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What’s at stake for the environment in Panama’s upcoming election?

  • Panama holds elections Sunday, May 5 for president, vice president and all 71 seats in its national assembly.
  • Several presidential candidates have a chance to win, including José Raúl Mulino, Romulo Roux, Ricardo Lombana and Martín Torrijos.
  • They will have to address the country’s recent closure of a controversial mine, water shortages and an out-of-date waste management system that has led to pollution and public health concerns.

Panama is holding elections this week for president, vice president and all 71 seats in its national assembly. With questions looming about climate change, water shortages, waste disposal and mining closures, there’s a lot at stake for the future of the country’s environment.

When it comes to the presidential race, several candidates are still competitive. Whoever wins will take over after the tumultuous five-year term of current President Laurentino Cortizo, who has been extremely unpopular, with less than a 30% approval rating. He isn’t eligible for reelection this time around because presidents must wait two terms before running again.

Candidates on the ballot range from life-long politicians and businessmen to outsiders and last-minute replacements. They all have to address voters’ impatience with corruption, socioeconomic disparities and environmental crises. The combination of problems led to nationwide protests in 2022 and 2023 that overwhelmed the capital and blocked major transit routes for weeks.

The country’s largest copper mine, Cobre Panama, operated by a subsidiary of the Canadian company First Quantum Minerals (FQM), was at the center of the most recent protests. It was forced to shut down after the Supreme Court ruled that its contract was unconstitutional. But the mine is still undergoing the slow process of closing, and candidates have different ideas about how to make up for the economic loss. They’ll feel mounting pressure entering office, as credit agencies downgrade Panama because of the closure, making the country less attractive for investment.

Protests against the copper mine in Panama. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Herrera/Re:Wild)

At the same time, drought and mismanagement of the country’s freshwater resources have created shortages for many communities in addition to decreasing water levels in the Panama Canal, risking a slow-down of global trade. Critics of the Cobre Panama mine said the operation was using up a lot of nearby freshwater. But the issue has more to do with the country’s water treatment plants, others claim.

Another environmental issue at play is waste management. For years, Panama has struggled to responsibly transport and dispose of its garbage, with much of it ending up in out-of-date landfills and open dumps that can leak.  There’s a need to update the infrastructure and develop new systems for waste transport in order to decrease pollution and public health concerns, many of the candidates say.

Some environmental issues that aren’t being talked about as much include the creation and maintenance of autonomous land for Indigenous communities, known as comarcas. One reason for this might be that all large Indigenous population groups have already been given their comarcas, and no major lobbying effort has been made for smaller groups.

Protected areas have also been largely absent from campaign discourse except for the ones near the Darien Gap, where the concern is more focused on migrant crossings.

The frontrunner

Jose Raul Mulino, the conservative candidate leading in many polls, said he respects the Supreme Court’s decision to close the Cobre Panamá mine, and that the country has “turned the page” on the issue. He doesn’t have plans to reopen it and is instead focused on recovering from the economic loss. Without the mine, Panama’s economic growth could decrease from 7.5% in 2023 to just 2.5% this year, according to the IMF.

Overall, Mulino’s campaign is more focused on job creation and infrastructure than on environmental issues. But he also has plans to build water treatment plants to address shortages, and waste and recycling plants to address the garbage problem.

Mulino originally entered the race as the running mate to former President Ricardo Martinelli. But then Martinelli was disqualified because of a money laundering scandal that could land him in jail for the next decade. Mulino is trying to pitch himself as a Martinelli surrogate, a strategy that appears to be working. One survey found that 65% of the country thinks Martinelli would be making decisions in the background should Molino be elected.

Jose Raul Mulino during a march in Las Garzas, Panama. Photo by Realizando Metas via Instagram/somosrmpa.

Other candidates

Three other candidates are polling almost neck-and-neck behind Mulino.

One of them is Rómulo Roux, a conservative who came in second in the 2019 elections. He’s struggling to overcome the reputation of an “establishment” figure following years of work at Morgan & Morgan, the law firm that represented Minera Panama and its work on the Cobre Panama mine. Roux said the Supreme Court’s ruling must be respected and that the mine should stay closed.

As for Panama’s water problem, Roux wants to build a treatment plant on the Bayano River basin and Santa Maria River to increase supply to the eastern and central parts of the country. He also wants to develop reforestation and conservation projects that protect watersheds, but hasn’t specified what the projects might look like.

Another candidate is Ricardo Lombana, who finished third in 2019 running as an independent. He entered this year’s race with experience as a diplomat and former editor at La Prensa, one of Panama’s largest newspapers. His reputation as a political outsider has earned him some support from young voters. But he’s also been criticized for supporting the mine before public scrutiny forced him to change his mind and join the protests against it.

Rómulo Roux campaigning in San Miguelito. Photo via romuloroux/Instagram.

His plan to improve the water crisis looks similar to Roux’s, including reviewing legal frameworks on industrial usage, promoting responsible use and building a water treatment plant on the Bayano River basin.

He also wants to improve public infrastructure for Indigenous communities while narrowing the “digital divide” that sees Indigenous people with disproportionately less access to the internet and other technologies.

Lastly, former President Martín Torrijos is running again following his 2004-2009 term. He’s pledged to maintain Panama’s economic growth despite the mine closure. And he has similar plans as other candidates to expand the country’s water treatment infrastructure.

As for the country’s garbage problem, he plans to close Cerro Patacón, Panama City’s main landfill — controversial for frequently catching fire — and build a solid waste separation, treatment and disposal plant for the capital and adjacent municipality of San Miguelito.

Source: Mongabay