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IBA News: Panama Bay Struggle Continues

Chris Merkord

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From the Birding Community E-bulletin, August 2014:




Regular readers of this E-bulletin are aware of the importance of the Bay of Panama to shorebirds.


The Upper Bay of Panama, an Important Bird Area (IBA) and a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) Site of Hemispheric Importance, supports more than 1.3 million shorebirds annually, including very large concentrations of Western Sandpipers. Since 2003, the site has also been designated as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention.


We last covered some of the developments in this area in February including an update on the reinstatement of the bay's protection after it was suspended for more than a year while contending sides debated development vs. conservation issues:



In mid-May, Panama's President, Ricardo Martinelli, called for extraordinary sessions of the National Assembly to pass 23 new laws during his last month in office. These included a law that would establish the Panama Bay wetlands as a protected area. Once the map coordinates of the proposal were plotted, it was clear that approximately 750 hectares of the bay's wetlands would be excluded from protection. This section, located just south of the international airport, is dominated by mangroves and is the section most desired for development around the bay.


The Panama Audubon Society (PAS) together with legal support and fellow environmental advocates went on a national TV and radio campaign to raise public awareness concerning the impending habitat loss. More than 40 local groups issued a joint press release against the proposed law. Demonstrations were held. Attorney Felix Wing submitted a "Constitutional request for an injunction" to the Supreme Court to stop the National Assembly from considering the proposed law.


The Supreme Court, aware of the importance of the site thanks to extensive media outreach for the previous two years, acted quickly and granted an injunction. This marked the first time that consideration of a law proposed by the Executive branch had been stopped in this way. 


The injunction was submitted on the grounds that altering the boundaries of the existing protected area put the country in "grave and imminent risk" of violating its legal commitments to the Ramsar Convention. Despite this injunction, the cycle began again: the National Assembly attempted to proceed with the revised boundary law, Mr. Wing submitted a second injunction request to halt the actions, and the Supreme Court ordered an injunction.


In the process, the Supreme Court sent a clear message that international commitments made to conserve and protect the Bay of Panama wetlands are to be upheld by everyone, including legislators.


There is additional hope. A new government was elected in the interim, and it will be in power for the next five years. The new president, Juan Carlos Varela, has appointed a new head of the National Environmental Authority (ANAM), Mirei Endara, a woman who has supported conservation measures for the Bay of Panama in the past. She has already announced that protecting the bay is an important priority, and she would work to right previous wrongs. 


While the Panama Audubon Society and its many allies are committed to saving the Bay of Panama and strengthening the laws concerning the bay, the conservation partners are aware that the issues have yet to be fully resolved. "This will be a long-term battle, and luckily we know we are not alone. There are very good people looking after us, supporting us, and wanting to help," said Rosabel Miro, Executive Director of Panama Audubon Society.


For additional information about worldwide IBA programs, including those in the U.S., check the National Audubon Society's Important Bird Area program web site at: 


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