Rights of nature law in Panama aims to protect leatherback sea turtles

Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings are checked for health on a beach in Armila, Panama. (Arnulfo Franco/AP)

ARMILA, Panama — It was just past midnight when marine conservation biologist Callie Veelenturf spotted the telltale tiny zipperlike trails in the sand on a remote Caribbean beach. Under the beams of red-light headlamps, she and a group of volunteers from the local Indigenous Guna Yala community tracked the fresh imprints.

“Aquí, Aquí!” yelled one of them in Spanish. “Here, here! They are trapped!” A pair of leatherback sea turtle hatchlings wriggled inside a cracked white plastic bucket turned on its side, fluttering their minuscule flippers in a desperate attempt to escape.

“Take a picture,” said Veelenturf, founder of the Leatherback Project, a conservation nonprofit. “That can maybe be used as evidence someday.”

These hatchlings have legal rights in Panama. A law passed by the country’s National Assembly earlier this year guarantees sea turtles the right to thrive in a healthy environment, a protection until now typically reserved for humans.

Panama is part of a growing list of countries and communities around the world latching on to the Rights of Nature movement, which seeks to grant wildlife a similar legal status to that of individuals and companies.

While the strategy has so far been mostly used to protect whole ecosystems, such as forests and rivers, advocates of wild animals are starting to deploy it as well, hailing it as an essential tool to combat the biodiversity crisis. Despite existing environmental protections, the world continues to lose animal species at an alarming pace.

“We’re still looking at this crazy increasing extinction rate,” said Nicholas Fromherz, an international wildlife law expert at the Lewis & Clark Law School’s Global Law Alliance for Animals and the Environment, a group of legal experts that focuses on protecting animals. “All these other protections just aren’t enough.”

Unlike more traditional animal protections, which usually kick in when a species is threatened or endangered, rights of nature laws are meant to prevent that from happening. In practice, that means enlisting stewards to preserve habitats and restore animal populations — and when animals are threatened, filing lawsuits on their behalf.

Veelenturf, who helped draft Panama’s new turtle protections, said they give “any member of the public of Panama the opportunity to be the voice of nature in the court system, and advocate for nature’s rights on her behalf.”

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She is working to get shark rights enshrined in that country’s laws and helping scientists elsewhere secure rights for other species, including bees in the Peruvian Amazon and Javan gibbons in Indonesia.

Saving the world’s largest turtle

Panama hosts five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles, most of which are endangered.

That includes the leatherback, which is at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The leatherback is the largest of all sea turtles, and the only one that doesn’t have a hard shell. The flexible carapace helps the animals swim more than 10,000 miles through strong currents as they travel between the Caribbean, where they mate and nest, and Canada, where they feed on jellyfish.

At current rates of decline, Veelenturf said, it’s just a matter of decades before the leatherback disappears.

As sea levels rise due to global warming, much of their critical nesting habitat is being washed away. With increasing global temperatures, eggs are frying. “Sometimes nests simply cook in the hot sand if the temperature is too high,” Veelenturf said.

Veelenturf, who’s originally from Massachusetts, has been studying sea turtles in Panama since 2019. While camping in the Pearl Islands archipelago, she documented how turtles were drowning in gillnets meant for fish and how poachers killed the animals for their meat and snatched their eggs, despite it being illegal to hunt them. Some illegally targeted hawksbill sea turtles for their colorful shells, which are used to make hair clips, jewelry and rooster spurs for cockfighting.

To her, it was clear that existing protections were not working. At night in her tent, she began reading about the Rights of Nature movement. The concept was first introduced in the 1970s by a University of Southern California law professor, Christopher D. Stone, in an article titled “Should Trees Have Standing? — Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects.”

“Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time,” he wrote.

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At least 30 countries have rights of nature laws, including Ecuador, the first nation to recognize nature’s rights in its constitution in 2008. Since then, the country’s top court has used the law to block a proposed copper and gold mining project in a protected cloud forest and halt a road construction project that was polluting a river.

In 2020, Veelenturf proposed a national rights of nature law to Panamanian lawmakers. She spent the next two years helping draft the law, which went into effect earlier this year. During that time, Panama’s Ministry of the Environment asked Veelenturf to provide expertise on new sea turtle protections and help draft a second law that grants the animals specific rights tailored to the threats they face.

“The rights of sea turtles are going to be much different than the rights of a coral reef or the rights of a whale or the rights of an eagle or a river,” she said.

Under the new law, individuals, organizations or companies found guilty of violating the turtles’ rights to live in a pollution-free environment and remain unharmed by fishing activity, coastal development and climate change may be fined or have their businesses shut down.

The law also requires the creation of a committee of officials, scientists and advocates to oversee its implementation. “They’re all now sitting at the table supervising what’s going on, and they can more easily report violations,” said Panamanian Congressman Gabriel Silva, a top backer of the law.

But the law is not meant to only be punitive, says Constanza Prieto, an expert at Earth Law Center, a U.S.-based nonprofit that also helped draft Panama’s rights of nature law. Much of its strength lies in its mandate to prevent further harm and restore populations through community partnerships. “That’s the most important part,” she said.

In recent months, Veelenturf and several Panamanian officials have been teaching Armila residents on how to collect data needed to implement the law.

“The people have to know that there’s a law that gives turtles rights,” said Marino Eugenio Abrego of Panama’s Ministry of Environment. “The idea is that this doesn’t stay on paper like dead words.”

Earlier this year, a group of Indigenous volunteers and two marine biology students from the University of Panama conducted nightly beach patrols, scouring more than 4.5 kilometers of steep eroding sand banks for signs of nesting leatherbacks or babies.

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It was once common to spot 30 to 40 adult female turtles on a given night during nesting season, according to several of the volunteers. This year, the group was lucky if seven were spotted in a night.

“The Gunas always say that the turtles were once human beings,” said Ignacio Crespo, founder of Fundacion Yaug Galu, a local nonprofit that seeks to protect the turtles. “They are our brothers and sisters that live in an immense mysterious ocean.”

To track the turtles’ movements, Veelenturf demonstrated how to outfit their leathery carapaces with satellite tags that document the animals’ whereabouts each time they surface. Already, data from these tags shows common travel patterns between Panama and Colombia, which Veelenturf intends to use to advocate for designated shipping lanes between the two countries to minimize boat strikes, as well as to stop coastal construction projects that could destroy nesting beaches.

If the turtles nested too close to the water’s edge, the volunteers swooped in to rescue the eggs and transfer them to a hand-dug nest on higher ground. At times, they watched in silence as turtles attempted to lay their eggs, the sounds of plastic being crushed beneath their bodies.

The group excavated recently hatched nests, counting each eggshell remnant to record how many hatched — and how many didn’t. They noted each time they unearthed live hatchlings trapped in nests littered with bottle caps and takeout cutlery.

If the community can present clear evidence that trash is harming the turtles, it might be able to request funds and other resources from federal agencies to clean up the beach and create a hatchery where nests could be safely monitored, said Veelenturf. If the government doesn’t respond, she said, the new law gives the community a means of recourse.

“A case could be brought to court on behalf of the turtles saying that their right to a contamination-free environment was being violated by the amount of trash on the beach, and that the government was responsible to do something about it.”

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