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RIGHTS OF NATURE: THE ECUADORIAN CASE

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Abstract

The recognition of rights to nature by the Constitution of Ecuador sets a new normative scenario for analysis of the role of law in human-nature interactions. Given the scope of such a recognition, one relying on unorthodox biocentric views, these rights raise controversy. To some, nature rights are rather symbolic; to others, these rights are not only real but fundamental to effectively address the ever-growing degradation of nature. Yet, others focus on enforcement and juridical interpretation of their normative content as to determine whether recognition of constitutional rights to nature provide the foundations for a more effective role of the law in this field.
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RIGHTS OF NATURE: THE ECUADORIAN CASE
DIREITOS DA NATUREZA: O CASO EQUATORIANO
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Hugo Echeverría
Licenciado, Abogado y Doctor en Jurisprudencia por la Ponticia Universidad Católica del
Ecuador. Master of Laws por McGill University. Docente en el Colegio de Jurisprudencia de la
Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Miembro de la World Commission on Environmental Law
UICN. Miembro de la iniciativa Harmony with Nature ONU.
ABSTRACT
The recognition of rights to nature by the Constitution of Ecuador sets a new normative
scenario for analysis of the role of law in human-nature interactions. Given the scope of
such a recognition, one relying on unorthodox biocentric views, these rights raise
controversy. To some, nature rights are rather symbolic; to others, these rights are not
only real but fundamental to effectively address the ever-growing degradation of nature.
Yet, others focus on enforcement and juridical interpretation of their normative content
as to determine whether recognition of constitutional rights to nature provide the
foundations for a more effective role of the law in this eld.
KEYWORDS: Constitution; Nature; Rights; Pachamama.
RESUMO
O reconhecimento dos direitos à natureza pela Constituição do Equador estabelece um
novo cenário normativo para análise do papel do direito nas interações “humano-
natureza”. Dado o escopo de tal reconhecimento, baseando-se em visões biocêntricas
não ortodoxas, esses direitos levam a controvérsia. Para alguns, direitos da natureza são
bastante simbólicos; para outros, esses direitos são não apenas reais, mas fundamentais
para enfrentar efetivamente a degradação cada vez maior da natureza. No entanto,
outros se concentram na aplicação e na interpretação jurídica de seus conteúdos
1 The author would like to acknowledge the editorial revision to the English version of this article,
provided by Evanice Pineda
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INTRODUCTION
In 2008, Ecuador became the rst State to recognize constitutional rights to nature.
This recognition, which acknowledges the intrinsic value of nature, goes beyond the
approach of protecting the environment, as it aims at respecting nature.
What effects would this recognition bring to Ecuador and, perhaps, comparative
constitutional environmental law? Would this recognition be symbolic or would it be of
real signicance? This article will address these issues. It will present the background as
well as the normative dimension of nature rights on the Ecuadorian Constitution.
The article will also examine doctrinarian perspectives while focusing on
constitutional jurisprudence, to conclude that the Ecuadorian experience has provided a
new scenario for analysis of the human-nature interactions from a biocentric perspective
that coexists with a dominating anthropocentric perspective.
FOUNDATIONS
Pachamama or mother earth
There is no discussion about the recognition of rights to nature being a fundamental
contribution of indigenous legal system to contemporary constitutionalism in Ecuador
(Molina, 2014, p.104). The Constitution refers to nature as Pachamama, or mother
earth in the Kichwa language of the Andean region. While this reects articulation
between legal systems that coexist in the intercultural and plurinational Ecuadorian
society (Ávila, 2011, p.193), I argue that nature rights recognition should also be founded
upon other pillars, namely:
a) Development of Ecuadorian Environmental Constitutionalism and,
b) Development of international environmental law, particularly in the eld of
biodiversity conservation.
Ecuadorian environmental constitutionalism
Ecuador was one of the rst countries in its region to recognize environmental rights:
A constitutional reform of 1983 recognized the individual the right to live in an
environment free of contamination (Echeverría, 2013, p.96).
This reform also set a specic duty to the State on nature preservation; a notion that
resembles the content of the 1982 UN World Charter for Nature.
normativos para determinar se o reconhecimento de direitos constitucionais à natureza
fornecem as bases para um papel mais efetivo da lei neste campo.
PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Constituição; Natureza; Direitos; Pachamama.
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In 1996, a new constitutional reform introduced an ecological perspective to
environmental rights, by recognizing the collective and diffuse right to live in an
ecologically sound environment. To some authors, this was a rst attempt to revise the
anthropocentric approach of environmental rights in the Ecuadorian Constitution
(Hernández, 2005, p.154).
The 1996 constitutional reform, as well as the 1998 constitutional codication
integrated some principles and rules inspired by the Convention on Biological Diversity,
such as the duty to recuperate degraded natural spaces. The 1996 constitutional reform
also incorporated some of the principles of the Rio Declaration, including Principle 10 on
access to justice (Echeverría, 2013, p.99).
The new Constitution
In 2007, Ecuador drafted a new Constitution, which was approved by referendum
and entered force in 2008. Nature was one of the main issues at the Constitutional
Assembly. There, it became prevalent that environmental rules and institutions had not
fully achieved the goal of environmental protection. To set highest possible standards,
constituents debated about whether adopting a new paradigm of nature rights, or
strengthening the existing concept of environmental protection (Gudynas, 2011, p.
243). They chose nature rights.
International environmental law
In examining the background of nature rights recognition, we must also focus on the
important role of principles and rules of international environmental law in shaping
national legislation.
This should not be surprising as Ecuador, like many other countries, has ratied or
adhered to some of the most important treaties, including the Convention on Biological
Diversity, whose concepts notably inspired the 1996 constitutional reform.
Ecuador also proclaimed the 1982 World Charter for Nature, a United Nations
General Assembly Resolution that champions the principle of respect to nature; a
principle that prevails when granting constitutional rights to nature (Grijalva, 2010, p.29).
This has already been highlighted by the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, in a 2009 case
that will be referred to in this article.
To summarize, the contribution of indigenous legal principles -while fundamental to
the recognition of rights to nature in Ecuador- should not be regarded as the only one.
Recognition of rights to nature or Pachamama is founded upon a broader and universal
scenario. This approach may be interpreted as the outcome of decades of pluralistic
normative development aiming at building a best-possible constitutional scenario to
address ever growing and complex issues related to nature.
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NORMATIVE DIMENSIONS
There are several references to nature in the Constitution of Ecuador. The preamble
celebrates nature, or Pachamama. Article 10 sets what, perhaps, could be the most
progressive constitutional text in the world: “Nature shall be the subject of those rights
recognized by the Constitution”.
The specic constitutional rights are described in a section expressly titled as rights to
nature. Article 71 recognizes: ¨the right to integral respect for her existence and for the
maintenance and regeneration of her life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary
processes¨.
This provision clearly resembles the Principle of the World Charter for Nature on
nature's essential processes not be impaired.
Article 72 recognizes nature ¨the right to be restored¨. The Constitution expressly
differentiates restoration to nature from compensation to individuals or communities
depending upon affected natural systems.
There are other constitutional provisions, including those setting duties to both, the
state and citizens. These are part of an approach known as sumak kawsay, another
contribution of the indigenous legal system, roughly translated as well-being; a notion
substantively different than sustainable development and quality of life.
Moving on to the next section, it is important to say that the recognition of rights to
nature generated much expectation in Ecuador. Although accepted by the people in a
referendum, nature rights are a controversial issue, and debate is ongoing.
PERSPECTIVES
There are at least three views to this issue: one neglecting the recognition of rights to
nature; another in favor; and a third, emphasizing on application of nature rights.
Symbol rather than reality
Adherents of this view argue:
a) Nature is a juridical object: All legal systems categorize nature as an object to
the law; a resource for human use. Hence, recognition of nature rights is inconsistent
with legal institutions (Larrea, 2008, p.55).
b) Nature rights may debilitate human rights: Recognition of nature rights
disregard the anthropocentric foundation of the law, which is a pillar to all legal
systems. Law is a human creation and regulates human interaction. There is a
possibility to debilitate the protection of human rights (Simon, 2013, p.29).
c) Nature rights are not necessary: Integrity of nature as well as restoration of
affected natural systems could be achieved by adequate application of existing
environmental laws and institutions (Serrano, 2015, p.32).
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Reality rather than symbol
Advocates of this view argue:
a) Nature can be a juridical subject: Melo eloquently illustrates this view by noting
that nature is ¨more real and tangible¨ than corporations (2014, p.53). If rights are
granted to legal ctions, then why not recognizing rights to nature?
b) Nature rights do not debilitate human rights: On the contrary, rights of nature
reinforce human rights because humans are part of nature. Nature rights do not
exclude but complement human rights. Nature rights do not imply renunciation to
human rights but aim at a quality of life in harmony with nature (Zaffaroni, 2011,
p.117). A biocentric approach, at least in the Ecuadorian constitutional view, put
humans as a part of nature; not against or outside nature.
c) Nature rights are necessary: Existing environmental law and institutions, while
important, have not prevented the growth of environmental harm (Molina, 2014,
p.198). Environmental law tends to focus on compensation rather than restoration
or protection of an object rather than on respect to a subject. A new approach is, thus,
needed.
Undergoing debate has provided additional elements. Advocates have turned to
historic processes - such as abolition of slavery - to illustrate “paradigmatic dimensions” of
nature rights (Melo, 2009). They have also set parallels to the normative evolution of
human rights, specically in the progressive recognition of rights occurred in the
twentieth century. Other authors, in turn, argue that such recognition could prompt
juridical, political, sociological and other scenarios of unforeseen outcomes. Yet, others
have given little importance to this subject matter, categorizing it as experimental; or else,
characterizing it in frivolous terms.
A third perspective
A third perspective focuses on application of these rights (Zaffaroni, 2011, P.133).
After nearly a decade, individuals, organizations and state institutions have begun
applying the Constitution, and constitutional judges in Ecuador have already ruled cases
that will be presented in the following section. The cases had been processed under
different actions that, in general, aim at enforcing constitutional law and rights, including
environmental rights as well as rights of nature. The following decisions have been issued
by the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, the top authority on constitutional control.
JURISPRUDENCE
Biodigester case (2009)
This case examined a petition to suspend the construction of a biodigester at a swine
farm, processing over 7000 animals.
In their application actors, who lived in a nearby community, referred to the
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environmental record of the farm, particularly alleging air and water pollution of
surrounding rivers. A rst-level judge denied the petition on procedural grounds. The
case went on appeal to the Constitutional Court of Ecuador. The Court studied the
merits of the case and concluded that the construction of a biodigester could not in itself
affect environmental rights of the population.
The Court, therefore, conrmed the a-quo decision. The Court, however, ordered
the integration of a multi-party commission to monitor the operation of biodigester, as
well as to monitor environmental management of the farm, especially on water and
waste disposal operations.
It is important to note that this decision was adopted even though the defendant
argued that the case should only focus on the construction of the biodigester. The Court,
invoked constitutional principles of integrality, autonomy and iura novit curia, reasoned it
had to address all elements of the case, including the referential allegations to
contamination, as to whether contamination may be affecting nature. To that end, judges
argued their role was to enforce rights of all parties to the case, nature included.
This, arguably, was the rst time that an Ecuadorian Court had
ever acknowledged nature as party to a case, therefore putting
in practice article 10 of the Constitution, which states that nature
shall be a subject of constitutional rights.
The Court argued that, to deliver justice ¨it had to guarantee respect and protection
of human rights and nature rights¨. The Court added that the case was about water, an
element of nature that is also fundamental to human life.
In a declaration that reects the role of international environmental law in the
recognition of rights to nature in Ecuador, the Court referred to the 1982 World Charter
for Nature and other international instruments, to build up an argument about the role of
the State in protecting nature.
The Court also provided a fundamental argument about the role of judges in
applying nature rights: “It is an obligation to this Court as guardian of the enforcement of
constitutional mandates, to materialize the will of the constituent in granting rights to
nature…”.
Furthermore, the Court acknowledging the biocentric philosophy behind the
recognition of nature rights accepted the following constitutional standard of
interpretation: “whereas in case of doubt about its scope, legal principles and rules shall
be applied in the meaning most favorable to the protection of nature…”.
Ecological reserve case (2012)
This case examined a petition to review a judicial decision relating to a shrimp farm
located within a natural protected area. The contentious issue referred to the
occupation of a State ecological reserve, by a private enterprise of high environmental
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impact.
In the application, the environmental authority argued that the judicial decision only
focused on property and labor rights of the owner of the shrimp farm, ignoring the legal
declaration of the area as an ecological reserve, as well as the recognition of rights to
nature.
The Court studied the merits of the case and concluded that the judicial decision did
not integrate rights of nature in the analysis of the case. It reasoned that:
This Constitutional Court has been emphatic in pointing out the
importance of the rights of nature; rights derived from the
obligation of the State and its ofcials to encourage and promote
respect for all the elements that are part of a system (...) This
aspect has obviously not been observed by the judges (…) who
did not analyze the existence or non-existence of violations of
the rights of nature despite their obvious relevance. The central
issue was a shrimp farm operating within the Cayapas-Mataje
Ecological Reserve, an area that possesses a mangrove system
with great diversity of fauna and ora.
The Court further argued:
(…) the judicial authority in this case did not at any time examine
the existence or not of a violation of the constitutional rights of
nature, nor is there any effort to verify whether the rights
allegedly violated [property and labor] were in contrary of the
constitutionally recognized rights to nature. On the contrary, the
absence of analysis, even of enunciation, regarding the rights
that the Constitution enshrines in favor of nature, in a process
that essentially involves the protection and preservation of an
ecological reserve, reveals an absolute denial of recognition of
this area as a protected area and simultaneously, a denial of
recognition of the right of people to live in a healthy and
ecologically balanced environment.
Furthermore, the Court acknowledged the biocentric philosophy behind the
recognition of nature rights applied the following constitutional standard of
interpretation: “(...) within the nature-humanity legal relationship, a biocentric vision is to
be prioritized, as opposed to the classic anthropocentric conception in which the human
being is the center and the measure of all things where nature was considered a mere
supplier of resources”.
Artisanal mining case (2012)
This case examined a petition to review a judicial decision relating to the
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performance of mining activities beyond the parameters authorized by the State. The
contentious issue referred to the activities conducted by a holder of an artisanal mining
permit, which were performed with equipment that was not classied as artisanal. In the
application, the mining authority argued that illegal mining activities infringed on rights of
nature. The Court studied the merits of the case and concluded that the judicial decision
did not interpret the Constitution systematically, that is, examining human rights (labor
rights) as well as nature rights. The Court reasoned that:
The suspension of the work of exploitation (…) does not imply
an unconstitutional, illegal and illegitimate interference in the
right to work (…) but its limitation is constituted by a
constitutional and legal intervention in compliance with the
current legal system, specically regarding the rights of nature.
While acknowledging a biocentric approach to the “nature-societyrelationship
(Bustamante, 2016), the Court moved forward and set parameters to weigh conictin
interests:
If we take as reference the articles of the Constitution dealing
with the rights of nature as well as those that regulate economic,
sociocultural and environmental systems, it is evident that the
allusion of nature and of each of its elements in the Constitution
corresponds to a holder of rights whose respect must precede
any individual economic interest.
CONCLUSIONS
Although it is still early to determine nal conclusions on such a novel issue,
preliminary conclusions are possible to draft upon emerging doctrine and jurisprudence.
In Ecuador, nature is going to court. Rights of nature are actionable. Ecuadorian
courts have already produced jurisprudence, which demonstrates that nature rights are
not symbolic but of practical application.
While incipient, there is much that we can learn from early jurisprudence: the role of
individuals, civil society and the State in enforcing rights of nature; the role of judges in
interpreting these rights; and, most importantly, the interaction between human rights
and nature rights.
Some scholars have suggested that early cases and jurisprudence did not need
nature rights advocacy, and could have been prosecuted in the context of environmental
rights. Perhaps. But the substantive issue is: had nature been valued similarly by the
Courts if these cases had aimed at protecting human rights? Whatever answer to this
question, early jurisprudence shows courts taking nature consistently, perhaps more
than ever.
Judgments also show a true effort to integrate human rights and nature rights, a
complex task but an important one if we are to meet ever growing nature issues that are
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now of global scope.
From an international perspective, Ecuador is not the only country where rights of
nature are being included in the normative agenda. Global initiatives aiming at a Universal
Declaration on the Rights of nature at the United Nations, are also taking part of the
academic debate.
Perhaps Ecuador took the lead in what may be a new legal paradigm.
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Recebido em: 07/06/2017
Aprovado em: 26/07/2017
Research
Full-text available
Application of rights of nature for sustainable restoration and governance
Article
Full-text available
p>La realidad de la naturaleza entendida como un sistema en el que interaccionan elementos bióticos y abióticos dentro de ciertos umbrales y limites físicos de sustentabilidad y adaptación es un hecho irrebatible, por lo que es también incuestionable que las actividades humanas tienen que realizarse dentro de esos límites. Entre las causas estructurales graves que generan la destrucción de la naturaleza está el crecimiento demográfico y el consumo desaforado, lo cual atenta contra la premisa insalvable de que no se puede crecer al infinito en un mundo finito. El derecho tiene un compromiso ético con la naturaleza y con las presentes y futuras generaciones, porque defender la naturaleza es defender la vida de todas las especies; en consecuencia, la norma jurídica debe lograr que se respete la capacidad de sustento y regeneración natural de los ecosistemas.</p
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p>¿La sola innovación puede ser considerada como un avance? La carga emotiva de lo "nuevo", de lo "diferente" suele arrastrar una reacción entusiasta en muchos sectores, a la par suele provocar más de una resistencia. En el tema derechos de la naturaleza se ha desarrollado una literatura jurídica cada vez más extensa que la pondera como una contribución ecuatoriana al pensamiento jurídico mundial. Este trabajo es una revisión de la innovación constitucional, sus fundamentos, las categorías jurídicas involucradas, para realizar una evaluación inicial sobre el tema y sentar algunas bases a fin de entender si puede considerarse como una innovación trascendental o es una retórica jurídica al servicio de un proyecto político.</p
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Full-text available
p>La consagración de una nueva gama de principios ambientales, así como de novedosas figuras jurídicas de carácter rigurosamente ambiental, dentro del texto constitucional ecuatoriano, ubica al Ecuador en la lista histórica de países pioneros en el ejercicio del constitucionalismo ambiental. Con especial énfasis, este país ha planteado la antes inédita problemática forjada entre los nuevos principios constitucionales ambientales y aquellos principios tradicionales del derecho constitucional; además de haber incorporado a la Carta Política, como sujeto de derecho en sí mismo, a la “Naturaleza”, así como los derechos que como sujeto, le son propios.</p
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