PANAMA- ENVIRONMENTAL OVERVIEW COMMENTARY
Panama, officially the Republic of Panama, forms a relatively narrow (at times 50-mile) land bridge that connects North and Central America with South America. It is bordered by Costa Rica to the northwest and Colombia to the southeast. It has long shorelines on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as mountains that reach heights in excess of 3,000 metres. In fact, from Panama’s higher peaks one can see both oceans. As a tropical country with abundant rainfall, Panama supports a high level of biodiversity and as a bridge between north and south, its tropical jungles and forests feature animal and plant species from both continents.
Panama is home to over 200 mammal species, more than 200 reptile species and in excess of 150 amphibious species. There are almost 1,000 indigenous bird species plus hundreds of different migrating birds, earning Panama its reputation as one of the best countries in the world for bird watching. It has 9,000 species of flowering plants, including the Holy Ghost Orchid, which is the national flower. Panama’s swamps on the Pacific coast offer brackish water that supports vast mangrove forests reaching heights of 40 metres. These swamps support the Mexican and pygmy anteater, mantled howler monkey, boa constrictor and the black iguana. Other notable species found in the country include sloths, jaguars, tapirs, hummingbirds and porcupines.
Whilst Panama has designated nearly 25% of its landmass as a protected area, deforestation continues to be a challenge. This is mostly due to agriculture and fisheries (particularly shrimp ponds), but road construction, timber operations and industrial growth are also factors. Farmers and cattle ranchers face little opposition to clearance activities. Panama’s attitude to development is quite different from other countries in the region, such as El Salvador and Costa Rica. Its attitude is reflected in the approval of First Quantum’s massive Minera Cobre (copper-gold) project, as well as its recent discovery of potential oil reserves.
PRINCIPAL LEGISLATION AND REGULATOR
The National Environmental Authority (ANAM), through the Environmental Assessment Department (DEA), is responsible for monitoring and implementing the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process. The General Environmental Law (41/1998) (GEL) and the Decree 123/2009 (EIA Regulation) are the main sources of environmental regulation in Panama.
The GEL recognises the concept of sustainable development in respect of natural resources (Art. 62) and requires all projects, works and activities that are anticipated to have an environmental impact be made the subject of an EIA process (Art. 23). Pursuant to Article 16 of the EIA Regulation, an EIA is required for:
- Exploration: Metallic mineral exploration work involving mechanical drilling, dredging, major trenches, opening of roads and / or construction of camps; and
- Mining: Extraction of metallic and non-metallic minerals, including quarries.
The mining operator shall present before the ANAM an affidavit in the case of projects falling under Category I (low impact) or an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) in the case of Categories II and III. Category II projects include those that have a significant negative environmental impact, which can be eliminated or mitigated with known and easily applicable measures, in accordance with current environmental regulations. Category III projects are those having potentially negative environmental impacts of indirect, cumulative and / or synergistic significance that merit substantive evaluation and consideration of appropriate mitigation measures. The EIA Regulation sets out in some detail the contents of the required information for all categories. As well as an EIS, where required, a mining operator must also submit an Environmental Plan.
In preparing the EIS, the proponent must engage in community consultation, which must be outlined in the EIS. In addition, the community must be permitted to provide further feedback within a period of 15 or 20 days depending on whether the project is a Category II or Category III project, respectively (Art. 33, EIA Regulation). For Category III projects a public forum during the evaluation stage is mandatory, while it may be requested by ANAM or members of the community representing not less than 2% of said community for Category II projects (Art. 37, EIA Regulation).
The DEA, and the Municipal and Sector Environmental Units, if required, must assess EIAs and decide within 35 days in the case of Category II and 55 days in the case of Category III if the project meets all of the requirements to justify an Environmental Licence (Art. 41, EIA Regulation). The EIA Regulation is extremely helpful in directing the DEA to consider the following five criteria in this regard (Art. 23, EIA Regulation):
- Criterion 1: Any risk to the health of people, wildlife and the environment in general. Factors to be considered should include: the generation, collection, storage, transport or disposal of industrial waste, particularly any flammable, toxic, corrosive or radioactive materials; the generation of liquid effluents, gaseous emissions, solid waste or combinations whose concentrations exceed the limits set in the environmental quality standards; and the levels, frequency and duration of noise, vibration and / or radiation.
- Criterion 2: Any alteration to quantity and quality of natural resources, with special attention to the impact on biodiversity and territories or resources with environmental value. Factors to be considered include: the alteration of the state of soil conservation; the disruption of fragile soils; the generation or increase in soil erosion; the loss of fertility in soils adjacent to the proposed action; the induction of land degradation causes such as desertification, generation or advancement of dunes or acidification; the accumulation of salts and / or discharge of pollutants; the alteration of flora and vulnerable, threatened, endemic, data deficient or endangered wildlife; the introduction of exotic species of flora and fauna not previously in existence in the territory involved; the promotion of mining activities and the exploitation or management of wildlife, flora and other natural resources; the potential to generate any adverse effect on indigenous species; the introduction of logging of native forests; the alteration of the physical, chemical and biological parameters of water; any modification of existing water uses; and alteration to courses, quality or quantity of water.
- Criterion 3: Any alteration to areas that are protected or having aesthetic or tourism value. Factors to be considered include: the involvement, intervention or exploitation of natural resources in protected areas; the creation of new protected areas; impacts on the oldest of protected areas; the loss of representative environments; any obstruction to such areas; and any change in the landscape of such areas.
- Criterion 4: Any resettlement, displacement or relocation of human communities, and significant alterations of life systems and customs of communities, including urban areas. Factors to be considered include: the requirement that communities in the direct area of influence of the project resettle or relocate temporarily or permanently; the transformation of economic, social and cultural activities of a community; obstruction of access to natural resources as used for any economic or subsistence activity of neighbouring human communities; changes that would result in local demographic structure; altering livelihoods of ethnic groups with high cultural value; and the creation of new conditions for groups or human communities.
- Criterion 5: When the project generates or presents alterations on sites of anthropological, archaeological, and historical significance, sites relevant to cultural heritage and monuments. In order to evaluate this criterion, the following would be considered: any alteration, modification or deterioration of a historical monument, architectural or archaeological monument or other cultural impact, such as buildings with cultural value.
The decision must indicate the technical considerations that were taken into account, the opinion of the Environmental Unit for the mining sector, the views of the public and any conditions that attach to the approval. Any denial may be appealed to the administrative courts (Art. 55, EIA Regulation). If issued, an Environmental Licence is valid for up to two years for project implementation to begin; failure to start the implementation of the project within the two years will result in the need to apply for a new permit (Art. 49, EIA Regulation). The decision from the DEA may be appealed within five days from the date of determination.