Panama’s Mining Future Is at a Tipping Point – by Cristina Guevara (Foreign Policy – November 21, 2023)


Protestors want to kick out the country’s biggest investor and usher in a new era of environmental politics.

A contentious mining contract has plunged Panama into protest, triggering its most significant episode of social upheaval in decades. Since Oct. 16, the public has taken to the streets in historic numbers, with no signs of abating despite concessions made by the government.

At the center of this movement is the Cobre Panamá mine, one of the world’s largest copper mines and, notably, the largest private investment in Panama’s history. When the copper deposit was identified in 1968, it was described by one newspaper as an economic asset as great as the Panama Canal. The mine is operated by Minera Panamá, a local subsidiary of the Canadian company First Quantum Minerals (FQM) and also partly owned by South Korea’s state-run Korea Resources Corporation.

It opened for business in 2019 but has long been mired in controversy and legal troubles. Original mining rights for the project were negotiated in 1997 in a contract that permitted unrestricted mineral exploitation with only a 2 percent royalty payment. The agreement also exempted the mine’s operators from paying certain taxes.

In 2017, however, Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice ruled that the law granting concessions for the mine—which was reached without a bidding process, citizen participation, or environmental impact studies—was unconstitutional because it did not align with the nation’s best interests and lacked a clear commitment to social welfare and the public good.

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