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Minera Panamá operations severely threatens people, wildlife, and planetary health

Coalition joins Panamanians across the country in urging Supreme Court to reject Central America's largest open-pit copper mine

On November 24, Panama’s Supreme Court will decide the future of an open-pit mine bigger than Manhattan that continues to endanger the rights, health, and livelihoods of local communities, threatens an irreplaceable place that is critical for biodiversity and climate, and has been the focus of the historic country-wide protests since mid-October.

A group of international and local conservation organizations and activists today joins the overwhelming majority of the country in opposing the 50-square-mile (13,000-hectare) copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum mine, which Minera Panamá, a subsidiary of Canadian company First Quantum Minerals, operates. Together, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples of Panama (COONAPIP), Sociedad Audubon de Panamá, ADOPTA Bosque Panamá, Panamá Sostenible, Centro de Incidencia Ambiental (CIAM Panama),Re: wild, the Amphibian Survival Alliance, Synchronicity Earth, WWF, American Bird Conservancy, the IUCN SSC Amphibian Specialist Group and BirdLife International join Panama’s local and Indigenous communities in urging the Supreme Court to follow the law and declare the new contract with Minera Panamá unconstitutional.

When all this nature is contaminated, we all die,” said Rengifo Navas Revilla (who goes by Sagla Dummad), secretary of COONAPIP and a leader in Panama’s Guna Indigenous community. “Even the planet itself, even Mother Earth herself, dies. This is the principle that has been instilled in us, and that is why we continue to fight. This is why we Indigenous peoples are asking the Supreme Court to declare this law unconstitutional.”

The Minera Panamá project is located in the province of Colón, in the Donoso Protected Area, within the globally important Golfo de los Mosquitos Forests Key Biodiversity Area. Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) are sites critical to the global persistence of biodiversity and the planet’s health. The Panamanian government is bound by law to safeguard protected areas like Donoso. Panama’s Congress and President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen recently awarded a new contract to Minera Panamá to continue its operations after a first Supreme Court decision declared the previous agreement violated the constitution.

More than 1,000 wildlife species live in the Donoso Protected Area, many of which are threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This includes the great green Macaw, Baird’s tapir, Central American spider monkey, jaguar, harpy eagle (Panama’s national bird), horned marsupial frog, and the critically endangered Gemini’s dart frog, a species only described in 2014 and whose entire known habitat is in the Donoso Protected Area, near the mining project.

“The harpy eagle, our national bird, and the bare-necked umbrellabird, a local altitudinal migrant, are found in the Golfo de los Mosquitos Forests KBA and are huge draws for avitourism. Several other birds in this area, in addition to these two, are listed as vulnerable or endangered species. These forests are also important stopover sites for many migratory birds, such as Canada warblers. Mining is not the best use of this land. Developing birding and nature-based tourism, an industry that respects both the environment and the people of Panama is what we recommend and support.”

Rosabel Miró, executive director, Sociedad Audubon de Panamá

Because of this species, the Golfo de los Mosquitos Forests KBA is also recognized as an Alliance for Zero Extinction site, the most irreplaceable subset of Key Biodiversity Areas. A small group of Gemini’s dart frogs were first brought into a conservation breeding program in 2014, but there have been no scientific records since 2018.

“As a Key Biodiversity Area and Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) site, this globally recognized area is also important for the survival of the great green Macaw, a rapidly declining bird species with a population estimate of a few thousand individuals. We support the efforts of so many Panamanians striving to cancel the mining contract to safeguard the rights, health, and livelihoods of local and Indigenous communities along with the preservation of this significant ecosystem.”

Amy Upgren, director of international programs, American Bird Conservancy

The mine is also located in the heart of the Panama Atlantic Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which connects wildlife habitats in seven countries of Central America to southern Mexico. Ecological corridors are critical for animals to be able to move to find food, habitat, and mates. A road built for the mine crosses the corridor, disrupting the connectivity of forests in the region. More than 11.6 square miles (3,000 hectares) of forest have already been destroyed for the construction and operation of the mine.

“The area to be destroyed by this mining contract is one of the most biodiverse and least-known rainforests in all of Panama,” said Guido Berguido, a Panamanian biologist and executive director of Adopta Bosque Panamá. “Just this year, a new species in the Brazilnut family (Eschweilera magnifica) was described from the mine site, and other species of plants and animals are being described as we speak. Our greatest fear is that, with current deforestation and the projected expansion of the mining operation, some wildlife species may go extinct before they are even discovered.

According to the science-based organization Science in Panama, open-pit mining can generate significant air pollution that can cause severe respiratory illnesses and waste rock that contains heavy metals that are washed away and can contaminate nearby waters. When water polluted with heavy metals is consumed, it can result in neurological damage, cancer, and other health challenges. Mines also release 1.4 times more particulate matter into nearby communities than non-mining sites. Particulate matter is especially damaging to the immature lungs of children and can result in death.

The original concession for the mine was granted in 1997 and went through two previous owners before First Quantum Minerals took over in 2013, inheriting the original contract. In 2009, two lawsuits were filed over the constitutionality of the original contract. In 2017, Panama’s Supreme Court ruled that the original concession was unconstitutional partly because it was granted without the proper bidding process.

Despite the ruling, the company began exporting copper in 2019. First, Quantum negotiated a new contract to continue operations and add 15.4 square miles (4,000 hectares) to the size of the project, which Congress approved. President Cortizo signed into contract law on October 20, 2023, when the protests across the country escalated.

Now, all eyes are on the Supreme Court, which has received nine lawsuits around the constitutionality of the contract. Its decision could quash the contract. The court, which publicly assigned top priority to this case, has said it will analyze the first cases on November 24, one day after the ten days for interested parties to submit comments closes.

Congress and the president approved the contract law more than one year after Panama’s National Assembly and President Cortizo signed legislation granting nature “the right to exist, persist and regenerate its life cycles.” According to the law, which went into effect earlier this year, Panama’s parliament must consider the impact of its policies on nature.

Harpy Eagle female – Greg Homel, Natural Elements Productions
Great Green Macaw – Hans Norelius
Gemini’s Dart Frog – Abel Batista
Indigenous woman – Mining Protests in Panamá
International and local conservation organizations and activists opposing the 50-square-mile (13,000-hectare) copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum mine.