|The Nature of Rights|
|Tuesday, 02 November 2010 00:00 | Written by Jessica Keith | Article|
When Charles Darwin sailed to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands back in 1831, he could not possibly have known how the islands’ flora and fauna would influence our understanding of the natural world. Now, 178 years later, Ecuador is again the setting for a natural milestone.
In September 2008, by an overwhelming margin, Ecuadorans passed a new constitution that grants legal rights to nature and allows individuals to sue on nature’s behalf in courts. With this vote, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to change the legal status of nature from property to a right-bearing entity.
Written in cooperation with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, based in Pennsylvania, the new constitution states:
The Ecuadoran constitution also 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."
The support of Ecuadorans for the new constitution is rooted in their resentment of international companies that for decades have exploited the nation’s natural resources, including oil. In fact, the country currently is involved in a lawsuit with US-based Chevron Corp., which is accused of illegally dumping 19 million tons of oil into unlined pits, polluting groundwater and creating serious health problems for people living in the affected area.
Giving rights to nature may seem like a radical idea to those who hold a philosophical view that people are separate from—or even superior to—nature, but many believe that the idea of separateness is at the root of the kind of exploitation that has left the environment on the brink of ruin. In the eyes of the law, nature was always considered mere property, and property rights were deemed inferior to the rights of individuals, particularly the rights of individuals who owned the property. This has made protecting the Earth’s ecosystems a difficult task, which may be why—despite voluminous amounts of environmental legislation being enacted around the world—the health of the environment has continued to decline.
For Ecuador and its wildlife, however, it is now an entirely different situation. And although Ecuador most certainly will be under a world microscope as its new rules are implemented, it seems likely that this country—boasting Amazon jungle, mountain cloud forests and the Galapagos Islands—is at the vanguard of a paradigm shift that may inspire legal rights for nature in other countries. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will tilt the balance enough in favor of ecological protection to help reverse decades of environmental degradation. Let's hope so.
Updated 11/1/10; originally posted 4/23/09.