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Mining: cash and controversy

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mining in Central America is increasingly polarized.

On one hand, resistance to the sector is growing.

On the other hand, so too is investment in the industry.

Recent events involving billions of dollars have put sharp focus on both trends.

The biggest recent investment was the $5 billion that Canada's First Quantum paid to buy the Cobre Panamá project from Inmet, also of Canada.

Cobre Panamá will be not only be Central America's biggest copper mine but the second in the world, according to some estimates.

Panama has faced opposition to mining but the government favors the industry, and protests have been muted.

Not so in El Salvador and Costa Rica.

In a long-running case in the World Bank's arbitration system, Pacific Rim in recent days demanded $315 million in compensation from El Salvador. The Canadian company claims that the government broke a promise to grant a license for its El Dorado gold project.

The same week, another Canadian miner, Infinito Gold, announced it was suing Costa Rica in a similar case for $1 billion.

The governments of El Salvador and Costa Rica have established moratoriums on mining in response to public demands.

Guatemala has also faced substantial protests against mining, but has no plans for a moratorium.

Instead, it last week granted new licenses for two companies that already operate in the country.

Solway, a Russian group, is aiming to invest $1.5 billion in nickel. Tahoe Resources, of Canada, has been granted a new license despite protests over its existing silver project.

Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua may be at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Panama´s Ricardo Martinelli.

But both are firmly pro-mining.

Despite mass protests against an open-pit gold mine being developed by Canada's B2Gold, Ortega's leftwing government has stood its ground in favor of the project. It also approved plans for a substantial but undisclosed stake by Colombia's Mineros in Nicaragua's leading miner, Hemco.

No other industry can generate as many billions of investment in Central America.

And no other business in the region generates as much controversy.