Indigenous Activists in Panama Shutdown Notorious Copper Mine

by Vins

In November 2023, Panama’s Supreme Court struck down a 20-year concession to a Canadian company to operate a notorious open-pit copper mine 120 kilometers west of Panama City, after which the Panamanian president announced the mine finally would be closed.

This decision was reported internationally, for example by Al Jazeera and Reuters, but the years of Indigenous struggle that led up to the stunning victory had made scarcely a blip in US corporate media.

The concession was granted to First Quantum Minerals by Panama’s president in October 2023, Like other metals behemoths, First Quantum profits from colonialist mining in some of the world’s poorest nations. It generated nearly $10 billion of revenue in 2022 alone.

Cobre Panamá, the largest such mine in Central America, had been infamous for threatening forest ecosystems, ruining local drinking water, and aggravating regional poverty at least since 2011, when a previous president of Panama sought to strip the Indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé people of their autonomy so that foreign companies could exploit their land.

In response, Canadian Dimension reported, “Panamanians rose up, demanding the annulment of mining and hydroelectric concessions on Indigenous territory.” Protesters blocked the mine entrance in an action that turned violent amid a heavy-handed government crackdown. The Panamanian government eventually caved, claiming mining would not take place on Ngäbe-Buglé lands after all.

The 2023 mass demonstrations, which Al Jazeera called Panama’s “largest protest movement in decades,” left the nation “in a state of siege,” emptying hotel rooms, grocery shelves, and gas pumps. Protesters “have demanded a greater share of profits from foreign mining activity, the protection of Indigenous rights, and stronger environmental regulations,” Canadian Dimensions reported.

These demands, which extend in scope beyond the operation of any single mine, are ongoing, and have special resonance in the nation with jurisdiction over the Panama Canal, and hence a significant chunk of global trade.

Moreover, the prospect that local backlash could shut down colonialist mining operations worldwide, one mine at a time, has profound implications for world politics, the global economy and the daily life of millions of Americans who depend on minerals cheaply and exploitatively mined elsewhere. The extent to which all this is brought to Americans’ attention by corporate media remains to be seen.

Sources:

Kathia Martinez and Juan Zamorano, “Panama’s Supreme Court Declares 20-Year Contract for Canadian Copper Mine Unconstitutional,” Associated Press, November 28, 2023.

Michael Fox, “Panama Celebrates Court Order To Cancel Mine Even as Business Is Hit,” Al Jazeera, November 30, 2023.

Owen Schalk, Indigenous Activists in Panama Shut down Notorious Copper Mine, Canadian Dimension, November 5, 2023.

Student Researcher: Isabel Cramer (Frostburg State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)