Constructing the Rights of Nature:
Constitutional Reform, Mobilization, and
Environmental Protection in Ecuador
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to grant legal rights to nature. In this
article, I examine how this happened. I show that while proponents of nature’s rights
acted during a key political moment, their efforts were successful due to the presence of
environmentalist social movements that elevated the environmental agenda at the
national level during prior decades, and due to the power of indigenous organizations and
their call to recognize Ecuador as a “plurinational” polity, demanding respect for
indigenous territories and ways of life and incorporating politicized versions of indigenous
beliefs about the environment. The study considers the consequences of mobilization for
legal innovation and institutional change, and shows the complexity of struggles over the
environment in the global South. It is based on research at the Ecuadorian National
Legislative Assembly archive, semistructured interviews with respondents involved in the
politics of nature and the constitutional assembly, and secondary historical sources.
How do our ideas about the natural environment shape how we protect the
environment in law? Many cultural understandings of nature exist—as William
Cronon argued, even wilderness can be viewed as the “creation of very particular
human cultures at very particular moments in human history” (1996, 69). In the
case of environmental protections in the contemporary United States, for example,
we see instances in which the environment is treated as a public good, as an entity
composed of natural resources that need to be scientifically studied and managed,
or as a commodity. So how do alternative views of the environment make their
way into legal codes and institutions?
Since the origins of the field, law and society scholars have extensively studied
the various dimensions of how law and society shape one another. If law is a cultur-
ally and structurally embedded social institution (Sarat and Kearns 1993; Edelman,
Leachman, and McAdam 2010), then understanding the production of environmen-
tal laws and the views of the environment that are written into them calls for
Maria Akchurin is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Chicago. She may be
contacted at email@example.com. Earlier versions of the article benefited from feedback from Elisabeth
Clemens, Andrew Abbott, Cheol-Sung Lee, Ben Merriman, Thea Riofrancos, and participants at the
conferences of the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Study of Social Problems
in 2011. She also thanks Stalin Herrera and her respondents in Ecuador, without whom this project
would not have been possible. Field research was approved by the IRB and supported by a Tinker Field
Research Grant from the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.
C2015 American Bar Foundation 937
Law & Social Inquiry
Volume 40, Issue 4, 937–968, Fall 2015
investigating the social structures and cultural materials with which they are cre-
ated. Legal systems are resistant to change, and change in established legal institu-
tions is notoriously gradual (Mahoney and Thelen 2009), shifting slowly and
unevenly along with the changing values of the social worlds around them. At the
same time, the law is continually subject not only to the work of lawmakers and
forces of endogenous change, but also to pressures from social movement organiza-
tions, interest groups, political parties, and other actors that aim to shape public
policy (Laumann and Knoke 1987; McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996; McCann
1998; Burstein and Linton 2002). At moments when such actors can impact the
law, the content of the reforms is fluid and malleable until it becomes imprinted in
law-on-the-books and in institutions. What do such processes of legal construction
and innovation look like when they are in motion, and how do ideas that are in a
sense “out there” in the social world and exogenous to established laws come to
permeate and shape legal concepts? Specifically, how do social movement organiza-
tions mediate how particular ideas become incorporated into legal frameworks, and
to what extent is the salience of such ideas affected by political dynamics at a given
historical moment and the organizational conditions under which law is made?
In this article, I reflect on these questions through one story: the case study of
a particularly unusual constitutional reform in which the Republic of Ecuador
became the first country to extend legal rights to nature itself. The new constitu-
tional language affirmed nature’s intrinsic right to exist, to maintain and regenerate
its vital cycles, and to be restored if damaged, as well as establishing the right of
individuals and communities to bring cases on behalf of nature to public authorities.
By adding nature’s rights alongside human rights and emphasizing Ecuadorian soci-
ety’s location in a broader ecosystem at the highest legal and symbolic levels, the
provision represented a radical move to expand the boundaries of the ethical com-
munity to which the constitution applies.
There were many potential obstacles to introducing the reform. For one, the
idea ran counter to traditional understandings of rights-bearing subjects in the
Western legal tradition and existing characterizations of the environment in consti-
tutional law. Both the new provision and the alternative vision of development
associated with it also fit uneasily with the country’s economic development model
and practices, which have been dominated historically by primary exports and a
reliance on extractive industries such as petroleum. Since the rise of environmental-
ist mobilization in the country, activists had developed multiple ways of conceptual-
izing environmental problems and solutions, but the rights of nature was neither
the most dominant concept nor the most widely accepted one as the constitutional
assembly convened to draft the new text and many social movements competed to
introduce their concerns into the constitution. There was also no indication that
slow processes of endogenous change in the Ecuadorian legal framework were
unfolding in the direction of recognizing nature’s rights. Nevertheless, proponents
of the idea created a new category of rights, enabling the rights of nature to be rec-
ognized at the constitutional level, and generated new legal frames and resources
allowing individuals and organizations to demand not only state responsibility to
address environmental problems, but also a revision of fundamental principles regu-
lating the relationship between society and nature. How?
938 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
The main proponents of the concept were a group of internationally connected
environmentalist lawyers and activists who worked to develop and promote the
rights of nature, which emerged from a period of internal questioning within the
group and developed into a full-scale constitutional proposal. Their work involved
strategic collective action that allowed them to take advantage of an important
political juncture in Ecuador, yet it is unlikely that their efforts would have suc-
ceeded without two historical developments: first, the presence of environmentalist
social movements that had done the groundwork of elevating the environmental
agenda at the national level during prior decades, and second, the power of indige-
nous organizations and their call to recognize Ecuador as a “plurinational” polity, a
form of multiculturalism that, along with demanding respect for indigenous territo-
ries and ways of life, incorporates politicized versions of indigenous beliefs about
The case enables us to see how a new legal category and a new form of legal
fiction were constructed, as a set of individuals and organizations in the legal set-
ting of the constitutional assembly mobilized cultural and ideational content, bol-
stering their arguments by bridging the rights of nature—from the perspective of
many groups an otherwise rather novel and esoteric claim—with the demands made
by environmentalist and indigenous organizations. By showing the contested and
occasionally uncertain process through which the rights category was created, the
case also underscores the extent to which cultural assumptions influence legal insti-
tutions and shows the challenges of incorporating diverse beliefs about human rela-
tionships with the natural environment into law.
This story is not simply about introducing an alternative view of the envi-
ronment into a legal framework. The case represents an instance in which
indigenous politics influenced nonindigenous systems of state authority. Though
indigenous movements did not actively pursue the constitutional rights of
nature, their political presence and the recognition of the cosmologies of indig-
enous groups provided a conceptual opening, permitting assembly participants
to think differently about environment-society relations and to consider the
creation of a new set of rights. Consequently, an idea placing the intrinsic
worth of nature and its elements alongside that of human beings, and muting
the separation between nature and society by emphasizing the interconnected-
ness between natural ecosystems and social worlds, became part of a bureau-
cratic rational-legal system. Ecocentric ideas had been present in other
contexts, such as in the United States in the 1970s, but they were never trans-
formed into radical legal reforms.
The historical developments of the environmentalist and indigenous move-
ments in Ecuador are what created the political and cultural conditions for the
reform to happen. Yet as I discuss in the conclusion, while the reform provides new
symbolic power and legal resources for environmentalist and indigenous mobiliza-
tion, it continues to be at odds with the practices of the Ecuadorian state and the
country’s reliance on extractive industries, raising questions about how it will affect
future political battles, economic development models, and the use of natural
resources. How the legal recognition of nature’s rights will be translated into con-
crete consequences remains to be seen.
939Constructing the Rights of Nature
The article is based on archival data, including transcripts and committee
reports from the constitutional assembly archives housed at the National Legislative
Assembly in Quito, Ecuador; other government documents and materials generated
by social movement organizations during the assembly process; media sources; and
secondary literature. The documentary research component is complemented by
interviews with key respondents who participated in introducing the rights of nature
into the constitution, social movement leaders, government officials, and
INTRODUCING NOVEL IDEAS INTO EXISTING INSTITUTIONS:
NATURE, MOBILIZATION, AND LEGAL REFORM
The natural environment is ubiquitous and in various social spheres and sys-
tems of knowledge, we find different ways to make sense of nature-society rela-
tionships. Biology and environmental science measure and observe nature to study
how it works, for instance, while conventional economics takes its elements and
treats them as natural resources that are inputs into production, conceptualizing
consequences for the environment as externalities. Where analytical categories
fail, literature personifies the forces of nature and expresses their poetry. In the
legal sphere, lawmakers articulate and codify the ethical relationship between
society and the environment that societies aim to uphold, from big ideas and
norms at higher levels in the legal hierarchy down to detailed rules and
Older references to the environment in Western legal codes often referred to
specific matters related to water, land, and public health, and mentioned nature
in a broader sense in terms of its utility and as a source of national wealth. Since
the rise of the global environmental movement and the development of modern
environmental law, laws have proliferated regulating the effects of human activ-
ities on the environment and protecting common pool resources and the rights of
people to live in an environment that allows for their health and well-being
(Hays and Hays 1987). With respect to nonhuman beings, some countries, such as
India and Germany, have animal protection clauses in their constitutions and, in
some cases, regulations protect particular species—for example, endangered species
in the United States. Against this backdrop, the emergence of an intellectual
movement around ecocentric environmental ethics and the rights of nature (Leo-
pold  1981; Devall and Sessions 1985; Nash 1989), and the attempts by
legal scholars and practitioners to incorporate such ethical ideas into legal
thought and jurisprudence (Stone  2010; Favre 1979) have provoked impor-
tant debates but generally remained on the fringes. In the social sciences, scholars
such as Viveiros de Castro (1992, 2004) and Descola (2013) based on their ethno-
graphic work in the Amazon with the Arawet!e and Achuar groups, respectively,
have argued for taking elements of indigenous cosmology as a starting point for
reorienting anthropological theory about nature/society relations. Viveiros de Cas-
tro, for instance, argues for multinaturalist perspectivism based on the notion of
940 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
different natures in Amazonian cosmology that incorporate both humans and non-
Whereas these lines of thought emphasize society’s interdependence
with other members and parts of the environmental community, Western legal
philosophy and the environmental protections associated with it have tended to
continue, on the whole, to place humans at the center of why the environment
ought to be protected.
One important way via which big shifts in ideas about nature-society relation-
ships make it into legal code is through the interaction between lawmakers and
organizations that pressure them to incorporate particular norms into legal institu-
tional frameworks, supporting demands for such modifications by referring to partic-
ular problems that need to be solved (say, air or water pollution), presenting new
scientific knowledge that calls for a reevaluation of existing norms (e.g., about cli-
mate change), claiming to represent the views and interests of larger social sectors
(as in the case of environmental justice groups), or aiming to represent larger-scale
transformations of social values, thereby drawing on various sources of power and
legitimacy for their ideas and claims. Given the character of environmental policy,
often such organizations combine networks of professionals and experts with broader
social mobilization to attain their goals.
A number of studies have shown how organizations mobilize to influence the
law and the kinds of resources and arguments they use to make their demands, for
instance, as in the case of legal mobilization around environmental and social poli-
cies (Handler 1978) and women’s rights (McCann 1994). Other studies have dem-
onstrated how conservative organizations also have influence over legal and policy
outcomes, including when it comes to the environment (Hays and Hays 1987).
Some studies have considered specifically how rights- and justice-based discourse
are used by social organizations in support of movement goals and claims (Capek
1993; Polletta 2000; Pedriana 2004), including by more radical groups that tend to
view legal mobilization as a conservative strategy (Wall 1999). Meanwhile, sociole-
gal scholars have explored the role of activist lawyers who support particular causes
(Sarat and Scheingold 2001).
This study builds on this work by showing how internationally connected cause
lawyers, public intellectuals, and activists promoted a particular idea about protect-
ing the environment in Ecuador, and by doing so were able to introduce an idea
from philosophical and ethical writings into law. The idea related not only to the
work of thinkers promoting environmental ethics and especially more ecocentric
thinkers in the Western legal tradition, but also fundamentally connected with key
dimensions of indigenous beliefs, rituals, and values related to environment and the
land shared by Ecuadorian highland and Amazonian indigenous groups. In this
sense, the story complicates arguments made by world culture scholars such as John
Meyer and his colleagues (Meyer et al. 1997a, 1997b), according to whom norms
diffuse through the world polity, with relatively isomorphic processes supported by
1. See also Kohn’s (2013) work on this ontological turn, based on an ethnographic study with a Runa
community in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, in which he describes how people communicate and relate their
experiences with various kinds of beings in everyday life. Science and technology studies have also sought to
create an analytical framework that includes both humans and nonhumans; in this sense, the rights of nature
connect with work on materiality by scholars such as Bruno Latour (1993).
941Constructing the Rights of Nature
experts resulting in similar policies across diverse contexts. Here, international
norms favoring environmental protection were certainly present, but had little con-
sequence relative to local understandings of nature and national political dynamics.
Given the multiplicity of ideas and cultural schemas about nature-society rela-
tionships (Dryzek 2005)—from ecomanagerialism to sustainable development to
environmental justice—when an idea is relatively marginal relative to established
institutions, its proponents face the double task of mobilizing their structural posi-
tions in the organizational communities relevant to the legal setting at hand to
push the idea forward and developing the idea and connecting it to other cultural
schemas in a way that will make it resonate and gain political support (Sewell
1992; Fligstein 2001; Skrentny 2002). Analyzing the interplay between these histor-
ical, structural, and cultural dimensions helps us better understand the social proc-
esses that lead to diverse normative beliefs becoming codified as law.
THE CASE STUDY
Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution lists four articles describing the rights of nature.
According to these articles, nature or the Pachamama has the “right to exist and to
maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions, and evolutionary proc-
esses.” Nature also holds the “right to be restored” in case of environmental destruc-
tion, independently of the damages owed to people who may have been affected.
People, referred to as “persons, communities, peoples, and nationalities,” are the
ones who demand that the rights of nature be observed before public bodies and are
encouraged to protect nature and its ecosystems; they also “have the right to benefit
from the environment and from the natural wealth that allows for their wellbeing”
(2008 Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador, Part 2, Chapter 7, Articles 71–74).
This section traces the process of how this legal category came to be constituted.
A Political Opening
President Rafael Correa, a US-educated economist preaching socialism for the
twenty-first century, was elected to office in 2006 on a progressive platform broadly
supported by an electorate disillusioned with traditional party politics. Correa
criticized the neoliberal policies of prior decades, the political role of entrenched
business elites, and US involvement in the region, promising instead to reorient the
country toward alternative models of development. Building on momentum fueled
by the work of social movements and the support of the public, including the urban
middle classes (Burbach 2007; Guerrero et al. 2008), Correa formed Alianza Pa!
new political coalition; incorporated the promise of constitutional reform into his
campaign; and won the presidential election, calling for a referendum to draft a
new charter for the country through a participatory process. The political platform
2. The 2008 Constitution is the country’s twentieth since independence. It was drafted via a constitu-
ent assembly of 130 elected delegates and ratified by 64 percent of the population in a constitutional refer-
endum, replacing the 1998 Constitution.
942 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
outlined by Alianza Pa!
ıs (2006) even incorporated a statement on the need for the
country to rethink the relationship between society and the environment, evoking
the kichwa term sumak kawsay or living well,
articulated in contrast to exploitative
relationships between people and nature.
Over 80 percent of voters supported the proposal to rewrite the constitution
and by 2007, 130 delegates were elected to comprise the assembly. In contrast to
the previous constitution, which had been written “behind closed doors at a mili-
tary site,” Correa promised that this constitution would be the product of a “citizen
revolution” (Alianza Pa!
ıs 2006; Carter Center 2008).
Though the goodwill
between Correa and many social movement organizations would quickly dissipate,
Correa’s election and the constitutional drafting process created a crucial political
opening for leftist organizations. Such organizations developed and amplified the
critiques calling to reform the existing political and economic system.
During the months leading up to the assembly, delegates and their staff
received constitutional proposals from throughout the country. Some came in the
form of letters from organizations and private citizens, while other groups visited
the assembly members, engaging in lobbying efforts and public awareness cam-
paigns to promote their agendas. A special assembly unit was even created in Mon-
tecristi, the site where the constitution would be written, to gather and process
citizen proposals; meanwhile, assembly members traveled the country, holding town
hall meetings and receiving citizen delegations. In six months, the assembly
received approximately 70,000 visitors in Montecristi, as well as 1,632 written pro-
posals (Carter Center 2008, 12). Among them were proposals from environmental-
ist groups, organizations representing indigenous peoples, and other social
movement sectors. There were also letters from the private sector, including min-
ing companies and chambers of commerce. Delegates convened for the first of
ninety-seven plenary sessions of the assembly in November 2007. The final version
of the constitutional text on the rights of nature was approved and went to a final
assembly-wide vote in July 2008.
Ecuador’s new constitution was ratified by 64
percent of the population in a constitutional referendum in September that same
noz Jaramillo 2008). The political moment, characterized by openness
toward leftist social organizations, was important for creating the legal setting in
which the rights of nature could be introduced, yet the groundwork had been laid
by the dynamics of environmental and indigenous politics in Ecuador during prior
3. For more on the concepts of sumak kawsay and buen vivir, see Almeida (2012), Gudynas (2011),
Houtart (2011), Macas (2010), and Walsh (2010).
4. Correa held a referendum to decide whether to convene the Constituent Assembly to draft the new
constitution and 81.7 percent voted in favor of holding the assembly. The Alianza Pa!
ıs coalition won 80 out
of 130 assembly seats. Other political parties such as PRIAN, RED, and Pachakutik were also represented.
5. During the final vote (under Fernando Cordero as Assembly President), delegates voted on the
articles one by one (Asamblea Constituyente 2008e, 140). For the first article, the one recognizing nature as
the subject of rights: ninety-three voted in favor, eighteen against, zero blank, and three abstained. Second
article: ninety-one yes, thirteen no, one blank, nine abstained. Article 3: ninety-six yes, seven no, zero
blank, eleven abstained. Article 4: ninety yes, fifteen no, two blank, six abstained. Article 5: eighty-nine
yes, nineteen no, one blank, four abstained.
943Constructing the Rights of Nature
Building the Politics of Nature: From Environmentalists to Ecologistas
Perhaps the earliest moment of legal recognition of nature’s intrinsic value
occurred in Ecuador when the Gal!apagos Islands, an exceptionally biodiverse area
made internationally famous by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, were declared a
protected area in 1934. The initial measure was buried in a set of hunting and
fishing regulations, but nevertheless referred to the linked concepts of nature
conservation and wildlife refuges (Executive Decree No. 697, 21 August 1934,
cited in Paucar 1980). Over the next several decades, arguments about the merits
of environmental protection and the finiteness of natural resources would often
come from those working in the natural sciences. For example, Misael Acosta
Solis, a botanist and important early conservation advocate, published on the
need to protect nature as early as 1939 (Solis 1939), also writing in specialty
journals about the risks of deforestation and soil erosion. In 1940, he established
the Ecuadorian Natural Sciences Institute (IECS), which was among the first
local institutions supporting research on natural resources, and by the late 1940s,
he headed the Forestry Department (Departamento Forestal), one of the first gov-
ernment organizations devoted to forest management (Cuvi 2005).
At the con-
stitutional level, Ecuador’s 1945 Constitution incorporated the need to protect
places of natural beauty and local flora and fauna alongside the country’s artistic
treasures (1945 Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador, Section III, Article
Despite these early developments, environmentalism did not yet exist as a
movement in Ecuador and environmental concerns were slow to materialize in gov-
ernment policies. In 1959, the Gal!apagos became the country’s first national park,
with the accompanying order declaring that the “state should give priority to the
protection of flora and fauna constituting wealth created by Nature” (Executive
Decree No. 17, 4 July 1959, cited in Paucar 1980).
Another two decades would
pass before this logic was transferred to the mainland and a system of national parks
was put in place. These were early expressionsofpreservationistandconservationist
ideas—mainly promoted by conservation advocates in the scientific community—
which would later be reimagined and rebranded using the language of biodiversity.
At the time, however, nature was recognized primarily as a source of aesthetic pleas-
ure and national wealth.
6. The same year, the Pan-American Union—the precursor to the General Secretariat of the Organi-
zation of American States—drafted the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the
Western Hemisphere. The treaty sought “to protect and preserve in their natural habitat representatives of
all species and genera of ... native flora and fauna” and “to protect and preserve scenery of extraordinary
beauty, unusual and striking geologic formations, [and] regions and natural objects of aesthetic, historic, or
scientific value.” To accomplish such goals, the convention urged parties to establish national parks, wilder-
ness reserves, and nature monuments. Ecuador signed the convention in 1940 and ratified it in 1943, signal-
ing that it was on board with this approach, although a national system of protected areas would not be
established for several decades. Ecuador’s 1945 Constitution incorporated the need to protect natural beauty
throughout the country.
7. The same year, the penal colony on Isabela Island was closed; see Vivanco and Rodas (2012).
944 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
Oil was rediscovered in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 1967.
Five years later, a
refinery was operating in Esmeraldas province and construction was completed for
the Trans-Ecuador oil pipeline system (Sistema de Oleoducto Transecuatoriano
[SOTE]) that would transport oil from the fields in the Oriente to the Pacific coast
for export. In 1972, when the first barrel of Amazonian crude was brought to Quito
to celebrate oil production, people touched it for good luck as it was paraded
through the streets of the historical center on top of a military tank.
next several decades, production would rise and petroleum would become the coun-
try’s leading export, giving new meaning to the value of natural resources. Ecuador’s
development model had always relied on primary exports: before oil the country
had experienced a banana boom, and before bananas, cacao (Acosta 1982;
C!ardenas 1995). Alongside the bustling oil business, traditional export crops like
bananas, coffee, and cacao continued to be important, and shrimp production grew
substantially (Banco Central del Ecuador 1997). Still, the growth of the oil industry
had a tremendous impact on Ecuador’s economy and the politics of nature, creating
the conditions that would eventually set the tone for discussions about the relation-
ship between environment and development and fuel some of the most visible envi-
Oil revenues facilitated a brief period of industrialization, leading to rapid
urban population growth in a country that remained primarily rural even as late as
the 1970s (Mora 1991). State revenues from oil also financed the growth of the
public sector and increased social spending on health and education for Ecuador-
ians, including new urban residents and the middle classes (Banco Central del
Ecuador 1979), though the government would soon face another epoch of fiscal def-
icits. At the same time, as oil pipelines were built through the rainforest, construc-
tion exacerbated existing patterns of deforestation that had occurred with the
expansion of the agricultural frontier—expansion that began during the colonial
period and intensified following the 1960s agrarian reforms that encouraged internal
migration to previously uncultivated lands. Soil and rivers were also polluted by
crude processes of oil extraction and transfer and, in some cases, already marginal-
ized indigenous populations were displaced from their land, as in the case of the
Cof!an and Huaorani, who were directly affected by the arrival of the oil industry in
the Lago Agrio area. Similarly, as Ecuador became a leading producer of shrimp,
the expansion of the industry resulted in the destruction of coastal ecosystems,
including mangrove deforestation and water pollution (Southgate and Whitaker
1994). In other words, economic growth had its costs. Such developments coincided
with the expansion of international environmentalist discourse during the 1970s
8. Rediscovered, because petroleum reserves had previously been found on the coast in Santa Elena
and extracted by the British company Anglo Ecuadorian Oilfields Ltd. during the 1920s, but production had
remained low for more than four decades. The Shell oil company had also acquired exploration rights—in
the Amazon in 1938—but did not pursue extensive drilling. Exploration took off again during the 1960s as
Anglo Ecuadorian Oilfields expanded their concessions and international companies such as the Texaco-
Gulf consortium joined the efforts (Acosta 1982; C!ardenas 1995).
9. The military parade took place on June 28, 1972. The event was covered by newspapers such as El
Comercio and El Tel!
egrafo. See also historic video footage (Cuesta 1972). The barrel was deposited at the
Colegio Militar Eloy Alfaro in Quito.
945Constructing the Rights of Nature
and set the scene for the emergence of an environmentalist agenda, which interna-
tional organizations and local groups would soon begin to press upon the state.
The first major environmental legislative reforms appeared during the 1970s,
with the introduction of the Law on National Parks and Reserves in 1971 and
the Law on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution in 1976. By
the end of the decade, the government had established a national system of pro-
tected areas, and two years later, a new Law on Forests and Conservation of Nat-
ural Areas and Wildlife sought to provide a unified statement on managing
wildlife and safeguarding natural areas (Narv!aez Qui~
n!onez 2004). The right to
live in an environment free of pollution was incorporated by the government dur-
ing constitutional reforms in 1984 (1978 Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador,
codified 16 May 1984, Title II, Section, Article 19.2), modeled after a similar
measure in Spain’s 1978 Constitution (Alb!an 2009).
Many of these early meas-
ures were formally adopted as a result of isomorphic processes (DiMaggio and
Powell 1983; Dobbin, Simmons, and Garrett 2007) and the legislation had yet to
be developed and institutionalized further to have weight and practical
While natural resources had been implicitly present in earlier political strug-
gles, the first self-identified environmentalist NGO, Fundaci!on Natura, was
founded as civil society spaces opened up with the return of democratic rule in
1979. Fundaci!on Natura brought together Ecuadorian activists and professionals
who worked to establish environmental education programs, emphasizing conser-
vation and natural resources management based on scientific principles. By the
late 1980s, enough groups had formed to hold the First Ecuadorian Congress on
the Environment, which was organized by Fundaci!on Natura and drew 350 dele-
gates, and that led to the creation of CEDENMA, the Ecuadorian Coordinating
Committee for the Defense of Nature and the Environment (Tamayo 1996; Varea
et al. 1997).
Propelled by the country’s participation in international events like the Rio
1992 conference, the activity of environmental NGOs and activists flourished dur-
ing the 1990s. Ecuadorian environmental lawyers, connected with regional expert
networks, worked to bring national institutions in line with internationally estab-
lished principles emphasizing sustainable development and the protection of biodi-
versity. At least at the formal level, their efforts paid off; Ecuador had made
international commitments and national legislation was following suit. When the
constitution was reformed in 1998, in addition to the introduction of the right to
live in an environment free of pollution, many environmental principles from the
Rio conference were incorporated.
Efforts were also under way to strengthen the Ministry of the Environment,
which had been set up in 1996. Local organizations received support from interna-
tional donors to work on conservation, research, and the creation of environmental
laws. For instance, Fundaci!on Natura continued to work on environmental research
and management; many of its early members would go on to take positions within
the state and participate in the institutionalization of environmental policy in the
10. This right was reaffirmed in the 1998 Constitution.
946 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
Meanwhile, within CEDENMA, conflicts would arise among more radi-
cal members and the more technocratic and professionalized organizations, but it
continued to function as a coordinating space for environmentalist groups.
As the legal and institutional framework for environmental issues continued to
be built, other activists organized campaigns to bring attention to specific environ-
mental problems at the local level. Groups like Acci!on Ecol!ogica, founded in the
late 1980s by ecofeminists with ties to the Ecuadorian left, became important voices
representing the ecologista strand of environmental social movements, emphasizing
environmental justice and systemic critiques identifying environmental damage as a
feature of the capitalist mode of development. Grassroots campaigns eschewed con-
servationist and management schemas to make claims about how environmental
degradation caused by particular industries was not only detrimental for the envi-
ronment, but was also affecting livelihoods and worsening inequality.
For example, in the first Amazon for Life (Amazon!
ıa por la Vida) campaign,
ecologista activists worked alongside indigenous and campesino organizations to con-
demn the consequences of the oil industry’s practices for the rainforest ecosystem,
as well as for the livelihoods and health of communities living in territories adja-
cent to oil projects. The Amazon Defense Coalition (Frente de Defensa de la Ama-
ıa), which formed in the mid-1990s, mobilized Amazonian communities in the
ıos, Orellana, and Napo provinces, working to give voice to the claims of
indigenous and peasant organizations. The centerpiece of work in this area became
the lawsuit against Chevron Texaco,
which garnered international attention and
cast a spotlight on the impact of several decades of oil extraction during Ecuador’s
oil boom on the Cof!an, Huaorani, Kichwa, Secoya, and Siona communities (Fon-
taine 2007). Other efforts have focused on gaining compensation for affected com-
munities and stopping further oil exploration in protected areas, such as the
campaign to prevent extractive activities in Yasun!
ı National Park (Fontaine and
Narv!aez 2007; Mart!
ınez and Boedt 2007).
Communities affected by specific environmental problems also mobilized in
partnership with grassroots organizations and NGOs around other issues. For exam-
ple, the Committee for the Defense of the Peoples of Muisne (later the Foundation
11. For example, Yolanda Kakabadse, who was Ecuador’s Minister of Environment in 1998–2000, had
started as Executive Director at Fundaci!on Natura in 1979 and had worked at the organization until 1990.
Lourdes Luque, Minister of Environment in 2001–2002, had worked as Executive Director of Fundaci!on
Natura’s Guayaquil office in the 1990s.
12. The Chevron Texaco case has attracted a lot of attention and has led to much legal controversy.
In 1993, the class action lawsuit Aguinda v. Texaco, Inc. was filed in a New York federal court by residents of
the Amazon against the US oil company Texaco for environmental and personal injuries resulting from pol-
lution from the oil fields, and related oil exploration and extraction operations in the Oriente region
between 1964 and 1992. The court dismissed the case on the grounds of forum non conveniens, determining
that bringing the case to an Ecuadorian court would be an adequate forum. Texaco was acquired by Chevron
in 2001. In 2003, a class action lawsuit (Case No. 2003-0002, Provincial Court of Sucumb!
ıos) was filed in
an Ecuadorian court against Chevron-Texaco. A ruling against Chevron was issued in February 2011, but
Chevron refused to pay the damages and appealed the ruling multiple times. The company has repeatedly
argued that Texaco carried out all necessary remediation activities and had been released of all liability for
claims by the Republic of Ecuador back in the 1990s, shifting responsibility to the state-owned oil company
Petroecuador. The case has been complicated by simultaneous proceedings, including a lawsuit by Chevron
against the plaintiffs’ lawyers and representatives in US federal court, and an international arbitration claim
at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.
947Constructing the Rights of Nature
for Ecological Defense, FUNDECOL, and then C-CONDEM) organized to defend
mangrove ecosystems along the Ecuadorian coast and to bring attention to the
impact of the shrimp industry on wetland ecosystems and the people dependent on
them. Campaigns also focused on the use of pesticides in African palm cultivation
and the impact of large-scale mining on water resources and agricultural activities
(Varea et al. 1997; Bebbington 2007; Latorre Tom!as 2009; Chicaiza 2010). Acti-
vists have employed different tactics—from legal to direct action—to defend their
causes, in some cases gaining support from regional and international networks.
What unites these forms of advocacy is that they have created ways of talking about
the environment tied to particular socioenvironmental conflicts in their commun-
ities, blending claims about livelihood, health, and identity with arguments about
the need to identify alternative development models and prevent environmental
Indigenous Movements and the Politics of Nature: Land, Identity, Autonomy
In July 1990, representatives from twenty countries throughout the Americas
met in Quito for the Continental Conference of Indigenous Peoples. They met in
the wake of the National Indigenous Uprising (Levantamiento Nacional Ind!
a massive strike that marked a major turn in the political presence of the Ecuador-
ian indigenous movement on a national scale, and that would lead to a series of
subsequent mobilizations throughout the 1990s. The uprising also led to a realign-
ment within Ecuadorian social movements, making indigenous demands about col-
lective rights, land, development, and education more visible in the public sphere
(Almeida 1993). In the declaration produced during the conference, participants
wrote emphatically: “The land and indigenous peoples are inseparable. Land is life;
it cannot be bought or sold. It is our responsibility to care for it according to tradi-
tion, to guarantee our future” (CONAIE, CONFENIAE, SAIIC, ECUARUNARI,
and ONIC 1990, 38).
Land has been at the center of political struggles of indige-
nous populations, for many of whom it is both a means of subsistence and a con-
nection to ethnic identity.
By the late twentieth century, Ecuadorian indigenous groups were powerful
political actors organized into a national movement, led by the Confederation of
Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).
Indigenous uprisings had
occurred since the arrival of Spain in the New World. However, it was the period
of political mobilization starting in the 1960s and intensifying especially during the
1980s and 1990s that led to the emergence of a visible and organized indigenous
movement with a national political presence. This organized indigenous movement
had a variety of historical roots. Some indigenous organizers had worked with the
13. Indigenous organizations have also made strong arguments linking land to the politics of self-
determination at the international level (e.g., land use is mentioned in ILO Convention 169; see also Anaya
14. CONAIE was organized as an umbrella organization for indigenous groups in 1986. The Federa-
tion of Peasant, Black, and Indigenous Organizations (FENOCIN) and the Ecuadorian Evangelical Indige-
nous Federation (FEINE) have also been active alongside CONAIE (Lucero 2008).
948 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
Ecuadorian left, including socialist and communist parties; for instance, indigenous
leaders, labor leaders, and other leftist activists had formed the first national indige-
nous organization, the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI), back in the 1940s.
Others had focused on addressing local issues in indigenous communities or affili-
ated with progressive elements of the Catholic Church
(Guerrero Cazar and
Ospina Peralta 2003; Herrera 2003; Becker 2008; Simba~
While the indigenous movement became organized on a national level, it
remained a heterogeneous body linked to regional organizations and local commun-
The divisions were palpable, including in the ways indigenous struggles over
land and nature were framed (Chiriboga 1987). For instance, as Yashar suggests,
although land was central to the various organizations that later became CONAIE,
the significance of the land was subject to different emphases. Whereas for many
Amazon-based groups, “demand for land meant the fight to delimit territorial spaces
in which Amazonian Indians could live according to their own practices,” for the
sierra-based groups, the “demand for land initially drew on the demands voiced by
campesino organizations—the demand for a plot of land to farm” (2005, 139).
Lucero describes this as the difference between “land,” which centers on its use as a
“factor of production,” and “territory,” which invokes “notions of autonomy and
sovereignty” (2008, 105). These views would merge in the indigenous movement’s
discourse, as land came to be politically presented not only as a source of liveli-
hood, but also as a source of cultural identity, connecting present generations to
There are different indigenous nationalities in the organized indigenous
movement, each with its own cultural practices, but in political discourse, the
organizations often refer to a broad indigenous cosmology. According to this set
of beliefs, various elements of the natural world are tied to the social organization
and spiritual beliefs of indigenous groups (Seibold and McDowell 1992; Moya
1999). The appropriate relationship between people and nature is one that
emphasizes interconnectedness and the belief that human society is but one part
of a complex interrelated system, articulated in contrast to individualism and
nature/society dualism. As the 1990 conference participants stated: “Our
15. For example, Monse~
nor Leonidas Proa~
no was an important figure in Ecuadorian liberation theol-
ogy and is known for his work on social justice issues with indigenous Ecuadorians (see, e.g., Creo en el Hom-
bre y en la Comunidad). According to secondary sources cited in Guerrero Cazar and Ospina Peralta (2003),
no also supported early discussions of “plurinacionalidad” when the first bill for the Ley de Nacionali-
dades Ind!ıgenas del Ecuador was drafted.
16. CONAIE brings together fourteen “nacionalidades” (including the Achuar, Andoa, Aw!a, Cha-
chi, Cof!an, !
Epera, Kichwa, Secoya, Shiwiar, Shuar, Siona, Ts!achila, Waorani, and Z!apara) and eighteen
“pueblos” (Chibuleo, Huancavilca, Ka~
nari, Karanki, Kayambi, Kisapincha, Kitukara, Manta, Natabuela,
Otavalo, Paltas, Panzaleo, Pastos, Puruh!a, Salasaka, Saraguro, Tomabela, Waranka) from the country’s
twenty-four provinces. It incorporates the regional organizations ECUARUNARI (Ecuador Runacunapac
Riccharimui, created in 1972), CONFENIAE (Confederaci!on de Nacionalidades Ind!
ıgenas de la Amazon!
Ecuatoriana, created in 1980), and CONAICE (Confederaci!on de Nacionalidades y Pueblos Ind!
ıgenas de la
Costa Ecuatoriana, created in the 2000s). Of course, different indigenous groups have distinct theories, clas-
sifications, and ways of talking about human beings, animals, and nature (to give one example that shows
the diversity of beliefs within the Amazon, Descola (2013) compares the nuances between the Achuar, the
Yukuna, and Makuna of Colombian Amazonia, and the Yagua of Peruvian Amazonia, among other groups).
Yet these cosmologies share the notion that there are no clear ontological differences between humans, ani-
mals, and plants, in contrast to the dichotomy between nature and society prevalent in Western thought.
949Constructing the Rights of Nature
conception of territory stems from a way of understanding humans and nature as
interrelated” (CONAIE, CONFENIAE, SAIIC, ECUARUNARI, and ONIC
Conflicts over nature are thus bound up with struggles over land and
territory. Yet while indigenous beliefs about nature have been intertwined with
their defense of land and territory, they have not been typically elevated to the
forefront of movement claims.
Because indigenous groups have been politically and economically marginal-
ized, their demands have often centered on citizenship and material issues such as
agrarian reform (Zamosc 1994) or the impact of environmental practices associated
with particular industries on their livelihoods, as in the case of oil and mining.
Their battles have been based on maintaining autonomy, fighting exclusion, and
defending their cultural practices and forms of social organization, such as when
government policies or the practices of extractive industries have collided with the
communities’ day-to-day existence. In the mobilization against the 1994 Agrarian
Development Law, for example, the indigenous movement allied with peasant and
small farmer organizations that likewise opposed the law to protect communal lands
and rally around issues like food security (Pacari 1996). As the indigenous move-
ment entered the public sphere with a newfound intensity in the 1990s, leftist
organizations viewed their political demands as a source of social critique and vision
for alternatives. They became a powerful voice speaking out against inequality and
on behalf of marginalized sectors, and their discourse influenced broader leftist
ideologies, building on a long history of engagement between indigenous mobiliza-
tion and the Ecuadorian left.
In this context, the call for plurinacionalidad, the creation of a plurinational
state, has been especially important. Plurinationality emerged as a core political
demand of the indigenous movement in the 1980s and 1990s; the idea was to
establish indigenous peoples politically as nations alongside nonindigenous peo-
ples, seeking “unity in diversity.” When the country’s constitution was reformed
in 1998 following a legitimacy crisis during Abdal!a Bucaram’s presidency, the
indigenous movement actively participated and gained the recognition of collec-
tive rights for indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants; the constitution even
stated that the Ecuadorian state was “pluricultural and multiethnic,” though it did
not yet use the term plurinationality (1998 Constitution of the Republic of Ecua-
dor, Title I, Article 1; Andolina 2003). Over time, the call for plurinationality
came to stand for something bigger than the literal demand for its recognition; it
came to be associated with a broad critique of the country’s model of develop-
ment, especially the role of extractive industries (Jameson 2011), and the call to
17. Marlon Santi, president of CONAIE at the time, echoed this in his talk at a 2010 workshop: “for
us, for the indigenous world, the territories are not for sale, they are not pieces or merchandise ... they are
collective spaces where life continues jointly with and through ... relationships that we have as indigenous
peoples with Mother Earth.” Foro sobre Derechos de los Pueblos Ind!
ıgenas (Forum on Indigenous Rights),
sponsored by the Facultad de Jurisprudencia y Centro Derechos Humanos de la PUCE and La Red Jur!
Amaz!onica RAMA, held at the Pontificia Universidad Cat!olica del Ecuador, Quito, August 31, 2010.
18. CONAIE’s (2004) draft law on biodiversity, for example, approached the topic by discussing the
relationship of nature to the collective rights of indigenous communities, and stressing their right to manage
950 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
redefine politics and reimagine the principles upon which Ecuadorian society is
The historical developments discussed in the prior sections were vital for the
introduction of the rights of nature. Environmentalist groups had waged local cam-
paigns while environmentalist activists and professionals promoted the environmen-
tal agenda at the national level during prior decades, contributing to a growing
institutional framework for environmental protection. Meanwhile, indigenous
organizations saw their power to shape national politics grow, as they also gained
influence over how leftist organizations articulated ideas about alternative develop-
ment and built a vision for the future of the country. The indigenous movement’s
intensifying call for the recognition of Ecuador as a plurinational polity, a form of
multiculturalism that incorporates politicized versions of indigenous beliefs about
the environment along with demanding respect for indigenous territories and ways
of life, was especially important to putting forward alternative ethical understand-
ings of nature/society relationships. While these historical developments set the
stage for legal reforms, proponents of the rights of nature had to mobilize to harness
these developments, take advantage of the political opening, and introduce the
concept into the constitutional assembly. First, however, they had to convince
Constructing the Rights of Nature: From Ambiguity to Ratification
The core supporters of the rights of nature began as a small group of environ-
mental lawyers, activists, and government officials concerned about continued pat-
terns of environmental degradation in the country. Although they fit the bill of
skilled and well-positioned institutional entrepreneurs (Fligstein 2001), with access
to the constitutional assembly leadership, knowledge of the field, and ties to multi-
ple social movement groups participating indirectly in the assembly process, it
would take time for them to develop the idea internally and to generate the neces-
sary arguments to convince others that it was a worthwhile pursuit. The rights of
nature were not only legally unconventional; the concept implied a profound shift
in the way the proper ethical relationship between nature and people would be
described in the constitution.
Several environmental lawyers involved in developing the proposal had previ-
ously come across ecocentric legal ideas in passing, in texts they had read or in con-
versations, but put the notion on the back burner until the rights of nature became
a topic of discussion at a series of meetings held by a group of environmental law-
yers to discuss possible proposals in the months leading up to the constitutional
drafting process. As one lawyer who had worked closely on the concept remarked:
“We had heard about [the rights of nature idea] a while ago. But ... there was no
possibility of changing the constitutional framework, at the time we were limited
19. In late 1995, right before the 1996 elections, indigenous leaders from the Amazon founded the
Pachakutik Movement for Plurinational Unity-New Country to participate in electoral politics, putting for-
ward candidates to represent indigenous views while maintaining ties to other popular movements (see
Becker 2008, 2010).
951Constructing the Rights of Nature
by [existing] legislation ... this possibility simply was not there” (Interview H, 7
Now the possibility presented itself, but figuring out what the
concept meant and how it would fit into the Ecuadorian legal framework presented
a challenge. She continued:
The first time we talked about [the rights of nature] as a possibility of
something to be pushed through as a proposal for the constitution, I think
that several of us were still a bit skeptical. Not because we didn’t think it
would be good, but rather because we had to see what it would mean to
implement it ... so little by little we kept discussing it, and sometimes
with more opinions against it than in favor of it ... from some of the
same lawyers and colleagues working on these issues now. Nevertheless, it
was discussed so much in various meetings here [and in other organiza-
tions] that we finally convinced ourselves that yes, it was viable, yes, it
was possible—as a living being, [nature] should have rights, should have a
voice. (Interview H, 7 September 2010)
Some of the lawyers were familiar with the work of US lawyer Christopher
Stone, who wrote the essay Should Trees Have Standing? in the 1970s, and the Chil-
ean lawyer and animal rights activist Godofredo Stutzin, who had written essays
advocating the legal recognition of the rights of nature. Such works provided some
reference points for discussion. Alberto Acosta, the president of the assembly, would
write about the topic as well, beginning with a short piece critiquing accepted
anthropocentrism and raising the question of animal rights, followed by an essay on
“nature as a subject of rights,” both circulated within several months of the assem-
bly’s first session (Acosta 2008b, 2008c). Fundaci!on Pachamama, one of the organi-
zations promoting the idea, invited US lawyers from the Community
Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) to share their experiences. CELDF, a
Pennsylvania-based public interest law firm, had pioneered rights-of-nature legisla-
tion in local government ordinances in the United States, and gave a workshop
helping to make the concept more concrete (Interview N, 14 September 2010).
Supporters of the rights of nature also circulated materials discussing the measure
20. Interviews were conducted by the author in Quito, Ecuador in August–September 2010 and July
2011. With the exception of one phone interview, all interviews were held in person. Interviews were held
at the following organizations: Acci!on Ecol!ogica, C!amara de Comercio de Quito, Centro de Derechos
Econ!omicos y Sociales (CDES), Centro Ecuatoriano de Derecho Ambiental (CEDA), Corporaci!on Coordi-
nadora Nacional para la Defensa del Ecosistema Manglar (C-CONDEM), Ecociencia, Ecolex Corporaci!on
Gesti!on y Derecho Ambiental, Ecuador Runacunapac Riccharimui, Confederaci!on de los Pueblos de Nacio-
nalidad Kichua del Ecuador (ECUARUNARI), Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO-
Ecuador), Fundaci!on Pachamama, Fundaci!on Regional de Asesor!
ıa en Derechos Humanos (INREDH),
Instituto de Ecolog!
ıa y Desarrollo de las Comunidades Andinas (IEDECA), Instituto de Estudios Ecuatoria-
nos (IEE), the Ministerio del Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment), and the Universidad Andina Sim!on
ıvar. Interviews were also held with Alberto Acosta, former Minister of Energy and ex-president of the
National Constituent Assembly; M!onica Chuji, indigenous Kichwa activist, delegate and head of the Natu-
ral Resources Roundtable at the Constituent Assembly, and former Secretary of Communication; Edgar
Isch, former Minister of Environment; and Luis Macas, former president of the Confederation of Indigenous
Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE). Fieldnotes and/or transcripts are in the author’s possession. All trans-
lations from Spanish are the author’s.
952 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
(Melo and Greene 2008). The idea gathered momentum; still, many were not con-
vinced. As one environmental lawyer recalled:
We were dubious at first. We were not sure if this was possible. Because
it’s a very dramatic concept. And I personally didn’t understand at first
how we could incorporate such a right if we are talking about a civil code
perspective ... It was a strange, exotic concept. If you are very strict as a
lawyer, it would be hard to incorporate in our legislation. But I see it
more as a philosophical vision, what is the state actually aiming at pro-
moting ... I would say it represents more a philosophical standpoint or
vision of this new Ecuador we were trying to forge through this constitu-
tion. (Interview R, 30 June 2011)
Moreover, at the time of the assembly, many environmental groups—the log-
ical supporters for the legal provision—were already making demands to assembly
delegates using the language of sustainable development. The centerpiece of the
environmentalist agenda was the 2008 proposal Toward an Equitable and Sustain-
able Society, presented by the National Environmental Assembly (ANA), an
umbrella organization under which diverse environmentalist groups had come
together to discuss their goals and formulate a proposal for the environmentalist
The environmentalist coalition argued that in addition to a democratic
regime that recognizes various civil, socioeconomic, and cultural rights, the state
should be clear on where it stands with respect to the “ecological dimensions of
social life” and should explain how the regime of existing rights relates
“concretely with ecological equilibrium, the conservation of nature, and the sus-
tainable use of natural resources” (ANA 2008, 15–16). The proposal also empha-
sized small-scale economies and “community and solidarity principles” (24). The
coalition took a long-term view, arguing that addressing environmental problems
not only was in the national public interest and should transcend the electoral
politics cycle, but also that it should take into account long-term responsibility to
nature and to future generations. However, its demands did not yet extend to
If the rights of nature stemmed from a particular philosophical position, what
was its source and how was it developed, particularly if the familiar language of sus-
tainable development already permeated the discussion of environmentalist groups?
It seemed unlikely that several essays written by environmental lawyers would sim-
ply morph themselves into a constitutional proposal, and even though deep ecology
was a perspective considered by some more radical environmentalist groups, it was
not a common mode of talking about environmental problems. One ecologista activ-
ist involved in the constituent assembly process reflected on how indigenous poli-
tics provided an opening to develop the rights of nature:
21. ANA’s proposal had been drafted based on inputs from environmental and other civil society
groups in workshops and provincial assemblies held throughout the country. In addition to participating in
the ANA proposal, some groups such as CEDENMA and CCONDEM put forward their own proposals and
engaged in their own lobbying and mobilization efforts.
953Constructing the Rights of Nature
One actor that had much impact in the assembly was the indigenous [move-
ment]. But the indigenous [groups] did not strictly have in mind the rights of
nature as such ... they lobbied to attain the recognition of plurinacionalidad
and also many collective rights. But just the presence of discussion about plu-
rinacionalidad allowed an opening of the mind, let’s say, on subjects related to
nature. Then there were also ecologista organizations like us—and other envi-
ronmental organizations—in which people had already started talking about
the topic of granting rights to nature. (Interview D, 27 August 2010)
She suggests there was a schematic connection between plurinationality, col-
lective rights, and “an opening of the mind ... on subjects related to nature,” com-
bined with the political influence of the indigenous movement in the assembly
process. Another respondent, an environmental lawyer working on the rights of
nature, was even more emphatic about the relationship between plurinationality
and the rights of nature. During a conversation about this relationship, he com-
mented on whether it is possible to treat the two subjects separately, saying:
I don’t think so. It doesn’t make sense. Same goes for sumak kawsay. In
other words, these are the three ideological pillars that the Ecuadorian
constitution lays out [derechos de la naturaleza, sumak kawsay, and plurina-
cionalidad]. Therefore of course it doesn’t make sense to recognize the
rights of nature if we are not capable of recognizing that there are other
nations within the larger Ecuadorian nation ... and not only that there
are nations, but that there is equality among the nationalities ... of
course, this implies recognizing their world view—and the fundamental
feature of the indigenous world view is to recognize the earth as a being.
(Interview C, 26 August 2010)
In addition to the rights of nature and plurinationality, the respondent men-
tions a third “pillar”: sumak kawsay, a kichwa phrase used in the constitution to
refer to a development regime based on well-being as opposed to neoliberal eco-
nomic growth. His suggestion that the rights of nature be treated as part of this set
of three core principles further suggests the ties between the rights of nature, the
plurinational framework put forward by indigenous organizations, and the search for
an alternative vision of development. Although stressing the importance of the
indigenous movement, the respondent was nevertheless careful to point out the
nuances in the movement’s direct role with respect to the rights of nature concept:
[The rights of nature] is fundamentally a contribution from Andean civiliza-
tion to Ecuador’s constitution, but a contribution that is, of course, mediated
by various other sources. This notion of the rights of nature is something
that arose in the US during the 1970s and that in a way coincides with the
ancestral vision of the indigenous peoples to view nature not as “something”
but rather as “someone” ... to respect her dignity. Of course, for us it is
new; it is novel for Western civilization ... but for them, no. It was interest-
ing when we brought up this idea to CONAIE—the difficult part was point-
ing out to [indigenous groups] that this was not already recognized in the
954 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
juridical system. That didn’t make sense to them ... “but of course, nature
is our mother, she has rights” ... [we explained that] no, for the majority of
people, it is a “thing.” (Interview C, 26 August 2010)
During the assembly process, the organized indigenous movement put forward
its own set of proposals. CONAIE’s proposal, for example, outlined normative prin-
ciples upon which the political and economic foundations of the country should be
based, including plurinationality. Plurinationality represented “not only a formal
declaration in the first article of the constitution, but rather a change in the state
structure and the economic model” (2007, 6) of the country. According to this
vision, the state ought to be built politically on the principle of “unity in diversity”
(10) while orienting economic activity toward “human well-being [and] ‘living
well,’” with the economy as “a tool at the service of the community” (6–7) as
opposed to being driven by profit seeking and capital accumulation. The proposal
urged the delegates that the economy “ought to be based on ancestral principles
like ‘sumak kawsay,’” which values reciprocity and is set in contrast to accumulation
as the ultimate end of economic activity.
The economic development model, rather than exploiting nature and viewing
it purely as a source of commodities, should thus recognize that “nature is the
Pachamama, that we are part of it, and therefore relationships with the natural
environment need be respectful” (21). This respect takes the form of small- and
medium-scale productive activities prioritizing food sovereignty over exports, the
use of traditional agricultural practices as opposed to methods relying on heavy use
of monocultures and pesticides, and valuing biodiversity. Grassroots indigenous
organizations also had other priorities, many of them concentrating on improving
material conditions such as access to clean water, securing collective rights to
ancestral territories, and demanding prior consent before development projects
affecting community lands would be undertaken (Interview K, 9 September 2010).
For some groups, the priority of making nature the subject of rights was unclear.
For instance, groups that were mobilizing against the unbridled exploitation of natural
resources like oil, copper, and gold for development opposed practices that allowed
environmental destruction on a large scale and interfered with local livelihoods. Many
of these groups participated in the assembly not only by lobbying delegates, but also
via protest politics, using direct action to underscore their demands. To them, intro-
ducing the rights of nature seemed relatively innocuous—perhaps plausible and useful,
yet also somehow “distant,” “abstract,” and “academic,” even “lyrical.” Their core con-
cerns were food sovereignty, the impact of large-scale mining on water resources, and
related issues that interpreted ecological problems as fundamentally intertwined with
the livelihoods of people, many of whom were already economically and politically
marginalized. To others, the underlying philosophy reflected by the rights of nature
was self-evident and already part of their cultural identity; their project was to defend
that cultural identity and their collective rights, and not necessarily to promote partic-
ular elements of that identity at the national level.
Furthermore, although the indigenous movement would lend its support to the
rights of nature, some of its representatives were wary that the concept had a conser-
vationist bent, despite the connection between the rights of nature and indigenous
955Constructing the Rights of Nature
cosmology, and were concerned that this concept may come in conflict with long-
standing political demands of the indigenous movement. As one prominent indigenous
The concept, the meaning, the spirit [of the rights of nature] stems from
the indigenous worldview [cosmovisi!
on], because according to the indige-
nous worldview, everything in nature is alive and worthy of respect ...
sacred spaces are filled with spirits ... it is from there the concept origi-
nates. The problem is that ... at the moment the rights of nature articles
were developed and described, this was not truly taken into account. So
then it can quickly get risky ... Now there is a campaign for the rights of
nature at the world level—we support this. Nevertheless, so that it is
clear, the rights of indigenous peoples should also be respected ... their
rights to take advantage of the environment, take advantage of the resour-
ces that are available. (Interview P, 14 September 2010)
While indigenous communities and the organized indigenous movement often
referred to defending the Pachamama as they challenged the impacts of environ-
mental degradation, some groups were skeptical of past government and NGO pro-
grams emphasizing conservation, since they viewed them as also potentially
interfering with local autonomy and not fully respecting local power structures.
Consequently, some groups were cautious, wondering if the language of the rights
of nature could somehow be twisted to trump human rights and the collective rights
of indigenous communities. For instance, some activists were wary of the fact that
the rights of nature sounded more focused on protecting “nature” without an
explicit recognition of the continuing right of communities directly reliant on natu-
ral resources to continue using and managing them.
Nevertheless, indigenous cosmology became an important source of cultural
materials for the concept. As one prominent indigenous leader explained, in his
view, the constitutional rights of nature were influenced by the work of ecologista
environmentalists as well as indigenous discourse:
In [indigenous discourse], the relationship between man and nature is
rather different. And I think this has also allowed [Ecuador] to take
important steps ... to grant the rights of nature. Take, for instance, an
experience in my community. Our elders for example ... sometimes it can
22. The relationship between indigenous groups and environmentalists has a complicated history,
and not only in the Ecuadorian case. See, for example, Spence (1999) on the clash between indigenous
groups and wilderness preservation in the United States when the first national parks were created as an
idealized uninhabited landscape that led to the exclusion and removal of Native Americans who were occu-
pying and using the land. For more on indigenous activism and environmental justice, see Gedicks (1993),
Weaver (1996), and LaDuke (1999). The idea of indigenous populations as natural guardians of the earth
has also been extensively analyzed and critiqued (Hames 2007; Harkin and Lewis 2007). Krech (1999,
2005), for example, investigates the extent to which American Indians were ecologists and conservationists,
as well as writing about images of the “Ecological Indian” and how they have been used to simplify and mar-
ginalize native cultures in the case of native North Americans. Other studies compare traditional ecological
knowledge of local ecosystems and Western conservation practices (for a review, see Smith and Wishnie
956 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
sound almost absurd, but this is how it is ... we communicate with plants.
Our parents, for example, know when it is the right time to use a particu-
lar tree for wood ... And these dialogues happen spiritually in the forest.
So for us, a tree is alive, just like animals ... We as living beings are all
interrelated so that human life can exist ... and so that plant life can
exist ... In this sense, I think our discourse has also been incorporated
quite a bit ... such that nature could become a subject of legal rights.
And the struggle has been much more intense, for example, when there
have been direct attacks on nature, with these government policies about
the use of natural resources like oil. (Interview T, 6 July 2011)
He went on to discuss how the clash between indigenous communities and the
mining industry had also created opportunities to bring together discussions about
environmental destruction with the discourse of the indigenous movement about
the relationship between people and nature.
As the idea took shape, the core group of advocates drew on their local and
international ties to invite additional voices to join the discussion. Uruguayan writer
Eduardo Galeano wrote a widely circulated essay “La naturaleza no es muda” (Nature
is not voiceless) in support ofthemeasure.TheUruguayanecologista academic
Eduardo Gudynas, who has written extensively on environmental ethics and alterna-
tive modes of development (Gudynas 1999, 2002), including with the constituent
assembly’s elected president Alberto Acosta (Acosta and Gudynas 2004), also partici-
pated in the assembly process. Sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote an essay
on plurinationality, referencing the rightsofnature(SousaSantos2008).Thecontin-
ued support and initiative taken by Acosta himself added a powerful node to the net-
work of rights-of-nature advocates.
Local environmental lawyers also circulated
materials analyzing the measure (Crespo 2008). Advocates continued lobbying assem-
bly delegates and approached local environmentalist groups, animal rights activists,
indigenous organizations, and other socialmovementgroupstogaintheirsupport.
They began a media campaign, relying on radio spots by famous characters like “Las
Marujitas” and even puppet theater to promote the idea.
Within the assembly, some delegates criticized treating nature from a purely
market perspective and suggested that granting legal rights to nature could finally
signify that it is an entity intrinsically worthy of respect and protection.
23. Acosta, former Minister of Energy then affiliated with Alianza Pa!
ıs, was elected to serve as the
assembly’s president. Acosta received 121 of 130 votes. The other leaders of the assembly were Fernando
Cordero (PAIS) and Aminta Buena~
no (PAIS) (vice presidents); Jorge Escala (MPD) and Martha Rold!os
(RED) as spokespersons; and Fransico Vergara as Secretary General. Acosta would later resign on June 23,
24. The first major debate on nature and the environment was held in April 2008, within the scope of
a general discussion on natural resources led during the plenary session by the delegates at Roundtable 5 on
natural resources and biodiversity (Asamblea Constituyente 2008a). By May 2008, the thirteen delegates of
Roundtable 1 on fundamental rights had been tasked with the question of the rights of nature and produced
a report for the first formal plenary debate on the topic, including a set of draft articles (Asamblea Consti-
tuyente 2008b, 2008c). In June, the roundtable produced another report for the second and final plenary
debate (Asamblea Constituyente 2008d). The final version of the constitutional text on the rights of nature
was approved on July 3 and went to a final assembly-wide vote on July 7, 2008. Other key principles related
to the environment in the constitution include in dubio pro natura, which stipulates that in case of doubt,
the court should favor the protection of nature.
957Constructing the Rights of Nature
delegate asserted that nature “can never be solely an object of commerce” (Le!on
Rold!os, RED—Ethical and Democratic Network Party, Asamblea Constituyente
2008a, 76). Another delegate echoed: “It is no longer possible to view nature solely
as an object of property, its rights must be recognized” (Rafael Esteves, Sociedad
Patri!otica Party, Asamblea Constituyente 2008a, 78). In the debate that ensued,
some delegates explicitly reinforced the connection between the rights of nature
and indigenous politics. For example, one assembly delegate remarked:
The right of nature to exist and to have its vital cycles be allowed to sus-
tain life ... converges with the collective rights of indigenous peoples and
their self-determination, reinforcing the struggle for the defense of territo-
ries facing the assault of extractive and developmentalist activities. (Hum-
berto Guill!en, Sociedad Patri!otica Party, Asamblea Constituyente 2008a,
Similarly, another assembly member addressed the other delegates at the ple-
Does nature have a right to persist, to maintain itself, to regenerate its
vital cycles ... does nature have a right to exist? I think the answer is
yes, I think that many assembly delegates have said that the answer is yes
... Moreover, because humans are a part of nature, to speak of the rights
of nature is to speak of the rights of the communities, is to speak of the
rights of the huaoranis, is to speak of the rights of uncontacted peoples, it
is to speak of the rights of the comunas, because they derive their liveli-
hoods from nature. (Sof!
ın, Acuerdo Pa!
ıs Party, Asamblea Consti-
tuyente 2008a, 108)
Yet some delegates remained skeptical about whether it made legal sense to
make nature the subject of legal rights, whereas others agreed with the spirit of the
idea but saw the actual measure as impractical. One assembly member, for example,
was concerned about the potential conflict between giving rights to nature and the
interests of human beings. She asserted that “nature should not be the subject of
rights” and instead argued that “we should talk about the duties that we have as
human beings toward nature” (Rosanna Queirolo, Acuerdo Pa!
ıs, Asamblea Consti-
tuyente 2008a, 50). President Correa’s support was mixed. During an interview with
a Mexican newspaper before the constitution was ratified, Correa first spoke approv-
ingly of the need to recognize the rights of nature. However, he suggested human
rights are more important than the rights of nature, or as he joked, “if I am starving
to death and I see the last condor on earth, I will fry it up” (BBC 2008). Another
delegate put forward a blunt critique about the compatibility of environmental con-
cerns with the needs of people, particularly the poor, and pointed to the extent of
Ecuador’s reliance on oil revenues:
There are speeches which have been given here and—perhaps in a lyrical
way—they say that nature should be respected, that we should not run
958 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
into conflict with natural resources. Many have said that we should not
even touch petroleum, and I ask, what do we live on, then? Perhaps the
salary we receive as assembly members doesn’t come from resources based
on petroleum? Maybe the roads, education, health, and housing don’t
have to take from resources based on petroleum? ... Yes, we have to
respect [nature], but we cannot deify nature. (Jorge Calvas, Acuerdo Pa!
Asamblea Constituyente 2008a, 81)
A number of delegates, as well as legal consultants to the assembly, raised
questions about whether nature could acquire juridical personhood. Others coun-
tered the critique with the example of allowing corporations to have personhood,
and other legal fictions— “if corporations can have rights, why can’t nature?” was a
common refrain among rights-of-nature supporters. In one such debate, one delegate
It is true that nature as [a rights-bearing] subject breaks with the classic
principles of Roman law, but let us not forget that there is another princi-
ple, another principle that is valid ... Aren’t there subjects that are
[juridical] fictions? Perhaps the State isn’t a fiction? The State is definitely
a fiction. (Le!on Roldos, Asamblea Constituyente 2008a, 75)
In the fifty-eighth constitutional plenary session, assembly delegates discussed a
formal report on the rights of nature, including a set of draft constitutional articles.
The report refers to indigenous cosmology and belief systems as the legitimate sour-
ces of an alternative approach that will help lead the nation away from ecological
crisis. As the delegates who authored the report explain, “what concerns [us] and
leads [us] to protect Nature, raising her from an object of juridical protection to a
subject of rights, is the need to change the development paradigm ... and the rela-
tionship that human beings have with their environment, in order to avoid or at
least palliate the unforeseeable consequences that will result” if Ecuador continues
with its model of development and anthropocentric approach to the environment
(Asamblea Constituyente 2008b, 2).
While trying to articulate a new vision moving forward, proponents of nature’s
rights have often argued that existing normative and legal frameworks tend to
accept environmental damage as an inevitable outcome of modernity. Thus people
make use of nature to “build civilization” and bring about a particular kind of pro-
gress; however, addressing environmental damage in this context often means regu-
lating how much damage is allowed or how that damage is perpetrated, as opposed
to questioning the underlying model of development or the idea of progress generat-
ing the damaging practices (Acosta 2008a). At their best, such frameworks allow
affected people or communities to be compensated, while the damages done directly
to the environment are treated as water under the bridge. As the passages from the
report suggest, rights-of-nature arguments were often connected to a critique of a
development model that emphasizes economic growth over collective well-being
25. The report was discussed in the Plenary Session No. 58, held 6 June 2008.
959Constructing the Rights of Nature
and gives primacy to market-based solutions to social problems above other alterna-
tives. Thus pollution becomes something to be quantified and exchanged, as in the
case of carbon finance. From the view of rights-of-nature advocates, such
approaches to addressing environmental problems do not change the fundamental
logic of environmental exploitation; they work within it.
For the delegates and advocates, granting rights to nature, then, was an
attempt to move away from such understandings of the environment and the
accompanying approaches to environmental problems. Rather than stopping at
attempts at environmental management or planning, the rights of nature repre-
sented an effort to articulate a different underlying conception of what nature
means for society. At the discursive level, we might say that the rights-of-nature
reforms reflected a shift in the approach toward environment-society relations from
more ecological modernization perspectives (Mol and Spaargaren 2000) that tend
to be implicitly present in many Western environmental laws emphasizing regula-
tion to address risk and mitigate environmental damage to an approach combining
Western and indigenous ecocentric ideas connected to a political economy perspec-
tive in which environmental degradation stems from the structure of market econo-
mies, the institutions of modernity, and relentless commitment to growth
(Schnaiberg and Gould 1994; York, Rosa, and Dietz 2003). It was an attempt to
overcome the dualism between society and nature (Collingwood 1945; Viveiros de
Castro 1992; Descola 2013; Kohn 2013) and instead offer a view that emphasizes
human beings’ embeddedness in and coexistence with nature, although curiously
seeking to accomplish this by bounding nature as a distinct legal entity. Moreover,
it represented a critique of development as rooted in the exploitation of natural
resources for export—a response to the neoliberal paradigm—and an expression of
the search for alternative visions of development and progress by the left.
The recognition of the rights of nature was not a pro forma recognition of
widely accepted rights. The rights had to be imagined, described, and explained—
they had to be constructed. Rights-of-nature advocates were able to construct the
rights of nature as a legal concept by bridging different schemas, promoting the
idea during the constitutional drafting process, and finding audiences with whom
the concept would resonate. Their position at the intersection of multiple organiza-
tional communities gave them access to a set of heterogeneous cultural materials, as
well as potential organizational alliances, that affected their understanding of what
kind of institutional change was possible.
This positioning allowed them to draw on elements of indigenous cosmology
regarding the relationship between humans and nature, to define them as concepts
that were translatable into legal language and thus eligible for inclusion in the con-
stitutional text, to combine them with schemas from deep ecology, and to mobilize
material and symbolic resources in support of these concepts during the assembly
process. Moreover, the connections between nature as a subject of rights and alter-
native development, indigenous rights and plurinationality, and environmental jus-
tice counterbalanced the tension between the rights of nature and ingrained legal
schemas based on treating nature as property or a resource. In this way, during the
2008 constitutional assembly process, a group of advocates created a hybrid version
of nature as a new candidate for the persona ficta club, using existing cultural
960 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
materials and alliances across organizational communities to construct it as a subject
of legal rights.
In this article, I have traced the introduction of the rights of nature into Ecua-
dor’s 2008 Constitution, aiming to show what legal construction and innovation
can look like when they are in motion, prior to the moment of being imprinted in
law-on-the-books and in institutions. I emphasized one way in which ideas that are
“out there” in the social world come to influence existing legal concepts, focusing
on how advocates and the social and political organizations to which they are con-
nected mediate how particular ideas become incorporated into legal frameworks,
and how the heterogeneity of cultural materials available to them can provide
opportunities for institutional change. I have also shown that to better understand
legal mobilization outcomes in which groups attain their goals, it is important to
pay attention to a combination of factors that includes not only strategic action
toward a particular end, but also how the salience of a new legal idea is influenced
by political dynamics at a given historical moment, the organizational conditions
under which law is made, and longer-term historical processes connected to the
Rights-of-nature advocates were able to take advantage of the political opening
created by the new constitution to combine radical Western ecological perspectives,
politicized indigenous beliefs, and legal rights discourse to construct a hybrid con-
cept that imagined and codified nature as a subject of constitutional rights. I argued
they were able to do so due to the rise of an environmentalist agenda in the coun-
try as well as the power of indigenous organizations in national politics and their
intensifying demands for the recognition of Ecuador as a plurinational polity in the
decades leading up to the new constitution. This story was not only an instance of
an alternative philosophy becoming incorporated into a legal framework, but also
an important case of how indigenous politics influenced nonindigenous systems of
authority and created the space for a different understanding of nature/society rela-
tions to be conceptualized, described, and incorporated into the constitution, push-
ing the boundaries of existing ideas about rights, authority, and the state. This
process also allowed for the legal materialization of broader ontological debates
about the status of nature.
Of course, attaining the legal reforms was only the first part of the story. As
skeptics and critics point out, new rights guarantees can be shallow victories
because they can remain in the realm of ideas. Moreover, as studies of movement
cooptation argue, focusing on legal change may undermine movement goals and
may direct limited resources to reforming laws and continuing a dialogue with an
unresponsive state when energy should be spent elsewhere. In the case of the rights
of nature, such arguments have certainly been made. Ecuador’s government has
continued to develop the primary export industries that bring in revenue, and in
one move among many signaling shifting commitments, gave up plans to suspend
oil drilling in the Yasun!
ı National Park. Many members of social movement
961Constructing the Rights of Nature
organizations who were invited to participate in governing via positions in minis-
tries and other roles later left the government after serious disagreements over
vision and strategy.
Moreover, there are some sectors of Ecuadorian society that
do not identify with all aspects of the new constitution, including the language bor-
rowing from concepts such as sumak kawsay.
At the same time, the rights of nature and other aspects of the 2008 Con-
stitution did not simply become dormant. Social movement actors began to
refer to the constitution as the new normative vision of where they want Ecua-
dorian society to be headed. Once the rights of nature became a part of the
constitution, the idea gained additional momentum. Cause lawyers have sought
to introduce the constitutional provision in cases involving environmental dam-
Both environmental organizations and indigenous organizations increas-
ingly began to use the language of the rights of nature, discussing internally
how the rights of nature fits with other struggles as well as incorporating the
provision in legal and symbolic ways into strategies and discursive frames in
Yet who puts forward claims on behalf of nature and on what terms makes a
difference. For example, indigenous communities may at times view the rights of
nature as a provision that they can use in tandem with other facets of the law to
make claims about the use of natural resources on their territories. On the other
hand, it can be challenging to mobilize a particular version of spiritual beliefs and
translate indigenous cosmology into Western legal language and procedures. The
conservative nature of law and different organizational and normative cultures
make it so that it is not always possible to introduce new ideas into legal institu-
tions and other parts of the state bureaucracy. As Espeland (1998) described in her
study of the Orme Dam controversy in the US southwest, where the Bureau of Rec-
lamation sought to build a dam at the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers in
central Arizona, the rational-legal bureaucratic logic of the government agency was
26. Fundaci!on Pachamama, one of the central organizations that participated in discussions about the
rights of nature during the constitutional drafting process, was dissolved by the government in December
2013 following a dispute over the organization’s participation in protests against future oil development in
the Amazon. The organization has presented its case at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Indigenous organizations have also been mobilizing against the criminalization of protest. See, for example,
27. Legal action calling for the defense of the constitutional rights of nature is usually done via acci!on
de tutela, in which nature is represented by a third party, akin to how a minor would be represented. Several
cases have incorporated the new category of rights, including a case involving the Vilcabamba River in Loja
province, another involving the Blanco River in Pichincha province, environmental damage connected to
a mining concession in Mirador in El Pangui, Zamora, and another connected to road infrastructure expan-
sion in Santa Cruz in the Gal!apagos. Several others undertaken by lawyers at Ecolex and elsewhere are in
28. For example, at the Encuentro Continental de los Pueblos del Abya Yala por el Agua y la Pacha-
mama (Continental Conference of Indigenous Peoples for Water and Pachamama) in 2011, various speak-
ers mentioned the rights of nature and one of the work groups at the conference was specifically dedicated
to analyzing and developing the concepts of the rights of nature and sumak kawsay further. Meanwhile, rep-
resentatives from Bolivia, which also passed a law on the rights of Mother Earth in 2010; activists such as
Vandana Shiva; and members of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature have continued to develop a
campaign around the rights of nature at the international level.
962 LAW & SOCIAL INQUIRY
at odds with the cultural claims of the Yavapai community.
Therefore, the poten-
tial of the rights of nature to be used by groups for environmental protection, to
strengthen alternative development visions, and be linked to indigenous efforts to
defend cultural identity and community is great, but remains to be seen.
The case raises many questions and points to future research directions about
the rights of nature as an ethical concept as well as a new legal rule and institu-
tional script that can influence how environmental problems and the rights of
indigenous communities are understood in Ecuador and the region. The practical
consequences for cases brought to the judicial system and for the legal categories
available to the public and in legal mobilization are slowly emerging, but have yet
to be fully understood. As such, the contest between Ecuador’s current practices
and the normative vision articulated in the constitution continues. As with other
countries throughout South America, legal frameworks set up early on in Ecuador’s
history left behind institutional legacies affecting long-run patterns of development.
Only time will tell whether deep revisions of such legal frameworks will create the
spaces to pursue new forms of development.
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