Cerro Quema, Panama
Synopsis: The mine began production in 1996 but met with substantial protests from campesinos in the area. A local coalition organized several large protests (numbering over 3000 participants) in front of local government office, blocked the road to the mine site with their tractors, and delivered a petition against the mining project signed by over 5000 people to the legislative assembly. The protests were met with a strong police presence, arrests, tear gas, and physical confrontation. The home of the leader of the Frente Santeño, Secundio Jaén, was burnt down by arsonists in this time. Jaén also received several death threats. The mine shut down operations in 1998 due to low gold prices, but in 2008 Canadian company Bellhaven Gold and Copper Inc. stated an interest in re-opening the mine. In early 2012, local community organizations once again took to the streets in protest. They were again met by a strong police presence and physical confrontations were reported in the local media.
First discovered through a UN backed exploration program in the 1960s, the exploratory concession for the Cerro Quema gold and copper deposit passed through Panamanian and American control before being purchased by Canadian company Campbell Resources Inc. in the 1990s. After completing feasibility tests in 1996, the company began construction the following year.
One month after Campbell Resources began production in January of 1997 chemical spills were reported in the Quema, Guera and Tonosí rivers. Locals stated that the Quema River had “turned red” due to the chemical spills. Raul Arango, then minister of Commerce and Industry, suspended the project for four months and the company was fined $200/day to clean up the spill.
The spill and mine activation were met by substantial protest headed by campesinos from the neighboring communities under the name Al Frente Santeño Contra la Mineria. Lead by Secudio Jaén and Arturo Moreno Castro, the group voiced concern about the negative impacts of acid mine drainage into the headwaters of several important river systems, and loss of biodiversity and agricultural lands.
On September 17th, 1997 several members of the Frente were arrested after attempting to block the road to the mine with their tractors. Police fired tear gas into the crowd that included women and children. The group also delivered a petition with over 5000 signatures demanding the permanent closure of the mine to the legislative assembly. Upset over the mine project grew among local community members and on October 5th 3000 people protested in Tonosí. After an announcement that the mine would re-commence exploratory work 1500 people took to the street in El Cruce, a town neighboring Tonosí. Shortly after, on November 20th 1997, the home of Al Frente leader Secundio Jaén was burned down by arsonists. Jaén continues to lead the group, unperturbed by opposition.
In 1998 mine construction at the Cerro Quema site was called to a stop by Campbell Resources Inc. as a result of declining gold prices.
After several years of inactivity the Frente released a press statement stating that they had gone on ‘alert’ after statements from the government suggest that mine reactivation was in process.
In 2008, after Canadian company Bellhaven took control of the Cerro Quema exploration concession, the municipality of Tonosí adopted a resolution declaring its territory a mining-free zone.
In February of 2009 Irish company Aurum Exploration Inc. submitted an EIA to ANAM for the Cerro Quema concession. Several months later ANAM rejected the EIA after the area was declared by ANAM as biologically sensitive. Panama’s integrated water manager and wildlife and protected areas manager expressed concerns about the impact of drilling to deforestation, local water sources, and local flora and fauna. This decision was appealed for reconsideration in August of 2009.
In January of 2010, the concession again changed hands when the concession was purchased by Quebec based Pershimco Resources. After meetings between Pershimco and ANAM the project was approved in July of 2010.
Most recently, the Frente Santeño Contra la Mineria has gone on alert, stating that construction activities have been reported in the area. The group has threatened to take action if mine re-activation is pursued.