Panama president calls for vote on contentious First Quantum mining contract

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) – Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo on Sunday said he will call for a citizens’ vote on a contract with the local unit of Canadian miner First Quantum, amid escalating anti-government protests over the agreement.

The vote will take place Dec. 17 and its result would be binding, Cortizo said in a video message, after days in which thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to criticize the deal and the mine’s environmental costs.

Panama’s government and the miner had agreed on a contract which would guarantee the Central American nation an annual income of $375 million while allowing First Quantum’s local unit to operate the Cobre Panama project, an open-pit copper mine, for at least 20 years.

“I’ve respectfully listened to those who oppose the contract with Minera Panama,” Cortizo said, using the name of First Quantum’s local unit.

He said he will ask the country’s electoral authority to hold a vote in which “the majority will can be expressed in the most democratic way.”

(Reporting by Valentine Hilaire and Elida Moreno; Editing by Daina Beth Solomon and Christian Schmollinger)