The Rights of Nature

Posted by Matthew Liebman, ALDF Staff Attorney on October 3, 2008

While many in this country like to exalt with nationalist zeal­ how “a­dvanced” our systems of government are, the sad truth is we remain far behind the curve when it comes to enshrining the protection of nature and animals in our legal system.  In order to gain standing to sue in American courts, attorneys are forced to convert every assault against the Earth and its nonhuman inhabitants into an offense against human beings.  This anthropocentric narcissism prevents us from addressing the injuries suffered by the Earth and animals unless these injuries happen to impinge on the interests of some human being.  When we do succeed in getting standing to sue, it is premised on the aesthetic interests of the humans who view suffering animals or the tourists who enjoy recreating in wild places; the independent interests of the animals and the Earth count for nothing.  

Yet while our legal system languishes in this myopic speciesism, the people of Ecuador just last week approved a sweeping new constitution that makes that country the first in the world to give legally enforceable constitutional rights to nature.  The new consititutional provision states:

“Nature or Pachamama [an indigenous term for Mother Earth], where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution. Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognition of rights for nature before the public bodies.”

There are a few things that are especially remarkable about the Ecuadorian constitutional provision. 

First, it explicitly recognizes nature in terms of indigenous worldviews, using the term “Pachamama” as well as “nature.”  By invoking the indigenous term, the constitution acknowledges alternative conceptions of the Earth and our place in it.  Dr. Martin Melo, an environmental attorney, stated his belief that “the new constitution reflects the traditions of indigenous peoples living in Ecuador, who see nature as a mother and call her by a proper name, Pachamama,” in contrast to the purely instrumental worldview that dominates American environmental law.  

Second, the constitution not only recognizes the rights of nature, it also seems to provide a cause of action to enforce those rights, permitting “[e]very person, people, community or nationality . . . to demand the recognition of rights for nature before the public bodies.”  Animal law attorneys are acutely aware of the frequency with which our animal protection laws are violated, yet we are often unable to enforce those laws.  This provision seems to permit anyone to go into court to “demand” enforcement of nature’s constitutional rights.

Finally, it is very interesting to note that this provision was drafted with input from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a public interest law organization based in the U.S.  When it was founded in 1995, CELDF spearheaded a domestic initiative to encourage municipalities to grant rights to nature, and now it has gone international.  Several other countries have also reportedly contacted CELDF to ask for its assistance in drafting constitutional provisions for ecosystem rights.  This gives hope that other U.S. non-profits, including those in the animal law realm, can work with local and indigenous activists to encourage governments to recognize the rights of nonhumans.  (It should go without saying that these indigenous and local peoples must be recognized as the leaders of these reforms.)  

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be cynical.  Some critics have argued that the provision will be subservient to the will of Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who has favored extractive economic development and overridden some forms of indigenous control of the land base.  And like any legal provision, the devil is in the interpretive details and the degree of respect accorded to the constitution by those in power.  It remains to be seen how seriously the rights of nature will be taken by the Ecuadorian government.  After all, the rights provided by the U.S. Constitution have not thus far prevented the U.S. government from denying basic decency to the people in its control

Cyril Mychalejko’s article sums it up well: “Despite any shortcomings, the eyes of the world should stay on Ecuador . . . . If history is any indicator, Ecuadorians will fight for the Rights of Nature, with or without President Correa.”


One thought on “The Rights of Nature

  1. Recently in the news: Two police officers in OH shoot a perfectly healthy raccoon and leave it suffering, writhing in pain in a dumpster, ignoring a citizens pleas….3 teenagers beat on an opossum at a Texas camp, and her babies as they climb out of her pouch, in front of other children. They leave her still alive in a trash can with her dead babies…. In OH a woman bashes on a fawn’s head with her shovel… What if these were domestic animals?
    When will animal cruelty laws start applying to urban wild animals? It’s one thing to be allowed to legally kill them – it’s another to cause suffering to them.
    “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
    – Mohandas Gandhi
    I am pretty sure he meant ALL animals.

    Maybe I will move to Equador.

    Katherine McGill
    SunChaser Wildlife, Inc.