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In Panama, Locals Protest Canadian Copper Mines

July 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In Panama, local groups have teamed up with environmental activists to halt the development of huge Canadian copper mines. In collaboration with CBC News in Canada and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Mellissa Fung reports on the project and the money and land at stake.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, new battle lines are being drawn in the rain forests of the Americas, and billions of dollars are at stake. Canadian mining companies hold about 1,400 properties in developing nations from Mexico to Argentina.

One of those is in Panama, where local groups have teamed up with environmental activists to halt the building of new mines.

Our story is a collaboration with CBC News in Canada and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The producer is Lynn Burgess. The reporter is Mellissa Fung.

MELLISSA FUNG, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting: Deep in the Panamanian rain forest, more than three hours northwest of Panama City, small agricultural communities dot the landscape, places that have remained unchanged for generations.

Carmelo Yanguez has lived in this town of Coclesito for more than 40 years. A subsistence farmer, he lives on what he grows, planting coffee, rice and beans and fish from nearby rivers. But his peaceful life, he fears, is changing.

CARMELO YANGUEZ, farmer (through translator): Families typically grew their own food. However, when the mining companies arrived and hired people, food had to be brought in from outside, because nobody’s left to cultivate the land.

MELLISSA FUNG: Worse, he says, it’s not safe to eat the fish that is left in the river. He and other locals believe the cause is upstream, where the country’s only operating gold mine has been producing gold from its open pit since 2009.

Raisa Banfield is the head of the Sustainable Panama Foundation.

RAISA BANFIELD, Sustainable Panama Foundation (through translator): We receive reports of fish dying and also of animals that drink water from the river periodically. And those events coincide with periods of heavy rainfall that cause the tailings ponds with toxins to overflow. But those situations happen very quickly, so when you finally get there, you can’t prove that.

But we know it’s happening. And the authorities are not doing anything to prevent this.

MELLISSA FUNG: The mine is owned and operated by Petaquilla Minerals based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The company’s president, Richard Fifer, a native Panamanian, scoffs at the complaints.

RICHARD FIFER, Petaquilla Minerals: You see it yourself. Every day up there that you do, there are hundreds of people swimming in the river. That’s the best testament to how true that is, eh?

MELLISSA FUNG: Around Coclesito, it looks like one major construction zone, new roads, improved bridges. It’s all part of another major project that’s going up around Richard Fifer’s gold mine.

Inmet Mining of Toronto is building what will be one of the biggest copper mines in the world right in the middle of the rain forest in part of what’s known as the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a protected zone spanning seven countries and home to thousands of animal and plant species, some of them endangered.

The copper mine will be massive compared to the gold mine, three open pits, a huge tailings pond and up on the Caribbean coast a new port, along with a coal-powered energy plant to fuel its operations. The prospect of all this development has pushed some of the locals here to protest. They built a roadblock disrupting traffic leading to both mine sites.

The protest is led by Carmelo Yanguez, who has been joined by an indigenous leader from another village. Martin Rodriguez and his group have hiked for hours in the jungle to take part. Inmet has built a school for their village of Nueva Lucha, an indigenous community at the edge of the mine-affected area. There are promises of a health center as well, but at what costs, he asks.

MARTIN RODRIGUEZ, Panama (through translator): They say that they’re going to give us a health center and a school. But I don’t want that from them. As a leader, I can see through that. How much destruction and pollution is there going to be? Schools and health centers, that’s the government’s responsibility.

MELLISSA FUNG: Rodriguez and his group have actually tapped into a bigger movement taking place across Latin America, grassroots protests taking on Canadian mining companies and, in some cases, winning.

JENNIFER MOORE, MiningWatch Canada: We’re seeing moratoriums on new mining concessions in Guatemala, in Honduras, in El Salvador, in Ecuador. We have seen a ban now on open pit gold mining in Costa Rica and a ban on mining in glacier and periglacial systems in Argentina.

MELLISSA FUNG: For their part, the mining companies are trying to win over the locals by reaching out with day care programs for children, small business loans to their parents, and promises of improved roads, schools and health centers.

Craig Ford is Inmet’s vice president of corporate responsibility in Toronto.

CRAIG FORD, Inmet: We’re helping bring the government into the area to discharge their responsibilities in areas where they haven’t been in the past. So, it’s a very positive outcome for the local communities in terms of increased access to health care, education. And we’re really the catalyst for that, and we’re proud of that.

MELLISSA FUNG: Inmet’s plans for the mine call for 22 square miles of rain forest to be taken down. Work has already started.

JENNIFER MOORE: They estimate that some 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity lives within the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. And one of the most pristine areas is in northern Panama, where these companies are currently developing their projects.

MELLISSA FUNG: The company hopes to start producing copper here by 2016.

GWEN IFILL: Follow the production team’s trek through remote villages in Panama online, where you will find an interactive map showing the Canadian mines in Latin America. That material was gathered by McGill University researchers for the CBC-Pulitzer Center project. You can click the link on our website later tonight.