Panama: Martinelli backs down on open-pit mining

Rightwing Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli announced in San Félix, Chiriquí, on March 3 that he would ask the National Assembly to rescind a mining law that opponents said would encourage open-pit mining for metals by foreign companies and endanger the environment. “A president like me will always listen to his people,” Martinelli wrote in his Twitter account, following nearly a month of demonstrations led by the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group. Polls reportedly showed 75% of Panamanians opposing the mining industry. (Adital, Brazil, March 3)

On March 4 Martinelli’s government sent the National Assembly the formal request for rescinding the law, which was passed less than a month earlier, on Feb. 11. Discussions are to start after the conclusion of Carnaval (Mardi Gras) festivities on March 8. (Prensa Latina 3/4/11) The main beneficiary of the law would have been the Canadian firm Inmet Mining, which planned to get financing from foreign state-owned financial firms like Korea Resources Corp to construct a copper mine worth some $4.3 billion. Inmet president Jochen Tilks said on March 4 that his company would be able to proceed with the mine despite the overturning of the law, which he called “the correct decision.” (Reuters, March 4)

Martinelli’s about-face on the mining law came after indigenous Panamanians intensified their protests for four days, culminating in blockades of the Pan American Highway at various points in Veraguas and Chiriquí provinces on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27. Confrontations broke out between protesters and police agents during the blockades, with injuries reported on both sides; the Front for the Defense of Economic and Social Rights (Frenadesco) said 10 indigenous people were wounded. (Adital, Feb. 28, some from AFP and Prensa Latina) The Spanish journalists Paco Gómez Nadal and Pilar Chato were arrested while covering one of the demonstrations on Feb. 26, on charges that Gómez Nadal, a freelancer for Spanish daily El País and Panama’s La Prensa, was inciting the demonstration. The two were deported on Feb. 28. (EFE, March 1, via Latin American Herald Tribune)

This is the second time in less than a year that grassroots protests have forced Martinelli to withdraw major legislation. On Oct. 10 the government agreed to rescind Law 30—known as the “sausage law” (“ley chorizo”) because of the various elements stuffed into it, including anti-union measures and the weakening of environmental safeguards. The law had provoked militant protests in July.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 6.

See our last post on Panama.