In March, Panama recognised the legal right of sea turtles to exist and to flourish, and allow lawsuits should those rights be violated.
The new law “will allow any Panamanian citizen to be the voice of sea turtles and defend them legally,” says Callie Veelenturf, founder of The Leatherback Project, which campaigned for the legislation. “We will be able to hold governments, corporations and public citizens legally accountable for violations of the rights of sea turtles.”
The law gives sea turtles the right to an environment free of pollution and other human impacts that cause physical or health damage, including incidental capture, coastal development and unregulated tourism.
What makes the law remarkable is that it explicitly states sea turtles, as living creatures, have rights, and with enough specificity that those rights can be enforced, adds Nicholas Fromherz, an adjunct law professor and director of the Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon’s Latin American Program.
Panama’s new law follows Ecuador’s highest court last year ruling in a case concerning a monkey kept in a private home that wild animals are rights-holders under the constitutional provisions for rights of nature.
That was an important step in evolving the definition of nature from a site-specific or place-based concept, to include individual wild animals, says Erica Lyman, a clinical law professor and also an alliance director.
Both Lyman and Fromherz see Panama’s law and recent judicial rulings as evidence of a trend toward safeguarding the legal rights of animals.
Besides the Ecuador case, in 2020, a Pakistani court — ruling on a case that included an elephant’s captivity in a zoo — held that animals have natural rights that should be recognised. Drawing on religious doctrine, that decision sharply rebuked the way people treat wild animals.
(The rights-of-nature movement is moving beyond animals. In Minnesota, for example, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe approved a tribal law granting legal rights to wild rice, then made it a plaintiff in a tribal court lawsuit in 2020 seeking to stop an oil pipeline. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.)
Panama is home to some of the most important nesting spots in the world for leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles. One beach houses about 3,000 hawksbill nests each year.
The Sea Turtle Conservancy is already citing the new law to call for Panama’s police and natural resource managers to intervene at one critical leatherback turtle nesting site that faces intense pressure from illegal egg hunters. When covid halted ecotourism, people who lost their main source of income began harvesting sea turtle eggs and some nesting turtles to sell for meat and their shells, says David Godfrey, executive director of the Florida-based conservancy. At one beach, up to 90% of leatherback eggs were being taken, he says.
It was already illegal under Panamanian law to take sea turtles and their eggs from national parks and protected marine areas, Godfrey says, but it was unclear whether doing so was prohibited outside those places and the law was sparsely enforced.
Turtle protection groups, including the Conservancy, lobbied for laws that would offer clear protection for sea turtles, better monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, including financial penalties.
Fromherz says Panama’s law is explicit on the implications for irresponsible developers, tourism operators and others who disrupt sea turtle habitats, instructing agencies to cancel operating permits. It prohibits all domestic and international commerce in sea turtles — parts and eggs — with a narrow exception for subsistence use by select traditional communities, he adds.
A committee is overseeing the law’s introduction, including research, monitoring and efforts to raise awareness and promote ecotourism as an alternative to harvesting sea turtles and their eggs.
Such laws are needed because recognising that animals have legal rights opens a pathway to safeguarding those rights and protections in court, argues Christopher Berry, a managing attorney at the Animal Legal Defence Fund. “Making sure there is a way to actually enforce a violation of these rights when a violation happens is really an incredibly important animal law issue that doesn’t get enough attention,” he says.
Despite ecotourism returning, Godfrey notes people are still taking nesting sea turtles and eggs at a higher rate than before covid to sell for extra income.
He expects the Conservancy will lobby other countries throughout the Atlantic and Caribbean to adopt similar legislation, assuming it’s as effective as they hope.
“These animals have a right to exist, whether or not they benefit us. They do happen to benefit us in many ways. But they have a right to exist, even if they don’t,” Godfrey said. “And it’s refreshing to see a nation take that stance.”