This is part one of a two-part series. Check out Part Two.
The “Tower of the Americas,” a gleaming behemoth of a skyscraper occupying an entire block of downtown Panama City, is home to the Panamanian satellites of hundreds of international companies.
A hodgepodge group of farmers, laborers, and members of Panama’s largest indigenous group, the Ngobe-Bugle, had come to the capital from their rural villages in the Colon province of the country, 300 kilometers away, to continue months of protests against mining for copper in the rainforest.
Looking slightly out of place against the backdrop of a modern metropolis, their protest seemed small and awkward at the shiny entrance of this big-city office building. “Down with the mines,” they chanted, as they held up signs that read “Canada leave Panama” and “No to Mining.”
Once in a while, a passing car or two would honk in solidarity.
“We are here to send a message to the Canadian ambassador,” said Carmelo Yanguez, pointing upward at the tinted windows.
Yanguez is a campesino, a subsistence farmer who hails from Coclesito, a town of about 400 people, right in the middle of the mine-affected area. He never would have considered himself an activist, but then the mining companies moved in, and he found his town at the center of the mining concession, and himself in the middle of the debate, leading the charge against the “foreigners.”
“They are going to destroy our homes and our environment,” he told a reporter for a Panamanian TV station. “And then they are going to leave. So we would just rather they leave now.”
Standing next to him, his new ally – Martin Rodriguez, the cacique, or chief – of the Ngobe village of Neuva Lucha, a four-hour trek through the Panamanian rainforest from Coclesito.
It’s a new alliance, this partnership between Panama’s campesinos and its indigenous people. Historically, bad blood and discrimination have run between the two communities. But in 2012, the common threat of Canadian mining companies brought them together.
It’s unclear whether Sylvia Cesarrato, Canada’s ambassador to Panama, was even in her office on the eleventh floor of the Torres de las Americas building while the protest was going on outside. Coincidentally – or conveniently, some might say – located nine floors above the embassy are the corporate offices of Minera Panama, the wholly-owned subsidiary of one of Canada’s mid-sized mining companies
Inmet Mining of Toronto is the company developing one of the biggest copper mines in the world, smack in the middle of Panama’s protected rainforest, cutting through the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor, a protected zone that spans seven countries and is home to thousands of plant and animal species (some of which are endangered). It’s the very land that has sustained Yanguez and Rodriguez and their families for generations, now at risk by Canadian interests.
The governments against the people
Anthony Bebbington, a professor of environment and geography at Clark University in Massachusetts, has studied extensively the effects of mining on indigenous people in Central and South America. He puts the issue bluntly: “The question is what sort of reputation Canada wants to have internationally or what sort of reputation Canadians want their country – and therefore themselves – to have internationally?”
Bebbington was invited to testify at a Canadian parliamentary committee meeting in Ottawa on the role of the private sector in Canada’s international development interests. He said mining companies have already sullied Canada’s reputation in Latin and Central America and ended his testimony with a quote from an official in the region: “As far as I can tell, the Canadian ambassador here is a representative for Canadian mining companies.”
Across Latin and Central America, local people have started to stand up to Canadians and say no, we don’t want your mines, or your aid dollars. According to Mining Watch Canada, a watchdog group based in Ottawa, local protests have given rise to tighter restrictions: moratoriums on new mining concessions are in place in Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador and El Salvador; there’s a ban on open pit gold mining in Costa Rica; and a ban on glacier and periglacier mining in Argentina.
Panamanians are hoping to follow suit. Massive protests in 2011 and 2012 managed to shut down the Pan-American highway. Both times, government forces moved in and ended them violently, killing several protestors. But President Martinelli followed the crackdown with a promise not to allow mining companies into the Comarca, the reserve in the northwestern part of the country that about two hundred thousand Ngobe call their ancestral lands. It’s a promise most Ngobe consider politically expedient, but they believe they have the force of conviction to stop the government if the moratorium is ever lifted.
Celestino Mariano is a cacique, who is leading the charge against mining in the Comarca; he’s also been advising the protestors in the Coclesito district. He’s come to Panama City to force Martinelli to the bargaining table, in search of a deal that will prohibit mining in the Comarca for generations. About 50 members of his community have also made the trip to the capital; they have turned the park outside the legislature into a protest camp.
“The Ngobe nation has suffered discrimination and rape of its traditional lands by various successive powers that be in Panama,” he says, weighing his words carefully. But the level of violence that Panamanian forces have unleashed on recent protests has been troubling, resulting in the deaths of two protesters and injuries to dozens more.
Mariano assigns blame equally between Panama’s government and the foreigners who have moved in. It’s something his people have been dealing with for the last five centuries, he says. “Back then, the Spanish conquest involved a great amount of violence, pillage, and bloodletting and organization by our peoples to try to fend them off. The Canadian conquest, by contrast, is a far more sophisticated, less bloody, but far more sophisticated takeover of our rights and our resources. We must remain alert to this reality.”
It’s a reality that is already changing the face of Panama. Inmet has started construction on what will be one of the biggest copper mines in the world. And Petaquilla, another company, will be extracting gold for many years to come.
Mining’s local muscle
Richard Fifer, Petaquilla’s chairman, says he and the mining companies are just trying to help the Ngobe understand their lineage.
“But we are trying to get the Ngobe-Bugle people to understand that goldsmithing is their heritage,” he says. “They were goldsmiths when the Spaniards and Christopher Columbus showed up, and so they should aspire to re-find their heritage.”
In dark sunglasses and a Panama hat, Fifer looks as if he’s been centrally cast for the role of mining company president. A native Panamanian, he’s been in charge of Petaquilla Gold since day one, a businessman whose fascination with Christopher Columbus invites others to draw comparisons between him and the man who refused to accept that the world was flat. Fifer sees himself as a pioneer of the mining industry in Panama. He’s a US-trained geologist and engineer, and has benefited from a network of connections in successive Panamanian governments, even before he served a term as the governor of Cocle province.
Fifer may be as controversial as he is a colorful figure in Panamanian politics. In the 1970s, he was charged with dealing cocaine and marijuana in the US Canal Zone and sentenced to 18 months in jail.
He’s seated comfortably in the courtyard of the restaurant he owns in the center of Penonome, about an hour south of Coclesito and the gold mine. He dismisses the complaints and concerns locals have about his mine polluting the waters nearby. “You see it yourself, every day you’re up there, there’s hundreds of people swimming in the river,” he laughs. “That’s the best testament to how true that is, eh?”
Jeremiah Perez has lived in the village of Molejones for most of this life. He calls himself the vice-president of the town’s tourism committee, but it’s hard to see any tourism in the area these days. He clambers across the steep bank where the Molejones and Turbe rivers come together and points to the water.
“Look,” he says, “look at the turbidity of the river. The Molejones used to run clear down this area. Now look at it.” The difference is striking. The muddy Molejones, which flows down from the Petaquilla gold mine, joins up with the clearer Turbe at this junction.
Locals here speak nostalgically about the shrimp and fish they used to catch from these banks. No more, says Perez. “Most people are afraid to speak out, but there have been a number of skin infections caused by the lack of clean water. We’ve also experienced diarrhea here and some type of gastrointestinal illness that wasn’t common here until the mine started operating.”
Just down the river from where he’s speaking, a group of women are knee-deep in the river, washing their clothes. There’s no other choice. For many here, this is their only source of water.
Small protests, big payoffs?
Martin Rodriguez and Carmelo Yanguez are also quick to point out they’re not opposed to change; they know that their agrarian existence will eventually be overtaken by a cash economy. They acknowledge that the new schools and medical centre that will be built by Inmet are good for the community. Progress is inevitable. But they fear the mining companies are mortgaging their children’s future so they can reap profits for today.
“People who are employed by the mine have a vested interest in their continuation,” Yanguez says, between plastic forkfuls of rice and lentils. He is hosting Rodriguez and about 20 Ngobe at his ramshackle house in Coclesito, as they make plans to protest the mining companies by setting up a small blockade of the road leading to the mines. “But the rest of us are concerned about the ecological impacts and the permanent damage that might result for future generations.”
After lunch, the band of protesters head over to the mines on a small road north of the city. They set up a maze of rocks and branches to block vehicles from passing. They quiz every driver who approaches, and if they’re not working for the mines, they’re allowed passage. Nearby, mining company officials watch closely from a white truck, taking pictures with their phones. It’s hard to imagine this small protest is having much of an affect on the mines’ operations, but Yanguez is defiant.
“We want to shut down the mines – however long it will take, we don’t know. What we do know is that this is one link in a single chain against mining interests across the country right now.”
Several days later, word came that police were coming to take down the barricade. Rather than risk a potentially violent confrontation, the protesters decide to leave on their own. They know what happened in the Comarca, and they’re neither interested nor prepared for that kind of violence.
“Our group has traditionally been pacifist,” Yanguez explains. “We will continue to oppose the mines, but our long-standing policy is that we abhor the use of violence.”
Award-winning journalist Mellissa Fung has been with CBC Television since 2000. As a national correspondent, she has reported a wide range of stories on both Canadian and world affairs, as well as in-depth documentaries on topics as diverse as asbestos mining and post-traumatic stress in soldiers returning from war. Her first book, "Under an Afghan Sky," chronicles her experience as a hostage after she was kidnapped by insurgents in Afghanistan. Fung divides her time between Toronto and Washington, D.C.
This post was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.