Indigenous Rights, Mines, and Chocolate Chip Cookies

The Panamanian government can make a lot of money selling chocolate chips, but only if they destroy the cookie. 

There is an estimated $200 billion dollars in gold and copper reserves under an indigenous reservation in western Panama. The government wants to sell mining rights to one or several foreign investors and begin exporting the minerals. However, the mining will irreparably destroy the land and water and jeopardize the health and livelihood of thousands of indigenous Ngobes.

Is the money worth the damage?

Cerro Colorado, the proposed mining site in the reservation, is the world’s second largest copper deposit, with mineable copper reserves of 1.4 billion tons grading 0.7% and an estimated 60 million tons of 0.9% grading (higher quality, more accessible, more valuable). With copper at $4.50 per pound, mining these reserves means a quick return on investment and $300 million in annual revenues. As such, there are fourteen foreign bidders, including companies and governments, and the Panamanian government is ready to sell. The government claims that the investment will fuel economic development and job creation in the impoverished reservation. There’s also the small matter of the 200 billion dollars.     

But, negative impacts on the environment abound. Open-pit mines demand deforestation, soil destruction, and heavy use of chemicals and fresh water. Virgin rain forest would be cut. Heavy machinery would strip the earth of soil and grind rock into a powder, which would then be mixed with chemicals in tanks, allowing the copper to coagulate. Nearby water sources would then be contaminated with the chemicals and carry them the length of the rivers, from which the Ngobes bathe and drink. Mines also use massive amounts of water and generate massive amounts of waste. For example, a small mine uses in one hour the amount of water a small rural family uses in 20 years. For every ton of copper extracted, ninety-nine tons of waste is produced. There is no way to fix the damage.

For a more tangible visual of what open-pit mining does to the land around it, imagine holding a chocolate chip cookie in the palm of your hand. Now extract all of the chocolate chips with the back of a hammer and see what happens to the cookie.

The Panamanian government could use another large, steady revenue source apart from the Canal and if they hold true to their promise, the hundreds of millions in investment dollars are sure to economically benefit the resident Ngobes. But this is environmental damage that cannot be repaired, and poison and displacement will be added to the Ngobes’s already impoverished life. Are the chocolate chips tasty enough to justify the crumble?

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons