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Can We Save the Environment and Our Communities By Giving Nature Legal Rights?

From rural Pennsylvania to South America, a global alliance is promoting the idea that ecosystems have intrinsic rights.

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Bill Twist first heard about the rights of nature concept in 2007 after a colleague attended a CELDF Democracy School. Twist is the co-founder of the  Pachamama Alliance, a San Francisco-based  NGO that works to defend the Amazon rainforest and the Indigenous communities that live there. Twist’s partners in Ecuador had told him that the new president, Rafael Correa, was about to call a convention to rewrite Ecuador’s constitution. Twist immediately recognized an opportunity: Here was a chance to enshrine the rights of nature concept at the highest level of a nation’s government.

He called Thomas Linzey to propose the idea. The CELDF founder was hesitant, Twist says. He didn’t want to go on a wild goose chase. Linzey told Twist that finding some person of influence in Ecuador to champion the rights of nature would be essential for success.

The champion that Twist and his Ecuadorian partners found was an unlikely ally. Alberto Acosta had been picked to be Rafael Correa’s minister of energy and mines, a powerful position in a nation with significant oil and mineral resources. Acosta, a trained economist, was not known as an environmentalist. But he was popular: He had received the most votes in the election to seat the constitutional assembly, and was quickly chosen to be the convention’s president. And, most important, the rights of nature idea was not new to him.

“When we got to Alberto Acosta, he already had some documents about rights of nature, he was aware of the situation, so we didn’t need to start all over with him,” remembers Natalia Greene, a campaigner at the Quito-based  Fundación Pachamama. But even with Acosta’s support, members of the constitutional assembly were skeptical. “Many of the people in the assembly didn’t know much about the environment in general,” Greene says. “For them, to have a constitution that has a lot of environmental laws was enough.”

CELDF staff played a key role in overcoming the reluctance. Acosta invited Linzey and CELDF associate director Mari Margill to Quito to brief assembly members on the idea. The fact that some local governments in the US had already adopted rights of nature ordinances was especially persuasive. Greene says: “That gave them some grounds to say, ‘We aren’t the first country to do this, there is something done before us.’”

Support from Ecuador’s politically influential Indigenous community was also key. At first, Indigenous groups were leery of including the rights of nature language in the constitution. The whole idea seemed yet another example of industrial society’s arrogance. Nature already had rights, some Indigenous people felt; it wasn’t for humans to “grant” nature anything.

“It also sounded weird to the Indigenous people,” Twist says. “They weren’t in favor of it initially, either. But then they saw what it really was – a skillful way of addressing that we have a legal system that elevates property rights and ignores the existence of natural systems.”

In the draft text “natural systems” was exchanged for  Pacha Mama , a Quecha phrase meaning “Mother Earth.” A core element of the constitution now echoed the Indigenous cosmovision and that, Greene says, made it difficult for assembly members to oppose the provision. The final wording of Article 71, read: “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.”

In September 2008, two thirds of Ecuadorians voted to approve the new constitution in a national referendum. For the first time, a nation-state had made the health of ecosystems a core element of its governing laws.

 
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