Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador
Ecuador has just ratified a new constitution overflowing with innovations that make it a trail-blazing 21st Century governing document. Environmental awareness and protection are recognized on a particularly high level in response to present day revelations about local destruction of habitat and species as well as planetary climate change. These are covered as extensively as might be hoped for in sections of the new document titled “Good Life” and “Biodiversity and Natural Resources”. But there is more than even environmentalists have previously sought. It is the first constitution in the world to grant “Rights of Nature.”
Nature in Ecuador is now recognized to fully possess the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its natural cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” To ensure these rights the government is responsible for “precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems or the permanent alteration of natural cycles.”
The concept isn’t brand new. Wilderness advocates and leading ecologists such as Raymond Dasmann pleaded to grant legal rights to Nature nearly half a century ago, and it has been the subject of numerous “deep ecology” and some law articles and books. What is new to the point of near incomprehension is that this idea is now part of Ecuador’s national purpose. Consider the broadest possibilities for interpretation. Don’t the processes of resources extraction, manufacturing, energy production, large-scale agriculture, mass transportation, housing development, and nearly all other operations of contemporary society interfere with wild Nature? No one yet knows what laws will follow to carry out the intent of the new constitution, or how they will be applied. Imagine when the U.S. constitution first granted life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We will have to wait to discover what “Rights of Nature” actually means. This much is clear, the prospects for human consciousness have just widened considerably.
How did this happen in a country previously unknown for advanced ecological policies? There are at least as many themes in the national character of Ecuador as in any other country, but two stand out with undeniable clarity. One is that it has a continuous basis in Nature that is close and powerful. The other is that Ecuadorians are able to adapt rapidly to changes – ideas, technology, and fashion. It may have taken time for them to see the effects of large-scale environmental destruction but they have decided to stop it now in the firmest terms.
The grand scale of Ecuador’s natural attributes and their significance to the rest of the world is a fixture in the national mind. A transit across the country starts with the Galapagos Islands offshore where Darwin formulated his evolution theories, continues to the coast on the Pacific Ocean which is often unpeopled and wild, moves inland to cloud forests with world-leading numbers of unique birds, plants and insects, ascends to extremely high peaks and major active volcanoes in the Andes Mountains, and finally encounters vast and dense Amazon Basin rain forests feeding oxygen to the planet’s atmosphere. It is no accident that the country is the only one named for an earthly phenomenon, the equator that was first discovered there.
The speed of change can be neck-breakingly excessive. The worst result has been a long history of fast boom-bust agricultural innovations in this food-producing nirvana, most recently ruinous shrimp-farming that denuded habitat-harboring mangroves and pollutes main estuaries. Rapid transition can also bring undoubted benefits like Guayaquil’s startling reversal from the worst-rated urban area in the world only ten years ago to today’s notably attractive and amenable largest city in the nation. To keep Ecuador’s equilibrium, almost half of the population still remains culturally indigenous with loyalties to traditional communities, and most people retain allegiances to large families that have a prevailing influence in social and economic relations. These socially conservative factors act like ballast as Ecuador roars past.
The monumental presence of Nature itself and a cultural flair for change account in a large part for how “Rights of Nature” came to be, and will likely continue to shape the way they are interpreted in the legal laboratory of constitutional law.
Maria Soledad Vela is a journalist and professor who has lived in the mid-coastal Ecuadorian city of Bahia de Caraquez for twenty-one years. She has abundant intelligence and quick humor that tends toward revealing human qualities and conditions, and the overall manner of a multi-faceted professional.
Without any previous practical political experience beyond an unsuccessful trial bid to become a member of Bahia’s city council in 2004, Maria ran as a Constitutional Assembly representative from the State of Manabi three years later and won. She commuted one hundred kilometers to the historically important city of Montecristi where the Assembly was held. It produced the constitution that was accepted in a national plebiscite in September.
The Assembly structure called for 130 representatives (asambleistas) divided thirteen each among ten committees termed mesas (tables), and a general assembly to approve the final document. Maria Soledad belonged to Mesa 1 “Guarantees and Rights” which produced some of the most philosophically and politically advanced measures in this penultimately important document. It was here that “Rights of Nature” was introduced and debated for the first time as a national policy.
*Interview transcription to follow in Winter 2008 Planet Drum PULSE available from Planet Drum Foundation/PO Box 31251/San Francisco CA 94131/USA or email email@example.com.