Panama: An unprecedented social explosion places it at the vanguard of the environmental struggle in Central America

Panama protests

First published in Portuguese at Revista Movimento. Translation by Revista Movimento.

The approval, in the last debate in the House of Deputies on October 20, of Law 406 authorizing open-pit mining by the Canadian private company First Quantum Minerals (Minera Panama) in Panamanian territory, was the spark that ignited the forest, triggering one of the largest uprisings of the Panamanian people. For weeks, thousands of people took to the streets in Panama City and the capitals of various provinces, demanding the repeal of this law. They want an end to mining, which, among other things, destroys nature, pollutes rivers and lakes, and has caused widespread illness in the mining areas' population. The mine that is the focus of the protests is located in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor[1], connecting the seven Central American countries and southern Mexico.

According to the report produced by José Arcia for Mongabay Latam[2]: "The concession, granted by contractual law No. 9 of February 25, 1997, covers an area of 13,000 hectares, which is approximately 60 times the size of the Capital district. It is not clear what percentage of this number was allocated to the copper project being developed by Minera Panama, but the environmental impact study of the project specifies the exact amount of affected land: 5,900 hectares, of which about 5,500 hectares are tropical lowland forests, 320 hectares have already been devastated by 'anthropogenic activities,' and 25 hectares correspond to bodies of freshwater and rivers. Three major watersheds are within the mining's area of influence: the Petaquilla River, the Caimito River, and the San Juan River, with the latter two having eight tributaries."

However, in addition to the terrible environmental consequences, open-pit mining has social and cultural repercussions for neighboring populations. The revocation of this contract and the prohibition of open-pit mining on Panamanian soil are the rallying cries mobilizing the Panamanian people today, and if successful, it will be a significant triumph in the environmental struggle. Since the Panamanian House of Deputies approved Law 406 endorsing the contract signed in 1997, which was declared unconstitutional in 2017 by the Supreme Court of Justice, thousands and thousands of people, especially the youth, have taken to the streets to protest against this law.

So far, the mobilization has achieved an initial partial victory, as it forced not only the assembly of deputies but also the government of Nito Cortizo to convene an extraordinary session of the assembly of deputies, approve a bill prohibiting open-pit mining on Panamanian soil, and revoke the contract between the Panamanian State and the company Minera Panama (a subsidiary of the Canadian company First Quantum Minerals). However, the issues at stake here go beyond the aspirations of the Panamanian people because corporations have brought in a team of lobbyists (alleged experts in international law) who managed to "persuade" the assembly of deputies, which, in its second session (of three sessions), had already approved the repeal of Law 406 and the prohibition of mining, to defer the final decision on the matter to the supreme court, thereby taking the decision out of their hands.

The assembly faced significant pressure from the streets, to the extent that several deputies had to publicly acknowledge the mistake of having voted in favor of Law 406, under the threat of not having peace. Some deputies were confronted by the population and were prohibited from entering areas where they had previously secured votes.

The mass character of the uprising

Protests against Law 406 and mining in Panama are widespread across the country. However, there are at least two main groups at the vanguard of the mobilizations. On one side, there are the youth and environmentalists who have organized massive marches, called for through social media and led by individuals who, for the most part, are gaining their first experiences in leadership. The youth mobilizations do not come from student unions, whether from university or high school students; the marches and mobilizations are lengthy, often starting in the morning and having no set end time.

On the other hand, there are the workers' organizations, with teachers and educators at the forefront – in 2022, teachers had already made massive protests in Panama [3] – organized by the Frente Pueblo Unido por La Vida (United People for Life Front, which includes ASOPROF – Association of Teachers, SUNTRACS – Construction Workers' Union, etc.).

The day after the approval of Law 406, teachers called for an indefinite strike. The same happened with workers in the transportation sector. As MAS (Movimiento Alternativo Social) stated in a recent statement [4]:

Transporters and educators have declared an indefinite strike. Even CONATO, not exactly known for its combative and mobilizing attitude, is talking about preparing the organization of a NATIONAL STRIKE. Transportation workers in Penonome have also taken the same action, and the National Nurses' College has decided on progressive strikes nationwide, which is unprecedented.

Construction workers, who have not yet declared an indefinite strike, have been blocking roads and closing streets before and during work breaks, with a modest participation due to their strength, but ultimately showing broad involvement in the protests.

In other words, the mass and widespread nature of this uprising is demonstrated not only by the massive marches in the streets of the country but also by the people's reactions in rural and urban areas, in the streets, in their everyday lives.

Unity to achieve victory

The marches continue to be massive and maintain their radical character against the mining contract, but many of us feel that what is needed is what is beginning to be shouted in the streets today, filled with young people leading the protests — the cry for UNITY, UNITY. This is what is necessary to win this struggle once and for all, with decisive pressure against the political regime and its government under Nito Cortizo's PRD. It is organizational unity, in the formation of a National Committee for the Coordination of Struggles and Mobilizations, composed of representatives from the Self-convened Youth, anti-mining movements, environmental movements participating in the protests, the Pueblo Unido por La Vida movement, the Alianza Nacional por los Derechos de los Pueblos Organizados (ANADEPO), CONATO, indigenous and peasant organizations, organized popular sectors, and the political and civic organizations that have been participating in and supporting this action of the Panamanian people.

Let's have a single voice to mobilize massively on a national level, a single voice to launch a general strike of production and all labor activities lasting one day initially, and if there is no response from the State, we will call for increasingly longer strikes. Undoubtedly, with the masses in the streets and general production stoppages, the bourgeois state will have to yield and listen to the people's outcry. We must make it clear that the struggle is not just against one or some of the institutions of the bourgeois state separately. It is not only against the Assembly or the Supreme Court of Justice or the government or the traditional political parties; it is against all of them that coordinate and secretly conspire against the people.

Just as they act in a coordinated manner, the people also need to coordinate their forces to avoid wasting their energy in many scattered struggles. We need to overcome this initial dispersion and reach a coordination and a minimum program to achieve victory against the mining contract and face the near future in a more organized and coordinated manner.




[3] Teacher protests.