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Panama’s congress backtracks to preserve controversial Canadian mining contract

PANAMA CITY –


An indefinite moratorium on new mining activities passed a second vote in Panama’s National Assembly Thursday. One article was removed, however, that would have revoked a controversial mining contract which had sparked nationwide protests over the past two weeks.


The bill had already passed a second debate on Wednesday while it still included an article revoking the government’s contract with Minera Panama, a local subsidiary of Canadian mining company First Quantum.


Lawmakers reversed that decision Thursday, sending the bill back to a second debate and stripping the article specifically related to the Minera Panama contract.


Some lawyers welcomed the decision, warning that revoking the contract with a new bill could have left the government open to multi-million dollar legal liabilities. Experts said those could be avoided if the country’s Supreme Court rules the original contract was unconstitutional in any one of eight such cases brought against the deal so far.


The moratorium bill now awaits a third and final debate, in which no further changes can be made, then the final approval of President Laurentino Cortizo. Technically the Assembly went on recess earlier this week, so Cortizo is expected to call for another day of extraordinary session for the debate. Another bill also awaits debate, which would put the contract to a popular referendum.


Cortizo initially gave his final approval to the contract on October 20. It allows Minera Panama to continue operating an open pit copper mine in the state of Colon for 20 years, with the possibility of the company extending it another 20 years. Environmentalists argue the mine threatens to destroy more of the dense jungle surrounding it and imperils local drinking water.


Protests continued across the country Thursday, drawing supporters from Indigenous groups and unions across the education, construction and medical sectors.



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