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Ecology in Ecuador

The country will ask voters to decide whether its constitution should grant rights to nature.

September 02, 2008

This month, Ecuador will hold the world's first constitutional referendum in which voters will decide, among many other reforms, whether to endow nature with certain unalienable rights. Not only would the new constitution give nature the right to "exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution," but if it is approved, communities, elected officials and even individuals would have legal standing to defend the rights of nature.

It sounds like a stunt by the San Francisco City Council. But Ecuador is engaged in nothing less than an effort to redefine the relationship between human beings and the natural world. And as crazy as it may seem, the movement to give nature legal rights didn't start in Ecuador's Amazon forest or its Galapagos Islands -- it started years ago in the United States, in cities and towns seeking to fight off coal mines, incinerators and factory farms. Aided by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Pennsylvania, about a dozen municipalities have abandoned the old-fashioned way of halting development -- through the appeals process -- and are placing outright bans on environmentally disruptive activities.

For example, in Pennsylvania, Southampton prohibits corporate ownership of farms, and Wayne passed an ordinance that gives the town the power to keep out corporations with criminal histories. The Defense Fund gets much of the credit (or the blame) for these decidedly anti-business, grass-roots efforts. It even offers ready-made ordinances to protect ecosystems. Ecuadorean officials called the group when they were crafting the new constitution, and now it's fielding calls from Australia, Italy, South Africa and Nepal, which is writing its first constitution.

No other country has gone as far as Ecuador in proposing to give trees their day in court, but it certainly is not alone in its recalibration of natural rights. Religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Constantinople, have declared that caring for the environment is a spiritual duty. And earlier this year, the Catholic Church updated its list of deadly sins to include polluting the environment.

Ecuador is codifying this shift in sensibility. In some ways, this makes sense for a country whose cultural identity is almost indistinguishable from its regional geography -- the Galapagos, the Amazon, the Sierra. How this new area of constitutional law will work, however, is another question. We aren't ready to endorse such a step at home, or even abroad. But it's intriguing. We'll be watching Ecuador's example.

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