Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela signed an environmental bill earlier this month, protecting an 85,000-hectare area of wetlands outside the capital, Panama City.
The bill bans construction, logging, dredging, and any activity that could threaten the protected stretch along the country’s Pacific coast. In 2003, the area known as the Panama Bay Wetland Wildlife Refuge, was declared a site of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for wetland conservation.
During the past decade, construction in and around Panama City boomed, but the fast pace of development left little concern for environmental protections. Critics were quick to blame the lack of protections on billionaire and then-President Ricardo Martinelli, claiming that he encouraged unrestrained growth by lowering fines for cutting down mangrove trees.
From 1969 to 2007, 55% of Panama’s mangrove forests were lost, according to UN data.
Varela, having won office in last year’s election, has made environmental sustainability a key part of his agenda. A multimillion-dollar water treatment and cleaning project, along with proposed recycling plants are other environmental initiatives the president has mentioned.
The Bay of Panama area is home to a variety of wildlife, including anteaters, tapirs, and loggerhead turtles. About a million shorebirds migrate to Panama each year.
The recent law reinforces and expands environmental protections in the Bay of Panama. In 2014, Panama’s Supreme Court confirmed that the Panama Bay wetlands were legally protected areas after a lower court lifted the protected-area status in 2013.