Panama: Santa Maria River communities establish protected area

A group of around 20 people, with the President of Panama in the center of the picture, present the signed law at the entrance to the presidential palace The Alliance for the Defense of the Santa Maria River Basin together with the President of Panama, Laurentino Cortizo Cohen, at the entrance of the presidential palace (© Yoel Pérez) A jaguar looks toward the camera from a fallen tree trunk in the rainforest Jaguars (Panthera onca) are solitary animals that need territories of dozens to several hundred square kilometers. (©

Dec 2, 2022

For more than ten years, farmers, environmental activists and scientists had fought for a law that would protect the Santa Maria River basin in Panama. They are now celebrating a huge success.

On November 16, 2022, Law 339 was signed by President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen. It declares the 3,400 km² area of the Santa Maria River – nearly five percent of Panama’s land area – a National Natural Heritage and Hydrological Reserve.

The river, which rises in Santa Fé National Park, is thus protected from its sources to its mouth in the Pacific Ocean. A gold mine planned by the Greenfield Mining company, as well as the planned construction of hydroelectric power plants in the river, are thus finally off the table.

The Alliance for the Defense of the Santa María River Basin, which unites all those who have contributed to this great success, has reason to celebrate: “This is an Olympic success, a huge goal,” explains Olmedo Carrasquilla from our partner organization Colectivo Voces Ecológicas de Panamá.

The people of Panama fought tirelessly for this for more than ten years, with numerous meetings, protests, public relations campaigns and petitions to the authorities, to parliament and the government.

The conservation initiative has tremendous benefits, Olmedo explains. It originated in the communities that live in and depend on the river basin. It is therefore a model of local life in harmony with nature that can provide a template for other communities and parts of Panama.

It also strengthens human rights such as the right to life and the right to a healthy and intact environment. And it represents an alternative to consumerist economic models that focus on the exploitation of nature for the export of raw materials rather than on mitigating climate change.

For years, proposed conservation measures faced fierce opposition. But now, for the ceremonial signing of the protected area into law and for the photos at the entrance to the presidential palace, everyone wanted to share in the success.

A crucial move for adaptation to climate change

“The initiatives help mitigate the impact of climate change and maintain food security while protecting our peoples’ water sources and culture,” Olmedo explains.

The importance of protecting forests is highlighted by the severe flooding in several neighboring provinces in Panama. After the rivers burst their banks as a result of heavy rains, families lost their homes and crops and had to be relocated.

In a short video in Spanish by Voces Ecológicas de Panamá, Rainforest Rescue activist Guadalupe Rodríguez also expressed her satisfaction with the success.

Background to Law 339

Law 339, which was published in the digital Official Gazette No. 29667, aims to maintain, restore and enhance the condition of the major watersheds of the river system. Article 9 states:

Within the boundaries of the Protected Area of the Santa María River Basin, the following bans on activities incompatible with the objectives established in this Law are put in place: 1. Mining and construction of hydroelectric plants are prohibited, as well as any other initiative that poses a threat or obstacle to the integrity of the ecosystems of the Santa María River basin.

Further information in Spanish:

Hacia una justicia climática con derechos humanos en Panamá

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