SAN FELIX, PANAMA — “The only interest of the government is resource exploitation, indiscriminately, without it mattering to them who lives in these areas, whose lives they will destroy. These things do not matter to them. It does not matter to them that they will alter the cultural life of the Ngöbe population. We are aware of this.”
The calm night and bright stars above and the even tone of Eira Carrera’s speech stood in stark contrast to the severity of the struggle she was describing. A young indigenous Ngöbe activist, Eira appeared unafraid of defending her home and community from the powerful mining companies seeking to develop an open-pit mine in Cerro Colorado, Panama.
We walked with Eira along a narrow dirt road, making our way further into the Ngöbe Comarca, the name for provincial-level indigenous territories in Panama. We were accompanying Eira and four or five others on their visit to a young man who only days prior had been hospitalized with an injury he received from Panamanian riot police while protesting changes to the National Mining Code. Tension ran through the community, as it was feared that changes to the code would facilitate the development of the Cerro Colorado deposit.
We fell into step at the back of the group, listening to their quiet conversation on the events of the past days. They spoke of an anonymous phone call warning them that the government had obtained a list of the 15 leaders of the Ngöbe protests, and was sending the police to arrest them. They spoke of preparations for coordinating the 3,000 people who would be arriving from across the Comarca the following afternoon for the next wave of marches. They spoke of the police violence and the degrading treatment of those injured in the previous protest.
With a population of roughly 200,000, the Ngöbe are the largest indigenous group in Panama, and the second largest indigenous population in Central America. Since the arrival of the Spanish to the isthmus in the 1500s, the Ngöbe have inhabited the rugged mountainous region of the interior of western Panama. They are predominantly subsistence farmers. Until the 1960s and 70s, slash-and-burn agriculture was a sustainable means of food production to meet the Ngöbe population’s needs. However, when the population boomed in the 1970s, increasing demands for food led to land shortages and declining agricultural yields. These changes spurred the Ngöbe’s increasing participation in the wage economy as temporary labourers on banana and coffee plantations in the neighbouring provinces.
In 1997, after more than twenty years of organization and making demands to the government, the Ngöbe were granted constitutionally-recognized rights to their territory for their collective use and benefit under Law 10. At nearly 7,000 square kilometres (about 8 per cent of national territory), it spans three provinces and is the largest indigenous Comarca in Panama.
In the heart of the Comarca lies Cerro Colorado, one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits. If developed, this mine would cover approximately 630 square kilometres, the majority of which would lie within Ngöbe territory. Although the Ngöbe have legal rights to their territory, an important omission was made when the Comarca was formed: these rights do not extend to subsoil resources. This discrepancy allows the government to enter Ngöbe territory and dispossess people of their land in order to access the gold and copper deposits that lie below.
Various national and international mining corporations have undertaken prospecting and construction activities in the Cerro Colorado region since the early 1970s. However, due to fluctuations in copper prices, the project was rendered economically unfeasible and twice put on hold. Even these early stages of exploration were met with opposition from the Ngöbe community, and served as a unifying platform in their mobilization to gain state recognition of their territory.
The concerns about the impacts of an open pit mine at Cerro Colorado are many. Indigenous communities across Latin America have been forcefully dislocated from their homes and met with police violence when mining projects enter into their territory. Here in Panama at the Petaquilla gold mine (currently the only operational mine in the country), neighbouring communities have had their homes burned by mining workers, their communities profoundly divided, and their water contaminated – resulting in an increase in skin diseases.
Time and time again the people in the Comarca expressed their fear of the destruction of their land and resources. Eleto Martin, a resident of a community downstream of the Cerro Colorado site, reiterated these concerns.
“The only hope for the future of this town is the water that lies in our rivers,” said Martin. “The San Felix River is born in Cerro Colorado and empties into the Pacific Ocean, providing water to numerous communities along its course. What I want to say is that four rivers are found in the exact place where the mine will be developed. We know that a mine requires vast amounts of water to work. How can they assure us that even though they will build a mine exactly where these four rivers are born, the environment and water resources won’t be affected? Where will we get water once these rivers are damaged?”
Mining has been at the forefront of national consciousness since the first round of debates began at the end of January. It has been on the front cover of the national press daily, with a strong anti-mining sentiment running in two major papers, La Prensa and La Estrella. Pro-mining ads proclaiming that mining will lift communities from poverty play on the radio every day. Anti-mining graffiti decorates walls across the city and anti-mining banners hang at the University of Panama campus in the capital. We too find ourselves immersed in the topic, opening the La Prensa webpage every morning with a feeling of apprehension, not knowing what will have unfolded since the previous day. Even the Carnaval preparations of our Panamanian classmate took on an anti-mining spin, as they decorated glittery banners denouncing mining development to dance with in the streets. Mining, in short, has been everywhere we look.
Today, rising copper prices have sparked renewed interest in exploiting Cerro Colorado. Several international mining corporations, including Canadian company Corriente Resources, are already present and are waiting to get their hands on mining concessions in the area.
As in many other Latin American countries, Canadian mining companies here have been associated with numerous environmental and human rights abuses. Our response to ¿de dónde vienen? is tinged with shame as we confess that we are Canadian. This is especially true following last fall’s defeat of Bill C-300, which would have required Canadian companies to comply with international environmental best practices and human rights standards. The Trade Commissioner of the Canadian Embassy here in Panama recently stressed the good relations between the two countries. But the very fact that we feel uncomfortable admitting our nationality when we are in the Comarca suggests otherwise. Several community members with whom we spoke mentioned the need to inform the Canadian public of their struggles with Canadian mining companies.
Since entering office in 2009, President Ricardo Martinelli has made clear his intent to attract international investors and push forward mining projects across the country. To facilitate this, the government passed a controversial law in February of this year. Law 8 revised the 1963 Mining Code to permit foreign state-owned companies to directly invest in mining concessions. This would allow such companies to control vast tracts of land in Panama, despite contravening Article 3 of the Constitution, which prohibits ceding national territory to other states.
Julio Yao, a professor of International Relations at the University of Panama, has been highly critical of the mining code reforms.
“We now know that the government is completely in favour of open-pit mining and is willing to give the country to multinational corporations – specifically from Singapore and South Korea – for exploitation,” he said. “It is a very good time in Panama for international mining corporations, as foreign governments will be permitted to buy national territory.” Yao continued in a tone of incredulity to describe that although this runs contrary to the Panamanian constitution, the government was yielding to pressure from international corporations to change the mining code.
Singapore and South Korea have both expressed interest in financing the expansion of mining projects just outside Coclesito in the Colon province. LS-Nikko Coper Inc. of South Korea will acquire a 20 per cent interest in Minera Panama, while state-owned Temasek Holdings Ltd. of Singapore will finance the expansion of Canadian owned Inmet’s Cobre Panama project. This underlies much speculation concerning the government’s motivations for passing Law 8. Due to the extraordinarily high capital investment required for these mining projects, foreign state investment is crucial to their development. Although Law 8 may have been most directly related to mines in the Coclesito region, it will doubtless have ramifications for the communities around San Felix as well.
The Ngöbe community met the change to the mining code with intense opposition. Many feared that Law 8 was passed with the intent of accelerating development of the Cerro Colorado copper deposit. Eira Carrera’s concerns about Law 8 were clear. “The changes to the mining code are a tool which gives the government the ability to operate in any territory. The government says it will not touch Cerro Colorado when we know that this is completely contrary to the truth,” she said.
Even as the first round of legislative debates began, the Ngöbe mobilized and took to the streets. During this first period of government discussion, over 500 Ngöbe protested in the streets of San Felix. Just a few days later, as word spread across the Ngöbe Comarca, protests swelled to 3,000 as Ngöbe came to show their distaste for the reforms. Many had travelled several days by foot to attend the marches. Police met the peaceful demonstration with tear gas and violence. Rubber bullets were shot indiscriminately into the crowd, which included many women and young children. Eighteen people were admitted to the hospital, among them the man we visited with Eira.
One of the policemen, he said, “hit me on the side with his baton. I left walking, they threw gas at my face. I was shocked and choking with this. I tried to flee and I was running but there were too many people. When I tried to see, they were on top of us, falling on top of us, throwing tear gas. I didn’t have any way out.”
Celestino Mariano, a traditional regional leader in the Ngöbe territory, made clear that the police were the sole perpetrators of violence and that the Ngöbe were justified in their dissent.
“The weapons of the government are the armed riot police and all of the armed and equipped police that they hire. This is the force of the government to oppress Panamanian society,” said Mariano. “We will continue to go out in the streets as many times as it is necessary. Our only weapon is reason and strength in numbers with which we will confront the government to make them understand that we love, respect and will defend nature, because it is nature that we depend on. Not on arms or explosives. Not on tear gas, nor on police that oppress the people. We do not believe in this society, in the politics that Martinelli believes in.”
Despite substantial community resistance, Law 8 was passed on February 11. Immediately thereafter, another wave of demonstrations swept the country. Not only did protests in San Felix grow from 3,000 to an immense 10,000 people, but marches and protests were staged across the country. Still unsatisfied with the lack of government response, the Ngöbe intensified their efforts by establishing a roadblock on the Transamerican Highway – the main transportation route through the isthmus, stretching from the border of Costa Rica to the most eastern regions of Panama.
The government’s response to the protests has been a bizarre back-and-forth between blaming unrest on outsiders and environmentalists, and proclaiming that Law 8 has nothing to do with the development of Cerro Colorado. The Martinelli government released statements accusing “foreign instigators” of sparking Ngöbe protests. Last week a Spanish freelance journalist was deported under this justification. The motivation for the government’s accusation is not clear, but may be seen as an attempt to undercut the Ngöbe’s access to the international community.
The situation continues to become increasingly complex, with ongoing negotiations between the government and leaders of the Ngöbe protests. Even now, as we attempt to piece together an understanding of the events of the past month, this story has taken an unexpected turn. On March 3, Martinelli travelled to San Felix to announce that Law 8 would be renounced. This will effectively erase the contentious changes to the mining code. It is unclear to what degree this change was motivated by the Ngöbe protests or external pressure.
When we spoke to Mariano in January, he was far from optimistic about the government’s intentions. “A battle is coming, we know this, we know that consequences of mining are terrible, and we are working with communities to together stop mining projects in our Comarca,” he said.
While the future for the Ngöbe remains unclear, indigenous leaders have been firm that they will not back down until they are assured that a moratorium on mining developments in their territory has been established.