PANAMA’S SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS RIGHTS OF NATURE, DECLARES COUNTRY’S LARGEST COPPER MINE UNCONSTITUTIONAL
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 29, 2023
Panama City, Panama: On November 28, 2023, Panama’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled the Cobré Panamá copper mine unconstitutional, following weeks of nationwide protests. According to President Laurentino Cortizo, a process to close the mine will soon commence. The Court’s decision references the national Rights of Nature law, Law 287, passed in February 2022, among its rationale for ruling against the mine. The ruling represents a landmark victory for the burgeoning Rights of Nature movement, which seeks to recognize that Nature has basic rights under the law, just as humans do.
In a clear application of Panama’s Rights of Nature law, the court took an ecocentric perspective, reaffirming that Nature is a subject of rights, including ensuring Nature is protected, restored, and can regenerate its life cycles. In accordance with these rights, the court affirmed that the government of Panama is required to develop “necessary public policies to ensure ‘the highest interest of Nature,’ now for its intrinsic value, and regardless of the utilitarian value it has for human beings.” The court then determined that the mining contract did not meet these standards because it failed to include strict measures to prevent environmental damage.
Congressman Juan Diego Vásquez Gutiérrez, an independent politician who is the youngest Panamanian Congressperson, introduced the national Rights of Nature law to Panama's National Assembly. “I am very happy to have been part of a fundamental legal instrument to end the metal mining industry in the country,” he stated. “This is one of many tangible effects that we must repeat in defense of the environment thanks to legislation like this.“
The public outcry began in October following the government’s renegotiated contract with a Canadian mining company, First Quantam Minerals, that would have extended mining operations for the next 20 years in the biodiverse Colón Province near the Caribbean coast. Opponents claimed expanded exploration would further degrade coastal rainforests that supply freshwater to the region, harming the Indigenous population and endangered species including the Geminis’ poison dart frog (Andinobates geminisae) and several bird species.
When asked the significance of this ruling to the Rights of Nature movement, Callie Veelenturf, marine conservation biologist, National Geographic Explorer, and Founder of The Leatherback Project, who originally proposed the concept of a new Rights of Nature law in Panama to Congressman Juan Diego Vásquez, stated: “The Supreme Court’s reference to Panama’s Rights of Nature law carries significant weight and exemplifies for the world a tangible example of how Rights of Nature laws, inspired and informed by science, can be used to protect Nature. I am exuding with hope for the future of nature conservation in Panama, including the implementation of Panama’s new sea turtle conservation Law 371, which also includes the recognition of the intrinsic rights of sea turtles. I greatly admire the indomitable people of Panama for defending Nature with such determination and persistence.”
This win for Rights of Nature implementation comes after a similar blocking of a copper mine earlier this year in Ecuador, where a provincial court ruled a mining project violated the constitutional Rights of Nature in the Intag Valley of the Tropical Andes. Additionally, in 2022, the Convention on Biological Diversity became the first international agreement to include the Rights of Nature, producing the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework as one approach to meeting the 23 action targets for biodiversity protection over the next decade. Panama’s recent ruling aligns with the biodiversity treaty’s objectives to reduce the loss of biodiverse areas (Target 1) and human induced extinction to threatened species (Target 4).
Constanza Prieto Figelist, Latin America Legal Director at Earth Law Center, which provided input and expertise on the Rights of Nature during the legislative drafting process, commented: “This case demonstrates that under a Rights of Nature framework, governments must give stronger consideration to the health and intrinsic value of Nature when overseeing mining and other activities, elevating the interests of species and ecosystems to a higher status alongside human interests. The case also shows that the Rights of Nature can be an effective tool to protect the environment where traditional laws might fall short. We hope this will inspire other governments to give Nature a formal voice and rights in the legal system, as Panama did.”
Panama has become a world leader in the larger movement to recognize the Rights of Nature and was the third country to recognize the Rights of Nature on a national level. Globally, Rights of Nature is now recognized at some level of government in about 30 countries. For example, in 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to constitutionally recognize the Rights of Nature. Just this year, the rights of the Ocean or “Ocean Rights” was presented to the United Nations General Assembly, Spain recognized the Mar Menor saltwater lagoon as a legal entity with legal rights, and seven municipal and county governments in Washington State (USA) recognized the rights of the Southern Resident Orcas, an endangered species, in an important step toward protecting them and their habitat, the Salish Sea. Panama is expected to continue implementing the Rights of Nature in its legal system in the coming years.