Ecuador’s constitutional amendment will benefit environment

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” So states the Declaration of Independence, when listing the rights granted to all citizens of the United States.

And, of course, we can’t forget the unalienable rights of the birds, bees, and trees — at least not if the people of the Republic of Ecuador vote to approve a newly constructed bill of rights for nature.
Ecuador is a country in South America that contains a multitude of ecosystems within its borders, including the Galapagos Islands. However, the country has recently seen a rise in pollution due to a growth in multi-national companies operating inside the country, which has resulted in a number of run-ins between the state and those corporations.

One case is that of the U.S. oil company Chevron, formerly Texaco, which has allegedly dumped billions of gallons of crude oil and toxic waste into the Amazon River over the past 20 years. Although Chevron claims that they passed off all responsibilities when they handed over the operations to Ecuadorian oil company Petroecuador, a verdict on the case is still pending.

While the verdict for this particular case is potentially still years away, the government of Ecuador has decided not to wait for a decision to keep a similar situation from happening with a different eco-unfriendly corporation.

Its suggested method for prevention is the new bill of rights that will grant unalienable rights to nature. It states: “Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights.”

Linda Siegele, a lawyer for the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development, based in the United Kingdom, believes that the proposed bill will help give legal protection to natural areas when there are competing interests, according to The Guardian.

The bill would protect areas like the Yasuni National Park, an area in Ecuador that houses more than a billion barrels of untapped crude oil. It is areas like these that the bill looks to regulate, areas that previously have not had any real legal protection against major oil companies looking for new places to drill.

Ecuador’s attempt to give unalienable rights to nature is certainly a step in a new direction — no country has ever attempted to bestow rights on something typically only thought of as property. With this new step, though, comes a number of new questions and complications.

For example, what exactly does it mean to give nature rights — or to identify its perhaps already inherent rights — and how does one protect those rights? Nature doesn’t have the means to protect these rights by itself, certainly, which means that whether or not the bill grants these rights to nature, it will still be up to people to protect these rights, which complicates the situation even more.

On the other hand, it is clear that the current plan of action for protecting nature is not exactly working out effectively. Regardless of the number of restrictions placed on companies concerning toxic waste dumping and other ways of polluting the natural environment, such corporations will continue to find loopholes around the regulations.

While there is no doubt that the green movement is growing and people’s concern for the environment is rising, it seems that simply restricting pollution by large corporations just isn’t a big enough step toward protecting the environment.

And the people of Ecuador seem to agree — polls show that 56 percent are in favor of the bill, and only 23 percent are not, according to The Guardian.

Maybe the Ecuadorian government does have the right idea: While there is no way to see how the rights this bill grants nature will be protected, at least Ecuador is on the right track, taking a proactive step.

By granting nature rights, Ecuador hopes to gain strength in the legal protection of the natural habitats of its country. Currently, there is no real way to make a strong case for the protection of nature in a courtroom; however, by legally acknowledging the rights of nature, a precedent will be set that must be followed.

In setting this precedent, the country likely hopes that it will discourage other large companies from coming in and adding to the already growing pollution.

Time will only tell whether the bill will be able to actually make a legal difference in the protection of the natural environment or just create more bureaucratic red tape and extensive, drawn-out court cases. Regardless of whether or not the bill is eventually passed or even obeyed, hopefully even the suggestion of such a bill is likely to introduce a change in citizens’ attitudes and make them more aware of protecting nature, which is an important first step toward real change.