At last nature gets legal rights

Approximately two thirds of Ecuador’s population voted “yes” this Autumn in a historic, national referendum — a result that reflects the vast majority’s hopeful expectation of political change. By an overwhelming margin, the Ecuadorians backed their president, Rafael Correa, in voting for a new progressive constitution — the first in the world to grant Nature the same inalienable rights as human beings.

“I think that a lot of eyes will be on Ecuador,” said Mari Margil, associate director of the Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund — the law firm that worked with the members of Ecuador’s Assembly to draft the legal framework. “With this vote, they are leading the way for countries around the world to funda¬mentally change how we protect Nature.”

Officially, the new Magna Carta seeks to repair the country’s past inequities and injustices. According to Maria Fernanda Espinosa, Ecuador’s ambassador to the United Nations, it “aims to supersede the assumption that having more will enable better living”. Inspired by the indigenous Quichua concept, sumak kawsay — which translates as balanced living — this new constitution promotes being in harmony with oneself, society and nature.

Geographically, Ecuador abounds in unique habitats and precious ecosystems. The Amazon rainforest, the Andes and the Galapagos Islands are home to rare and irreplaceable flora and fauna: the jaguar, spectacled bear, land and marine iguana, golden-headed quetzal, umbrella bird, river otter, fur seal and thousands of species of orchids. The country is also culturally diverse and a quarter of the population are indigenous. Descendants of the Incas, Quichua, Otavalenos and Saraguros live primarily in the Andean highlands, while the tropical rainforest is the home of the Shuar, Huaorani and Achuar Indians. The new bill is a ground¬breaking step towards the protection of this natural wealth and cultural diversity.

Dr Mario Melo, a lawyer specialising in Environmental Law and an advisor to Fundacion Pachamama, explained that the new constitution redefines people’s relationship with Nature. It is not an ob¬ject to be appropriated and exploited but rather a rights-bearing entity that should be treated with parity under the law.

“In this sense, the constitution reflects the traditions of the indigenous peoples living in Ecuador, who see Nature as a mother and call her by her proper name, Pachamama,” Dr Mario Melo said.

This new bill for Nature’s “right to exist” offers an alternative paradigm. It clearly acknowledges that all life on Earth is interconnected. It must be protected and respected for the sake of all species — beliefs which have long been obvious to Ecuador’s indigenous peoples.
The constitution provides explicit legal protection for the environment. Says one section: “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has a right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions and its processes in evolution.”

It also decrees that the government must apply “precaution in all the activities that could lead to the extinction of any species, the destruction of ecosystems or cause the permanent alteration of natural cycles.”

Although the government is ultimately responsible for upholding the new laws, in Ecuador, every individual, organisa¬tion or community now has the power to represent Nature in the courts and halt any damaging activities.

Alberto Acosta, ex-president of the Ecuadorian Assembly, helped draft the new laws. He said: “If social justice was the axis of struggle in the 20th century, environmental justice is going to be the focus of conflicts for the 21st century.”

Alberto explained that western society has long viewed Nature and all its living species simply as objects of property or resources, available for exploitation, to be bought or sold. Any legal measures to protect the environment have, until now, concentrated only on regulating human behaviour, the amount of pollution and offer to forsake oil revenue for the sake of humanity,” Rafael Correa said, “but we need the international community to share the responsibility, by providing … some compensation in recognition of the environmental benefits we will generate for the entire planet.”

The new constitution of 444 articles has been created democratically. It in¬corporates proposals put together by the 70,000 citizens, who were present at the Assembly in Montecristi. Along with the rights for Nature, it also contains social reforms, aimed at improving the quality of life for the 38% of Ecuadorians who live below the poverty line.

New provisions guarantee collective rights to water and food, free education for all, increased spending on health, the availability of low-interest micro-loans, building materials for first-time home owners and free seeds for growing crops.

Ecuador’s extension of legal rights for Nature may also represent a wider shift in how humans view their place in the world. The Legal Defence Fund has been the extent of destruction. Ecuador’s new laws are a radical turnpoint because they champion sustainable development over economic growth.

“Throughout legal history,” stated Mr Acosta, “each extension of liberties — the abolition of slavery or the expansion of civil rights — has required a recognition of the `right to have rights’. It has taken a concerted political effort to change the laws which deny this vision.”

Looking ahead, some environmental organisations can foresee potential con¬flict between multinational corporations and the implementation of Nature’s new rights. Ecuador’s economy has depended largely on the extraction of timber, oil and minerals — industries which have contributed hugely to the degradation of the country’s environment.

President Correa has already proposed a ban on drilling in the Yasuni National Park. The Ecuadorian government has appealed to the international community to find innovative ways to recompense their country for the estimated 4.6 billion dollars income which will be lost. “We are fielding calls on the subject from Italy Australia, South Africa and Nepal — also in the throes of its first constitution.”

Some religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dalai Lama, have recently declared that caring for Nature is a spiritual duty, while the Catholic Church has incorporated: thou shalt not pollute the environment into its revised list of Seven Deadly Sins.

“We are still on time for our laws to recognise the right of a river to flow and to prohibit actions that will destabilise the Earth’s climate …” said Mr Acosta. “It is time to stop the mad commodification of Nature, as it was in previous years, time to prohibit the buying and selling of human beings.” — Positive News, Winter 2008