Jaguars, spectacled bears, brown-headed spider monkeys, and plate-billed mountain toucans may all just breathe a little easier next week if Ecuadorians approve a new constitution in a referendum on Sunday that would grant these threatened animals' habitats with inalienable rights.
The new constitution gives nature the "right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution" and mandates that the government take "precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles."
"I think a lot of eyes will be on Ecuador this weekend" said Mari Margil, Associate Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
Margil and other members of the Defense Fund were invited as a result of their environmental litigation and legislative work with municipalities in the United States. They made several trips to Montecristi over the last year where they worked with members of Ecuador's constitutional assembly on drafting legally enforceable Rights of Nature, which Margil believes marks a watershed in the trajectory of environmental law.
Dr. Mario Melo, a lawyer specializing in Environmental Law and Human Rights and an advisor to Fundación Pachamama-Ecuador, said that the new constitution redefines people's relationship with nature by asserting that nature is not just an object to be appropriated and exploited by people, but is rather a rights-bearing entity that should be treated with parity under the law.
"In this sense, the new constitution reflects the traditions of indigenous peoples living in Ecuador, who see nature as a mother and call her by a proper name, Pachamama," said Melo.
Challenging Corporate Power
Ecuador's leadership on this issue just may have a global domino effect as the Defense Fund is now fielding calls from other countries such as Nepal, which is currently writing its first constitution. This could begin to make neoliberal development models obsolete and have a tremendous impact on multinational corporations, especially those in the extractive industries, from entering new markets and conducting "business as usual".
"I expect them to fight it," said the Defense Fund's Margil. "Their bread and butter is being able to treat countries and ecosystems like cheap hotels. Multinational corporations are dependent on ravaging the planet in order to increase their bottom line."
The class-action lawsuit in Ecuador against Chevron is a testament to Margil's forecast. Tens of thousands of Ecuadorians accuse the California-based company of dumping millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon (when it was formerly Texaco), and as a result causing massive environmental destruction and widespread health problems. Chevron, which could be forced to pay as much as $16 billion $16 billion, refuses to take responsibility and calls the action a "shakedown".
"The ultimate issue here is Ecuador has mistreated a U.S. company," a Chevron lobbyist who asked not to be identified told Newsweek in July. "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this-companies that have made big investments around the world."
Chevron is lobbying Congress to squeeze Ecuador on the issue by threatening to withhold the renewal of the Andean Trade Preference Act. Chevron took similar measures in 2006 by lobbying for the exclusion of Ecuador from Andean Free Trade Agreement negotiations as retribution for the lawsuit--something Democratic Presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) criticized at the time in a letter to then U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.
Jorge Daniel Taillant, President of the Center for Human Rights and Environment (in Argentina), recently wrote that, "The crude reality of the Chevron lobbyist comment, brings home what few politicians or oil industry representatives want to admit, that our societies have been unsuccessful in properly balancing our need for oil and containing the negative impacts that this industry has on our natural and social environment."
It is this lack of success, as vindicated by the symptoms of global warming, and which are becoming all too apparent, that for Margil emphasize the urgent need to try something different, like what's being proposed in Ecuador. But even this might not be far enough.
For all of the hope and tangible progress the Rights of Nature articles in Ecuador's proposed constitution represent, there are shortcomings and contradictions with the laws and the political reality on the ground.