Note: I just returned from a strategy meeting in San Francisco on ways to use the “Rights of Mother Earth” as a tool for advancing justice and opposing false and market-based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. Natalia Greene, of Fundación Pachamama, quoted below, was one of the participants. While there are a lot of divergent opinions on the best ways to utilize this tool, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, has been using it to marked success in stopping fracking in Pennsylvania. CELDF assisted the Congress of Ecuador in creating their new constitution, which recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples and Nature, and strips corporations of the rights of personhood.
–Anne Petermann, for the GJEP Team
Cross-Posted from The Saint Albert Gazette, Alberta, Canada, July 30, 2011
Local youth hear about Earth’s legal rights
In Ecuador, Mother Nature can take you to court.
It’s right in the country’s constitution, says Natalia Greene, who spoke to about 200 local youth at the University of Alberta this week, and it’s one of the many ways that indigenous knowledge can help us protect water.
“Nature is a slave right now,” she says.
While there are laws that ban pollution, those laws all treat nature as an object to be used by people. In 2008, her country became the first in the world to explicitly recognize the rights of nature in its constitution — an idea that came from Ecuador’s indigenous population.
Nature is like a plane, she says, and if we keep taking parts out of it, eventually it will crash.
“We are a part of nature,” she says. “If we don’t respect nature, we’re not respecting our rights.”
Greene is an environmentalist with the Fundación Pachamama in Ecuador, a group that helped rewrite the country’s constitution in 2008. She was one of many speakers in Edmonton this week to take part in the Global Youth Assembly, a youth conference meant to promote justice and human rights.
Ecuador is home to the Amazon rainforest and the Galapagos Islands, Greene says, and puts great value on its biodiversity. Recent deforestation and oil spills have caused the nation to rethink the nature of development.
Ecuador has about 14 different nationalities, many of which have close relations with nature. When Greene and other negotiators spoke to indigenous groups during constitutional talks, they realized that these people viewed nature as a person — a concept foreign to Western law.
“The judicial system we had developed with had forgotten nature,” she says.
Canada’s aboriginals have a similar view of nature, notes Danika Littlechild, a lawyer from the Ermineskin Cree Nation near Hobbema who specializes in water governance. The Cree word for “water” is “nipiy,” which is short for a phrase that means “I am life.”
“When you say ‘water’ in [Cree], you know it is alive,” said Littlechild, who also recalled one meeting where the elders actually brought water from a local water body to act as a representative of nature at the negotiations.
Nature goes to court
Ecuador decided to give nature the highest legal protection possible by putting it in its constitution, Greene says. The constitution makes specific reference to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and says that nature is subject to all the rights outlined in it. It also allows any resident to take the government to court on behalf of nature if he or she feels its rights have not been defended.
The first big test of this law came in the case of the Vilcabamba River last March, Greene says. A company had been building an illegal road by the river for three years, and had dumped so much rock into it that it had actually changed its course, causing floods. When a local group took the government to court over its inaction, the judge ordered the company to get the permits needed for the development and to repair the harm it had done.
The law hasn’t chased investors out of Ecuador, Greene says, as all it does is ask them to develop responsibly. But the government has been backsliding on it lately, as it was seeking mines and oil development for money to fund social programs.
About 100 American communities have now recognized the rights of nature, she notes, including Pittsburgh. She encouraged delegates to lobby their own governments and get the conversation about nature’s rights started.
“We need to have people understand that we are part of nature,” she says.