th, 13th and 16th September, thousands marched in Panama City, calling for environmental protection and limitations on mining expansion permits.
#Internacional 🇵🇦 Cada día aumentan más las voces de rechazo a la minería.— Prensa Comunitaria Km169 (@PrensaComunitar) September 8, 2023
Una multitudinaria marcha se llevó a Cabo en Ciudad de Panamá el pasado martes 5 de septiembre, varios sectores continúan rechazando el contrato minero.
📌 Vía @RadioTemblor https://t.co/cdXsZNDMg4
On 28th September, members of one of the country’s most powerful labour groups, the Union of Construction Workers of Panama (Sindicato Único Nacional de Trabajadores de la Industria de la Construccion y Similares, SUNTRACS) demonstrated outside the National Assembly. On the same day, The National Assembly’s Committee approved a resolution requesting the Executive Branch to withdraw Bill 1043 with recommended modifications to address concerns regarding land expropriation, airspace and sovereignty.
Mass protests erupted in October 2023 following the approval of Law 406 on October 20th 2023, which granted mining rights to Minera Panamá. Following this, extensive street demonstrations have been held, demanding the government rescind the contract. On 23rd October, protesters blocked roadways, and the education and medical sectors declared a 48-hour general strike. A day later, the medical sector extended the general strike for a further 72 hours.
During the protest in Panama City, CNN in Spanish reported that protesters threw stones and other objects at the police, who used tear gas and weapons to disperse the demonstration, leading to the arrest of 30 people.
#MoratoriaMineraYa— CIAM Panamá (@ciampanama) October 25, 2023
Son miles los que protestan contra el contrato minero a lo largo de todo el país.
Abajo el Contrato Inconstitucional
Nuestra gente, los ecositemas, la tierra y el agua lo valen#PanamáValeMásSinMinería @ASOPROF30 @Saldelasredespa @YAESYA4 https://t.co/efTFjqSw0l
In anticipation of the largest marches, both the Department of Education and the University of Panama decided to suspend classes on 23rd and 24th October. Later, the suspension was extended for the whole week.
On 24th October, the EFE news agency reported clashes between protesters and police in Colón Province and Panama City. The clashes occurred after protesters threw stones at them in front of the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party and on the grounds of the National Assembly, and the police responded with tear gas. According to the National Police, 445 people have been arrested over the five days of protests.
On 27th October, civil society affirmed that they will remain in the streets and active on social media networks until the repeal of Law 406 is achieved. Since late October 2023, solidarity protests have been reported outside the offices of First Quantum Minerals in Toronto, Canada, and the Embassy of Panama in London, United Kingdom.
These protests represent a significant challenge to the administration of President Laurentino Cortizo, who is ending his five-year term in less than a year. They mark the most notable demonstrations since the large-scale protests in July 2022, which saw thousands of people take to the streets to voice their concerns over rising food and gas costs.
The Executive Branch withdraws the bill that could have hindered the right to access information
On 14th September 2023, the Council of Ministers approved the withdrawal of Bill 1031 from the National Assembly. This bill was intended to replace Law 6 of 2002 regarding Transparency and Access to Public Information, which was under review by the National Assembly’s Government, Justice and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
This occurred after various organisations, including the Inter-American Press Association, expressed concerns about Bill 1031. According to them, the Bill imposed significant limitations on the right to access information, including provisions that curtailed the power of the courts in habeas data actions.