The Emancipated Earth
Ecuador’s constitution grants rights to nature. It’s time for the world to follow suit.
image by DEA / G. COZZI
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.