Forget a national economy based upon extracting minerals to export
A long-running gold mine scandal that has left a couple of hundred unemployed and unpaid workers, a big hole in the ground, a toxic pond, tainted streams and a bunch of defrauded stock market players is barely into its legal reckoning phases. The copper mine that was supposed to save Panama limps along due to low global prices, having changed hands several times but with the plan of ultimately employing only a few Panamanians and exporting unprocessed copper and molybdenum pellets to be made into metal things elsewhere continuing on its course. Now the Varela administration says that early next year it will start issuing new mining concessions. That’s a bad idea because the underlying concept is so flawed that it can’t benefit Panama.
Many Panamanian houses have roofs made of zinc sheets. We don’t have appreciable amounts of zinc, those are imported. Some of our buildings, mostly older ones, have copper sheets in their roofing material. We do have copper. While it may well be true that copper is worth more than zinc on world markets, were we to shelter ourselves under copper that we mine, smelt and process into sheets it would be the source of some good and sustainable jobs for Panamanians. But the mining under proper environmental controls of just enough copper to supply our own industries would not maximize profits to allow a huge multinational mining corporation to compete with its rapacious peers. It would also likely be challenged under “free trade” treaties as an improper import substitution scheme and unfair obstacle to would-be foreign owners of Panama.
Gold mining? Its history here hardly starts with the pump-and-dump Petaquilla Gold insider trading stock swindle that Ricardo Martinelli and his accomplices ran. Mostly gold mining here is a succession of frauds and environmental crimes, but it hasn’t always been that way. Long before the arrival on our isthmus of a culture prone to be driven crazy by the metal, gold was panned from streams and dug from exposed veins, then processed into exquisite objects by many generations of indigenous goldsmiths. We could dispense from the monster-scale open pits and cyanide ponds, mining gold on a scale just large enough to sustainably supply new generations of Panamanian goldsmiths. Young people who might otherwise be tempted to rob others for their gold might find useful jobs that enable them to live in comfort and raise families. Local gold creations, both in traditional styles and new designs, would add yet another attraction to our tourism industry. But of course, there is more money for fewer people in environmental rape and securities fraud.
The problem with mining here is with the prevailing model of our entire economy. Everything is oriented toward a zero-sum game with rich winners and everyone else losing. Mining as a part of a development strategy to benefit the Panamanian people is not on the national agenda. And what, other than lies about labor and environmental protections, is the mining agenda actually being considered? It’s foreign companies destroying large areas of the country to dig up ore, contaminating our waters with chemicals separate the metal from the rock, and exporting the metal to elsewhere, with the government getting a small cut of the action. There is so much money involved that the small percentage looks huge, and typically part of the proceeds go toward bribing public officials to let environmental laws go unenforced and let Panama’s share be reduced in an amount much greater than the payoff to certain individuals in positions of public trust. That’s the norm in mineral extraction economies everywhere.
We don’t need the contemplated mining concessions. Panama would be better off without them. Now if the president is going to come back to us with a mining and manufacturing proposal that makes sense for those who live here, we should consider it.
The Russians are backing as viable an alternative as their is in Syria, the incumbent Assad regime. That government is monstrous and unacceptable to the United States, but the US alternative of a “moderate opposition” is a made-inside-the-Beltway delusion. In any case it’s a matter best settled among the people who live there, but that’s not happening because neighbors with their geopolitical interests and vicious Sunni religious fanatics led first of all by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are interfering and the rival jihadi groups Daesh (the Islamic State) and al Nusra have had the upper hand. But while squabbling with one anoher both the Russians and the Americans have stepped up their interventions and things are not looking good for Sunni bigots.
With Russian help Assad’s forces have pushed back al Nusra and non-jihadi opposition forces in the Damascus area, and lifted the Islamic State’s siege of Kweires airbase near Aleppo to the north. With American help Kurdish and Yazidi forces have taken Sinjar in northern Iraq and in so doing cut one of the main Daesh supply lines into Syria. Moscow complained that US drone strikes were worse than ineffective because there were no spotters on the ground directing fire, and without acknowledging any relationship Washington sent in US special operations forces, and whether or not because of these ground troops acting as spotters an American drone strike killed a bloodthirsty Daesh media star, the British computer programmer and Daesh cutthroat Mohammed Emwazi, more popularly known as Jihadi John. That death in no way disrupts the would-be caliphate’s command and control system but is an embarrassment that goes along with a string of battlefield defeats.
So Daesh is lashing out. On October 31 their affiliate in Egypt, Wilayat Sinai, bombed a Russian passenger jet taking tourists from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, killing all 224 souls aboard. On November 11 they set off two bombs in the predominantly Shiited southern Beirut suburb of Burj al-Barajneh, killing at least 23 people including three residents of Dearborn, Michigan. A three-year-old American boy, Haider Mostapha, has been left as a wounded and traumatized orphan in a Lebanese hospital, crying for his slain parents. On November 12 in Baghdad they attacked the Shia funeral of an Iraqi soldier who had died fighting against Daesh, killing a least 44 people. The next day came the much more heavily publicized (in the West) attacks on Paris, one of which was aimed at an American rock band and its fans.
Daesh needs to be crushed and its survivors treated as war criminals. But after that the people who live in the affected region need to sort things out for themselves, perhaps with Americans and Russians guaranteeing the peace but certainly not dictating the terms of a peace. Whether Syria and Iraq will continue to exist within the borders that the British and French drew for them after World War I really is not and should not be for outsiders to decide. Powerful and not-so-powerful neighbors may object, but Kurdistan’s fate as a nation that runs its own affairs is at stake. How the Syrians and Iraqis rule themselves after the war is to be determined. Perhaps the United States should play an Iranian card, not by any sort of formal alliance but just by distancing itself from Saudi Arabia.
There is much more, and much less, at stake in the peace process that will need to come. An end to religious-based warfare the rule of international law on a generally accepted basis have to be the main goals. Superpower status symbols need to be studiously ignored. In the emerging energy economy, who controls Middle East oil is becoming ever less relevant no matter what politicians and corporations want to make of that point. But we need to make peace. Endless war is not a viable option for the Americans, the Russians, the French or those who live in the Middle East.
Bear in mind…