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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

An Impressive Achievement: Nature has Constitutional Rights in This South American Country

Written by: Jasper Winkler

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the University of Auckland. With a world class offering in global affairs, Auckland collects and teaches expertise on key issues of the 21st century, including the environmental challenges facing our planet.

Ecuador: An Eco-Conscious Nation

A significant task for humanity in the 21st century is to recognize its dominant -and often detrimental- role in shaping the planetary environment. Ecuador is one of the most naturally diverse countries in the world. Its geographical location contributes to its richness of biodiversity, as the Amazonian region contains large tracts of intact and thriving natural ecosystems. Despite the immense coverage of forests, Ecuador has experienced one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Due to its biodiversity, Ecuador has implemented what could be seen as a ‘paradigm.” In 2008 the Constitution of Ecuador (Corte Constitucional del Ecuador) was the very first nation to include the rights of nature in a constitutional document. In chapter 7 , the Constitutional Court implemented an ecocentric approach that acknowledges nature’s integrity. Therefore, the natural cycle within Ecuadorian borders has legal rights, which means activities that threaten nature cannot be as easily carried out.

The Case of  the Yasuní National Park

Yasuní National Park lies deep within the Amazon and is home to many life forms, including humans. In 1989, the national park was declared a protected biosphere. Its cultural importance in Ecuador is tremendous as it is one of the most biodiverse areas on earth. Furthermore, the park is home to an Indigenous population that guards the nature preserve. At the same time, however, it is home to one of the country’s largest oil reserves. Because of its richness in natural resources, Yasuní National Park has been the focus of many foreign investors. In a US$148 million deal, the Ecuadorian petroleum company Petroamazonas EP granted permission for oil drilling to a  Chinese company, Chuanqing Drilling Engineering Company Limited. Ecuador has long lived with the dilemma of whether to preserve their unique environment, or allow natural exploitation in order to cover the country’s multi-million dollar fiscal deficit. Ecuador’s oil exploration and exploitation has long proposed socio-economic issues. For instance, the drilling area is home to the Tagaeri and Taromenane Indigenous peoples that have gone to great lengths to protect the environment that has been under immense stress. Because of the ‘rights of nature,’ a 2008 addition to the Ecuadorian Constitution, there was a historic ruling against the Yasuní oil drilling initiative. Despite the ongoing drilling, Indigenous communities that operate in the affected zone are still taking tremendous efforts to protect their natural treasure.

Can Nature have Rights?

An increasing international interest in environmental protection has resulted in several international agreements to address the global challenge of overcoming climate change and biodiversity loss. Ecuador is the first country to include the rights of nature (RoN) in its constitution. It was followed by South American countries like Colombia and  Bolivia in 2010. Affording nature the highest form of legal protection can help to regulate and maintain the richness of ecosystems and their evolutionary processes. The constitution presents RoN as a foundation for creating an innovative process of sustainable development. Implementing this regulation has also had a positive impact on a wider range of entities as it also includes not only nature, but all living species such as the rights of Indigenous communities. Granting nature rights and acknowledging its integrity has illustrated an ecocentric approach that perceives nature as a living entity rather than an object that can be exploited for human consumption.

Sumak Kawsay – the Good Way of Living

One of humanity’s obligations is to find a way to ensure that people around the world will be able to live a ‘good life.’” Over time, western societies have linked the idea of living a good life with the accumulation of material wealth that is extracted from natural resources. However, within the Amazonian region, many Indigenous cultures follow the concept of ‘Sumak Kawsay.” As many Indigenous cultures have different perspectives on what Sumak Kawsay means, the core element is that nature is perceived as the foundation of life. In Ecuador, the good way of living is also represented within their constitution. This means that all residents of Ecuador have the right to benefit from the environment, which will ultimately enable them to enjoy the good way of living. Therefore, this Indigenous-based concept is perceived as an alternative to western ideas of living as it emphasizes a reciprocal relationship with nature.

An Alternative Approach to Life

In light of economic and environmental challenges, there may be an alternative non-western ideology that can support sustainable development. In Ecuador, Indigenous peoples have an enormous impact on the implementation of RoN as it is deeply embedded within their tradition to harmonize with the environment. On a global level, Indigenous peoples have always lived an alternative lifestyle to the western conception of modernity. In this case, Indigenous recognition and their belief system are highly important for national, but also global sustainable development. Because the importance of environmental protection is increasing globally, Indigenous environmental conceptualisation challenges universalistic and hierarchical assumptions on how nature should be treated. For Indigenous peoples, the  human-nature relationship is reciprocal as it depicts an energy flow transaction that sustains both entities. As human actions have been crucial in the destruction of nature, alternative approaches to life can protect the environments we thrive in.

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