MAC: Mines and Communities

Calls for Panama to Ensure the Safety of Mining Protesters

Published by MAC on 2011-03-01
Source: Bloggernews, Panama News

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya, has urged Panama's government to ensure the safety of indigenous peoples, farmers and others protesting against new reforms to the country's mining code.

Previous MAC article: Controversial mining law green-lighted, Panama


UN Special Rapporteur Urges Panama to Ensure the Safety of Protesters

By John Schertow

21 February 2011

Protestors against Panamanian mining law
Angry protesters outside the legislative palace. Photo: Panama News

Dozens of men, women and children have been injured and arrested since the protests began on February 7, when Panama's National Assembly was still debating the reforms. Most recently, on February 18, anti-riot units from Panama's National Police clashed with unarmed Ngobe-Bugle protesters in the province of Chiriqui. At least five people were arrested and several more were injured.

Despite the repeated clashes, the Ngobe are now getting ready for an "indefinite" statewide protest beginning on Feb. 24, 2011. At least 15,000 Ngobe people from all parts of Panama are expected to participate.

In his Feb. 15 statement, unofficially translated to English, the Special Rapporteur comments, "I am aware that there has been a call for new mobilizations for the near future. In this context, I urge the Government of Panama to take the necessary measures to ensure the safety of the people who participate in the demonstrations and avoid acts that may affect their lives and personal safety."

The Special Rapporteur further points to "the importance of initiating, as soon as possible, a process of consultation with indigenous peoples in good faith, with the goal of finding a peaceful way out of this tense situation and dealing with the root problems of this situation, related to the [reforms]".

Panama's National Assembly's approved the reforms on Feb. 10, giving foregin governments like Canada and South Korea the right to invest in mining projects. The government says the reform will be be a major boon to Panama's economy.

The Ngobe fear that it also paves the way for new mining projects on their lands. They are especially concerned about Cerro Colorado, a huge mountain located on the Ngobe's ancestral lands in Western Panama. Cerro Colorado is believed to hold one of the largest copper reserves in the world.

Government officials say the refom won't endanger Cerro Colorado or any indigenous lands in Panama. However, in March 2010, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli pledged to give Cerro Colorado to the South Korean government. President Martinelli said at the time,"With pleasure we will change the [mining] law... I want the Korean government [sic], together with the Canadians, North Americans and the stock market, to develop this mine [at Cerro Colorado]."

Human rights and environmental groups, workers and university students are also protesting the reforms, out of concern that new mining operations in Panama would threaten water supplies and farmland across the country. Even though their protests have been peaceful, they have also faced of with Panam's anti-riot units.

To the shock and dismay of international observers, President Martinelli insists that foreign corporations and political groups are behind the protests; a claim that Panama's Vice President has publicly endorsed.

Special Rapporteur calls for dialogue in Panama in light of protests against reforms to the law on mineral resources

15 February 2011

panama-demostrationIn recent weeks, indigenous peoples and organizations have carried out numerous protests, in light of discussions surrounding and approval by the Panamanian National Assembly of Bill N. 277 to amend the Law on Mineral Resources. These demonstrations have resulted in clashes with security forces in which several people were injured and arrested. In light of this situation, the Special Rapporteur urges the Government of Panama to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of persons participating in the demonstrations.

At the same time, the Special Rapporteur notes the importance of initiating, without delay, a good faith dialogue with indigenous peoples, in order to find a peaceful solution to this tense situation and address the underlying problems related to the proposed amendments to the Law on Mineral Resources.

Runoff from a toxic debate to stay with us for a long time

By Eric Jackson

Panama News

February 2011

Mining Code changes easily pass, but without the votes of some of the governing coalition

Relatively tiny groups of student protesters took to the street in front of the University of Panama to register their objections to Mining Code changes, bringing the riot squad to surround the central campus and prompting the rector to shut the university. That's unremarkable.

The rival labor/left umbrella groups, FRENADESO and ULIP, each with its own allies, conducted their separate demonstrations about the same situation. It may be frustrating to those more interested in the cause than in the organizations and personalities, but that, too, was not a surprise.

Whole families came streaming down from the hills of the Nagabe-Bugle Comarca to the nearest highways to protest and block the street, thousands of them in all, and were met with tear gas and shotgun fire as the National Police riot squads' first resort. That's a bit unusual.

The Martinelli administration sent in a third-stringer, Vice Minister of Labor Luis Ernesto Carles, to Cerro Colorado to talk with Ngabe "spokespeople" of the government's choice, and found not only the way to Cerro Colorado, but his entry into the comarca itself, blocked by protesters. One member of the negotiating committee didn't run fast enough, had his hands bound behind his back and was held by angry protesters for a couple of hours. All of this is evidence of an extraordinary low-intensity indigenous uprising of which the president's talk about conceding Cerro Colorado to the South Korean government for the strip mining of copper is but a salient example of the grievances. That Carles blamed environmentalist leader Raisa Banfield, that commentators who support the government and the mining companies portrayed indigenous protesters as a bunch of drunks, and that a disdainful National Assembly president José Muñoz complained that it was disrespectful for people to protest what he and his colleagues were doing, just added fuel to the burning passions.

Thus when the legislature voted 42-15 to approve the mining law changes on third and final reading --- that is, minus the votes of a half-dozen legislators from the president's coalition --- protesters from various groups ringed the legislative palace, locked arms, and refused to let the deputies leave for three hours.

There will be lawsuits. What has been attempted here is the derogation of a constitutional provision by a statute. But Martinelli controls the courts and so long as he's president they won't likely strike down his mining law. This may turn mining companies into the most zealous partisans of any maneuver to extend Martinelli's control over the government, because their concessions will be vulnerable to political changes.

Whenever and wherever strip mining is undertaken in Panama, there will be protests. That is how it has been, and how it will remain.

Meanwhile the Martinelli administration took control of the elections in the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca last year, struck nearly half of the voters off of the rolls, then held a sham election in which few people cast votes. In March the plan is to install those "elected" in that exercise to a new rump that will call itself the Ngabe-Bugle General Congress, which Martinelli hopes will endorse his plans for Cerro Colorado and other disruptive developments in the comarca. Since those elections --- which despite everything Martinelli's party lost --- there has been a sullen civil disobedience campaign in which most comarca residents refuse to deal with the national government. That Carles couldn't find a "responsible indigenous spokesperson" with whom to be photographed and to cite by name is probably of more significance than his inablity to drive into Indian country.

The president immediately signed the new law, ending the formal legislative process. However, the indigenous uprising that he has ignited is just beginning to gain momentum.

Indigenous sovereignty, and the associated politics of land and water rights, will be denigrated as a mere fringe phenomenon among a poorly educated and geographically remote minority. However, the argument over mining has changed the national political lineup. Some of the ways that Panama has changed during this debate include:

All things pass, and often quite rapidly so in the world of politics, but it appears that the argument over the mining law changes is a watershed event that has polarized Panamanians and has set forces in motion that will play themselves out over the rest of Martinelli's term in office.

The copper mine in line before Cerro Colorado

By Eric Jackson

Panama News

February 2011

No longer partners with Richard Fifer, Inmet Mining and its planned copper mine ought to be judged on their distinct merits

The baseline concentrations of various metals in the Proposed Development Area were in many cases higher than the relevant Environmental Quality Norms. Concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, chromium and copper in the water or the sediments registered at concentrations that exceed the norms for protection of aquatic life. Chromium, copper, molybdenum, selenium and vanadium in the soil were also measured at concentrations that exceed the soil quality norms for the protection of invertebrates and terrestrial plants.
Environmental Impact Study for the Cobre Panama Mine

Some bad experiences

In the controversy over the recent changes in the Mining Code, two long-running stories formed much of the basis for the most insistent objections to the changes.

One of these is the lawlessness, condoned by this and previous administrations, of Richard Fifer's Petaquilla gold mine. When there was a huge fish kill below that mine and the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) sent out a team two weeks later, which found no cyanide in the and thus that the fish kill never happened, it was as convincing as a show by mining executives, who bathed in the river upstream from the mine to demonstrate that their company wasn't poisoning the downstream water. (Cyanide evaporates and washes out to sea rather quickly, so would not be found in the river water two weeks after a spill.) That display by the Martinelli administration guaranteed that no worthy environmentalist group would ever take its word about anything to do about environmental safeguards at face value.

The other deeply emotional factor is about indigenous sovereignty in general and the fate of Cerro Colorado in particular. When Ricardo Martinelli announced a tentative deal to cede this part of the Ngabe-Bugle Comarca to the South Korean government to open a strip mine, it started the third round of a long-running dispute over this mountain. In the 1970s the Omar Torrijos dictatorship promoted a mining scheme, which was revived in the 1990s during the Ernesto Pérez Balladares administration. In each of the previous two rounds governments selected "spokespeople" to feign indigenous support for strip mining, were quickly discredited, then continued in their efforts with more heavy-handed tactics --- which were met with protests and sabotage --- but eventually desisted in the face of dropping world copper prices. In both instances certain non-indigenous people --- mainly missionaries, journalists and environmentalists --- lent their assistance to the Ngabe cause and were in turn accused by the mine promoters and politicians of being the outside agitators who created the indigenous opposition. The experiences of indigenous communities being displaced in favor of hydroelectric dams also added to the basis of the Ngabe reaction to Martinelli's mining proposals.

A different cast of characters

However, if copper mining starts to take place in Panama, well before it happens on Cerro Colorado it would begin on a 13,600-hectare expanse of Caribbean tropical lowland forest in western Colon province's Donoso district. That's the proposed Cobre Panama Mine, the concession for which is at present wholly owned by the Toronto-based Inmet Mining Corporation. Inmet wants to take on LS-Nikko Copper as a 20 percent partner. Although formally private, LS-Nikko would be getting the financing for its Panama investment from the South Korean governmental Korea Resources Corporation.

Inmet was at one time a partner with Richard Fifer's Petaquilla Minerals, but with few words for public consumption the two companies went their separate ways. Mining investors have told The Panama News that although Fifer's reputation as an environmental scofflaw was something that Inmet did not care to be associated, of even greater importance to Inmet was Fifer's business reputation for deceptive public announcements, stock manipulations and continued grip on his company despite the sale of enough shares so that his own stake should be relatively tiny. These financial factors are what keep the price of Petaquilla shares relatively low, paying no dividends and listing a return on investment of -108.79 on the Reuters wire.

The bottom line is that Inmet bought Fifer's entire share in the copper concession back in 2008 and has since tried in various ways to distinguish itself from its former partner, starting with a name change from Petaquilla Copper to Cobre Panama. Given that Inmet is a large and well recognized multinational operation, it ought to be judged apart from Petaquilla.

However, Inmet also has a questionable record. For example, until this past January 28, Inmet was part owner of one of the world's most notoriously polluting mines, the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea. A company press release on the occasion of the sale of its stake in the mine contemplates that its tax liability to the government of Papua New Guinea is extinguished, but does not get into the very important question about any potential continuing liability for environmental damages that did not end with the sale.

The metals they seek, and what comes out in the wash

The main things that Inmet is looking to produce in Panama are copper and molybdenum --- not the processed metals but concentrated extracts from the ores. There would be no smelting or manufacturing jobs involved. According to Inmet, the company would employ 107 people on its payroll and at various times hire 297 more people as independent contractors. Inmet also contemplates the production of 2,690 ounces of gold and 45,228 ounces of silver at the proposed mine in Donoso.

The extraction of gold from ore involves the use of cyanide or mercury. While the processing of silver ore once commonly used mercury, mostly it's extracted along with copper in an electrolysis process after treatment with sulfuric acid.

The copper sulfate and molybdenum that come from treating the ore with strong sulfuric acid are both fairly non-toxic, but the acid would also react with other compounds in the ore, and chemicals would leach out of the dirt removed to get at the ore and the tailings discarded after extracting the metals from the ore. Some of the more toxic metals found in the ore and the soil are arsenic, cadmium and chromium, while the selenium, vanadium, copper and molybdenum can be toxic in high concentrations. Molybdenum can be particularly toxic to cattle, but the antidote happens to be copper sulfate.

What "comes out in the wash" usually lasts much longer than a mining enterprise. Pollution still washing out from ancient Roman mines remains a problem at various sites more than 1,000 years later. Across the western United States, there are ghost towns into which new life might be breathed but for the toxic residues of old mines contaminating their potential water supplies. Here in Panama, the environmental disturbances around the much younger but still closed Cerro Quema and Santa Rosa mines are easily seen and well documented. The Panamanian environmental advocacy group Centro de Incidencia Ambiental (CIAM) raises this same point with respect to Inmet's copper project:

The environmental management plan, and specifically its environmental reclamation and abandonment plan, does not guarantee the assignment of adequate funds to cover the mitigation and compensation measures, considering the magnitude of the project's real impacts.

The economic argument about mining in general

CIAM is at the head of a coalition of most Panamanian environmentalist organizations that opposes all mining. The specific objection that they all share to Inmet's copper mining scheme is that it strips away the vegetation from at least 5,600 hectares of lowland forest that's part of the Meso-American Biological Corridor and home to dozens of endemic species, disturbing the soil with three pits that go down as much as 1,000 feet deep. But the general economic objection is that this sort of environmental disruption in Donoso or anywhere else in Panama detracts from tourism, especially those sectors like bird watching, river excursions, fishing, surfing and rainforest tours commonly dubbed "eco-tourism." Most environmentalists argue that Panama is too small to accomodate strip mining and eco-tourism. The argument is accepted by most of those businesses that are based on eco-tourism, and other business sectors as well. Eco-tourism versus strip mining is by and large a contest between small business and big business --- except that other than the mining companies and those who supply their heavy equipment and chemicals, other big businesses have no special reason to support mining. Eco-tourism versus strip mining is also by and large a contest between those businesses that would rather not have much to do with the government (most of the tourism sector) and those businesses that depend on their ties with the government to exist (all of the mining sector).

It's a competition between different visions of a good Panamanian economy, and although the Chiriqui Chamber of Commerce may have been the business group that most forthrightly opposed President Martinelli's mining law changes, it was not the only voice against mining to be heard from the business sector. There is a strongly held opinion that cuts across lines of class and ideology that strip mining is just not a wise use of Panama's resources.

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