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Ottawa silent as Panama rises up against Canadian copper mine

The Cobre Panamá copper mine, owned by Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals, is the largest foreign investment in the country

Canadian PoliticsCanadian BusinessLatin America and the Caribbean

The government of Panama is pushing ahead on a deal with Canadian mining giant First Quantum Minerals, which operates the contentious Cobre Panamá mine. Photo courtesy @SuntracsPanama/X.

The Cobre Panamá copper mine, owned by Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals, is once against facing widespread grassroots resistance from Panamanian activists.

With almost $10 billion in revenue in 2022, First Quantum is one of Canada’s largest mining companies. It relies solely on overseas investment, including in countries like Zambia, where 61 percent of the population lives on less than $2.15 per day. Poverty also impacts many Panamanians, especially in rural areas, with over half of Indigenous communities living under the poverty line.

The Cobre Panamá mine is the largest foreign investment in the country, and it has remained a central focus of Panamanian protest movements for more than a decade. These demonstrations have demanded a greater share of profits from foreign mining activity, the protection of Indigenous rights, and stronger environmental regulations.

Panama is Canada’s third-largest trading partner in Central America. But Ottawa has stayed conspicuously silent on opposition to Canadian mining development in the country. It has also avoided mentioning entirely the mass protest movements that have emerged to shut down the open-pit mine. Canada has even actively supported the Panamanian government against the protestors, who argue the mine imperils local drinking water and threatens nearby forest ecosystems.

In 2011, then Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli attempted to limit the Indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé nation’s rights to autonomy and self-government in order to grant mining companies access to minerals on their land. Panamanians rose up, demanding the annulment of mining and hydroelectric concessions on Indigenous territory. Protestors blocked entrances to Cobre Panamá and another mine owned by Canada’s Petaquilla Minerals, also headquartered in Vancouver.

Martinelli responded with violence. Riot police killed one protestor, injured 32, and detained 40. Eventually, the government caved, vowing not to approve mining projects on Ngäbe-Buglé lands.

During the protests against Martinelli’s mining policies, Canada stayed silent on the matter. When mass protests erupted again in 2022, demanding economic security for the population in the wake of spiraling food and gas prices, the Trudeau government released a statement that totally omitted the motivations behind the uprising. It simply read, “Demonstrations have been taking place around Panama,” and “Canadians should remain vigilant at all times.”

Now Panama is again rising up against First Quantum. As McGill University professor Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert writes in National Observer, the country is “in revolt against a [Canadian] copper mine.”

Cobre Panamá is a large open-pit copper mine in Panama, located 120 kilometres west of Panama City. Activists argue the mine imperils local drinking water and threatens nearby jungle habitats. Photo by Luis Acosta/AFP.

On October 20, Laurentino Cortizo, who has served as the president of Panama since 2019, granted a gift to First Quantum, renewing the company’s concession for 20 years. The extension comes after a year of negotiations and uncertainty that began when Cortizo halted production at the mine in December 2022. The stoppage occurred in the context of concession negotiations between First Quantum and the Panamanian government, as well as Cortizo’s promise to reform the mining sector in order to contribute to the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

First Quantum rejected the production halt, calling it “unnecessary.” Ottawa then came to First Quantum’s aid. A government source “familiar with the discussions” told Reuters, “Obviously, we have a keen interest in seeing resolution to this, and are optimistic that both parties are negotiating in good faith.”

During the dispute, Canada’s Trade Minister Mary Ng was in contact with both First Quantum and Panama’s Commerce and Industries Minister Federico Alfaro. The Canadian government source said that Ottawa has “heard from [First Quantum] to ensure that Minister Ng and our team stays engaged in keeping this on the front burner.” The source defended First Quantum’s actions, claiming that the company is “sympathetic” to the Cortizo government’s demands but it “just needs some downside protection in the event that commodities prices go low… that’s all the company is looking for.”

First Quantum has long enjoyed uncritical federal support against the threat of “resource nationalism,” particularly in Global South nations with leftist governments:

[W]hen the Congolese government nationalized a mine owned by First Quantum in 2010, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper took up the company’s case with the G8, the G20, the IMF, the World Bank, and “other governments that do business in the DRC.” These diplomatic pressures ultimately saw the mine returned to Canadian ownership.

Since the 1990s, Ottawa has backed neoliberal governments across the world, including in Panama, and promoted economic reforms and initiatives that give Canadian companies more leverage and power to profit from the natural resource wealth of foreign states, often at the expense of local populations. In Panama, government institutions have withered over the past few decades and the influence of transnational companies, including First Quantum, has grown.

Under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Panama. In other countries, though, Canada’s efforts to spread free enterprise hit a brick wall. Negotiations for a “Central American Four” FTA with Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua disintegrated because, in the words of Enrique Mejía Ucles of the Honduran Private Enterprise Council, “it [is] difficult to land an agreement with Canada… they want everything just for them.”

Since the extension of First Quantum’s concession, Panamanian society has erupted in protest. In the Globe and Mail, Niall McGee writes: “The contract was denounced by environmentalists, Indigenous groups, labour activists and religious groups, who opposed it both because of its financial terms and because of the impact the open-pit mine has on the environment.”

First Quantum denounced the protestors’ methods as “illegal and violent.” However, the public’s demands pressured Cortizo to halt new mining approvals and, in a “shocker” move, announce a public referendum on whether or not the contract with First Quantum should be repealed. The vote will be held on December 17.

Since Cortizo’s announcement, First Quantum’s shares have fallen 28.5 percent on the Toronto Stock Exchange. “It was the company’s worst single-day performance in two decades,” McGee writes.

In Canada, the Panamanian people’s efforts to protect their environment and economic security against a Canadian mining company have barely been touched by media or politicians. Studnicki-Gizbert writes:

The story has been covered by major media outlets across the world, but here in Canada? Hardly a word. This has Panamanians puzzled. It is, after all, a Canadian mining company that is the chief motive for the most important political and social crisis to rock this country in over a generation.

But apart from staid public statements and behind-the-scenes support for First Quantum, the crisis in Panama doesn’t surface at all in Canada.

Studnicki-Gizbert continues:

The question [Panamanians] ask me is: What says Canada?… Do we support [First Quantum] or do we stand with the people of Panama?… Given what I’ve seen, I, for one, agree that another 20 years of this will only bring immeasurably more harm than good for Panama.

Does the Canadian government agree? Given Ottawa’s current silence, and its historical support for First Quantum against Panamanian social movements, the answer seems to be a definitive “no.”

Owen Schalk is a writer from rural Manitoba. He is the author of Canada in Afghanistan: A story of military, diplomatic, political and media failure, 2003-2023.


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