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Panama is the latest nation to formally recognize the rights of nature. After a year of debate in the country’s National Assembly, President ​​Laurentino Cortizo signed the legislation that acknowledges Panama’s ecosystem as “a unique, indivisible and self-regulating community of living beings, elements and ecosystems interrelated to each other that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings.”

Congressman Juan Diego Vásquez Gutiérrez spoke to Inside Climate News and explained that this new law will effectively nurture the environment by giving organizations the legal power to enforce its rights. “For a country so rich in biodiversity like Panama, taking care of nature is a step in the right direction,” he said. “It will open up economic opportunities, like in Costa Rica, for tourism involving nature and for sustainable development.”

Panama’s rich biodiversity has been hanging by thread for some time. A 2019 study revealed that the country’s wildlife population is dwindling as a result of intensive farming and other forms of human development. The study, which focused on nine medium-to-large terrestrial mammals, discovered that the animals were forced to live in small patches of forest surrounded by crops, cattle ranches, and roads. “The habitat fragmentation prevents animal movement and gene flow between populations,” lead author Ninon Meyer told Scientific American, “which can be detrimental to their long-term survival.”

The legislation takes humanity’s destructive hand into account and obligates the government to respect the rights of nature in any programs or development schemes. Additionally, government bodies are legally required to develop policies and manufacturing processes that actively protect the country’s ecosystem.

One may wonder at the effectiveness of the law when looking at the countries that have already implemented legal means to protect nature. Back in 2008, Ecuador was the first country to grant nature constitutional rights. A decade after the enactment of the legislation, mining company ENAMI EP was permitted by the lower courts to mine 68% of Los Cerdos Protected Forest. A biodiversity hotspot, the Los Cerdos is home to endangered frogs, spectacled bears, rare plant species, and the brown-headed spider monkey. In a bid to prove the legislation was more than just a paper tiger, the case was presented to the higher courts, which only recently moved that the constitution must stand. Despite this victory for local wildlife and indigenous communities, mining giant Ecuador expects four major mining projects to start up by 2025.

While progress may on occasion lag under economic expansion, citizens and organizations in Panama have been given a tool with which they can take a powerful swing. The new legislation will take effect in 2023, and local experts are hoping it will inspire bigger things. “Nature knows no country boundaries,” marine Conservation biologist Callie Veelenturf told Grist. “We’re hoping that this new legislation will inspire other countries to take similar steps to propose rights of nature legislation.”

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