At Large

Nature as a Privileged Minority

Not only has Ecuador just voted to go the way of Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, it has also granted the environment juridical personhood.

By 10.1.08

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This past Sunday, Ecuadorans overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, the twentieth such document in that nation's history since 1830. But this constitution is markedly different from all the others, and its most notable feature is nothing less than giving nature the same rights as human beings. "Persons and people have the fundamental rights guaranteed in this Constitution and in the international human rights instruments. Nature is subject to those rights given by this Constitution and Law."

While this is the most notable feature, the entire document is full of socialistic doctrine. President Rafael Correa can now remain in office until 2017, dissolve Congress at will, and has taken over control of the country's monetary policy from the central bank. According to the Financial Times, he can also grab and redistribute idle farmland, appoint controlling majorities in the supreme, constitutional, and electoral courts and he has exclusive authority over the budget. Plus the document bans big landholdings, allows for popular referenda without the authorization of the congress, and raises mandatory spending on health, education, and social security.

The country's Catholic bishops vocally opposed the new document on three grounds -- that through the ambiguous language of "reproductive rights" it would allow for abortion, that it allows for same-sex civil unions to have the same status as marriage, and that it doesn't allow parents the freedom to choose the schooling they think best fits their own children's needs. That last objection translates into the constitution requiring children to attend state-run schools.

In other words, we are seeing the making of another Hugo Chavez-like Venezuela. Whether or not it will turn out to have similar militaristic overtones remains to be seen. So far, the overwhelming vote in favor of the document shows that Correa has a popular mandate, which will initially make it easy for him to implement changes. Those who were most outspokenly against him were the wealthy. According to some reports, indigenous tribes were willing to go along with the constitution, but they did so begrudgingly.

How long that popularity will last is unclear. The provisions making nature into a juridic person could be the constitution's economic undoing. There are five articles on nature in the document and the fourth one states:

The State will apply precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles.

The introduction of organisms and organic and inorganic material that can alter in a definitive way the national genetic patrimony is prohibited.


The application of this and other key provisions to Ecuador's largest export, oil, is going to have a major impact on the country's future. Oil revenues make up more than half of the Ecuador's export earnings and one-quarter of its public sector income. Drilling or exploring for oil in environmentally sensitive areas could become increasingly difficult with the constitutional provisions on nature in place. This is especially true since any Ecuadoran can now represent nature in any court of law in the country. And that's not going to help Ecuador's economy, which grew by only two percent last year, according to the Economist, and has a poverty rate of 38 percent.

ECUADOR'S GRANTING of juridic personhood to nature is unique in the world, but the country is not completely alone. Spain will be granting human rights to all 350 apes in its territory. Switzerland is telling farmers not to lop flowers off as they return from mowing their fields since those flowers have a right to exist as they are. The European Court of Human Rights will be hearing a case that could grant a chimpanzee the status of a person in Austria. And in an editorial watching amusedly as Ecuador begins its grand experiment, the Los Angeles Times reported that Australia, Italy, South Africa, and Nepal (which is also in the midst of writing a constitution) have all started looking at similar juridic person provisions.

While we in the U.S. might think it's only the crazy Europeans and backwater countries like Ecuador that are into this stuff, we shouldn't be so smug. Ecuador turned to a little-known public interest law firm called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Chambersburg, Pa., for advice on the nature's rights language of its constitution. The reason: CELDF has already convinced some small municipalities here to pass similar legislation. These towns have a clear purpose in mind, which is to keep large corporations out of their territories. They don't want factory farms being set up or corporations dumping chemical sludge on their fields or giant box-stores like Wal-Mart and Target coming into their towns.

However, CELDF has another purpose in mind -- the removal of the juridic person status given to U.S. corporations. This law incenses them and they blame it for the rise of big-box retailers and the disappearance of Mom and Pop shops all over the country. While that may or may not be an accurate reading of history, what is clear is that the law is an accurate law. For behind every corporation is a group of people who run that corporation. Behind nature is...what?

For monotheists, it's "an enormous gift from God to humanity," as Pope Benedict XVI recently said. For the people of CELDF, nature is an end in itself. Article 1 of the Rights of Nature section in the Ecuadoran constitution reads, "Nature or Pachamama, 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." Pachamama is the name of an Andean goddess that roughly translated means "Mother Nature." So much for Rafael Correa being what the press has termed "a devout Catholic."

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About the Author

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz is a freelance writer in Minnesota, and president and co-founder of Catholic Radio International.