In Ecuador, Nature now has rights

Posted: 19 January 2009

Author: Gar Smith

After many years of environmental destruction especially due to oil extracting activities, Ecuador has approved a new constitution that is the first in the world to extends "inalienable rights to nature."

On September 29, 2008, the Associated Press (AP) reported that Ecuador's new constitution would "significantly expand leftist President Rafael Correa's powers." It wasn't until the end of a 15-paragraph article that the AP mentioned the new constitution - approved by 65 per cent of voters - "guarantees free education through university and social security benefits for stay-at-home mothers." Also missing from the AP's report: any mention that Ecuador's voters had just ratified the world's first "eco-constitution," a pioneering document that, for the first time in human history, extends "inalienable rights to nature."

Not too long ago, Ecuador would have seemed an unlikely nation to become the birthplace of Earth's first green constitution. To service its massive debt to US creditors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund forced Ecuador to open its Amazon forests to foreign oil companies. Nearly 30 years of drilling enriched ChevronTexaco, desecrated the northern Amazon, and utterly failed to improve the lives of millions of poor Ecuadoreans.

Amazon Watch estimates that Texaco damaged 2.5 million acres of rainforest, left the landscape pitted with 600 toxic waste pits, and polluted the rivers and streams that some 30,000 people rely on. Cancer rates in the area where Texaco operated are 130 per cent of the national norm, and childhood leukemia occurs at a rate four times higher than in other parts of Ecuador.In 1990, the Siona, Secoya, Achuar, Huaorani, and other indigenous forest-dwellers won title to three million acres of traditional forestland, but the government retained rights to the minerals and oil. In November 1993, indigenous communities filed a $1 billion environmental lawsuit against Texaco, and subsequently demanded a 15-year moratorium on drilling, environmental reparations, corporate indemnification, and a share of oil profits.

First step

Live Yasuni
Live Yasuni
"Live Yasuni" spelt out by 100 people in the heart of this National Park, in support of a plan by the Ecuadorian Government to keep that nation's largest oil reserves in the ground forever, saving Yasuni and millions of tons in carbon emissions. Photo © Lou Dematteis/Spectral Q
In 1997, when Ecuador's pro-US government announced plans to rev up oil exploitation by a third, all eyes turned to the Yasuni rainforest, home to the country's largest oil reserve - estimated at 1 billion barrels. The Yasuni is also home to rare jaguars, endangered white-bellied spider monkeys, spectacled bears, and indigenous tribes protected by international treaty.

In 2007, the new government of President Rafael Correa announced plans to halt oil exploration in the Yasuni, an action Amazon Watch called "a giant first step toward breaking Ecuador's dependence on oil." Correa's proposal marked a shift to making renewable energy the new path for Ecuador's economic future. The language in the new constitution takes the new policy several steps further.

Ecuador's radical new constitution features a chapter on the "Rights for Nature" that begins by invoking the indigenous concept of sumak kawsay (good living) and the Andean Earth Goddess: "Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution." The constitution contains a Nature's Bill of Rights that includes "the right to an integral restoration" and the right to be free from "exploitation" and "harmful environmental consequences."

Surprisingly, there is a US connection to this story. The Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), along with the San Francisco-based Pachamama Alliance, spent a year working with Ecuador's 130-member Constituent Assembly to craft the language that installed ecosystem rights in the heart of the new constitution.

"Today's environmental laws are failing," CELDF observes in a section on its Web site. "By almost every measure, the environment today is in worse shape than when the major US environmental laws were adopted over 30 years ago."

Gaining momentum

CELDF notes that US regulations "treat nature as property under law. These laws legalise environmental harm by regulating how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur." They don't forbid pollution, they merely "codify it." By contrast, Right of Nature laws challenge property law by "eliminating the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems that exist and depend upon that property for their existence and flourishing."

The idea is gaining momentum. Municipalities in Pennsylvania, California, New Hampshire, and Virginia have adopted Right to Nature laws in recent years.

Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange notes "slaves were once also considered property under the law" until Americans understood "we needed to write new laws in order to change ... the cultural climate."With parrot-flecked jungles containing more than 300 different tree species per hectare, cloud forests of amazing biodiversity, and a border that extends to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador is the perfect spot for the world's first eco-constitution. Ecuador has swung a hammer against the chains designed to keep nature in thrall to commerce. It's time for other nations to pick up the same hammer.

Source: Third World Network Features.

Gar Smith is the editor Earth Island Institute's "eco-zine" The-Edge. This article first appeared in Earth Island Journal, Winter 2009.