Alida Spadafora

Interviewee: Alida Spadafora, Executive Director of ANCON (Asociación Nacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza de Panamá
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth and Karis McLaughlin
Location: ANCON’s office in Panamá
Date: 4th September 2009
Theme: Panama’s environment; the inappropriateness of mining in Panama; mining protests; deforestation; ANCON’s programmes
Keywords: TBC


 Martin Mowforth (MM): Gave intro. to the book.

Karis McLaughlin (KM): First, I’d like to ask about the Petaquilla project because we know that ANCON is against it. So we’re interested to know what can be done against mining, to get to know your opinions and if you are optimistic on what can be done.

Alida Spadafora (AS): Two years ago ANCON began to investigate the beginnings of the construction of the Petaquilla mine, especially with reference to gold mining; and we began to realise that they were carrying out an Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA). Since then we started to learn about the company. The company came to ANCON. It understood that we were investigating. They came to ANCON, met with the organisation’s directors and invited us to go there. I went with a team from ANCON. Outwardly there everything looks OK; they were working on the erosion, explaining the whole mechanics of the operation, the closed process they have for the use of cyanide; but also you realise the amount of deforestation that is occurring and the sedimentation too, when they had scarcely begun operations.

When we arrived [back] in Panamá [City], we began to learn and to investigate further into the impact of the open cast mining of metals; and from then we began to publish and to meet with other NGOs and to talk with the media. We tried to take the media people to Petaquilla, and they wouldn’t let us enter with the media. So the Canadians who were a part of this concession of 3,600 hectares came to ANCON to explain. At that time it was Tecominco, a very powerful Canadian company, … , who were the associates. They explained their motives, the seriousness with which they wanted to work this concession, to the highest standards.

Then when we asked about mining projects in tropical areas which had been successful without causing environmental problems, they couldn’t give an example. What we were understanding is that perhaps it’s possible to control and mitigate a few of the environmental impacts in desert areas which don’t have forests and which are not rich in water; and that, given the enormous impacts which mining has in terms of acidic drainage, the use of colossal quantities of water and the large-scale erosion, our country was not appropriate for mining.

We tried to communicate with the press that the directors of ANCON are not convinced that it’s an activity for Panamá, that it may compete directly with the tourism which we want to promote, with agriculture and cattle ranching which have traditionally always been important to Panamá, and that we want to promote something more sustainable. Also it runs against the idea of a sustainable forestry management which we want to promote for the area, and it contradicts the strategies and biodiversity agreements which Panamá has signed as well as the climate change and forestry policies for mitigating and stabilising the climate. We’ve tried to communicate all of these issues.

We held a forum on mining last year with many organisations from civil society, and we demanded a moratorium on mining. That is to say, we couldn’t ask that they stop, but we wanted to begin to analyse a bit more deeply because we considered that many people still did not understand the magnitude of the impacts of open cast mining, and that it was important to stop and to begin to analyse and to understand the significance of mining and to determine if Panamá would want to continue down this path.

We are talking of an investment of $4 billion, when the widening of the Panamá Canal was some $6 billion or similar. For that we held a referendum and did many serious and responsible studies on the widening of the Canal and on the huge investment being underwritten by a contracted law of the Republic; and there were different interpretations about whether it was complying with environmental legislation or not.

Thus we began to act legally with other NGOs. There were many accusations [denuncias] put to the Attorney General and to the administration of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) on our part and also from the ANAM itself because they had not started the Environmental Impact Study. They presented an appeal to the Supreme Court and this said that a contracted law is not above the laws of the land and therefore there would have to be an Environmental Impact Study.

Although they carried out an Environmental Impact Study – a very deficient one which doesn’t fulfil the role of an Environmental Impact Study nor does it even fulfil the resolution required for the series of studies and plans – in our view, it is completely illegal what they are doing and the government should suspend it, but they haven’t done so. Moreover, the contract is damaging for Panamá given that the gains are extremely low, 2 per cent; what they pay for the concession is very low, they’re exonerated from paying almost all taxes, and the guarantees against environmental and social damages are undervalued – that is to say, if something occurs there, a disaster, the State is going to have to pay, and that means all of us. The contract law is damaging for Panamá and that is in accord, in part, with a cost-benefit study made by The Nature Conservancy called ‘Economic and Distributive Analysis of Mining Activity in Panamá’.

ANCON’s position has solidly been for a moratorium; we maintain that exploration and exploitation concessions must be suspended in Panamá.

MM: Do you think it’s possible to have sustainable mining on a large scale?

AS: Not in countries like Panamá because we have very vulnerable soils, a high precipitation, and even in areas where the rainfall is not high the storms, rains and showers which we have in Panamá mean that areas are vulnerable to landslides and loss of soil which is essential for agriculture and food security in these areas.

Further to that, open cast mining signifies large-scale sedimentation would have impacts in the coastal and marine areas, especially in areas of coral reefs which are susceptible to erosion, and it would be completely damaging to them. That would also affect fishing and the food security of artisanal fisherfolk, as well as the tourism which we are promoting in coastal zones – there are some marvellous areas in Panamá.

KM: Is that the same throughout Central America?

AS: Yes, it’s the same, because all of Central America has those vulnerable soils, those forests – it’s the biological corridor. There are slightly drier areas, but also areas important for fishing or for tourism, as are the coastal areas. Because it’s an isthmus, everything is related. Moreover, there’s a problem of vulnerability to climate change. The mining industry is really aggravating our vulnerability.

I don’t think that countries like Panamá and other Central American countries are appropriate for the development of mining. What happens is that resources are already being exhausted in industrialised countries and now they want to come here with a technology that can still make their operations profitable even in areas where there’s a lower presence of metals. And for that to happen they have to destroy thousands of hectares. We already know what type of vegetation has a big impact in Central America, also rainfall levels, and poverty too in our region. It’s been shown by studies in Perú that mining does not resolve the problem of poverty – it’s a fallacy. The mining companies want to convince everybody that they have to operate in areas of poverty for the good, but in reality the impact is precisely the opposite, they are impoverishing people, and the other big and serious issue from mining is the health issue – not only because of the risk of cyanide management, which we are not prepared for in Panamá, but also because of the acid drainage. Acid drainage leads to the solidification [chemical solution???] of water, and worse it leads to the release of heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and others. So it gives rise to serious public health problems and ecosystem health problems too.

So from all that we can understand that we are entering into a huge series of problems. I feel a little sad for my country, because we still have not been able to persuade the decision-makers that it’s not the best route for our countries to go down. It’s very difficult because it has enormous economic power, an incredible profit, taking advantage of a very weak legal framework and an institutionality which doesn’t exist to deal with these issues.

MM: My question concerns your relations with the government. You’ve already mentioned the problem of the suspension of Petaquilla which all the organisations are asking for, but the government isn’t doing it. So have your relations with government suffered as a result of this?

AS: We now have a new government which has had scarcely two months in power. Since before the elections we were talking with the political parties explaining the risks and impacts of mining, and they all said yes, we have to analyse it, yes, gold mining is not compliant and they all said we need to study and research into it. Now we have approached ANAM and still I feel that they are not very sure about what they should do, whether to suspend the mine or not, that it’s not complying with standards, and that a moratorium is the route to follow.

I still haven’t had a positive sign. We’re going to meet with the Vice Minister of Commerce and Industry next week, and we shall insist again on the moratorium, insist that the contract law is harmful for the nation; we’re going to talk of the risks, and we know it’s not going to be easy because the position of the Vice Minister is that mining is the solution for Panamá, for its development, etc.. I think it’s going to be very difficult.

At the level of ANCON and its directors, relations with the State are very diplomatic. We do not go against them; we have to work at our relations with them, because we don’t want to close the doors of dialogue.

Other organisations have met with the Vice Minister and had an abominable experience, more so than with the Minister. The Minister of Commerce and Industry is a little more analytical and thoughtful. I had already visited him before he was the Minister, when he was just a party member, and I delivered to him, for example, an article published this year on mining in the National Geographic, in January; and I put this article in his hands and told him that this is not an activity for Panamá, I spoke to him of the risks, I told him of this map which we produced in ANCON.

Those projects of high impact we looked for from ANAM, in the database of Environmental Impact Studies which were presented to ANAM as procedures between the years 2000 and 2008. Mostly we’re talking about Category 3 which are those of greatest impact and some are in Category 2, because tourist projects never reach Category 3 which is the highest impact on the coast and for which a public consultation is required. Many projects here are Category 2, and they have a high impact – it’s these for which we have to change ANAM’s rules because there’s a high impact with these projects and they are mostly tourist projects on the coast and the coast is very vulnerable.

We also wanted to present the metals exploration applications in Panamá on a map, and there are all these black squares on protected areas, on private areas, on indigenous comarcas, on the Biological Corridor, on more than a half of Panamá. These are the exploration applications. These are the exploration concessions already given in red, and these are the exploitation concessions in black. Petaquilla is some 13,000 hectares. The …???… is done on a desk – it doesn’t matter where – there are no Environmental Impact Studies prior to this because the exploration already had an environmental impact. It isn’t regulated. They did it because the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MICI) agreed to it, and, well, they gave them the policy. These red areas are Category 3 – there are a lot of hydroelectric projects. So this is the panorama that we have.

The map is on our web page; it’s from 2000 to 2008. It needs to be filled out – I’d like to locate some oil exploration applications. They’ve been applied for in the Gulf of San Miguel, not so recently, but they aren’t marked on the map. It’s our really big worry because I believe that we have to decide what we want as a country. Do we want to be a mining country? Do we want to be a tourism country? Do we want to promote food security? Do we want to climb out of poverty? We’ve always been a service country; we’ve concentrated on the tertiary sector: the zona libre, the banks, the Canal.

First, we have to define, as the small country that we are, how we want to develop, what is our best path. Should we follow the tertiary sector or are we going to sell our resources and at what cost are we going to sell them? We have to be very clear about this. But also we have to define whether we want hydroelectricity? I think it’s good, but how and where and under what process, and we must decide whether here yes and there no and why? It’s in this that I think the government has committed errors, because the capacity of the territory doesn’t allow one single hydrographic basin to support ten hydroelectricity stations. We know that every time they submit an application for a hydroelectricity concession, they do it for just one project. That causes problems afterwards because there’s another further upriver and another one downstream. There are indigenous areas which they don’t consider important. And afterwards they have a huge problem and a social crisis, and conflicts between the inhabitants of the zone whether they are indigenous or campesinos.

If we decide that we want hydroelectric power – we have the global climate problem and a problem of energy demand – so, how are we going to do it? That’s the problem – the how, the where, who lives there, what benefits are those people going to have, have they been consulted, is there an Environmental Impact Study foreseen for the concession? No, the concessions are given on paper; they look for a map; it doesn’t matter what is there and who is there. That’s one of the problems that I believe exists in Panamá and we have to work on these processes.

The problem is that we don’t have a land ordnance / land registry. That’s the problem. You come from a country where there is a highly structured land registry and in which sectoral policies are integrated into the territory as distinct layers in a partial analysis, which is not done in Panamá. We are growing in a disordered way because wherever the investors want …, and it’s done. And many times it is done in detriment to other developing sectors which are public security, food security, or tourism which is helping communities to rise out of poverty in a sustainable way, because we’re not exhausting our natural resources with these sectors. From this reasoning we think that we have to look after how we use land and ensure that there are no conflicts of use between one sector and another, because sectoral plans are made for tourism, the ports, biofuels, agriculture, cattle ranching; and it doesn’t work like that. So I think that we have to begin to work on land structuring in critical areas of Panamá, beginning with critical hydrographic basins because we have a great wealth of water resources. But if we don’t look after them we can leave ourselves without quality and quantity of water. We have to work on the Environmental Impact Studies, we have to improve them a lot, in the procedures of how concessions are granted. If we had territorial structure it would be easier to define this or that and to say yes or no to various activities. It remains at the whim of the decision-makers to say yes to this.

So, to define what we want as a country, to put into order the country, the processes of Environmental Impact Studies, hydrographic basins as critical areas for this ordering, and public consultations. As a part of the improvement of Environmental Impact Studies it’s necessary to improve the process of public consultation. At the present time, the company, as it’s both the promoter and the one who pays the consultant as part of the Environmental Impact Study, is biased towards whoever is doing the Study and the consultations because the company pays for the public consultation; and many times what they do is hold a party, as we say here in Central America. They’re the employers and they celebrate with a party, with music, with a show, with a meal, with drinks. There is no neutral body which informs about the genuine risks of an activity because the promoter is the one who hires the consultant who carries out the Environmental Impact Study. We must regulate these public consultations in a much better way.

That the tourist projects are category 3 projects when they are in very vulnerable areas also establishes which are the areas that are vulnerable to climate change, because climate change is going to hit us hard – in fact it is hitting us hard. We are an area which has more coastline and more sea than land, and as the sea level is going to rise, that’s going to impact us enormously, principally in the areas of low-lying land, all the areas of Kuna Yala, Bocas Del Toro, our gulf areas. We have to keep our mangrove areas that provide protection which we need against sea level rise. Lately we have seen many tornados and unexpected winds, and the mangroves help us to reduce our vulnerability to these as a country, as a community and to protect our infrastructure too.

And what is so difficult is to get governments to understand this. We are clear-felling, we’re losing woodland, in the Darién, along the coasts, at a great rate; and they don’t know the double impact that this has through climate change – it makes us more vulnerable, but at the same time it releases more CO2 into the atmosphere. The erosion and the loss of fertile soil that causes we lose to the sea. We could collapse as a society, as suggested in the book …???…

MM: Does ANCON have centres in different parts of the country? And is it contracted by the government to monitor or maintain various protected areas, as in other countries such as Honduras?

AS: No, we’ve been trying to get to a scheme of co-management and for many years in Panamá we’ve been promoting co-management, but it’s not been possible. There are some experiences, however, such as in the Natural Metropolitan Park which is inside the city boundary and is under the patronage of members of civil society, the government and the municipality. That’s a very good case which we haven’t replicated in other areas. The last administration was wary of organised civil society intervening in protected areas – it was very closed. We think that there’s a better attitude in this administration and they have said that they want to support us.

ANCON has private reserves like for example the Private Natural Reserve of Punta Patiño in the Darién with an area of 30,000 hectares. It’s the largest in Panamá and the second largest in Central America. It’s a huge area. It’s in a remote area – you have to get there by plane, or by land and then boat will take 8 hours. There are no basic services. For us its control and upkeep have been very difficult.

MM: Is it just for research, or for teaching as well?

AS: Yes, there are guides and trails and we get mainly ecotourists there. We teach them the beauties of the tropical rainforest, the flora and fauna of the area. When ANCON bought it in 1993 it was a cattle ranch and we left it to restore itself. It was an area of pasture, but now we’re getting jaguars and …???… which were not seen before. Already there’s a secondary forest and also a primary forest with a certain degree of intervention in one part. There’s lots of mangroves.

We worked with government support to carry out rapid ecological studies, management plans and to set up the arguments for the establishment of a protected area, like that in Coiba which was done by decree, through the law, and in which ANCON was key. I would say that between ten and fifteen protected areas in Panamá have been established because ANCON promoted them. ANCON involvement was key because it provided the databases and the background for the establishment of these areas and promoted them through the media, with the communities and with other interested parties.

Thus we’ve been working in Bocas Del Toro, Chiriquí, Veraguas, Coiba and in the Biological Corridor in Santa Fe. We have supported the Panamá Canal Authority in community organisation. We’ve also been working in the Darién, in the Biological Corridor of Bagre, in the Darién National Park too, supporting ANAM with the teams of park guards in the park guard stations and refuges. We have mobilised funds which have helped ANAM in its role of protecting the protected areas. We are working on a project with the International Organisation of Tropical Areas for Forestry Reserves – between the Darién National Park and Patiño there is a forestry reserve area and we got funds from ITCO to develop a project supporting ANAM there. In the area adjoining Patiño there is no presence, no plans, nothing – it’s being invaded and there is deforestation.

MM: Have you had problems of invasions of drug traffickers coming from Colombia?

AS: Yes, they come in, they leave, they haven’t done any damage, but you know they’re coming and going because they come to buy food and necessities. Some communities help them because by doing so they help themselves. It’s an abandoned area. Recently the government has had a policy of greater presence and of working with the communities.

Action in the Darién is a bit limited. When you look for support, the FARC, the Colombian guerrillas arise. At times we want to invite the donors to visit the Darién and they can’t. When you make an accusation about an ecological crime, the State delays two or three months and the proof/evidence is lost because they fear the guerrillas. Also because it’s remote most times you have to go by plane or you walk for days and it’s very risky. The Darién is one of the most difficult regions, most complex, but ANCON has always been there and we have held out against the building of the highway to Colombia. It’s been a difficult fight of great persistence to talk with governments. This government has promised us that it will not be built.

Uribe always …???… According to our directors we should not be worried, this generation, they’re not going to build the highway. I don’t know. You always have to be watchful. Yes there is a possible connection by the Caribbean from Cartagena passing through Kuna Yala and entering Panamá by the coast from the sea. But in that case they would have to cross through an indigenous comarca which is very closed and doesn’t have any foreign intervention or that type of thing.

A better way is a ferry which they already had for a couple of years, but they also had many problems with drug trafficking. But it is seriously a better option. I think that whilst Colombia has so many social problems, so many conflicts, drugs, it’s better to keep things as they are.

MM: What’s the position of ANCON on the free trade treaties? I imagine it’s difficult for you but it’s a very active issue in the region at the moment.

AS: Our trustees haven’t dealt with the issue together yet. I can’t give you the position of ANCON as an organisation. But I am almost certain that together the trustees consider that the environmental issues must be analysed really well. You have to analyse the impact that a free trade treaty has on natural resources, whilst not doing business just for the sake of doing business. You have to examine the impact in Panamá. Some free trade treaties have positive impacts in the sense that a failure to comply with environmental legislation means that you cannot conduct business. Such is the case that I know of the treaty with the United States, which is also a limiting factor on businessmen here. They have to comply with environmental legislation before they can export a product.

Other changes which we would have to make as a country and for which we would have to prepare ourselves for that type of relationship with countries in our legislation, worry me personally; but I shouldn’t speak for myself. Also for other social issues, medicines, generics – but it’s very difficult to stop these; what we have to do is prepare ourselves. As far as our environmental legislation goes, we must prepare ourselves because the world is growing, it’s closer all the time and it’s impossible to close ourselves off from the commercial world of other countries – but we must do it well.

MM: I know this is a difficult issue, it’s especially difficult for an organisation to have a fixed position for or against, because there are many clauses and articles as you say …

KM: Are you involved in measures for the protection of the forests?

AS: In a general way. We’ve made an alliance with the British Embassy. We carried out a campaign to publicise the importance of the forests for the balance of the climate and for the reduction of …???… We did a spot on television which was included later by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and was adopted for the World Environment Day. It’s on the web page of UNEP. We did brochures, we invited the ambassador to our gala meal this year in January – he said a few words about climate change – we’ve gone to the media, we also have a spot on the radio, an advertising spot or short message spot. We made some small posters and have given talks to companies. I went on the radio and I’m going to be talking about the problem of climate change. With a second grant from Great Britain we are preparing a document on the vulnerability of Panamá to climate change and its impact so that people also understand that we are facing a problem and a responsibility.

MM: So the British Embassy is supporting you?

AS: Yes, it’s fantastic. We’re very close. They have invited us to training sessions in Costa Rica and they have a forum on climate change next week and I’m going to be there. They’ve asked me to make some proposals regarding climate change which I’m currently preparing. I sent a draft with reference to Kuna Yala and for resource management in the face of climate change, and they commented on it. We think that these links with the British government on the theme of climate change are getting closer all the time. They have a great interest in helping us and in helping civil society because they haven’t had much luck with the government, at least not with the last government. This one is more open, but they [the British government] has found a good ally in ANCON.

MM: One last question. I’ve seen that one of your donors is the Ford Foundation or Ford Company.

AS: Ford Foundation. Yes, they invited us to judge a competition, but they haven’t given us any money.

KM: Are there some situations when ANCON can’t carry out something it wants to do because of compromises with donors? Are you involved with companies which have the same mission …. ?

AS: Yes, we’ve done some research on companies especially on their operations in this country. From the mining industry we would never receive a cent, and nor from other companies which do damage in Panamá. We’re very careful over whoever gives us money. In the case of ADES Panamá we have done some follow-up, we’ve visited the area. They have been allies of ANCON, they have part-funded various forums and discussions, but we went to the area and weren’t able to balance precisely what things were happening. It’s not so much the company which is guilty, but also the government. I feel that they are trying to do things well. When I see mining, I say no.

ANCON is not radical. We want to see development under certain parameters and under certain rules. To us it seems that mining is not appropriate – we are a country that simply isn’t appropriate for mining. However, we must organise the energy sector in Panamá, we must define where and how, we must regulate it well and change the rules; but we have to do it. We have had a relationship with ADES, for example …???… in Panamá and other serious NGOs. We have realised that they are trying to do things there and yes there are impacts. But we never go with mining, never, and they are trying to mitigate the impacts.