November protests and blockades bring Panama to a standstill

By Martin Mowforth

22 November 2023

During late October this year, we began to receive reports of major troubles in Panamá. The troubles have largely taken the form of road blockages where massive protests have brought much of the country to a standstill. The protests are against the government’s approval of a contract with a Canadian mining firm (First Quantum Minerals, or FQM) for the operation of Central America’s largest open-pit copper mine.

Photo credit: Americas Quarterly

Headlines in a range of newspapers include: ‘Panamá’s Road to Ruin’; ‘Panamá explodes with protests against Canadian copper mine’; ‘Blockages and protests in Panamá due to Canadian mine contract’; and ‘Protests against mining concession given to company intensify in Panamá’. Four deaths have been reported at the demonstrations, two of them shot by a Panamanian American who in early November raged against the protests according to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.

The contract gives the company a huge land concession (almost the size of the city of Miami), is a threat to the environment, takes away sovereignty from the country and grants the company the right to prevent flights over the mine up to a height of 3,000 meters. According to a report in the Tico Times (an online Costa Rican English language weekly newspaper) which cites the Panamanian National Council of Private Enterprise (CONEP), the road blockages over 25 days (to the 14th November) have caused losses of 1.7 billion dollars.

Groups taking part in the protests include Indigenous peoples, trade unionists, schoolteachers, students, and environmentalists. Dozens of people have been arrested and the police have been heavy-handed in their response to the road blockages using tear gas in their attempts to dislodge the protesters who in some cases have blocked roads with burning tyres and piles of rubbish.

The Panamerican Highway has suffered numerous blockages which have affected not only the distribution of goods within Panamá itself but have also begun to affect distribution and supply in other parts of the Central American region.

According to the organisation Eko, FQM plans to build ports and power plants to service the expansion of the mine and the government is keen to benefit from the promised royalties which amount to a minimum of $375 million a year under the contract. This is a major improvement on the $35 million which it received from the first contract signed in 2019.

In an effort to appease the protesters, President Laurentino Cortizo, who has been criticised for inaction on the issue, announced that his government would use the funds to lift pensions for retirees to a minimum of $350 dollars per month, a 75 per cent increase over the current minimum. Many Panamanians saw his announcement as an attempt to buy off retirees whilst ignoring the main demands of the protest.

But Eko calls the deal “a classic tale of modern-day colonialism: Panamá’s government receives a tiny fraction of FQM’s massive profits while the mine will continue damaging communities, forests and water supplies.” And the Construction Workers Union, Suntracs, claimed that “this is the handing over of our land and our country to a multinational company,” which many Panamanians are reluctant to agree to having wrested control of the Panamá Canal away from the United States at the turn of the century.

Another related issue perceived by some environmentalists is the large-scale mining industry’s propensity to contaminate large swathes of the country surrounding the mine as well as causing devastation in, under and on the area of the mine itself.

At the time of uploading this batch of articles to The Violence of Development website (November 2023), the protests are ongoing and the issue of the mining concession contract is in the hands of the Supreme Court.


  • People’s Dispatch, 30 September 2023, ‘Protests against mining concession given to company intensify in Panamá’.
  • Eko Petition, 11 October 2023, ‘First Quantum Minerals: No expansion or extension of the Cobre Panamá mine’.
  • AFP, 23 October 2023, ‘Bloqueos y protestas en Panamá por contrato con mina canadiense’,
  • AFP, 30 October 2023, ‘Gobierno panameño insiste en consulta popular sobre mina pese a rechazo de Tribunal Electoral’, Redacción Universidad.
  • Michael Fox, 30 October 2023, ‘Panamá explodes with protests against Canadian copper mine’, The Real News.