As elections near, what’s next for Panama’s closed copper mine?

Panama will hold its presidential elections on Sunday, months after huge protests saw thousands descend on the country’s streets and ultimately help to force the closure of Central America’s largest copper mine.

The issue has featured in debates among the leading candidates: center-right frontrunner and former cabinet minister José Raúl Mulino; former President Martín Torrijos (2004-2009); former foreign secretary Rómulo Roux, and lawyer and independent Ricardo Lombana. Some commentators have dubbed the Cobre Panamá mine as “another candidate” in the elections, such is its economic and political importance for the country.

Since the government’s historic ruling in November to shutter the mine, it has been estimated that closure could take more than nine years and cost approximately USD 800 million. Questions have been raised about the impact the decision will have on Panama’s economy, having turned its back on an activity that represented 3 percent of its GDP, Panamanian economist Felipe Argote told Dialogue Earth. Estimates from First Quantum, the Canadian company that has owned the mine since 2013, put this figure as high as 5 percent.

Others warn about the actions that must be taken to prevent further environmental damage after the closure, given previous experiences at the country’s Remance, Santa Rosa, and Molejón gold mines. After their closures, the presence of cyanide — a chemical that can compromise human health and ecosystems — was detected in nearby water sources.

An aerial view of the Cobre Panamá copper mine in Colón province.  First Quantum acquired the rights to the mine between 2013 and 2014, and has operated at the site through its local subsidiary, Minera Panamá.  (Image: Abraham Teran / Alamy)
Aerial view of the open pit copper mine Cobre Panama, run by the Panamanian Mining company Minera Panama, a subsidiary of Canada’s First Quantum Minerals Ltd. The government in Panama announced on March 8, 2023, that it reached an agreement with the subsidiary to continue operating the copper mine for another 20 years. Photo: Abraham Teran/AP/Alamy

Candidates’ statements about the mine could prove decisive in the election. Most have pledged to respect the ban on new mining concessions that was enacted in November in response to the wave of protests, which broke out after the government had initially approved a new contract with First Quantum. Only two candidates — current Vice President José Gabriel Carrizo, of the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party, and the independent candidate Melitón Arrocha — left the door open for a potential popular vote to decide whether the ban on mining should be upheld.

As polling day nears, Dialogue Earth takes a closer look at the background of the Cobre Panamá mine, the possible consequences of its closure and the road ahead.

What happened to the mine? The environmental context

The Cobre Panamá mine is located in the central province of Colón, 120 km west of Panama City, and at the heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a migratory bridge for hundreds of species that stretches from Colombia to Mexico. In 2023, 330,863 tonnes of copper were extracted at the mine, First Quantum reports.

Concerns about the environmental impacts of the mine, which had been in operation since 2019, were one of the…