Panama’s Massive Environmental Awakening

The Canadian-owned mine at the center of a national uprising will be shut down. But differing environmentalisms in the isthmus may now be on a collision course against one another.

December 1, 2023

Campesinos in Cañazas, Veraguas province, Panama, demonstrate on the property of Minera Santa Rosa, an open-pit gold mine that operated in the 1990s. With the mine expected to reopen, mobilizations have reactivated amid national protests against extractivism. (Olmedo Carrasquilla Aguila / Radio Temblor Internacional)

In a win for historic protests against a controversial transnational copper mine, Panama’s Supreme Court has ruled the project’s contract unconstitutional. For weeks, unrest centered on the immediate goal of undoing Law No. 406, the Mining Concession Law that adopted a contract between the state and Minera Panamá, a subsidiary of the Canadian-based First Quantum Minerals (FQM). For 20 years, FQM has exploited an enormous open-pit copper and gold mine on the borders of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a natural land bridge stretching from Panama to southern Mexico. The legislature’s backroom dealings and speedy approval of the law on October 20 were the last straw for a disgruntled population and emerging environmental movements.

While the mining contract prompted the recent marches and road blockades, discontent with political clientelism and the high cost of living boosted the scale of the protests. Amid this host of grievances, the environmental aspect quickly gained momentum and probably will outweigh other concerns in the long-term significance of this mass movement. Reaching an entirely larger scale than prior movements against neoliberal reforms, the anti-mining protests mobilized the middle classes and regularly apolitical sectors of the population like never seen in modern Panama, perhaps since the anti-colonial struggle against U.S. control of the Panama Canal in the mid-20th century. In short, the events of recent weeks set off a chain reaction that I can only describe as a massive environmental awakening. Masses have now joined the broad environmental movement, and it is possible that these debates will occupy an unprecedented role in the upcoming 2024 elections.

The latest uprising comes after a 2022 wave of protests that erupted in response to rising gas prices. That protest cycle demonstrated how Panama’s most significant calls for reform tend to become channeled by traditional organized groups such as the militant SUNTRACS union and teachers’ unions—jointly called “the social movement” in Panama. In response, since the return to democracy in 1990, the state has employed traditional repression and delay tactics to neutralize mobilizations, especially those that draw significant numbers from the middle classes and an unorganized, increasingly distraught youth.

This has especially been the case in the 2023 anti-mining protests. While the government was able to limit the gains of the 2022 movement to little more than a long-lasting fuel subsidy, the 2023 protests might change the national economic portfolio to a less extractivist one. This would ultimately complicate the political class’s ability to make up for a deteriorating economic model based on the transit of ships, goods, capital, and services.

Among the mining contract’s worst terms were its threats to the lands of the smallholders near the mine. The contract, which extended operations at Cobre Panamá for at least 20 years, clearly gave the company the power to expropriate nearby lands not included in the concession and to divert entire rivers for its purposes—conditions reminiscent of U.S. control over the Canal Zone. This explains some of the protest’s nationalist slogans evoking mid-20th century anti-colonialism, even though the young, sign-wielding protesters did not experience the Canal Zone enclave firsthand.

Protests Erupt

In the early days of the protests in late October, mobilizations in Panama City were characterized by their plurality, and by police repeatedly tear-gassing peaceful actions. Business activity ground to a halt. Organized roadblocks soon sprouted up in other cities and along the country’s highway system. Business associations allege that roadblocks have caused up to $80 million in daily losses. The scale and reach of mobilization were surprising given the deterioration of Panamanian social fabric under the pressures of neoliberalism, gang violence, and an ever more debilitated agricultural sector.

The first week of protests included two broad groups of people: those opposed to the specific contract approved, and those opposed to open-pit mining in general. Many leaders and intellectuals denounced the contract as “leonino,” akin to other mining contracts in the region in the 1970s and 1980s that created enclaves where local labor, environmental, and accounting codes did not apply. Environmental issues aside, the contract was an awful reminder that business interests have completely penetrated the public service since the return to democracy. As an environmental lawyer and journalist found, for every ton of copper, Panama gets half the royalties given to Zambia, where FQM also operates a massive copper mine. Moreover, the revolving door between the government and the mining company—through which the current vice president passed—fueled condemnations of a corrupt political-economic partnership.

Opposition to mining in Panama has been historically limited to affected communities and urban, mostly middle-class groups and intellectuals. The major unions have also been vocal opponents of mining, despite organizing the mine’s employees prior to the institution of employer-controlled “yellow” unions. Over time, the unions have opposed additional land concessions given to the Cobre Panamá mine and its use of Asian laborers in contravention of Panamanian laws.

The first round of protests, which mobilized this traditional opposition to open-pit mining in the country, was very effective in making the government backtrack some of the more egregious articles in the contract. However, the legislature doubled down, quickly passing a revised but still very controversial law on October 21.

Beyond the traditional anti-mining movement, the protests have been effective in swaying or crystalizing public opinion against mining, even among some pro-extractive sectors. Indeed, the mobilizations may be labeled paradigm-changing. The Chamber of Commerce even called for a moratorium on future mining concessions, which President Laurentino Cortizo promptly conceded. This had been one of his 2019 campaign promises, but other concerns such as the pandemic and the service-based economy losing many of its competitive advantages on the international stage took priority.

A demonstration along Panama City's Cinta Costera. Thousands of people mobilized against Law 406, which activated the contract between the state and the Cobre Panamá open-pit gold and copper mine, as well as against the impacts of mining on the environment and people in general. (Olmedo Carrasquilla Aguila / Radio Temblor Internacional)

Environmental groups, issue-specific protesters, and media elites called for patience and trust in the judiciary to declare the contract unconstitutional. All of the current members of the Supreme Court had declared a version of the contract unconstitutional once before, in 2018. But more radical voices, including the “social movement” and Indigenous groups such as the Ngäbe, who historically protest by blocking the artery that connects the capital to the agricultural heartland of the isthmus towards Costa Rica, had reason to call that position naïve: the Supreme Court sat on the original contract for 20 years, and Panama’s is the only relevant judiciary in the continent that has yet to find anyone guilty of Odebrecht-related corruption. The much-maligned judiciary has, however, regained some trust in recent years.

The Supreme Court decision—released on November 28, the day Panama commemorates its independence from Spain—found that the mining contract violated 25 articles of the constitution. The news has been welcomed by all groups, even amid friction between protesters. Days before the announcement, the social movement’s demand for the mining law to be overturned fell through after the Attorney General declared it unviable. President Cortizo has committed to respecting the Supreme Court decision and announced a gradual closing of the mine. Yet, some voices in the executive have openly questioned the mining moratorium approved in the heat of the first week of protests.

Growing Environmental Consciousness

The Cobre Panamá mine in Donoso—some 40 miles from Gatun Lake, the Canal’s main reservoir—has become one the largest copper mines in Central America. Since 2019, it has contributed around 5 percent of Panama's gross domestic product, comparable to what the Canal brings in. Despite the importance of mining in today’s Panama, its institutions have not developed the capacity to perform real oversight. The protests have generated more awareness than ever about mining, which occurs in places far from where the vast majority of the population lives along the interoceanic corridor. In recent days, videos about the legacy of the industry in Cañazas, Veraguas, taken in front of a cyanide vat used by the local gold mining industry, have gone viral. Videos about the human health consequences of mining in the country, which have yet to be studied widely, are also popular.

Young urbanites and rural Panamanians living in the vicinity of extractive sacrifice zones have something in common: an awareness of the need to fight for the integrity of watersheds. Among other factors, the environmental education curriculum instituted at the turn of the century in public and private schools has promoted consciousness of what it means to live in a humid, tropical isthmus in the 21st century.

The main slogans of the more environmentally minded protesters, conveyed in the creative protest signs, often had to do with river pollution and river appropriation by the mining company. The defense of “our rivers” became a central cry—a cry that echoes decades-old peasant struggles against mining and mirrors regional trends. While Minister of the Environment Milciades Concepción, claims that the company has passed every Environmental Impact Assessment conducted on the rivers, protesters understand the real environmental impact cannot be grasped by the indicators used to measure it. In Panama, protecting “our rivers” also has a special connotation linked to its attachment to the Canal as a transit monoculture, which makes the slogan more than just an environmental demand.

Recent problems in Panama have made citizens more aware of the importance of watershed governance across the isthmus. The transfer of the Canal to the Republic in 1999 led the nascent Panamanian Canal Authority (ACP) to look for new sources of water to ensure the waterway’s freshwater supply and possible expansion. This involved the prospect of damming the Indio, Caño Sucio, and Coclé del Norte rivers, all located outside the Canal Watershed, and all with valleys that organized vibrant communities dominated by smallholders.

Peasant organizations aided by some sections of civil society, notably the Catholic Church, resisted. They effectively staved off the Canal’s appropriation of their freshwater. But the expansion of the Canal through a third set of larger locks still went through after a referendum in 2006. More recently, contamination of the important La Villa river in 2014 set off minor demonstrations, and recurrent protests against the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam project in the Ngäbe-Bugle Indigenous comarca last flared up in 2016. Minor and localized urban struggles have also taken shape against real estate developer-caused flooding or a lack of water services, such as those waged by the Juan Diaz or Chilibre river committees in the capital. Although these issues have on occasion galvanized populations far from the affected river basins, nothing has reached the scale of the recent anti-mining protests.

A factor working against this awakening was the company’s public relations and investment. In recent years, FQM has spent lavishly on a public communications strategy to paint its operations favorably. TV and radio stations, as well as streaming services, featured their ads on almost every commercial break. Intellectual and cultural institutions have enjoyed the mine’s patronage. Even my favorite soccer team’s jersey, Árabe Unido de Colón, features a massive FQM logo. Cobre Panamá’s podcast, also broadcast on radio stations, depicts a mining-fueled utopia. Cobre Panamá has sponsored the National Prize for Journalism and featured some leading media personalities in pro-mining roundtables. FQM’s money has reached everywhere from school academic competitions, the national baseball federation, and the International Congress of Engineering when it was hosted in Panama in 2012. 

The Canal Consensus

FQM’s propaganda machine is only rivaled by the ACP’s efforts to align the national interests with those of the Canal (and by the embattled government’s efforts to revive its image, tarnished by Covid-19 and continuing ineffectiveness). The ACP, an apolitical government agency created in 1999 to steward the Panama Canal Watershed, has played a major role in shaping the environmental education imparted in schools, even beyond its home basin. This education, which is also reinforced in the ACP’s significant propaganda apparatus, has strengthened Panamanian’s culture of water. Thus, many Panamanians were scandalized by the prospect that the mining company would have the ability to affect or even appropriate rivers that the Canal could eventually “need” to maintain competitiveness as a trade route.

The Canal has been expanding its limits as set by the original 1903 treaty using the rationale of water shortages since at least the 1920s. The nationalization of the waterway meant that maintaining competitiveness as a trade route became a major national security concern. This same logic might finally allow the waterway to break out of the confines of the Rio Chagres and the historical Rio Grande basins and start colonizing other watersheds, such as the ones close to the mine in question. This idea is rarely questioned in Panamanian traditional media. Yet this unquestioned canalero faith has led many to question the viability of mining.

Perhaps, in a few years or maybe months, when the ACP finally comes looking for those rivers that the mine has in its sights, a local population will rise again against the expropriation of its water by the industry that has come to represent the national interest. This will be a moment of reckoning for this rekindled nationalist environmentalism, and the population might have to question some of the elements of the environmental education it currently receives, which implicitly teaches that all rivers are potential reservoirs for the Canal. But for now, the green extractivism of the Canal is helping defeat the brown extractivism of copper mining.

Francisco Javier Bonilla is a historian of water in Panama and a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American Environmental History in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.