Panama: indigenous groups protest open-pit mining

On Feb. 15 some 5,000 members of Panama’s Ngöbe-BuglĂ© indigenous group held a day of national protests against changes to the Mining Resources Code that they said would encourage open-pit mining for metals by foreign companies. The protests, organized by the People’s Total Struggle (ULIP), started at 10 AM in San FĂ©lix, in the Ngöbe-BuglĂ© territory in the western province of ChiriquĂ­. Demonstrators interrupted traffic on the highway leading to Costa Rica and reportedly attacked Deputy Labor Minister Luis Ernesto Carles, who had been sent to talk with them. At noon there were demonstrations in front of the Banco General in Santiago, Veraguas province, and the Aquilino Tejera Hospital in PenonomĂ©, CoclĂ© province. Actions continued in the afternoon with protests at the Central Avenue in Changuinola, Bocas del Toro province, and at VĂ­a España in Panama City.

The National Assembly, which is dominated by the coalition supporting conservative President Ricardo Martinelli, voted 42-15 on Feb. 10 to pass the mining law changes, which supporters say will ease the way for foreign investment in the country. They also insist that the law increases controls over the mining companies by stepping up incentives, regulations and fines, and that mining will not be allowed in indigenous territories. But more than 70 Panamanian and international environmental organizations charge that open-pit mining will have serious effects in a rainy tropical climate like Panama’s. They have asked the government to carry out a dialogue on the changes.

Ngöbe-Buglé leaders called on Martinelli to revoke the new law by Feb. 17. He refused, and on Feb. 18 protesters blocked a bridge over the Pacora River east of the capital, interrupting the flow of traffic. The demonstrators fought back with clubs and stones when some 200 anti-riot agents were sent in to remove them. There were seven arrests and several police agents were injured, according to José Castillo, police chief for the metropolitan area.

Indigenous leaders set a new deadline of Feb. 23 for revoking the changes to the law and called for protests to continue. There was a demonstration in David, the capital of ChiriquĂ­ province, on Feb. 19, and a delegation of Ngöbe-BuglĂ© were holding a vigil over the weekend of Feb. 19 at the National Assembly building in Panama City. On Feb. 20 an indigenous delegation interrupted a convention of the Panameñista Party in ChiriquĂ­, forcing Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, the party’s leader, to hold a meeting with them.

The social democratic opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) has announced that it supports the indigenous demands “publicly and unconditionally” and will revoke the law if its candidates win the 2014 elections. (Adital, Brazil, Feb. 15; Radio Temblor, Panama, Feb. 16, via Adital; AFP, Feb. 18, via Terra, Peru; Telemetro, Panama, Feb 20; EFE, Feb. 20, via QuĂ©.es, Spain)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 20.

See our last post on Panama and the mineral cartel in Latin America.