Panama Bay Is Legally Protected

An aerial view of the mangrove ecosystem in Panama Bay, Panama.
Panama City, Panama

Panama Bay, a primitive mangrove ecosystem essential to the fishing industry in Panama and the fight against climate change, had its protected status restored by the Third Chamber of the Supreme Court of Panama. The court based its decision (Spanish only) on the ecological significance of the site and Panama's adherence to the Ramsar Convention, an international conservation treaty under which the bay is considered a priority wetland of global importance.

In April 2012, the same court had overturned a decision by Panama’s National Environmental Authority declaring (Spanish only) Panama Bay a protected area in the Wildlife Refuge category. The court made that ruling on the argument that no public consultation had been held for endorsing the protected status declaration. It also ruled in favor of an annulment request filed by Lefevre, a company that forms part of a group of tourism developers seeking to open the area for building mega-hotels with golf courses. The other developers are Santa María Golf and Country Club and Panama Bay Development.

The 2012 decision jeopardized one of the most important sites for biopersity in Panama, as well as one of the most important nesting and roosting sites in the world for migratory birds and home to endangered species like jaguars and loggerhead turtles. It also set a negative precedent for conservation efforts in Panama and the rest of Latin America.

About 90 percent of the revenue generated by fishing in Panama comes from species that spend some stage of their development in the bay’s mangrove ecosystem. Each kilometer of mangrove-covered shoreline generates about $100,000 USD a year for Panama. The striking down of the protection status for Panama Bay threatened disastrous outcomes for the fishing industry.

Panama Bay’s coastal mangroves are vital for slowing climate change. Mangroves capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in underwater sediment for thousands of years. One square kilometer of mangroves can sequester 50 times more carbon than a tropical forest.

Mangroves also prevent erosion and buffer coastlines against storms and hurricanes: valuable attributes in the face of increasingly stronger, climate change-driven tropical storms. Panama has already lost 75 percent of its mangroves. It cannot afford to lose any more.

AIDA worked with the Environmental Advocacy Center (CIAM), a Panamanian environmental law organization, to defend Panama Bay’s protected status. On July 18, 2011, an AIDA brief (Spanish only) containing international legal arguments for maintaining this critically important area was presented to the court.

There was no reason for the suspension of the protected status. In 2008, a Ramsar Advisory Mission (Spanish only) visited Panama and recommended the creation of a protected area containing Panama Bay’s wetlands because of its tremendous importance to the health and well being of humankind.

On April 4, 2013, the Third Chamber of the Supreme Court changed its mind and confirmed the legality and appropriateness of the protection status for Panama Bay. The court also concluded that there were new arguments that lead it to lifting the temporary suspension of the protected status.

The ruling (Spanish only) emphasizes the importance of the site and its wetlands, and the need to apply the precautionary principle. We reviewed the analogies between the Panama Bay case and that of the Las Baulas National Marine Park in Costa Rica. In the latter, a balancing test found that the public right to a healthy environment outweighed the interests of tourism developers. After a successful campaign, AIDA and its partners helped stop the invasion of the home of leatherback turtles, an endangered species.

International and comparative law has provided guidelines for the protection of vulnerable ecological environments. Despite maintaining the status of Panama Bay as a Wildlife Refuge, the risks for the wetland have continued.

Fortunately, in 2014, with the support of civil society and the government, a lawa law that bestows protected-area status on Panama Bay Wetland Wildlife Refuge was presented before Congress. The legal and scientific team from CIAM, supported by AIDA, contributed to strengthening the bill to ensure that it guarantees the rational use of wetland resources. On February 2, 2015 - World Wetlands Day - the law was made official.

The law emphasizes the concepts of an ecosystem approach and the rational use of wetlands, as contained in the Ramsar Convention. AIDA and CIAM will continue working to see that the law is implemented properly and to ensure the protection of Panama Bay wetlands.

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