Carmelo Yanguez protests in Coclesito. Image by Lynn Burgess. Panama, 2012.

Carmelo Yanguez never thought of himself as an activist. He’s a campesino, or subsistence farmer, who moved to Coclesito as a young boy with his father. They have lived off this land for as long as he can remember. The soil isn’t as rich as in other parts of Panama, but it’s perfect for the plantains, coffee, squash, and other fruits and vegetables indigenous to Panama’s rainforest. This is how Yanguez has lived for more than 40 years.

But now, the farmer has become a protester. He stands in front of the roadblock he helped organize, directing traffic, talking to drivers and giving instructions to the small group that’s gathered.

Yanguez has taken on this new role because he fears for the future, and wonders what awaits him—and more importantly, what awaits his children, after the mining companies leave.

“Things have changed so much already,” he says through an interpreter. “They’re bringing in more food from outside, importing more things. When we grew our own rice, we could sell it for 20 cents a pound. Now, imported rice sells for 60 cents a pound.”

There are about 25 people blocking the only road leading to the mines. A helicopter buzzes overhead, a big sack is attached to its underbelly, an indication that the mining companies are flying their supplies in, rather than trying to run the blockade.

Yanguez looks up and sighs. There is a fleeting look of exhausted resignation on his dark-skinned face. But his voice does not waver. “We’re here because we don’t want mining here or anywhere else in the country,” he says. “And we intend to stay here indefinitely until we reach our goal.”

There are two mining companies operating in this part of the world, both based in Canada, both trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Petaquilla Gold started producing gold in 2009 from its open pit mine about a half hour drive from Yanguez’s house. And in December 2011, Minera Panama, a 100 percent-owned subsidiary of Toronto-based Inmet, got the green light from Panama’s government to start work on what will be the largest copper mine in the world. That project will result in three open pit mines and is estimated to be 20 times the size of Petaquilla’s gold mine.

And all of it, smack in the middle of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, also known as the MBC.

The MBC was a concept adopted in 1997 at the Summit of Central American Heads of State in Panama; it’s essentially a plan to coordinate land use planning strategies among the eight countries spanned by the corridor, to link critical habitats in order to ensure the survival of protected and endangered species. The corridor is home to an estimated 12 percent of the world’s known species (World Bank Region Program Review 2011), many of which are endemic, and some of which are endangered.

Inmet’s own Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) acknowledges that the “portion of the corridor where the Project is situated includes a range of ecosystems needed to support animals that migrate seasonally between lower and higher elevations.” Further, it states that there are over 80 fauna species in the project area that are listed as protected by the Panamanian government, but concludes that the risk to them posed by the project will be minor.

Inmet is also proposing to build a new port on the Caribbean for transport, which will include a coal-fired power plant that will provide electricity for the project. According to the ESIA, the Punta Rincon is going to be built on what is “likely a migratory corridor for a number of rare or endangered species and species of concern, which include a grouper, marine mammals including dolphins and sea turtles.” However, researchers writing the report said they didn’t observe the turtles actually nesting in the area.

“Yes, we have species of concern,” says Minera Panama executive Mercedes Morris, when asked about what the impact of the massive mine will be on endangered species. “But for every species of concern, there’s a management plan, and there’s a specific rescue action that we put in place.”

Morris has been Minera Panama’s director of public relations since 2009. She’s come to Coclesito from MP’s corporate office in Panama City to lead a short tour of different community programs the company has invested in and created in town. Morris has an impressive background, including stints with the U.S. Department of Defense in Panama in the late 1980s, and more recently, as the communications director for the Panama Canal Authority. Now, she’s the public face of Canadian mining in Panama and it’s clear she believes the project is what her country needs to bring jobs and economic development to the rural areas that need modernization.

She’s proud to introduce two former subsistence farmers, who, with the help of a Minera Panama-funded agriculture diversification pilot project, are now planting celery and tomatoes, crops not indigenous to the land.

“We are doing really well,” says Ariana Sanchez after throwing handfuls of ash onto the soil to neutralize its pH. “We earned about $6,000 last year, and were about to not only subsidize our own family’s costs, but we were able to put our children through school as well. They’re also breeding iguanas for meat, and chickens for eggs.”

Morris thanks her and gives her a hug before leaving the farm.

The next stop is a look at Minera Panama’s reforestation plans. Thousands of hectares of forest are coming down to clear the way for the three open pits. But most of it will be replanted, the company says, in consultation with local landowners about what types of trees will be planted.

“At the end of the day, our commitment in developing this project is for this project to be a net positive benefit on economics, on the technical, on the environmental, on the social,” she explains.

Digno Herrera doesn’t agree. He is a volunteer with Panama’s environmental agency, ANAM. He’s also the head of a cooperative of campesinos in Coclesito opposed to mining in this area. Unlike Carmelo Yanguez, whose pacifist protesting hasn’t achieved great results, Herrera takes inspiration from the indigenous Ngobe who shut down the Panamanian Highway further to the west with roadblocks to protest the mines. He’s short, always has a baseball cap on his head, and walks around with crutches, the result of an "accident" he had years ago. Still, he likes the idea of confrontation and has been thrown in jail at least twice.

“The authorities are disregarding the protected status of this area,” he says indignantly. “Basically, they’re here under false pretenses,” referring to the mining companies. “They’ve promised us much but delivered very little. You can see for yourself that our roads need work. And they keep promising to fix them.”

It’s easy to see that the opposition forces in the town of Coclesito are not working as a cohesive unit—and the lack of communications in this town of roughly 800 doesn’t help either. There is no phone service and no electricity except for a few hours in the evenings. Everything happens by word of mouth. But despite the difficulties, and the differences in approaches, Herrera says they are united in their opposition to the mining companies.

“We are all standing together for one cause,” he says.

We follow him to Molejones, the closest community to the mine, about a 20-minute drive from Coclesito. He points at a junction where two rivers meet.

“This one,” he says, pointing to an opaque green and murky river. “This one comes from the mine.” Then he points to the wider river just beyond the green one. “That other one is normal. Clean.”

To the naked eye, the difference is striking. One is clearly murky—and the other is clear. It’s hard to know if it is indeed pollution from the Petaquilla Gold operations just north of here, but there is no shortage of residents who blame the company for killing most of the fish and shrimp they used to harvest from the river.

“No more,” Jeremiah Perez says, pointing downstream. He’s lived in Molejones for more than 30 years. “Very few fish left. And lots of people have skin diseases.” He puts the blame on Petaquilla’s gold mining operation, saying that the rains they get in this area—an estimated five meters a year—mean the tailings pond at the mine overflows. And toxic sludge ends up in the river.

Richard Fifer laughs off the accusation. “You see it yourself,” he says. “Every day you’re up there, there’s hundreds of people swimming in the river. That’s the best testament to how true that is, eh?”

In dark sunglasses and a Panama hat, Fifer looks as if he’s made for the role of mining company president. He’s been in charge of Petaquilla Gold since day one, a businessman whose fascination with Christopher Columbus invites others to draw comparisons between him and the man who refused to accept that the world was flat. Fifer sees himself as a pioneer of the mining industry in Panama. His Wikipedia page calls him the Father of Panamanian mining. Google him, and dozens of websites bearing his name will pop up, with links to different articles on how he built up the industry, and his vision for corporate social responsibility. He’s a U.S.-trained geologist and engineer, and has benefited from a network of connections in successive Panamanian governments, even before he served a term as the governor of Cocle province.

Fifer may be as controversial as he is a colorful figure in Panamanian politics. In the 1970s, he was charged with dealing cocaine and marijuana in the U.S. Canal Zone and sentenced to 18 months in jail. He was also suspected of having embezzled funds from the treasury during his time as governor, but criminal charges never materialized. He bristles when asked about the past.

“What can I tell you about that?” he says, shaking his head at the question. “I’ve been a member of the board of directors of Toronto-listed companies for 20 years. My record speaks for itself. And the fact that I even have to answer this question demeans me.”

He’s seated comfortably in the courtyard of the restaurant he owns in the center of Penonome, the house his grandparents used to live in. He waves at a waiter, and tumblers of ice water wordlessly appear.

“What have I been doing for the last 20 years?” he answers when asked why he thinks he’s been criticized for his business dealings—not just in the media, but by others in the business community. “I’ve been bringing change. And change makes some people feel uncomfortable.”

The Ngobe, he adds, “are polygamists on a massive scale,” who engage in “forced migration.” As a result, he says their slash and burn agricultural practices are the real enemies of the environment. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done there yet before we even start to talk about resource development.”

“Fundamental things to the safety net, which are education, nutrition, and health, need to be addressed. But we are trying to get the Ngobe people to understand that goldsmithing is their heritage. They were goldsmiths when the Spaniards and Christopher Columbus showed up, and so they should aspire to re-find their heritage.”

To call it an age-old battle between David and Goliath may be an overused cliché, but this is one battle David is unlikely to win. Carmelo Yanguez’s little blockade at the road leading to the mines came down a few days after it went up. In the spirit of non-violence, his group of anti-mining protesters decided to take the barricade down as soon as they heard the police were on their way in. Digno Herrera decided to meet the police head on, and led his group back to re-establish the blockade. He and six of his cohorts were arrested and taken to jail in another town. The road reopened, and the mining companies continued as if nothing happened. Petaquilla Gold is expecting to increase its production of gold by almost 50 percent from June 2012 to May 2013, compared to the same period last year. Minera Panama is starting to take down almost 6,000 hectares of tropical rainforest for its three open pit mines and a coal-powered port facility on the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, longtime residents in Coclesito are noting some disturbing changes in town: increased alcohol intake, especially on mine paydays; breakups of marriages; teen pregnancies. Humberto Lopez-Tirone runs the Granja Alternativa, a fledgling agri-tourist lodge. A former politician and diplomat currently on sabbatical, he’s been a presence in this town for the last 28 years. Lopez-Tirone shakes his head when asked how his community has changed over the past several years.

“The biggest change has been the shift from an agricultural community which raises its own foodstuffs to a population that seeks employment in the cash economy of the mining industry.” He talks about a drug problem, fueled by criminals from across the border in Colombia, but brought to Coclesito by the cash flowing from the mining companies. Asked to look ahead 30 years, to a time when the life of the mines is over and the companies gone, he is already angry about the future. “This is almost a repeat of the Spanish conquistadors who took from the extractive areas all of our gold and simply left us behind with trinkets. I envision perhaps that people will come here and be told—there used to be trees here.”

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A battle is being waged in the rainforests of Panama – between those who want to keep their way of life, and those who want economic growth. At stake: billions worth of precious metals.

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