The Rights of Nature, or, Reflections on the Revolution in Ecuador
Last Sunday, voters in Ecuador enthusiastically approved a referendum designed to consolidate power under leftist president Rafael Correa, and to strategically shock the country’s flagging economy. With a recent history of economic meltdown, runaway inflation, and other equally dramatic financial crises, the populace was more than ready to welcome Correa’s plan, which passed with 70% popular approval. Under the new constitution, Correa will be able to easily intervene in the private sector (the government can now privatize farmland not considered “socially useful”) as well as the judiciary. Additionally, Correa will be able to run for two consecutive re-elections, a move that can potentially extend his presidency until 2017. But aside from social reforms and allegations of power grabbing, what has generated the most debate is a short section in the referendum entitled The Rights of Nature, a bill aimed to grant nature the kinds of inalienable rights ordinarily reserved for citizens.
In recent years, the only thing in Ecuador more blighted than the economy is the environment. According to mongabay.com, (a site more reliable than it’s name might suggest), Ecuador has the highest deforestation rate in South America — no small feat with competitors like Brazil — as well as the continent’s worst environmental record. Currently, the country is embroiled in a massive lawsuit against Chevron/Texaco, which has dumped billions of gallons of crude oil in Ecuador’s Western Amazon over the past 25 years, and which spilled 17 million gallons of oil into the country’s river systems in 1992. Since July, the case has escalated into the realm of international politics, with Chevron asking the Bush administration to cut off trade preferences to Ecuador, and anti-Chevron activists appealing to Barack Obama to push the issue through congress and ensure the country a fair trial.
So with this in mind, over the past year, Pennsylvania NGO The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) was invited to work with members of Ecuador’s constitutional assembly and draft The Rights of Nature, a legal document that environmentalists hope will mark a milestone in Ecuadorian and international law. Here’s the bill’s first article: “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.” By granting nature the right to its own “processes,” CELDF hopes to create safeguards against corrupt governments and foreign businesses, which currently operate free of checks. Obviously, as the first constitutional document to recognize nature as having rights, the RoN raises many interesting and thorny legal questions. At what point exactly does human development infringe on nature’s right to exist? How is nature defined, as a collection of living things or as a set of generative processes? Finally, can a piece of legislature this ambiguous deliver on its promise and stand up against the behemoth of neoliberalism?
At this point, things could go either way. With CELDF fielding calls from all around the world to help write environmental law into new constitutions (including Nepal’s), Ecuador may very well set off a trend of global legal environmentalism. On the other hand, if the RoN is invoked too often and too easily, it’ll probably be perceived as an obstacle to economic growth and pitted politically against the needs of citizens. Ultimately, if the RoN is to work, activists must frame the preservation of nature as a project with immediate and tangible benefits for Ecuadorians, making sure that environmentalism and economics don’t only share a common sense of failure, but also of urgency.
[Forthcoming on Opendemocracy.com]