Panama: Ecological uprising evicts transnational mining company

December 5, 2023
protesters holding signs, open cut mine
An estimated 1 million people took to the streets of Panama in protests, on November 22. Cobre Panama mine. Photos: @suntracsC/X (top) and (bottom)

Panama’s Supreme Court has ruled that the contract signed between the state and Minera Panamá to operate the Cobre Panamá mine is unconstitutional, following weeks of mass sustained protests demanding its closure.

Minera Panamá — a subsidiary of transnational First Quantum Minerals (FQM) — had been exploiting the huge open-pit copper and gold mine in the ecologically sensitive Mesoamerican Biological Corridor for the past 20 years.

But under a new contract approved by Congress in October, Minera Panamá was set to extend its operations there for another 20 years, with further powers to expropriate nearby lands outside its existing concession and divert entire rivers for private use.

To find out more about the mass environmental uprising that evicted a mining transnational, Green Left’s Federico Fuentes and Revista Movimento’s Antonio Neto spoke to José Cambra, a socialist activist and Association of Professors of Panama (ASOPROF) member.

* * *

Can you explain the trigger for these protests?

The Panamanian constitution prohibits the administration of Panama's natural resources by foreign states. FQM is owned by capital from Canada, United States, South Korea and China. It is not just a private foreign company, it is also in part owned by capital from these foreign states.

Despite this, the company had been exploiting copper and other minerals at the mine without paying tax between 2017 and 2023. According to FQMs financial reports, the Cobre Panama mine accounted for 48% of FQM’s global profits.

The issue came to a head in August, when the government presented a new contract to the Assembly of Deputies. Trade unions, lawyers and environmentalists responded by saying the contract had the same flaw as previous ones, and that the Supreme Court should declare the government in contempt because the contract was unconstitutional.

Instead, Congress approved the contract on October 21 after only three days of discussion. This provoked a social explosion in a country already fed up with the unaffordable price of medicines, the lack of social security and the very high cost of living.

Panama had experienced mobilisations last year that forced the government into an agreement on some of these issues. But the government failed to fulfil them. So, the people took to the streets again.

Could you tell us a bit more about last year’s mobilisations?

The intensity of these most recent protests can largely be explained by the non-fulfilment of last year’s agreement.

In 2022, we saw the biggest mobilisations this country had seen up to that point. All over the country, there were demonstrations, marches and confrontations with the police demanding a reduction in the cost of medicines and food.

All this resulted in public negotiations between the government and the organisations that led the struggle. We demanded the negotiations be broadcast on TV, which was spectacular.

By the end, the business chamber was asking the president to shut down the broadcast because the whole country was listening to the debate, in which the oligarchy was being publicly denounced.

A very large part of the population followed the negotiations, something that is rarely seen. All of a sudden, people in the streets were saying to us: “Hey, I agree with what you were talking about yesterday, I agree it should be like that."

Mobilisations took place every day for a month. Though they were not as big as the recent ones, there were large marches in Panama City — Panama’s biggest city —  mainly led by the teachers union, ASOPROF, and the construction workers' union, SUNTRACS.

ASOPROF and SUNTRACS have also played an important role in the latest struggles. Can you explain why?

Yes, that is right. We started building an alliance together of popular organisations at the beginning of last year. Unfortunately, we did not manage to draw everyone into this alliance, but we did manage to involve many other organisations.

This alliance is called People United for Life Alliance (APUV). It involves SUNTRACS, ASOPROF, community movements, youth movements. It is a very strong alliance, but it is not the only alliance.

There is also the National Alliance for the Rights of the Organised People (ANADEPO) and the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP).

It is important to note that First Nations peoples played a very important role in these recent protests, particularly the Ngäbe who throughout blockaded the Inter-American Highway heading towards Costa Rica, successfully shutting down one of Panama’s most important highways.

In terms of my union, ASOPROF, we held teachers’ assemblies in each region after the October 21 vote, at which members voted to go on a 48-hour strike. This strike was then extended for another 48 hours and on October 30 we declared an indefinite strike.

By November 3, it was clear that protests had gone to a new level. There were road blockades all over the country, far beyond what we saw in 2022. People we had never come across at protests, but who were fed up with the current situation, came out to blockade streets in their neighbourhoods.

There were also spontaneous calls on social media for marches along the Coastal Beltway in Panama City, which at one point mobilised a quarter of a million people against mining.

There were also important protests by communities living in the areas surrounding the mine. When consulted by Congress deputies, they said they were totally against the project.

So much so that fisherfolk began sabotaging the mine by preventing boats from leaving the mine with ore or entering with supplies of coal required to produce electricity for the mine. They essentially forced the mine to shut down.

In some cases, this meant having to confront the Panamanian Naval Force. For this, the population considers them heroes.

On land, local communities and truck drivers blockaded roads going to the mines, successfully sabotaging its operation. All this was an incredible expression of strength.

Of course, behind this eruption of protests was discontent over water shortages, electricity blackouts, the lack of jobs for youths, and the corruption and privileges of the pro-bosses politicians.

This created an effective breeding ground for the biggest mobilisations we have ever seen in this country, with an estimated 1 million people on the streets across the whole country on November 22.

What we saw was a truly self-managed movement, where different sections, for example the fisherfolk, made decisions based on their local knowledge and carried them out with the support of the rest of the movement. We saw youth organising direct actions and organising self-defence guards.

There was a rupture between civil society and political society. The level of political disaffection was so high that it would not be unfair to characterise it as a pre-revolutionary situation. There was no power vacuum nor were permanent bodies of dual power created. But the mobilisations were so strong that they acted as an independent power.

As a result of all this, the Supreme Court ruled the mine contract as unconstitutional on November 28. The protests also forced the minister of commerce, who signed the contract, to resign, and the approval in early November of a mining moratorium law halting any further concessions from being granted.

Where next for the struggle?

While the struggle was for the mine’s closure, we recognise that there are still about 5000 workers employed at the mine. Our proposal is that those same workers preside over the gradual closure of the mine.

We understand the mine cannot be shut down straight away, that what is required are measures for a safe and ecological reconversion of the site. We believe the workers should stay on for that process.

We have also proposed that a commission involving workers' and popular organisations, as well environmentalists with technical expertise, be formed to preside over this process. We are not in favour of nationalising the mine, as this would mean the state paying for the reconversion process.

Instead the mining company, which was responsible for having contaminated the environment and which took so much profit out of the country, should bear the costs. Our slogan is: "make the polluters pay".

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