Tropical Broadleaf Evergreen Lowlands Forest, Panama, Aerial View (Cobre Panama project EIA)

The Canadian-owned Minera Panama S.A. (a subsidiary of Inmet Mining) has plans to develop a 5,600-hectare mine in the middle of dense tropical forest in the province of Colón, Panama. The company is now waiting for the green light from the Panamanian government. If approved, the Cobre Panama project would be the biggest private venture in the country, and with an initial $5 billion investment estimate, it could be even more costly than the Panama Canal expansion project. According to Inmet Mining’s press release, once operations begin in 2015, the project is expected to produce “289,000 tonnes of copper and 108,000 ounces of gold per year (open pit) during the first 16 years of a 30 year mine life.”

Although the government has not approved the EIA for the mining project, it has granted the mining company other permits and on November 8, 2010, Inmet announced on its website that it had awarded a contract to an engineering and construction group for work on the Cobre Panama project. Inmet seems optimistic, but ELAW partners at Centro de Incidencia Ambiental de Panama (CIAM) are fighting back. They have called on me and Meche Lu to review the 14,913-page, 40-volume Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and offer our critique. The EIA was prepared for Minera Panama at a cost of $19 million by over 100 contractors. We have until the end of this month to submit our comments!

From our initial review, Meche and I agree that the project is a wretchedly bad idea – among other things, mining activities will permanently uproot several thousand acres of tropical forest in the heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. We are not alone in our concerns. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a resolution warning of the grave social and environmental impacts of open-pit mining in the Mesoamerican region and calling on Central American governments to “cancel current open-pit metal mining exploration and exploitation.”

ELAW Partners Mariana Mendez and Joana Abrego, an environmental engineer and lawyer (respectively) with CIAM, visited ELAW this year and worked closely with Meche and me. They are part of the team that has worked with concerned community groups in Panama challenging the nearby Molejon Gold Mine, which is contaminating rivers and destroying biodiversity. They are confident that the Cobre Panama project, if approved, will have similar devastating effects on the environment and local communities.

We remain hopeful that if decision-makers in Panama understand the long-term costs of permanently uprooting several thousand acres of tropical forest, they will set aside the Cobre Panama project.

Mark Chernaik
ELAW Staff Scientist