Despite protests, Panama liberalizes mining law

PANAMA CITY — Lawmakers in Panama approved legislation to attract foreign investment to its mining industry, despite opposition from students and indigenous groups.

President Ricardo Martinelli and his supporters in the national assembly argue that mining could be Panama's second largest source of income after fees from the trans-oceanic canal. It becomes law with Martinelli's signature.

The government recently opened for tenders a copper deposit in Cerro Colorado, in Ngobe-Bugle Indian territory.

Experts believe there are 17 million tons of copper at the site, equivalent to three years of copper production in Chile, the world's largest copper producer.

Companies based in Canada, South Korea and Singapore have shown interest in investing.

Students, environmentalists and indigenous groups, however, fear changes to the mining code -- untouched since the 1960s -- would spoil the pristine jungle and force Indian communities to relocate.

"Our message to the government is clear: if the time comes to shed blood, we will do it because we're going to defend our rights," Pedro Rodriguez, president of the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous region, told AFP.

Protests over the past week have grown, with several injuries and arrests.

"This is not over," vowed Rogelio Moreno, leader of an organization that represents indigenous people.

After the vote, clashes broke out between police and indigenous people near the national assembly.

At least eight people were injured Tuesday when riot police clashed with students opposing the proposed changes.

Police on Monday fired tear gas and rubber bullets on hundreds of Indians protesting in the southwestern town of San Felix. Nineteen people were arrested.

Last summer, protests against a similar proposal caused two deaths and 100 injuries, after which the plan was shelved.

Several polls have shown that most Panamanians believe an increase in mining would hurt the environment and Indian communities.

Supporters of the legislation said it will increase royalty payments to Panama and require mining companies to improve environmental conditions.

~ AFP

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