Satellite images registered between September and November 2018 show the progress of deforestation in the area of influence of a project operated by the company Minera Panama. The Environmental Incident Center (Ciam) of Panama, an environmental non-governmental organization, alleges that the company operates under an illegal contract and there is a ruling from the Supreme Court of Justice issued that year that proves them right.
Petaquilla Gold and Minera Panamá are two different companies, but with the same north: the exploitation of minerals in Cerro Petaquilla under a single contract endorsed by the National Assembly (Congress) and the destruction of forests in an area with high regional biodiversity: the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which connects the seven countries of Central America and southern Mexico.
The devastation is observed from the air and voices are heard on the surface about the environmental consequences of the development of an open-pit mining project in Cerro Petaquilla. A security checkpoint and a sign warn you that you have reached one of the project entrances in the Molejón area, Coclesito, in the north of the country, 180 kilometers from the Capital city.
Deforestation began with the exploitation of gold by the Panamanian company Petaquilla Gold and has continued with the exploitation of copper by Minera Panama, a subsidiary of the Canadian First Quantum Minerals.
In Panama, this natural gem has been seriously affected and its destruction began 10 years ago. This report presents satellite images that show the accelerated progress of deforestation, as a consequence of mining activities that devastate one of Panama's lungs, and the story behind with a team from Mongabay Latam touring the area.
Deforestation in figures
The concession,granted by contract law No. 9 of February 25, 1997, covers an area of 13,000 hectares that is roughly 60 times the size of the Capital district. From this figure it is not clear what percentage has been allocated to the copper project developed by Minera Panamá, but inThe environmental impact study of the work specifies the exact amount of impact: 5,900 hectares, of which around 5,500 are lowland tropical forests320 hectares that have already been devastated by "anthropogenic activities" and 25 hectares that correspond to bodies of water and freshwater rivers. Three important hydrographic basins are within the area of influence of mining: the Petaquilla River, the Caimito River and the San Juan River, the latter two, in turn, have eight tributaries.
"It has been shown that the clearing activities of the tropical forest could cause changes in the local climatic and biological conditions in the forests adjacent to the devastated areas," acknowledges the environmental impact study conducted by Minera Panama, which, unlike Petaquilla Gold, the approval of the document by the National Environmental Authority, now the Ministry of the Environment to start construction work.
Minera Panama has planned an investment of more than 6.3 billion dollars and expects to export around 320,000 metric tons of copper per year.
The impact of this mining activity can be observed in thesatellite images showing the progression of primary forest loss in the project's area of influence, a space that remained intact until 2000. The mine is located in an area of primary forest that remained intact until 2000. Satellite data from the University of Maryland registered almost 4,500 deforestation alerts.
Data provided by the University of Maryland shows telling evidence:4,500 deforestation alerts in the area in which the company operates. Just look at the map to confirmhow the forest continues to be cleared with these images that have been recorded between September 8 and November 24 of this year.
To corroborate what the images showed, a team from Mongabay Latam traveled to the area.
On Saturday, November 10 of this year, the heat was incessant in Coclesito, the humidity was overwhelming and from time to time a drizzle fell. The presence of the company Minera Panamá is notorious in the community: trucks and cars with the company logo that circulate in both directions through the only two streets of the town, and people who walk dressed in the mining work clothes.
The company repaired and built the road to Coclesito, and continued until it reached the project that no one except employees can enter. The entrance to the mining plant is guarded by a private security guard who watches who enters and who leaves.
Although the security of the company prevented the entrance to the new deforested area,the Center for Environmental Incidence (Ciam), a non-governmental organization dedicated to conservation, which has been following the case for nine years and has carried out at leastThree overflights in the area to photographically document the destruction of the forest, confirmed that there is an impact in the area. The last flyby was made eight months ago.
In the photographs of the Ciam an immense gray spot is observed surrounded by the green forest. The images, in addition to visualizing the devastation, show all the erosion that occurs.
Where before there were trees, life and a functioning Biological Corridor, now, there is bare earth, machinery and destruction. This damage has the approval of the State with the approval, first of the concession, and second of the environmental impact study.
Ciam sued in 2009 the law contract before the Supreme Court of Justice by unconstitutional,considering that it did not comply with current regulations that obliged the State to carry out a public tender to grant a mining concession and for the environmental damage caused by open-pit mining.After nine years, on September 24, the Court ruled in favor of the environmental organization. Environmentalists welcomed the decision, but from government structures the reaction to the ruling was to maintain the operation of Minera Panama.
For this report we tried to have the version of the Ministry of Environment and the company, but at the end of the article there was no response to the questions sent.
According to the company's website,the construction phase is 73% complete and the operation phase is expected to begin in the first months of 2019. He also points out that he has reforested 1500 hectares. The country's environmental regulations allow reforestation to be carried out in any part of the national territory.
The company arrived and moved the local economy in a community that barely reaches 2,819 inhabitants, according to the estimates of the Comptroller's Office as of July 2018. The company doubled that figure in employment and on its website it indicates that it has 8,500 “collaborators Panamanians ”. Although for some it is what they wanted, for others it is nothing more than "bread for today, hunger for tomorrow."
Digno Herrera is slim, dark-skinned and with a strong accent, his voice rising when he talks about the damage from open-pit mining and the problems he has faced for opposing the project. Sitting in the center of the portal of his house in Coclesito he sentences:"Mining is incompatible with agriculture and in these rural communities there are only two ways to earn a living: producing the land or working for a company." After mining, there are no major investments in the area that generate employment and mining projects have an expiration date.
“People, especially young people, today have an income from the employment that the company offers, but what will they have tomorrow?” Asks Herrera. The damage of open pit mining is socio-environmental, he reflects.
Digno Herrera is one of the founders of the Cooperativa de Servicios Múltiples that was created in 2011, with the aim of developing a project to plant green cane (bamboo) for its use and the protection of river basins. In addition to the production of certain agricultural products.
The initiative has been somewhat frustrated. Although the Cooperative managed to plant about 10 hectares of the species, the local authorities ordered them to be cut down, claiming that the area is part of the mining concession, Herrera complains. The issue remains in court due to a complaint filed by the Cooperative against the authorities.
For Herrera, these problems are "occupational hazards" due to the struggle they maintain against mining and not only in the area, but in the rest of the country because they have joined other movements that are opposed to this type of project.
Crops that disappear
Coclesito maintained a pixbae coffee and palm production. The latter grew in such a way that it allowed the commercialization and use of poultry as food.
Since mining was installed in the area, pixbae production dropped dramatically. Herrera says it and one of her companions, Estelina Santana.
The farmers have stopped producing coffee to go to work with the mining and the pixbae palms flourish, but they do not develop. The flowers fall.
Santana lives in Nuevo San Juan, one of the communities near the mining project. From her house the noise of the current of the San Juan River can be heard, which she has stopped using out of fear. "They have told us that the river is polluted and we have preferred not to use it," he said.
Before mining was installed, the communities were supplied with water from the river. Now, the water intakes are located at the high points to avoid any contact with polluting substances.
"While it is true the mining company has brought some benefits to the communities, such as the construction of the streets, in environmental matters we are plagued by contamination," argued Santana lying in a hammock. "We don't even use the river for bathing," he said.
Santana emphasized the pixbae clapping phenomenon. For her it is inexplicable that after having a mass production of pixbae, now, she has to settle for seeing the palms only bloom. The pixbae played a fundamental role. The residents used it for consumption and sale, and also as food for chickens and pigs. No one, absolutely no one has given you an explanation why palms don't produce pixbae.
The Center for Environmental Incidence has the scientific explanation for Santana's question. Isaías Ramos is a biologist who works for the organization and as a good teacher of science, he claims that to reach an exact conclusion about what happens with pixbae palms, soil studies must be carried out, as well as to determine the contamination of the San River. Juan would have to take samples of the water.
But from the theory it is allowed to make some assertions that give light to understand reality. "Perhaps nothing is happening to the palms, but because of the chemical substances used in every mining project, they have killed the insects that pollinate the palms, and since there are no pollinators, the flowers do not bear fruit and fall off," he argued.
This, the biologist calls the "indirect effect" of mining. "As there are no natural pollinators, it does not occur and that may be happening not only in pixbae palms, but in various types of species," he added.
The environmental impact study establishes that organic matter will be lost from the soil during the construction and operations phases, and contamination “can occur as a consequence of spills and leaks,” however, it does not specify which substances could be spilled. As a consequence of the net loss in soil organic matter and changes in the biochemical cycles of the land, less fertile soil and a loss of cultivable areas will occur. The document recommends restoring the balance of soil organic matter during the closure and post-closure phase of the project.
Ramos analyzes another environmental reality that is not detected at first glance. As a consequence of the destruction of the forests, a fauna rescue is carried out, however, this rescue focuses on large animals, but not on small ones such as insects that play a fundamental role in the production of food through pollination. "Nobody thinks of rescuing, for example, bats and these animals have significant biological importance for the environment," he argued.
For Ciam, the mismanagement of the mining issue is “evident” in Panama, where the authorities only give importance to profits and forget to guarantee the quality of life for the population.
The fractionation of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and the environmental damages in the end are paid by Panama and the populations that live in the surroundings of this ecosystem affected by mining activity.
Source and more photos: Mongabay