Panamanian protesters break into international port used by First Quantum Minerals

Protest against Cobre Panamá at the Punta Rincón International Port on October 28, 2023. (Image by Raisa Banfield, X.)

On the sixth day of protests against the recent approval of the mining concession for the Cobre Panamá copper mine, activists broke into the Punta Rincón International Port, in the northern Colón province, which is used by Minera Panamá to ship copper abroad.

The protesters arrived on a speedboat chanting slogans against the mine but were later escorted out by a patrol from the National Aeronaval Service.

Right after the incident, which took place on Saturday, the subsidiary of Canada’s First Quantum Minerals (TSX: FM) issued a media statement deeming the protesters’ incursion as “violent and illegal.” 

“We are deeply worried about this incident, which represents a significant threat to our operations and the safety of our staff,” the communiqué reads. “We call on the relevant authorities to safeguard the wellbeing of our workers, protect our facilities and preserve the integrity of our business operations.” 

Massive protests started earlier in the week and have spread through the capital city and several other provinces, as Panamanians express concern over the potential environmental impacts of Cobre Panamá.

According to local media, some of the demonstrations in Panama City have gathered over 50,000 attendees, with the latest one adding up to 20,000 people. Organizers are using the rallying cry “get off social media” so that people physically join these events.

Their main demand is that the Laurentino Cortizo government repeal Law 406, which governs the mining concession and was published in the Official Gazette of Panama on October 20, 2023. The legal instrument contains the operation’s new contract, which grants First Quantum the right to mine copper for 20 years, with the option of an additional 20 years. It also guarantees a minimum annual income of $375 million to the government.

Protesters are also calling for a shutdown of Cobre Panamá through a gradual closure plan.

Official responses

In response to the social pressure, President Cortizo announced on Friday a ban on new metal mining concessions and said he was open to “talking” about First Quantum’s mining contract.

Prior to this, Panama’s Supreme Court said on Thursday that it would consider a lawsuit which alleges that the nation’s contract with First Quantum violates the constitution.

The court said in a statement that it would issue an opinion on the lawsuit within 10 business days. If it then proceeds, it will request written arguments from attorneys representing both sides. From there, it would advance to the magistrates for a ruling.

Last December, the Panamanian government ordered First Quantum to halt operations at Cobre Panamá amid disagreements during contract negotiations, which later broke down. Talks eventually resumed and the parties reached an agreement in March. The company estimated that the two-month suspension caused up to $8 million in losses per day.

The mine, which started commercial production in 2019, is First Quantum’s top money-maker and accounts for about 1.5% of global copper output. At full capacity, it can process 85 million tonnes of ore annually and produce more than 300,000 tonnes of copper each year. Gold, silver, and molybdenum are also recovered. 

Currently, the complex includes two open pit mines, a processing plant, two 150MW power stations and a port.

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