Panama Passes National Rights Of Nature Law

February 25, 2022

El Cap, Yosemite National Park. Free te use under the Unsplash License.
Photo by Adam Kool on Unsplash

Panama City, Panama: On February 24, 2022, Laurentino Cortizo, President of Panama, signed Panama now joins a number of countries who recognize the Rights of Nature at the national level. The list also includes Bolivia, which passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth (071) in 2010 and Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well (300) in 2012, and Ecuador, which codified the Rights of Nature (Pachamama) into their Constitution in 2008. Uganda also has a national Rights of Nature provision that applies only to designated areas, and Chile is considering incorporating Rights of Nature into their new Constitution.

Congressman Juan Diego Vásquez Gutiérrez is an independent politician and the youngest Panamanian Congressperson who supported the law by raising awareness about the issue through the drafting and editing of the bill, as well as by introducing it to Panama’s National Assembly on September 23, 2020. He worked closely with various environmental non-profit organizations in addition to positioning this topic as part of the nation’s ecological agenda and issue of debate for the whole country. The Rights of Nature bill was previously approved by the National Assembly in three debates constitutionally required to create a law, a process taking approximately one year.

“This law aims, first and foremost, to acknowledge Nature as a subject of law, therefore redefining its legal scope of protection and guaranteeing an inherent list of rights to be safeguarded. It also creates a normative framework that enhances and complements the legal and judicial means, resources and arguments available for environmental lawyers and activists,” says Vásquez.

The law requires the state and all persons, whether natural or legal (such as corporations), to respect and protect Nature’s rights. Some of Nature’s rights recognized in the law include Nature’s rights to exist, persist, and regenerate its life cycles; Nature’s right to timely and effective restoration; and Nature’s right to the preservation of its water cycles. The law also establishes an extensive list of ecocentric principles—such as “in dubio pro natura,” meaning that when in doubt, one must act in favor of protecting Nature—which will help implement the law in practice. To defend the Rights of Nature, the law authorizes all natural or legal persons to represent the interests of Nature before the courts and authorities of Panama. Finally, the law establishes that the cosmovision and ancestral knowledge of Indigenous peoples must be an integral part of interpreting and applying the Rights of Nature.

When asked how they envision this law affecting the relationship between Nature and society in Panama, Vásquez and legal advisor Irma Hernández stated that they are “convinced this law will institutionally strengthen the struggle to protect Nature in Panama and against climate change by redefining the link between human beings and Nature. This law also has the potential of reconceptualizing Nature´s conservation as a main goal of human development and as a requirement for society´s true progress. By setting a catalog of obligations, the Rights of Nature Law will originate and hopefully perpetuate a sense of responsibility and commitment within the communities of our country.”

Vásquez and his legal cabinet, with special thanks to Irma Hernández, Juan Diego Infante and Jorge Jaén, and legal advisor for the Minister of the Environment Luisa Pilar Arauz Arredondo, drafted the bill in close collaboration with Callie Veelenturf, marine conservation biologist and National Geographer Explorer, who originally proposed the concept of a new rights of Nature law in Panama to Juan Diego in February 2020, with support from Felipe Baker, a biology student and part of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous community. As founder of Rights for Nature and The Leatherback Project, Veelenturf was studying sea turtles in the Pearl Islands Archipelago in Panama and had been reading about the growing rights of Nature movement. “Although I had no background in environmental law and policy, I decided to present to legislators on the Rights of Nature in Panama as a trial. I had no expectations, but simply tried to bring compelling visuals of threats facing Nature from the field, political arguments, compelling preliminary article verbiage, and powerful statistics to the table. It resonated with numerous politicians, who then carried the torch. I hope that increasingly everyday citizens that have a knowledge of the threats facing biodiversity will not be intimidated by the legal system and will speak up to propose new laws protecting Nature.”

“Panama is one of the 25 most megadiverse countries globally, playing a pivotal role in preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. With the approval of this law, Panama joins the efforts of Colombia and Ecuador to recognize and enforce the Rights of Nature, creating a conservation corridor in the region that opens the doors for holistic, joint, rights-based governance of forests, rivers, the ocean, and other ecosystems” says Constanza Prieto Figelist, Latin American Legal Director at Earth Law Center, which provided input and expertise on the Rights of Nature and ecocentric law during the legislative drafting process. “We look forward to working with Panama and our partners to implement the Rights of Nature law, with one initial target being a rights-based law protecting sea turtle populations.”

Panama has embraced a holistic worldview in which human beings and natural entities are interdependent and connected beings, recognizing that Nature has a value in herself. Through recognition of the Rights of Nature, Panama is promoting a shift in our collective consciousness of our relationship with Nature, and transforming the ethics, values and beliefs that underlie our legal, governance and economic systems. This legal movement is gaining traction as a solution that can effectively address the root causes of our environmental problems by harmoniously balancing the needs of humankind with the capacities of the Earth and Earth’s systems.

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The Leatherback Project, is an organization dedicated to the conservation of the massive leatherback sea turtle throughout its global range through research, education and advocacy initiatives aimed at mitigating fisheries bycatch, reducing plastic pollution and combating climate change. While studying sea turtles in Panama, Founder and Executive Director of The Leatherback Project, Callie Veelenturf, originally brought the concept of Rights of Nature to Juan Diego Vasquez as a proposal for a new law.

Earth Law Center (ELC), is a nonprofit organization, with offices in the United States of America, Mexico and Canada. ELC champions Earth-centered laws and community-led movements that respect and protect all life on the planet, including the promotion of Rights of Nature. The Earth Law Center was involved in developing, debating, and revising the first draft of this new law to incorporate successful principles and verbiage from other successful bills around the world.

Rights for Nature (RfN), is an international initiative that advocates for the recognition of the inherent Rights of Nature. The new proposal of a Rights of Nature law in Panama was Rights for Nature’s first public initiative to propose new Rights of Nature legislation internationally.