Three dozen religious groups in Panama issued a statement protesting a plan to allow new mining in a forested area near indigenous communities and called on the government to protect the rights and ensure the participation of communities affected by them. development projects.
“Panama is a small country with very fragile ecosystems, so it is necessary to lay the foundations for a green economy and circular production that benefits everyone as well as the environment,” the groups said in a statement. press release published on June 5, World Environment Day.
“In the context of Panama, mining is destroying large areas of rainforest,” the statement added. “This damage is not compensated by planting monocultures in another location, just as monocultures are not ‘reforestation’. “
The declaration was prompted by a government decree of May 12 creating a 96.5 square mile mining concession, an area where metal mining will be permitted, in the provinces of Coclé and Colón, southwest of the Caribbean port of Colón, where a large – open pit copper mine is already operating.
The new concession is part of a government effort to develop mining as a way to revitalize Panama’s economy after the pandemic, said Fr. Joseph Fitzgerald, a Vincentian missionary from Philadelphia who heads the National Indigenous Ministry of the Panamanian Church.
One of the richest copper deposits in the world lies beneath Panama’s central mountain range, and periodic efforts have been made since the 1960s to expand mining in the country.
Part of the copper deposit lies beneath the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, or indigenous territory, where Fitzgerald is parish priest of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Soloy, serving approximately 200 dispersed communities.
The government opened up the area around the comarca to mining in 2010. In early 2012, protesters demanding an end to mining closed the Pan-American Highway – the country’s main commercial transport route – for five days. . After two Ngäbe-Buglé men were killed in a police crackdown on protesters, the government agreed to ban metal mining in the comarca.
Nonetheless, Fitzgerald said, there is constant political pressure to lift the ban.
“It’s technically prohibited, but it doesn’t take anything away from those looking to continue mining,” he told EarthBeat. “His [seen] more as a short term hurdle for the mining industry, not a decision [by Indigenous communities] that they must respect. “
The current push to expand mining in the country is led by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank. The ministry is conducting virtual dialogues about the process, but has not included communities that would be affected, Fitzgerald said.
“Since February, all of a sudden it’s a central hot topic again,” but due to Panama’s fragile ecosystem, “it’s just a horrible context in which to place mining” , did he declare.
The country’s regulations are also fragile. Several small mines have been abandoned in recent years, leaving the surrounding area polluted with mining waste.
“Panama does not have the capacity to respond to these situations, so when the company left it was a disaster,” said the Vincentian priest of the Molejón mine abandoned by Petaquilla Gold, a subsidiary of Petaquilla Minerals based in Canada. The mine suspended operations in 2013 and was subsequently abandoned. In 2015, the Department of the Environment estimated that cleaning up the pollution would cost $ 30 million.
Located on the land bridge between North America and South America, Panama is in the most biologically diverse region in the world, according to the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. The forested mountain range, which connects Costa Rica, is part of an important wildlife corridor.
“When you go up there it’s virgin forest,” Fitzgerald said of the mountains. “From the top you see the two oceans – you see the Pacific on one side and the Caribbean [Sea] on the other side, and they both look [as if they are really] close, so that you realize how small and fragile it is. “
The terrain is very steep and if the hillsides were bare of trees, they would erode quickly. Although mining companies promise to offset deforestation by planting trees elsewhere in the country, “it ends up being forest farms” rather than actual reforestation, Fitzgerald said.
The declaration opposing the new mining concession was signed by various national and diocesan ministries, as well as by religious congregations, universities and lay groups. The Panama Laudato Si ‘Movement and the Mesoamerican Ecological Ecclesial Network added their names, along with half a dozen non-religious groups.
The groups called on the government to suspend the new concession and to conduct a dialogue including all those affected by the mining operation. They added that the government should not “reject the idea of a full moratorium on mining at the end of the process.”
The declaration also calls on Panama to comply with the Escazú Accord, which the country ratified in 2020. The pact, which came into effect on Earth Day, April 22, requires countries to ensure that communities affected by development projects participate in all decisions about those projects.
Archbishop José Domingo Ulloa Mendieta of Panama City echoed the groups’ concerns about mining and their demands in his homily at Mass on June 6, Corpus Christi feast.
“Now, more than ever, we must be united to take care of our common home,” he said. “This is the only legacy we can leave for our children in a country where every citizen protects our lands, waters and forests. Let it be the ethics of stewardship that guides politics in this country.”