By Ana de Leon
El Salao, Panama, Apr 10 (EFE).- A giant mound of salt glares defiantly back at the managing director of the Marin Campos salt-mining cooperative in El Salao, serving as a constant reminder of the economic cost of the Covid-19 pandemic, which shrank Panamanian gross domestic product by nearly 18 percent in 2020.
“Sales fell by 60 percent, more or less. We began late this year, in the month of February, for the simple reason that we still have warehouses filled from last year. But we’ll never close,” Ramon Martinez tells Efe.
Martinez, who looks younger than his 69 years, says that while the 130-member cooperative founded in the 1950s usually has a reserve of 10,000 quintals (1 quintal = 200 lbs.) on hand at the start of the year, the unsold stock on Jan. 1 amounted to 70,000 quintals.
As the director talks, three shirtless men wearing lumbar belts for their backs are shoveling salt into sacks.
The trio are part of a greatly reduced workforce. Pre-pandemic, the co-op generally employed 25 non-members year-round and as many as 75 extra hands for the harvest.
Coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns have sent Panama’s unemployment rate soaring above 18 percent and more than half of the jobs that remain are in the informal sector.
“We produce salt to sell it, so if there are customers, such as cattle ranchers, tuna trawlers, processing plants, everything is fine,” Ramirez says. “Not having sufficient sales, we can’t fulfill our commitments to the workforce.”
Nearby, 75-year-old Julio Pinzon tends to the plastic tubs where seawater is left to evaporate so the salt can be harvested.
Pinzon, who describes himself as a “lifetime salt-miner,” has been with the co-op for more than 20 years and is responsible for the rudimentary but effective system of pumps and pipes that conveys water from the coastal salt marshes to the tubs.
One pump moves water from the marshes to the heating ponds where the liquid is stored until the salt concentration reaches the required level.
Later, a second, smaller pump pushes the water into the tubs.
Once the salt is extracted, a contractor with a large flat-bed truck is called in to move it to the warehouses. The trucker hires laborers to put the salt in sacks and load it onto the bed.
“The truck owner charges by quintal for what he carries and he takes charges of bringing the laborers,” Martinez says.
The salt can only be harvested during Panama’s brief dry season, from January through March.
“Sales have increased a little,” Martinez says of the co-op prospects for 2021. EFE adl/dr