March 9, 2015
by guest author Melissa Arias, F&ES ‘15
As part of a major restructuring of the country’s legal framework, in 2008 Ecuador adopted a new Constitution by means of a national referendum. The 2008 Constitution – the country’s 20th – had a special component that made it different from any other constitution worldwide: it was the first Constitution to grant essential rights to Nature. Under Article 71 of the 2008 Constitution, “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” Under this framework, Nature becomes a subject of rights and “any person will be able to demand the recognition of the rights of nature before public organisms.”
Seven years have passed since Ecuador adopted the 2008 Constitution and yet the actual implementation of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador continues to be widely debated. In an effort to clarify the current status of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP) invited Natalia Greene to its webinar series on “Democratizing Environmental Protection”, held on February 6th 2015.
Natalia Green is an Ecuadorian environmental leader who played a monumental role in the adoption of the Rights of Nature in Ecuador’s National Constitution. Along with a group of Ecuadorian environmental activists and representatives from the civil society, Natalia voiced the plea for legally recognizing the protection of nature. Her efforts were rewarded when the Ecuadorian Government accepted the request, as part of a larger movement towards progressivism as embodied in the theoretical framework of the “citizen’s revolution.”
Natalia began her webinar presentation by describing the reasons why Ecuador was the first country to declare the Rights of Nature on its Constitution. As Natalia indicated, one of the main explanationsis the country’s outstanding biodiversity. In terms of number of species of both fauna and flora per hectare, Ecuador is considered one of the most biodiverse countries worldwide. And yet, most of this biodiversity is severely threatened by the expansion of human presence in natural areas. More specifically, one of the major threats to the country’s biodiversity is the construction of roads that give access to oil and mineral reserves located in the heart of the country’s Amazon. In particular, Natalia referred to the case of Yasuní National Park and Biosphere Reserve, an area that became globally recognized for its biodiversity and for the debate that originated around the conflicting interests of conservation and oil extraction inside the protected area.
Later in her presentation, Natalia described what the Rights of Nature represent, as indicated by the Ecuadorian Constitution, and how they fit into the country’s “Wellbeing Development Model”. This Model, advocated by the Ecuadorian Government, includes Nature as a transversal component of its development apparatus. For example, the Model is meant to guide the country’s development away from its heavy reliance on fossil fuels and natural resources and towards an economy that flourishes on the basis of knowledge, cultural richness and biodiversity capital.
Subsequently, Natalia recognized some instances in which the Rights of Nature were respected in Ecuador, even prior to the 2008 Constitution. Examples include the Galapagos Vilcabamba road case and the shark finning prohibition in the Galapagos Islands. However, Natalia expressed a deep concern for the cases where the Rights of Nature have been violated in the country, questioning the legitimacy and abiding power of the 2008 Constitution. The lack of protection of the Tangabana highlands in the province of Chimborazo, an ecosystem of great importance for water and carbon capture, became the first case of a lost demand for the Rights of Nature.
Another case is the open-pit mining project in El Condor Mirador, an area with many endemic specie. In this instance local communities pointed to the project’s environmental impact assessment, which confirmed the project’s contamination would cause extinction of at least three endemic amphibian species and one reptile species. Despite this risk, the project proceeded. This represented a direct violation to Article 73 in the Constitution, which asserts that “the State will apply precaution and restriction measures in all activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems or the permanent alteration of natural cycles”. Moreover, Natalia included the decision to exploit Yasuní National Park as another example of the Government’s flexible interpretation of the Constitution.
Natalia’s presentation concluded with a reflection on how the Rights of Nature constitute an opportunity to change the paradigm and to rethink humanity’s development in harmony with Nature. The presentation was followed by questions from the webinar attendees, which centered around the speaker’s vision for the future of the Rights of Nature, the role that international courts can play, the results of actions by civil society groups in Yasuní and the characterization of the voluntarily isolated indigenous communities that live in the area. In answering these questions, Natalia showed her broad experience in the topic and her unique insights as someone who has committed her career to promoting environmental justice.
Ecuador’s adoption of the Rights of Nature in the National Constitution was a revolutionary move that embodies the country’s political transformation over the past decade. As shown by Natalia’s presentation, the implementation of the country’s new legal framework, including the Rights of Nature, is far from perfect and there is still much to be done to achieve a full recognition of the intrinsic value of Nature. However, as Natalia recognized, this bold move has opened up a space for a different discussion about the environment and conservation that was previously inexistent.
Moving forward, the challenge will be for Ecuador to continue on its path towards human wellbeing by truly acting in accordance to its new constitutional principles. Sincere commitment to protect Nature’s right to persist and to be maintained should not be conditional to capricious human needs and desires. Otherwise the concept of granting essential rights to Nature should be reconsidered in terms of the real capacity and willingness of the State to respect them. Ecuador has an opportunity to become a global example of development in the right direction, one that truly “loves life,” as the country’s slogan claims. Will it take it?
You can watch a full video of the webinar here.