Ecuador votes to grant rights to nature

“It sounds like a stunt by the San Francisco City Council.”, wrote the LA Times last week, but no, this weekend’s groundbreaking vote took place not in the progressive U.S. city (which happens to be home to 350.org), but in the small Andean country of Ecuador.

On Sunday, two thirds of Ecuador’s citizens voted to approve a new Constitution, which notably includes a set of unprecedented articles that guarantee ‘inalienable rights to nature’. The articles appear to be the first of their kind, and have sparked a global conversation amongst reporters and bloggers. Many are debating and doubting the long term political significance and ability to enforce the articles, in a country where the economy relies heavily on resource extraction. Yet few deny that the language of the new Constitution is something very powerful and novel in a world where most countries’s lawmakers have delineated nature as something to be owned and dominated, rather than honored and given rights similar to those enjoyed by humans.

The new constitution states that nature now has the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution” and mandates that the government take “precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles.” More specifically, the new articles will give citizens the right to sue on behalf of an ecosystem, even if not impacted themselves.

This has special significance when one considers the groundbreaking, multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit filed by the country of Ecuador against the U.S. oil company Chevron for allegedly dumping of billions of gallons of crude oil and toxic waste waters into the Amazonian jungle over two decades. The vote almost certainly has a basis in Ecuador’s widespread and growing discontent towards multinational companies who have made massive profits by taking their natural resources and leaving behind pollution. In the Chevron case, the company certainly hasn’t been apologetic in its dealings, despite overwhelming evidence of foul play: “The ultimate issue here is Ecuador has mistreated a U.S. company,” a Chevron lobbyist who asked not to be identified told Newsweek in July. “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like this-companies that have made big investments around the world.”

The addition of nature’s rights to the Constitution also reflect more deeply and historically held beliefs from the Andean worldview. As Dr. Mario Melo, a lawyer specializing in Environmental Law and Human Rights and an advisor to Fundación Pachamama-Ecuador noted, “the new constitution reflects the traditions of indigenous peoples living in Ecuador, who see nature as a mother and call her by a proper name, Pachamama.”

While President Correa strongly supported the provisions, and even threatened to quit if they were not included in the final Constitution, many Ecuadorean environmentalists fear that they will do little to change how business is carried out on the ground. Carlos Zorrilla, executive director of Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag, and other critics from social movements, point to Correa’s refusal to include in the constitution a clause mandating free, prior and informed consent by communities for any development project that would impact local ecosystems, as well as his track record of supporting an extractive economic development paradigm.

The long term outcomes are yet to be determined, but Ecuador’s decision already has set an important precedent in the history of environmental law. The country’s leadership on the issue just may spread to other countries, as the Defense Fund has already reported fielding calls from other countries (such as Nepal) about the new Constitution.

Sources:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/24/equador.conservation http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/29/ecuador-constitution-grants-nature-rights/?hp http://ecoworldly.com/2008/09/29/ecuador-1st-nation-in-world-to-give-nature-rights-via-constitution/ http://www.opednews.com/articles/2/Ecuador-s-Constitution-Giv-by-Cyril-Mychalejko-080925-102.html

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