Save for land in Antarctica, the terrestrial earth is entirely owned: Considered property, it has no rights of its own. For centuries humans have capitalized on this point of view, using and abusing nature—that is, natural resources—as they’ve seen fit.
This proprietary outlook might soon be displaced, and not a day too soon, given its complicity in our present environmental quagmire. In September 2008, the citizens of Ecuador approved the world’s first constitution to extend inalienable rights to nature. In the South American country, “Nature, or Pachamama . . . [now] has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”
Ecuador’s policy makers received assistance structuring the groundbreaking eco-provisions from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a U.S.-based nonprofit that’s helped municipalities in several U.S. states enact similar “right of nature” laws. The concept is simple but inspired: Give nature rights, so that people can defend them—instead of going after eco-violators for bureaucratic infractions.
Most contemporary law treats nature as property and favors the proprietor, merely limiting the destruction of nature, rather than prohibiting it for nature’s own sake. “Environmentalists are seldom seen as activists fighting to uphold fundamental rights, but rather as criminals who infringe upon the property rights of others,” environmental attorney Cormac Cullinan writes in Orion (Jan.-Feb. 2008).
As for how to uphold Pachamama’s new rights, it’s too early to say. “This is uncharted territory,” CELDF associate director Mari Margil says. “It takes generations to figure out how to interpret and implement [a] constitution to secure the rights of the people and entities it is meant to protect.”
Ecuador has only just begun that interpretive process. In January, reports In These Times (March 2009), the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador and regional campesino movements tested the possibilities, invoking the constitution in an attempt to block expanded foreign mining.
A government that exists to protect the whole biological community would need to “prohibit humans from driving other species to extinction or deliberately destroying the function of major ecosystems,” according to Orion’s Cullinan. One strategy is to appoint legal guardians to nature—the same way adults represent infants.
Adopting Ecuador’s constitutional approach in many countries would require nothing short of “a fundamental change in both the legal and cultural atmosphere,” Margil says. The prevailing view that nature is property is deeply rooted in the Abrahamic tradition of monotheistic faiths, which include Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. This tradition shaped an understanding of nature as a divine gift to be dominated for the benefit of humankind. This is not, however, the only way to conceptualize the natural world.
Many indigenous cultures take a more eco-spiritual approach, positing nature as sacrosanct and viewing humans as members of a balanced, natural system. It’s no fluke, notes Earth Island Journal (Winter 2009), that the Andean earth goddess Pachamama, or Mother Universe, figures into the new constitution. The indigenous concept of sumak kawsay, or harmonious/humane living, also appears. With 40 percent of its population indigenous, Ecuador was almost certainly predisposed to becoming an early adopter of nature’s rights on a constitutional scale.
Regardless of the cultural hurdles, the time is now to heed Ecuador’s precedent. One month after the new constitution passed, reports the Ecologist (Dec. 2008), environmental activist Polly Higgins spoke at the United Nations (U.K.) Climate Change Conference in Belfast about the urgent need for a universal declaration of planetary rights. The current system, she argued, allows for abhorrent, absurd crimes against nature. A simple example: In the past five years, Londoners felled 16,000 trees for fear of insurance claims. A report commissioned by the London Assembly concluded that only 1 percent of the removals were justified—yet there’s no legal recourse.
Fortunately, people around the world are starting to realize that their environmental laws are not working to protect them, nor the fragile ecosystems in which they live. The CELDF has its eye on Nepal as the country drafts its new constitution, reports the Multinational Monitor (Nov.-Dec. 2008), and Margil confirms that the organization is in preliminary conversations with nongovernmental leaders. The group also plans to continue working at the local level, where, Margil says, there’s strong support for challenging the body of law. Living on the front lines of environmental collapse inspires readiness for change.
If an international paradigm shift sounds like a tall order, consider that only a few years ago, Ecuador “seemed an unlikely nation to become the birthplace of Earth’s first green constitution,” Earth Island Journal remarks. Once home to millions of acres of untouched Amazon rainforests, Ecuador endured a tragic, 30-year rape of the land by oil giant Texaco. Water sources were polluted, ecosystems destroyed. Cancer rates in entire communities skyrocketed. Now equipped with an innovative means to prevent future calamities, Ecuadorans have the opportunity to revolutionize the way we protect the earth that sustains us.