Wed Jun 19, 2024
June 19, 2024

Lessons from Panama’s Environmental Struggle

By Christine Marie

The mainstream climate movement in the U.S., though full of committed activists, demonstrates like clockwork its unwillingness to embrace a winning strategy. This summer will be no different as the big non-profits urge youth to participate in The Summer of Heat on Wall Street. The latter will consist of three months of modestly sized but photogenic direct actions at targets in the financial district of New York City. Small, tightly knit affinity groups from around the country will commit to one or several of these many activities, risking arrest to demonstrate their earnestness, while trying to capture the attention of the big business press, and through that vehicle, somehow convince politicians who are up to their eyeballs in fossil-fuel-based contributions to legislate an energy transition.

The folly of this perspective, marked out in the growth of CO2 emissions to historic highs, should be clear; but no change of course occurs. Fortunately, it should not be difficult for those open to more winning perspectives to see that a new, more successful model is emerging in Panama.

Panama is the fourth poorest country in the world and living with the legacy of direct U.S. control. Nonetheless, within the country there exists a powerful history of social and environmental struggle that recently led to a decisive victory against big mining.

José Cambra, a revolutionary socialist activist, a member of the Association of Teachers of Panama (ASOPROF), and a leader of the union-initiated People United for Life Alliance (APUV), speaking at a March 25 forum sponsored by a chapter of 350.org in Connecticut, says this victory shows that the movement built in Panama against a First Quantum Minerals copper mine is today the most important environmental movement in the world. It demonstrates, he said, that if we unite all of the unions and social movements in the streets, “we can win against these giant international companies.” (See a video of the forum: https://350ct.org/panama-copper-mine-protests/.)

In a polarized Latin America susceptible to right-wing populism of the type exemplified by Javier Millei of Argentina, activists have rightly viewed the upcoming May 2024 elections as a vehicle that could put wind in the sales of the domestic and international elite bent on renegotiating a contract with First Quantum. International financial analysts, however, are gloomy about that prospect. “So jarring were the protests,” several have commented, that “the prospect that any of the frontrunners will reopen the mine amid social pressure seem slim” (Bloomberg, Vincius Andrade, April 12, 2024).

How did the movement manifest the level of social pressure that has left the domestic elite, also under the gun from international investors to restore the $10 billion mine project and implement further deep cuts in social services, at least momentarily paralyzed? The short answer is a movement leadership willing to support the creation of spaces that allowed those victimized by government failures in every sphere of life to learn how the subordination of the nation to imperialist predation, cuts in basic social services, attacks on organized labor, denial of Indigenous sovereignty, and environmental crises were all connected.

The process leading to this consciousness about the relationship of environmental degradation to the degradation of all working-class life took a leap in 2022, when demonstrations of an already unprecedented size forced the government to negotiate openly with movement organizations on public TV. In those discussions, the government stood for the oligarchy, who was allowing rises in the cost of medicine, a growing lack of social security, and corrupt deals with greedy foreign companies. The movement organizations stood, in a principled way, for an economic and environmental policy that served the majority. This widely viewed spectacle built the authority of a movement not tied to the politics and parties of the bosses.

In October 2023, when the government of the oligarchy tried to sign a new 20-year contract with First Quantum Minerals, a company whose giant copper mine had long been declared illegal under Panamanian law, the suspicions and frustrations of all sectors of the working classes and Indigenous communities came together in a giant social movement that—while anchored by the patient work of union militants, community organizers, and Indigenous networks over decades—sparked new creative activity that could not have been anticipated. The movement, comprising a quarter of Panama’s total population, took the streets for 2 months. Fisher people used their boats to block marine coal shipments to the mine, shutting down the power plant. Other activists prevented land routes from being used instead. Indigenous communities blocked the nation’s major coastal highway, key to economic functioning, and began using the sites of the blockades to hold open political assemblies in which the political crisis was explored.

Rank-and-file militants outflanked the union bureaucracy, who did not want the struggle to go too far. They fanned out to speak to workers—town by town, workplace by workplace—and the response was so dramatic that union misleaders went silent in the face of their members’ mobilizations.

Perhaps most useful to activists looking for a way forward in the U.S. is a look at how this combined struggle around austerity and a polluting mine raised the consciousness of labor militants. According to Cambra, unionists brought into motion first by anti-imperialist sentiment and cuts in the social wage found themselves in the streets with youth and Indigenous activists who explained how the extreme extractivism and the climate crisis were related to the economic crisis and the corruption of the oligarchy.

Panamanian activists have provided us a model, built on mass action, which is independent of the bosses’ parties, action that brings together all of the victims of capitalist exploitation and oppression, to meet the climate crisis and the economic crisis head on. U.S. activists should learn and move forward.

First published at Workers’ Voice on 4/20/24

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