HATO CHAMI, PANAMA — Carmel Montezuma remembers the last time mining companies came to Hato Chami, Panama.
"The pollution of the river was severe," he says. "Everything died - all the river life - and animals that ate or drank from it were poisoned."
Mr. Montezuma and other members of the Ngobe-Bugle tribe, the largest indigenous tribe in Panama, are worried that the same thing may happen again.
Panacobre, a wholly owned subsidiary of Canada-based Tiomin Resources, has announced plans to extract an estimated 25 billion pounds of copper from the nearby Cerro Colorado mountain range.
"What benefit does the mining have for us?" says Santiago Sanchez, who lives in this rustic village on the boundary of the proposed 7.5-square-mile concession. "The government has no right to let a mining company come here, they have not established our comarca [reserve], as was promised in the election," he says.
To win the Ngobe-Bugle vote during his 1994 election campaign, President Ernesto Perez Balladares promised to define the Ngobe-Bugle comarca. But little discussion of the issue has occurred, despite frequent protests by native groups.
"Why haven't they given us the comarca? Because they know we will always be opposed to mining plans," Montezuma says, reflecting the opinion of many here.
THE controversy echoes elsewhere in Panama, where mining is being pushed by a government anxious for revenue. Several Canadian companies are interested in mining other areas, including the massive Cerro Petaquila deposit on Panama's Atlantic coast, which is not disputed by indigenous groups.
In some long-established comarcas, where laws and land rights are clearly defined, mining companies face difficulties.
But here, no reserve has been outlined.
"We have established a presidential commission to define the Ngobe-Bugle comarca.... It's a question of months," says Luis Baskett, a spokesman for President Balladares. Mr. Baskett says mineral extraction within the comarcas is legal. "All of Panama's natural resources are the property of the country."
Panama's legislative assembly recently awarded a 25-year concession to Panacobre to mine copper and other minerals here in the Cerro Colorado range. Should deposits be as large as estimated, Panacobre has the option to renew the concession for a further 25 years. No consultations with the Ngobe-Bugle were made before signing the contract. Panama's government gets 29 percent of any profits from the concession.
Matthew Edler, vice president of Panacobre, says the concession will bring benefits to the area, including schools, improved roads, and about 200 to 300 jobs. The firm has donated $1.8 million to the area for social aid and says the Ngobe-Bugle will be paid 1 percent of any profits. Mining will not begin for two years, as geological studies are still under way.
Moreover, Mr. Edler claims Panacobre will not pollute the local environment, because it will use new techniques.
In 1978, Rio Tinto Zine (RTZ) began mining in the area, causing widespread ecological damage as runoff waste from the operation polluted local rivers. Eventually, after protests by local residents, the company abandoned the concession.
Scant information is available about the impact of Panacobre's copper-extraction process, called SX-EW (solvent extraction, electro-winning), in which a solvent percolates through crushed ore. In theory, it is environmentally benign, says an expert at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo. who asked not to be named. "It depends on the techniques the company is using."
Demitri Miranda, a Ngobe-Bugle ecologist in Chiriqui, says the indigenous group's members are "very concerned" about the potential environmental impact.
With dark eyes, Montezuma surveys the lush green forest before him and is philosophical about the project. "Although we do need better health care, roads and money mean little to us here."