Panama passes national sea turtle law recognising their rights

This recognises and protects sea turtles as living beings with intrinsic value as individuals, in addition to their ecosystems, which will allow their needs and interests to have serious weight in the implementation of the law

Green sea turtle nesting - photo credit - Michael Ryan Clark

On March 1, 2023, Laurentino Cortizo, President of Panama, signed a national law that promotes the Protection and Conservation of Sea Turtles and their Habitats. This law, among other protections, recognizes in article 29, the inherent rights of sea turtles and their habitats. The law was introduced by Congressman Gabriel Silva in 2021 and passed through three legal debates to receive input and formulate the law before making its way to the President's desk.

As an example of a ‘Rights of Nature’ law, it recognizes sea turtles in Panama as a subject of rights, with rights to live and have free passage in a healthy environment, free of pollution and other anthropocentric impacts that cause physical damage, including incidental capture, coastal development and unregulated tourism, among others.

As one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, the Republic of Panama is leading the way in ocean protection. The 2023 Our Ocean Conference was held in Panama March 2nd and 3rd, which gathered government, industry, science and civil society to discuss challenges facing the ocean.

[Photo by Dustin Haney on Unsplash]

This triumph for sea turtles occurred concurrently with the conference and several other notable commitments by Panama for the ocean:

  • Laurentino Cortizo, President of Panama, and Milciades Concepción, Minister of Environment, signed the decree to expand the Banco Volcán marine protected area, leading the country to protect more than 50% of its marine territory, significantly ahead of the 2030 pledge.
  • A new marine refuge was proposed in the Gulf of Panama on the Pacific coast, namely the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Saboga, which is now open to public comment, and includes language to recognize and defend the Rights of Nature in the refuge.
  • Milciades Concepción, Minister of Environment, spoke about the national Rights of Nature law that was passed in February, 2022 and entered into force a few days before the conference (February 24, 2023) stating it is “a new tool to combat the ecological damage caused by humans.”

Gabriel Silva, a lawyer, professor and Congressman in The National Assembly of Panama, in a video stated, “this is an important step forward. Created and in conjunction with the Panatortugas Network, the Ministry of the Environment, biologists, and experts in the subject, this will help us preserve the oceans, sea turtles and our environment.”

Over the last 50 years, marine biodiversity has declined by 49 percent, and over 60 percent of the world's 356 turtle species are threatened or already extinct, making them amongst the most vulnerable animals on Earth. There are five species of sea turtles that occupy Panama’s waters, three of which are globally considered vulnerable to extinction, one which is endangered with extinction and another which is critically endangered with extinction.

Having existed for over 200 million years, sea turtles worldwide are at risk of extinction due to human-induced threats such as entanglement in fishing gear, illegal trade and consumption, coastal development, pollution and climate change.

In addition to recognising the inherent rights of sea turtles, the law requires fisheries to implement measures to avoid incidental catches, regulates tourism activities in sea turtle habitats, and creates a national committee to conserve sea turtles, charged with identifying and recommending protected areas, ensuring development activities do not affect their populations, and creating an action plan every five years, among other responsibilities.

When asked how about her involvement in this process and reaction to the passage of the law, Callie Veelenturf, a marine conservation biologist and National Geographic Explorer, studying sea turtles in the Pearl Islands Archipelago in Panama, stated “as a marine biologist, I understand the critical importance of protecting these flagship species and their habitats. The recognition of sea turtles’ inherent rights is encouraging to me, as it can prompt discussions on pressing threats to the Ocean, and studying these species can offer valuable insights into Ocean health and conservation needs. This step to safeguard their populations is impactful for Panama as a leader in the Rights of Nature movement and for global conservation efforts!

Callie Veelenturf in the field in the Pearl Islands; photo taken by Tiff Duong

Latin American Legal Director Constanza Prieto Figelist at Earth Law Center, an NGO who provided expertise to the draft law, commented on the significance of this legal advancement, stating “this law can advance the conservation of endangered sea turtles by ensuring an ecosystem perspective, strengthening standards of conservation, and including the inherent needs and health of turtles and their habitats in decision making. From the comparative experience of the Rights of Nature movement, we have learned the enforceability and the implementation of Rights of Nature requires a specification of Rights of Nature and inclusion of the whole perspective in subsequent laws. This is a new discipline and the government, decision makers and courts need specific models of conduct and standards to follow.”

Panama’s national Rights of Nature law protects all ecosystems and species, including Sea Turtles. “However this specification recognises and protects sea turtles as living beings with intrinsic value as individuals, in addition to their ecosystems, which will allow their needs and interests to have serious weight in the implementation of the law. This is quite different from merely identifying the short-term or ‘ecosystem services’ sea turtles provide largely in the context of human interactions, and instead ensures decisions look at the role sea turtles play as individuals to other species, a healthy ecosystem and broader ocean functioning. This is, for example, similar to what we have seen in Ecuador in their constitutional court, where in 2022, a landmark ruling found that individual wild animals are subjects of rights under Ecuador’s constitutional recognition of the Rights of Nature.” says Michelle Bender, Ocean Campaigns Director at Earth Law Center.

Hundreds of Rights of Nature laws exist in over 30 countries, with Ecuador having passed a constitutional amendment, and Bolivia and Panama having passed national laws. Though not exactly Rights of Nature, other national laws exist of a similar goal, for example, New Zealand’s Government legally recognises animals as sentient beings; the Uttarakhand High Court of India ruled that the entire animal kingdom are legal entities with rights; and the United Kingdom now recognises lobsters, crabs, and octopus as sentient beings.

Find out more at Earth Law Center (ELC) and The Leatherback Project