Panama Bay: Decision Sends Mixed Message

Panama City edges into the bay (Photo by thinkpanama / CC BY-NC 2.0)


The Bay of Panama—made up of a rich patchwork of wetlands, mud flats, and mangrove forests—is vital habitat not only for two million migrating birds like western sandpipers and whimbrels, but for turtles, monkeys, and jaguars. On top of that it is a key source of the nation’s seafood industry.

So when the Panamanian court agreed last April to strip the bay’s protections, environmentalists rose up. Fueling their ire were plans to line the shores with golf estates, country clubs, and condos.

But last Friday April 5, the Panamanian government did a flip-flop, boldly reinstating environmental safeguards in a court decision. While environmentalists initially rejoiced, a parallel decision made by the government left as many doubts as assurances.

Hotels and apartments already take up much of the wetland. So the reinstatement is key. “I think this is a victory,” says Matt Jeffery, senior program manager of Audubon’s International Alliances Program. “But it is a first step in a longer—I don’t want to use the word ‘battle’, but that’s probably what it might end up being.”

Almost 200,000 acres were set aside as protected land in 2009, and the bay is known as a Globally Important Bird Area. In addition the Ramsar Convention recognizes the protected area as a Wetland of International Importance too.

But now the government has begun investigating the possibility of reducing the size of the Ramsar site, despite the court decision. “[The announcements about reinstated protections] came out after that happened,” Jeffery says. “That’s why everyone’s scratching their heads right now,”

Chipping away at the area’s Ramsar status could diminish the bay’s overall conservation standing. Ramsar places wetlands on an international pedestal, making them subject to international scrutiny and defense, since the convention binds signatory countries to an agreement to conserve their wetland habitats. If the only safeguards in place are state-controlled, that leaves the bay open to the whims of the sometimes opaque Panamanian government. Many of the government’s decisions occur behind closed doors, Jeffery points out, which does not bode well.

Rosabel Miro, Panama Audubon’s executive director, told Audubon Magazine last year, “If those Panama wetlands are lost, then you break the chain of wetlands that you need for successful [bird] migrations.” Also sacrificed would be the important city buffer mangrove forests provide against rising seas, and the filtering effect of the forested strip on urban run off.

Panama’s urban growth can’t be put on hold, and there are some necessary industrial developments that are part of the mix as well—like airport extensions. “The city is a city; it needs to expand. I [just] don’t think there’s ever really been an attempt to find [a] balance,” Jeffery says. “What we’re seeing now is a political fight before the realization that a balance can be developed.” Development can happen, so long as it doesn’t encroach excessively on the bay. Management plans could also help to highlight wetland areas of key importance to wildlife.  

For now, conservationists are on hold. Jeffery says he’s not certain that the government has made significant enough arguments to reduce the size of the Ramsar site. Audubon—together with Panama Audubon and the bevy of other Panamanian conservation groups that have taken up the cause—will keep pushing. “Obviously there needs to be a huge amount of engagement with the community, with media, to keep the pressure on,” Jeffery says.

He adds that if Panamanian authorities successfully undermine the wetland’s status, it will, ominously, be the first government in the Americas to disrupt Ramsar boundaries. So far, 165 countries have signed onto the convention.

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