Under the shade of the wooden and metal canopy above his courtyard, in the lush environment along the banks of the Quema River, Basilio Perez seems to have a dream life. There’s only one problem: Perez doesn’t get along with his neighbour, who tends to take up a lot of space. Just above his home is the Cerro Quema Project, a 15,000-hectare gold mine concession owned by Pershimco Resources, a company based in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec. The company is in the exploration phase for what could become an immense open-air mine by 2016.

Slurry passed over three of these barriers and hurtled down into the Quema River.

Perez’s relationship with this neighbour is a long one. He was the company’s environmental director for over four years before being dismissed in August 2013 “because I was raising questions about things that were happening.” Since then the former mining advocate has joined Pershimco’s numerous opponents in Los Santos, the southernmost province of Panama, where a blazing sun turns the hills yellow.

He speaks of his experiences with bitterness. “I feel betrayed because what was promised to the people was never done. There was a pact with the community: the mine was supposed to hire locals. But when Octavio Choy [Pershimco vice-president Latin America] arrived in 2012, he replaced the locals with foreigners.” Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Australians and Filipinos thus arrived in the Azuero Peninsula.

Rushed exploration

Perez’s focus now is to make people aware of the mine’s environmental problems, especially those concerning the containment walls, which are supposed to catch the sediment from the streams that drain from the mine. Maintenance has been inadequate, with the retention basins almost never emptied. Moreover, new drilling platforms were constructed upstream. Although environmental regulations require that the earth displaced during these operations be transported by truck to a storage site, Pershimco’s excavators simply pushed it to the bottom, leaving it exposed to rain and piled up against the walls, making them too low to contain the sediment.

The urgency of the situation became apparent in February 2013, as the rainy season approached and the walls were being repaired. It was too late. In July, slurry passed over three of these barriers and hurtled down into the Quema River, whose waters turned brown for three days. It was a catastrophe in a region where peasants draw water from the river with makeshift gas-powered pumps. But for Perez, this episode is a symptom of something larger: the slow degradation of the ecosystem. “I have taken photos of the Quema River since 2008. The stone has changed. Before there were crawfish. Now there are none.”

Drill first, ask permission later

More troubling still, the permit was granted only five days (including a weekend) after the submission of the impact study.

For Canzio Ciacci, who was also dismissed by the company over differences of opinion with Vice-President Choy, the equation is simple: “Pershimco rushed to find money at the bottom of the pit in order to attract investments on the Toronto Stock Exchange.” Director of security for the mine from June 2012 to September 2013, Ciacci helped organize exploratory campaigns in Cerros Idaida and La Pelona, situated east of the concession.

This exploration was done without the necessary permits from ANAM, Panama’s environmental authority at the time. Pershimco issued a release with the results of the Cerro Idaida exploration in February 2013. The drilling permit, a copy of which Ricochet obtained from ANAM, was issued 10 months later, on November 20, 2013. It gives permission for seven drill sites, but a map by the geological department of Pershimco that was provided by another ex-employee shows 11 wells around Cerro Idaida.

More troubling still, the permit was granted only five days (including a weekend) after the submission of the impact study, a key requirement for acquiring this valuable access. “How can you get on the ground and make all the verifications in such little time?” asks Ciacci. “There was corruption with the officials, for sure.”

The only thing we know for sure is that Pershimco has already resorted to financial arrangements to achieve its goals. Liberato Gonzalez is a peasant in Las Tablas, a large village and capital of Los Santos, who punctuates his sentences with a loud laugh. He owns a piece of land near Cerro La Pelona, which is taken care of by a “peon” or agricultural worker. “In February 2013, my peon calls to tell me that machines are coming toward my property,” Gonzales recounts. “I tell him to put a padlock on the gate. The an employee of the company who I had never seen before comes and offers $100 per month to cross my land. What do I do with $100?”

A few weeks later, an agreement was reached for a sum 30 times greater. A road was built on Gonzalez’s land, and drillers worked at Cerro La Pelona from March to July 2013. The permit was issued by ANAM on May 28, 2014, two days after the submission of the impact study, and was signed by the same two government officials.

This is part one of a two-part series. The article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet.