CBC’s ‘The New Conquistadors’ and public debate over Canadian mining in Panama
Posted by Alana Wilson on 7/3/2012 11:13:07 AM
On June 18th, the CBC aired a 25 minute investigative report called “The New Conquistadors” that explored Canadian mining in indigenous communities in Panama. The report provided interviews with locals who both support and oppose mining, as well as mining company personnel and anti-mine protestors. The result is an interesting and engaging piece that examines some of the opportunities and also challenges brought by mining. The full segment can be viewed online along with an interactive map of mining related social conflict in Latin America.
It began by discussing some of the enormous wealth that would be generated with the planned INMET copper mine which will bring millions in dollars in revenue to Panama over its 30-year life. Although mineral exports are not currently a significant contributor to Panama’s revenues (currently less than 1% of Panama’s GDP), the planned INMET mine will be one of the largest copper producers in the world. 
The change at the local level will be transformative. Already some communities have gone from relying on subsistence farming - where families grow their own food and use surplus to trade for goods - to being miners. There were also concerns over how residents were using this new wealth, with alcoholism noted as an increasing problem. While local opponents to mining oppose this transformation, others are eager to benefit from the jobs and economic opportunities.
The film showed some of the social development projects that have been supported by the mining companies including a new school, agricultural projects and a planned health care center. Interestingly, one of the mine opponents interviewed noted that the government should be providing such services and not mining companies, a view shared by many supporters of mining too. Unfortunately, some governments lack capacity to deliver such services efficiently so mining companies step in to assist local communities.
Perhaps the most significant change brought by mining is the infrastructure that will be built. A series of roads and bridges will connect the new INMET copper mine with a new port. The remoteness of the town of Nueva Lucha can be seen in a series of video clips and maps that document the reporters’ trip to the village by road, boat, and hiking on foot.
Much of the report focusses on social conflicts that have arisen in the area and tensions between those who support mining and those who oppose it. Many of these are centered on environmental concerns, with anti-mining opponents claiming mining will destroy the natural resources and the rivers.
The response of the mining companies has been to increase dialogue with communities and the public. A representative of INMET recognized past environmental problems with other operations, while noting that current regulations and processes would have avoided those problems. Another representative discussed how the industry has been misunderstood and needs to better engage local communities. Mining will bring change and this can make people uncomfortable, while others welcomed the prospect and the jobs and prosperity it would bring. Overall, this approach to increased dialogue and transparency may be working as one community near the mine has already chosen to be relocated from the mining concession into new housing of their own choosing.
In Coclesito, residents also noted a shifting perception and support for mining. One resident noted that four or five years ago, residents would have manned blockades and protested the mine. She attributed the change to increased awareness of the benefits a properly managed mining project can involve.
1 The World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI), 2012.