Franco Nevada analyst on Panama Court ruling against First Quantum
This story was last updated on Nov. 29 to reflect recent developments.
Panama’s government plans to shut down a giant copper mine owned by Canada’s First Quantum Minerals Ltd., after a Supreme Court ruling found the mine’s contract was unconstitutional.
The recent developments follow weeks of anti-mining protests that have rocked the country and forced First Quantum to halt operations.
Here is a look at how we got here.
WHAT IS FIRST QUANTUM? WHAT IS ITS PRESENCE IN PANAMA?
First Quantum is a Canadian copper company that operates globally, with offices in Toronto and Vancouver. The company says it operates long-life mines in several countries. It is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
First Quantum’s Panama presence includes its newest operation, the Cobre Panama mine, considered its most lucrative asset. The company describes this mine as one of the largest new copper mines opened globally over the past decade, with three billion tons of “proven and probable” copper reserves. Commercial production started in 2019.
In November 2017, First Quantum increased its ownership interest in the Panamanian company that holds the Cobre Panama concession, Minera Panamá S.A., to 90 per cent.
WHAT IS THE LATEST ON THE SITUATION IN PANAMA?
His statement posted on X came after a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that found the Cobre Panama’s mining contract license was unconstitutional. Cortizo did not say how long the process of closing the mine would take.
The court ruling followed weeks of protests from environmentalists concerned about Cobre Panama’s impact.
First Quantum didn’t immediately comment on the court decision, Bloomberg News reported.
The company said it issued an arbitration notice on Sunday to the administration of Panama’s president, Laurentino Cortizo.
Last month, Panama extended the company’s mining license but later reversed its position and proposed to put First Quantum’s future operation in the region to a vote.
The proposed referendum, as well as a push for the country’s congress to repeal the contract, were set aside as the government awaited the Supreme Court’s ruling on whether to end the agreement.
Last week, the company ceased commercial production as a port blockade of small boats prevented the delivery of key supplies.
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Panama over a government decision to extend First Quantum’s mining license.
The protests stem from a 20-year extension to First Quantum’s assets. Panama’s government also received a larger share of revenue, according to Bloomberg News.
Environmentalists and student groups began blocking highways in October in opposition to the mining contract extension. The protests have seen clashes with police and the unrest has resulted in rising food prices in the capital city, Panama City, as farms were cut off.
On Sunday a group of protestors attacked workers that were leaving the mine, according to a union leader. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that two people had died while participating in the third week of protests.
WHY ARE PEOPLE PROTESTING THE MINING CONTRACT?
Demonstrators have demanded the Panamanian government annul its contract that allows First Quantum to continue operation of its open-pit copper mine in a biodiverse jungle area.
Indigenous groups have said the mine threatens the area's delicate ecosystem.
Panama’s government, meanwhile, has said the mine is an important source of employment.
HOW HAS THE COMPANY BEEN AFFECTED?
Since Cortizo changed his posture on First Quantum’s operations in late October, First Quantum has lost about half of its market value.
Last week the company ceased commercial operations amid a port blockade that restricted incoming supplies.
That followed an earlier reduction in operations at Cobre Panama this month, when First Quantum said in a press release it was “ramping down one ore processing train while two remain operational” due to an “illegal blockade.”
Investment expert Lyle Stein, president of Forvest Global Wealth Management, said in an interview with BNN Bloomberg earlier this month that the situation shows how problems can arise when large amounts of capital are committed to smaller areas.
“Once it's all spent, you really are at the mercy of governments and now the populations that surround the mine. It is a big risk in mining investment, it's a big risk in global investment anywhere,” he said. “Diversification is big and in the case of First Quantum, Cobra Panama is a very big asset relative to its entire operation.”
With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press and Bloomberg News.