Fighting to Protect Panama Bay

Critical bird habitat in Central America is at risk.

Along Upper Panama Bay, western sandpipers and semipalmated plovers dig into mudflats lined by a tangle of mangrove trees. This 93-mile-long, five-million-acre area is a stopover site for two million migrating shorebirds a year. It’s highly prized by humans, too. Just down the beach from where the shorebirds forage for invertebrates, bulldozers are breaking ground for a new development slated to rise on what was once protected land. Now conservationists are racing to safeguard the region once more. 

In April, after developers filed a lawsuit, Panama’s Supreme Court suspended the bay’s status as a conservation wildlife refuge, opening the door to mega-hotel and golf course construction. The court is withholding protection while it reviews the merits of the conservation designation and the developers’ suit—which charges that they weren’t consulted when the area was designated (something that isn’t required under Panamanian law). As Audubon went to print, there was no word on when the court would make a decision.

As a result, the Panama Audubon Society and a coalition of local and international environmental groups are pushing for safeguards to be reinstated for the critical habitat. “If those Panama wetlands are lost, then you break the chain of wetlands that you need for successful migrations,” says Rosabel Miro, Panama Audubon’s executive director. Many migrants, including whimbrels, short-billed dowitchers, and willets, travel from Alaska to overwinter in the Bay of Panama, or rest and refuel there before heading farther south.

Under Panamanian law, its wetlands are already protected, and their designation as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention (an international treaty on wetland conservation) in 2003 has raised their profile even more. In 2005 Upper Panama Bay, a globally significant IBA, was designated a part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, making development here that much more egregious. 

“The decision has brought together several strong conservation organizations to fight this process,” says Matt Jeffery, senior program manager of Audubon’s International Alliances Program, which has helped Miro’s team conduct research on bird populations and ecosystem health in the bay and develop a conservation plan. In addition to Audubon Panama and 10 other non-governmental organizations like Wetlands International and The Nature Conservancy, a council of Panamanians representing 23 sectors, from churches to architects, has joined the cause. In August the association voted unanimously in favor of wetland protection because the ecosystem shelters the city and commerce.

Meanwhile, the groups are also enlightening residents on how the ecosystem feeds local fisheries and acts as a sponge, reducing flooding. On top of that, it mitigates problems associated with climate change, like sea-level rise. “Now that climate change is here, we must be prepared and we must protect our wetlands because they protect us,” says Miro.

Yet until the courts review the evidence and make a decision, development will continue unabated. “The big picture,” says Jeffery, “is that this is really dangerous precedent setting, not just for Panama but for the entire region.”


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This story originally ran in the November-December 2012 issue as "Battle of the Bay."