Tue Jul 23, 2024
July 23, 2024

Following the Example of the Environmental Struggle in Panama

By Lena Souza

In the year 2023, the social movement and the youth of Panama has given us an example of struggle for the defense of natural resources, for the protection of the environment, against the excesses of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers, and of unity and resistance to win their demands.

The neo-extractivist export model, which has deepened the plundering of natural resources in Latin America, was applied by the governments at the beginning of the 21st century, due to the increase in the prices of raw materials [commodities], without taking into account all the environmental, social, territorial and economic impacts for the poor and working populations. This real surrender of our resources provided, until around 2014, economic growth for several countries in the region, which meant that some did not suffer the full impact of the 2008 crisis.

However, this influx of resources only allowed for these governments to implement some palliative social policies with the endgame of guaranteeing they would be reelected. This is because the overall result of the implementation of this model was and still is ultimately tragic, since most of the economic resources generated, as well as the natural resources, are taken out of the country, which guaranteed profits for multinational companies and more poverty for the plundered countries.

Currently, to this context has been added the pressure to exploit the minerals needed for the energy transition or “green technologies” including copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Yet, this supposed “green transition” is nothing more than another ruse concocted by the ruling class, since the real interest is not in decarbonization to save the planet, but rather in getting ahead in the sale of products such as electric cars. The result has been the ongoing devastation of ecosystems and armed conflict with local populations. In this way, copper has become an important mineral, and according to the International Energy Agency, the demand for this mineral will triple by 2040.

In Panama, copper extraction by Compañía Minera Panamá, a subsidiary of the Canadian company First Quantum Minerals (FQM) (which also has Chinese, U.S. and South Korean capital) was located in the province of Colón, in the districts of Donoso and Omar Torrijos Herrera, which are part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that connects eight Central American countries and southern Mexico.

The Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is a natural land bridge between the Darien Gap in Panama, and the Selva de Mayo in Mexico, and was established in 1997, on the basis of an agreement between the eight countries, and “whose main purpose is to provide connectivity between protected wildlife areas, as well as between landscapes, ecosystems and habitats, whether natural or modified, rural or urban, to ensure the maintenance of biodiversity and ecological and evolutionary processes; providing spaces for social concertation to promote investment in the conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity in these spaces.” [1]

The mine installed in this area, in Panamanian territory, in terms of production, was the fourteenth largest copper mine in the world and the largest in Central America, with a concession area of around 13,000 hectares. “It is not clear what percentage of this total was attributed to the copper project being developed by Minera Panamá, but the project’s environmental impact study specifies the exact amount of land affected: 5,900 hectares, of which about 5,500 h are tropical floodplain forests; 320 h have already been devastated by ‘anthropogenic activities’ and 25 h correspond to freshwater bodies and rivers. Within the area of mining influence there are three major watersheds: the Petaquilla River, the Caimito River and the San Juan River. The last two have eight tributaries” [2]. In this gigantic area “industrial pavilions, rubble piles, reservoirs with toxic mineral slime, as well as a port and a coal-fired power plant to supply energy to the mine were installed”[3]. The company had already been denounced for possible environmental damage and was under six investigations, including river contamination and toxic waste.

In addition, a complaint  had already been filed that made clear how mineral exploration in the area harms the water supply for the Panama Canal, which is suffering the consequences of climate change and  the El Niño phenomenon, which has caused problems for the operation of the canal.

The Long Institutional Road Controlled by the Powerful

The mining exploration concession to First Quantum Minerals was granted in 1997 and was already unconstitutional at that point, considering that the Panamanian Constitution prohibits the administration of natural resources by foreign States. This meant that in 1998 there was an unconstitutionality action, which wasn’t judged by the Supreme Court until  2017, and reaffirmed in 2021, but only published in the Official Gazette in 2023. As a result, the mine has been operating since 2019, exporting copper to countries such as China and the USA, without the authorities taking any measures to stop it.

In addition to all this nonsense, after the publication of the Supreme Court decision, the current government, presided by Laurentino Cortizo, entered into negotiations with the company, instead of implementing the decision and ending mining exploration. During the negotiation, it presented a new concession contract for 20 years, extendable for another 20 years, which was voted by the national congress after using several lies and dissimulations to try to convince the social movement that questioned it. And all of this, including the approval and the execution of the contract, was done in less than a week.

Economic Dis (advantages): “What Are the Millions For, If that Money Cannot Be Seen”?

By 2024, First Quantum Minerals (FQM) estimated a production of around 400,000 tons of the mineral, which means 1% of the world’s copper.

However, the Panamanian social movement was aware of all the ecological and social interferences that occur when considering the extent to which copper extraction impacts communities. As a result, they were deeply skeptical of the supposed advantages being offered to the country as argued by the government.

The company paid only 2% in royalties. And, although the government argued that it had achieved, in negotiations with the company, better conditions in economic terms, i.e. to move from a tax burden of between 2% and 5% based on the gross profit from exploration to a tax burden of between 12% and 16%, it no longer convinced those involved in the struggle.

According to the government’s arguments, there were many benefits to keeping the company exploring mineral resources in the country. Among them were the 9,387 direct jobs and around 40,000 indirect jobs and a payroll of $357 million dollars per year (according to government data). According to information from Moody’s rating agency on the negotiation with the company, “the Executive expects Cobre Panama to become its second largest source of income after the Panama Canal, with revenues projected at US$770 million or 0.9% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2023 and US$375 million annually as of 2024″[4]. According to the government, the company would represent around 4% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product as of 2024.

According to the III Citizenship and Rights Survey of the International Center for Political and Social Studies (CIEPS, 2023), “two out of three interviewees prioritized the environment to the detriment of economic growth, 93.3% identified environmental care as the main characteristic of good citizenship, and more than 50% considered it a high priority for the public budget to be invested in this objective”[5].

Looters Out!

Protests against copper extraction began on October 20, 2023, when Congress approved the law granting another 40 years of exploration to mining companies. The protests lasted more than a month and turned into a social explosion that paralyzed the country. Along with the mining problem, the people also expressed being fed up with access to healthcare, the cost of living, etc… which had already provoked several mobilizations in 2022 and forced the government to carry out public negotiations with entities representing the social movement. Although it went to the negotiating table with the social movement at that time, the government did not fulfill the agreements to which it had committed itself.

As a result, the protests were so strong that in addition to paralyzing the country, some deputies were banned from entering regions where they were candidates for office. The protests involved, on the one hand, youth and environmentalists who called for mobilization through social networks, without any organizing entity or party, and, on the other hand, union organizations such as construction workers, teachers, and transport workers. The last two planned to strike for an indefinitely. Construction workers participated in the blockades during their rest time.

The population as a whole participated in significant ways in the whole process. On the fifth day of mobilization there were 250,000 people in the streets marching against mining, and it was estimated that one million people were in the streets throughout the country on one of the demonstration days. The marches were massive, radicalized, and firmly confronted police repression.

In this mobilization, the Alianza Pueblo Unido por la Vida (United People’s Alliance for Life), which includes unions, community, and youth movements, and which was formed in the mobilizations of 2022, came out in force. The indigenous peoples of the province of Chiriqui also played a very important role, as they blocked the Inter-American Highway, the most important highway in the country, at five differnt points during the protests.

In addition to all the above mobilizations, the communities directly affected by mining had already been carrying out mobilizations that sabotaged the exit of minerals and the arrival of coal for electricity generation. The slogan used in the mobilizations was: “In this country, your gold is green. No to mining. Panama is worth more without mining.”

And it was this radicalization and willingness to fight that forced the justice system to declare the contract with the company unconstitutional and force the government and the company to stop the activities and close the mine. In other words, this spells a key victory of the struggle and should give impetus to other struggles across the continent against the plundering of our natural resources.

The Contradiction Between the Mining Workers and the Struggle Against Mining

The struggle for the closure of Compañía Minera Panamá also brought the discussion raised by the Union of Mining Workers of Panama (UTRAMIPA) on the maintenance of jobs generated by the company, in addition to the questioning of several suppliers who had business around the mining activity.

The workers led by UTRAMIPA took to the streets to demand the approval of the contract with the company and the defense of their jobs [6]. In one of the demonstrations, the union leader declared: “Today we have this activity in defense of all the jobs of more than 40,000 Panamanians who demand the approval of the contract; we want our peace; we are Panamanians; we have the right to take bread to our homes; the points that were not agreed upon, in the new contract were corrected. We are tired of these blockades, of everything that is being done, we demand the approval of the contract,” said Maicol Camacho, union leader of Utramipa at the demonstration [7]. During the mobilization process there were even confrontations between demonstrators and company workers [8].

Although the union and the company’s workers made a more direct demand to the government and the Panamanian Ministry of Labor in their various demonstrations to resolve the situation and defend the mine workers, they also indirectly expressed their opposition to the broader social movement that demanded the closure of the company, denouncing that the movement had failed to defend their jobs.

In the capitalist system, the search for profits through the exploitation of workers and natural resources in countries that supply raw materials and cheap labor for the world market destroys the environment and also creates divisions among the exploited themselves. The lack of alternative for survival provokes these kinds of contradictions. However, we must not let ourselves be deceived, because in the end the multinationals, led by large corporations dominated by billionaire minorities, destroy and take away our wealth, our health, our strength, our social relations of solidarity, and our future.

And so it is that in Panama the pressure from several organizations linked to the financial market continues, which have downgraded the country’s rating, alleging that its public finances will be affected by the closure of the company’s exploration activity. In addition, the company has already initiated the process of international arbitration before the U.S. Court, based on commercial treaties to force the country to pay rivers of money in fines. This is yet another example of how the plundering carried out by the powerful has no limit.

This is why we must demand from the company, as the Utramipa union is doing, the guarantee of relocating workers in the process of undertaking an environmentally safe closure of the mine. We also demand from the government the investment and the opening of jobs for all direct and indirect workers involved in mining.

And, although the closure of the company’s activities also means the closure of jobs, it is important to emphasize that we must stand by those who are fighting for the closure of the mine. And, along with that, continue to do the work to raise awareness among those workers who were against it, as well as to promote the struggle to guarantee decent employment for all the unemployed.

What is the Way Out?

To confront the pressure exerted by the few powerful billionaires of the world and all the institutions they dominate, there is no other way out than unity among the workers directly involved, as well as the affected communities and all the poor people in the struggle to change this system that privileges the former while disenfranchising the latter. A new mode of production is needed, where the objective is not profit, but the quality of life of the workers, of all the people who suffer the consequences of the capitalist system, including poor peasants and indigenous peoples, who have shown leadership in the struggle for the preservation of their territories, as well as youth and all those who fight for their survival and for the survival of the planet.

In order to begin this struggle, it is necessary to prevent the exploitation and plundering of our natural resources by the imperialist countries, expropriating the multinational companies, nationalizing them, and putting in the hands of workers, indigenous peoples, peasants, youth, and the poor, the decision on the extraction of minerals. This is the only way we will we be able to democratically control a process of energy transition based on the needs of the exploited, taking into account the future of the planet.


[1] https://www.caf.com/es/actualidad/noticias/2023/12/el-corredor-biologico-mesoamericano-un-puente-vital-para-las-especies-de-america/#:~:text=%C2%BFCu%C3%A1l%20is%20the%20main%20importance%20of improving%20connectivity%20between%20ecosystems.

[2] Source: https://links.org.au/panama-unprecedented-social-explosion-places-it-vanguard-environmental-struggle-central-america

[3] https://www.salveafloresta.org/acoes/1278/panama-revolta-contra-mineracao-na-floresta-tropical

[4] https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/el-cese-de-una-gran-mina-golpea-la-econom%C3%ADa-y-elevar%C3%A1-la-incertidumbre-en-2024-en-panam%C3%A1/49021358

[5] https://nuso.org/articulo/panama-se-rebela-contra-la-gran-mineria/

[6] https://www.panamaamerica.com.pa/sociedad/sindicato-utramipa-luchara-para-evitar-cierre-de-la-minera-1227968/amp

[7] https://www.critica.com.pa/nacional/sindicato-utramipa-sale-las-calles-favor-del-contrato-minero-659703

[8] https://www.larepublica.co/globoeconomia/manifestantes-en-panama-atacan-a-mineros-de-fist-quantum-3756323

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