April 11, 2023

Panama Gives Rights to Sea Turtles

A new law in Panama recognizes the rights of sea turtles. In our latest blog, our team at the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment breaks down its potential impact.

Against the backdrop of the biodiversity crisis, the evolution of the rights of nature concept has the potential, if not promise, to unlock new tools for addressing key drivers of wild animal loss. If recent developments in Panama are any indication, the rights of nature concept is evolving in ways cognizant that for wild animals to live their fullest lives, we must confront the habitat destruction that comes in the wake of our quest for so-called sustainable development.

On March 1, Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen signed a new law designed to protect sea turtles. Among other features, the law recognizes sea turtles’ rights to “live, have free passage in a healthy environment, free of pollution and other anthropocentric impacts that cause physical or health damage, like climate change, pollution, incidental capture, coastal development and unregulated tourism, among others.” Significantly, this legislative development comes on the heels of a judicial ruling in Ecuador in January 2022 that held wild animals are rights-holders under rights of nature constitutional provisions.

From an evolution-of-law perspective, the Ecuadorian ruling and new Panamanian law represent an important progression. Classic constructions of rights of nature limited its application to forests, mountains, rivers, and other such spaces. This site-centric approach is now evolving in ways that perceive “nature” as more than just the sum of its parts. As we have argued on several occasions, wild animals, including but not limited to sea turtles and other endangered species, should be treated as rights-holders. The animals, the plants, and the spaces that provide for life are all, individually and collectively, deserving of legal protection.

In many ways, Panama’s approach represents a blending of “first wave” rights-of-nature thinking and related but distinct concepts surrounding animal rights. Because wild animals are both part of nature and individual, sentient creatures, it only makes sense that wild animals like sea turtles should receive the benefit of both rights-based frameworks.

Yet, important as the recognition of rights may be, there is a risk that such recognition remains but a symbolic victory. Legal pronouncements such as these can create a false impression of change by elevating form over substance. To guard against hollow law, meaningful operative provisions must accompany rights-based approaches. Thus, where rights-holders, like sea turtles, benefit from legal frameworks that provide specific tools for realization and enforcement of those rights, real change is possible.

Thankfully, the Panamanian law appears to offer much more than merely a declaration of rights for sea turtles. Although we’ll need to await implementing regulations to assess the full character of the framework, the law contains a suite of provisions complementing the rights language. Such provisions include a prohibition on new concessions and licenses to individuals or companies engaged in the extraction of sand or other activities that prejudice critical sea turtle habitat. Depending on the reach of this mandate, this could constitute an important barrier to damaging projects, including those related to coastal tourism and urban expansion. Importantly, the Panamanian law contains a penalty regime to back up these provisions; the law articulates not only rights for sea turtles but also consequences for violations.

Of course, a law that excites on paper is only as good as the implementation and enforcement efforts that accompany it. Still, if we assume that the passage of the law is an indicator of political will, celebration is due.

With all this mind, we end with a hearty salute: ¡Felicidades, Panamá!

This blog was written by Nicholas Fromherz, Adjunct Professor and GLA’s Latin American Program Director and Erica Lyman, Clinical Professor and Director of GLA. The Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment (GLA) was launched in the fall of 2020 as an innovative collaboration of the Center for Animal Law Studies and the top ranked Environmental Law Program at Lewis & Clark Law School. GLA champions wild animals and wild spaces around the world.

The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law advocates and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter. CALS’ Alumni-in-Action from over 20 countries are making a difference for animals around the world. CALS is a nonprofit organization funded through donations and grants.