Protesters in Panama took to the streets on Monday, demanding that the government cancel a contract for continued copper mining in a biodiverse region.
Leading the opposition were teaching and construction unions, along with environmentalists, who argued that the ongoing development posed a threat to forested land and crucial groundwater in the state of Colon, just 75 miles west of the capital.
Peaceful protesters distributed fliers in Panama City, but there were instances on the outskirts where the police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators.
In light of the expected large-scale demonstrations, the Department of Education and the University of Panama cancelled classes.
Meanwhile, the government utilized social media to emphasize the significant economic benefits that the mine, which is the largest private investment in Panama’s history, brings to the country.
Panama’s legislature and Canadian mining company First Quantum have recently reached an agreement. The deal allows First Quantum’s subsidiary, Minera Panama, to continue its operations in a significant copper mine in central Panama for a minimum of 20 more years.
The mine had been shut down temporarily last year due to failed negotiations between the government and First Quantum over payment terms.
Once the agreement was approved by the congress, President Laurentino Cortizo signed off on the contract on Friday.
However, this decision has sparked protests as it is believed that the president acted secretly. Fernando Abrego, the leader of Panama’s Association of Teachers union, expressed his discontent with the government’s approach, claiming that they swiftly approved a contract that is widely disapproved by the people.
Teachers were joined by construction workers, who are one of the most influential labor groups in the country. Union leader Saúl Méndez stated that the people are protesting in defense of their sovereignty, as the current contract allows for the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of resources.
However, it remains to be seen if these arguments can outweigh the economic benefits provided by the mining site, which already contributes 3% to the nation’s gross domestic product. Minera Panama argues that the mine will create job opportunities for thousands of Panamanians and their shipments account for 80% of the country’s total exports.
Despite initial labor disputes that caused delays, the new contract guarantees Panama a minimum of $375 million annually from Minera Panama, which is more than 10 times the previous agreement.
This contract is one of the largest in the region, where other countries like Costa Rica have stricter regulations on the mining sector, and El Salvador even banned metal mining in 2017.