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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, whose world-class teaching and research output helped develop this article.

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 by 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 new paradigm: In 2008, Ecuador was the very first nation in the world 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. This had enormous legal consequences as the natural cycle within Ecuadorian borders was endowed 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 a myriad of life forms, only one of them being 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. Owing to its richness in natural resources, Yasuní National Park has been the focus of countless enquiries by foreign investors. In a US$148 million deal, the Ecuadorian petroleum company Petroamazonas EP granted permission for oil drilling to the 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 been causing socio-economic tensions. 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 enshrined in the Ecuadorian Constitution, there was a historic ruling against the realization of the Yasuní oil drilling initiative. 

Can Nature have Rights?

An increasing international interest in environmental protection has resulted in several international agreements to address the global challenge of slowing climate change and reversing biodiversity losses. 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 had had a positive impact on a wider range of entities as it also included not only nature, but also the rights of Indigenous communities. Granting nature rights and acknowledging its integrity perceives the ecosystem as a living entity, rather than an object that can be exploited for human consumption.

Sumak Kawsay – the Good Way of Living

In the Amazonian region, many Indigenous cultures follow the concept of ‘Sumak Kawsay’. Different Indigenous groups have different views on what Sumak Kawsay means, but the core element is that nature is perceived as the foundation of life. It therefore ought to be protected in order to protect (human) life itself. With the 2008 implementation of this concept into Ecuador’s constitution, all residents of the country have the right to benefit from the environment. Therefore, this Indigenous-based concept is perceived as an alternative to ‘Western’ ideas of living as it emphasizes a reciprocal relationship with nature, not its objectification. In many industrialized societies, the idea of a good and fulfilling life is inextricably linked to the accumulation of material wealth, which is ultimately based on the extraction of natural resources. The Chapter 7 provision in the constitution therefore also marked a sea change in the nation’s self-image and its understanding of a fulfilling life and development path.

An Alternative Approach to Life

In light of economic and environmental challenges globally, the case of Ecuador shows an alternative, non-Western development path that can support sustainable life on Earth as well as human prosperity. In Ecuador, Indigenous peoples had an enormous impact on the implementation of RoN as it is deeply embedded in their tradition to harmonize with the environment. On a global level, Indigenous peoples have always lived an alternative lifestyle to the conception of modernity practiced in industrialized societies. As the importance of environmental protection is increasing globally, Indigenous environmental conceptualizations may add value to a debate that is increasingly prominent amongst policymakers, academia, and civil society around the world on what constitutes sustainable, inclusive development. 

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