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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2011 > June 2011 > Panama’s Open-Pit Crisis: The Indigenous Struggle Against Mining

Panama’s Open-Pit Crisis: The Indigenous Struggle Against Mining

Wednesday 1 June 2011, by Salma Moolji

Dawn cracks with the swift motion of clouds cresting over the peaks of Panama’s rolling cordillera. It is six am; the roosters are already crowing and the children, already crying in the indigenous territory—the comarca Ngöbe-Buglé. Nestled over three Panamanian provinces, the comarca is home to just over one hundred and fifty thousand Ngöbe, who constitute the largest indigenous population in Panama and one of the largest in Latin America. Despite the morning chaos, the restless beauty of Cerro Colorado’s untouched wilderness is staggering. It is however, a beauty in imminent danger of disappearing.

Cerro Colorado, sitting at the heart of the Ngöbe comarca, is one of the world’s five largest copper deposits. If exploited, the mine would expose an open-pit of six hundred and thirty square kilometers, leveling the mountain. Discovered in the early 1970s, the deposit was quickly contracted, prospected and subject to development. It was also however, a great subject of contention. Even in its exploration phase, the mining of Cerro Colorado was an issue strong enough to unite the indigenous Ngöbe. Their subsequent fight resulted in Law 10, which formed the comarca Ngöbe-Buglé as a semi-autonomous territory in 1997. Plunging copper prices in the 1970s and 1990s left the battle and the mountain behind—twice—but only temporarily. It was only a matter of time before Cerro Colorado would rise from the recesses of market memory and into the economically sewn pockets of mining corporations.

In February 2011, mining was propelled back into the Panamanian spotlight. Martinelli’s government modified Law 8, which outlines the 1963 Mining Code to allow foreign state-owned enterprises to invest in Panama’s mines. With a rocky history of American colonization still fresh on Panamanian minds, Article 3 of the constitution strictly regulates foreign investment. Yet, the increasing scale of open-pit projects requires more, and larger investors—a role that can be filled by companies owned by foreign states. Perched to oblige, South Korea’s LS-Nikko Copper Inc. is forecast to buy a fifth of Minera Panama, and Singapore’s Temasek Holdings Ltd. has taken an interest in Inmet’s Cobre Panama project in Coclesito, Colón.

While legislation is specifically targeted at operating mines and secured concessions, some Panamanians saw the mining code change as a preemptive move to secure future investment in the mining of Cerro Colorado.
A torrent of protests swept the streets. Shutting down the Transamerican Highway on three separate occasions and crowding the gates of the University of Panama, Ngöbe, campesinos and students demonstrated, touting that they had not been blindsided by the government’s move. Scurrying to unblock the road for carnival, Martinelli cancelled the changes to Law 8 and in a statement claimed Cerro Colorado would be “neither promoted nor exploited;” a skeptical promise at best.

The vast majority of Ngöbe people are profoundly against mining. Initial exploration in the 1970s left Cerro Colorado jagged-edged by terraces of removed earth. The seventeen communities immediately surrounding the mountain witnessed as the mine caused a series of fish kills, increased dust and pollution, increased noise pollution, contaminated their water and allegedly caused serious illness. Traditional agriculture was abandoned—crops grew poorly if at all. The new mine workers’ camp brought an onslaught of non-indigenous workers, horrifying jobs, and quickly posed a threat to local culture. Even those that found employment at the mine site testified, “It was a horror to live; dirty, cold and hungry. Nobody wanted to be in that godforsaken place.”

One of the most concerning issues is that the Cerro Colorado watershed extends in both directions, to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The mountain is where the comarca’s rivers are born. The San Felix River serves as the main water source not only for the comarca, but for surrounding towns including San Felix and Las Lajas. A traditional authority stated,

“Our only weapon is reason and strength in numbers with which we will confront the government to make them understand that we love, respect and will defend nature, because it is nature that we depend on. Not on arms or explosives. Not on tear gas, nor on police that oppress the people. We do not believe in this society, in the politics that Martinelli believes in.”

By exemplifying the negative impacts both socially and environmentally, it is not hard to understand why Ngöbe opposition to mining is so strong. Despite Martinelli’s promise to leave Cerro Colorado out of Panama’s mining industry, copper’s skyrocketing price makes a tempting offer. Indeed, Corriente Resources Inc. has been operating training sessions in the region since 2009, through an affiliated consulting agency; Kokopelli. Kokopelli’s directive is as a “stakeholder relations firm that works directly with industry to build sustainable, respectful and responsible relationships with Indigenous communities and other stakeholder groups.” Clearly, the Ngöbe of the comarca are a “stakeholder” in something, even though Cerro Colorado “won’t be mined.”

International regulations stipulate consulting indigenous communities in large projects through the notion of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC; see Oxfam’s guide to FPIC for more information). Kokopelli’s training sessions provide food and promise home improvements as incentives to attend, in exchange for a signature. What people initially did not know was that their signature bore testament to “Ngöbe support” for mining in the comarca. Additionally, no concrete skills can be divined from the training sessions. This form of consent is neither free, prior nor informed. No information is given about the potential consequences of mining, only about its economic and development benefits.

Already starkly divided communities are struggling with the dichotomy of development. What Corriente Resources Inc. promises through Kokopelli could mean better roads, schools, healthcare and opportunities. The local Ngöbe NGO, Jandrän, supported by consultants, claims a fifty percent profit retention for the comarca is possible. This unlikely figure compares to the current regulation of two percent profit returns to Panama (changed to four percent by Law 8, which was subsequently cancelled returning the rate to two percent). The lack of honest consultation leaves promises empty and words simply words. As for examples to turn to, in Panama, the prospects are not good.

Panama’s only operating mine, the Petaquilla Gold Mine, exemplifies the potential issues all too well. The myriad of problems range from contaminated water to skin diseases and pollution, from increased sex and drug trafficking related to mine workers to community divisions. This, all amongst the promise of development that, years later, has yet to come to fruition.

Yes, mining can bring development opportunities. In a region forgotten by Panamanian governments dating back to the early 1970s, someone has finally taken a substantial interest in poverty alleviation and development. Those that follow mining have the legitimate right to want such improvements for themselves. But with indeterminate possibilities, risks and consequences, it is difficult at best to make good, informed decisions.

Tensions in the comarca are at an all time high. Amidst a stream of constant protests and road blockings within the comarca boundaries, conflicts have escalated to car burnings and fake kidnappings from both sides of the debate. Now, the general sentiment is to extricate mining companies as quickly as possible.

The impressive roster of supportive signatures is artificially made longer by misleading Ngöbe. Martinelli’s consultations with indigenous community groups are best described as a circus—a government-appointed ring master leading act after act of misrepresentation of the true community sentiment. The whole situation is orchestrated by false promises.

A council of representatives, the Coordinadora, has been meeting with the government to demand twelve points of change regarding extractive resource practices in the comarca, including Panama’s ratification of ILO 169 which would strengthen their international legal rights. For now, the Ngöbe are not backing down: “A battle is coming, we know this.” If the real battle is not here yet, imagine the aftermath to come.

Panama City, Panama