Exploring the Rights of Nature in Ecuador

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Thanks to the generosity of a few Yale fellowships (Summer Environmental Fellowship, Steven Clarke Senior Essay Award, Franke Fellowship, and the Pierson Richter Fellowship), I am currently in Ecuador conducting research for my senior thesis for the Environmental Studies major. My thesis research is inspired by the “Rights of Nature,” a legal and cultural movement where Nature is given legal standing in court. Similar to how corporations are considered “persons” in the eyes of the law, the Rights of Nature often grants personhood to ecosystems, certain environmental features (mountains, rivers, forests, etc.), or Nature in its entirety. Recognizing the Rights of Nature means that citizens, government-appointed guardians, municipalities, and others can represent Nature in court, allowing someone to “speak for the trees” so to say.     

Although the Rights of Nature has its modern legal roots in the US in the seventies, it was Ecuador in 2008 that became the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in its Constitution. Since then, the movement has gained momentum around the world, with dozens of American communities, tribal nations, and a variety of international communities and nations granting Rights to Nature. For a working map of Rights of Nature legislation and cases around the world that I have been working on as part of my non-academic work for the Earth Law Center, click here.

In preparation for my senior thesis for the Environmental Studies major at Yale, then, I wished to travel to Ecuador to interview lawyers, judges, academics, plaintiffs that have represented Nature in court, activists, indigenous peoples, government officials, and energy/oil/mining officials about the Rights of Nature and what the Rights of Nature means to them, the place it has in Ecuadorian society and law, and the history of its inclusion in the Constitution. Having just finished the second of six weeks in Ecuador, I have thus far had an exciting and informative adventure. So far, I have completed eleven interviews but am unsurprisingly still struggling to find an energy/mining/oil company willing to meet with me. I spent my first week in Quito where I interviewed academics, prominent activists, and government officials about Rights of Nature and its role in Ecuador, and then traveled to the Amazon to discuss the Rights of Nature with environmental activists and indigenous Kichwa people who live along the Rio Napo and Rio Tiputini, tributaries of the Amazon. I am currently in the historic mountain town of Cuenca, where I am planning on meeting with judges and plaintiffs. I then plan to travel to the coast (Guayaquil, Salinas, etc.) for a week before heading to the Galapagos for ten days, where my on-the-ground research will conclude. 

Interview with Stephanie Avalos, Ecuador’s Secretary of Climate Change

In addition to the research, I have had the chance to experience Ecuador’s incredible natural beauty and culture first hand. From hiking Mt. Cotopaxi to trekking and swimming in the jungle (and hopefully finding a few days to surf and snorkel on the coast), I have been lucky to find days without formal interviews and research.

Although there are many fascinating aspects of Rights of Nature in Ecuador that I am exploring, one common and disconcerting theme I am discovering and wish to explore more is the fact that the current Constitution (written in 2008) can be quite contradictory. In addition to granting the Rights of Nature, the Constitution also legalizes the state’s authority to mine and extract oil, and likewise guarantees the ability of communities to “sustainably develop”, which often means progressing to an energy-intensive society. These three legal activities (oil extraction, mining, and development) almost always directly clash with the Rights of Nature, and the government and courts have not yet adequately reconciled for these clashes, even though it has been more than then years since the Rights of Nature were guaranteed in the Constitution. Looking forward, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador (the closest equivalent to the Supreme Court in the US) is meant to decide (by the end of July) on a case that directly addresses the clashes between Rights of Nature, community rights, and sustainable development (through a hydroelectric dam). This case may prove to be incredibly important nationally and internationally for environmental law, as it can set a legal precedent for the application and role of the Rights of Nature.

Although I still have a few weeks to go, I am very pleased with my research and experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have here in Ecuador. It is an amazing opportunity, and I – like many others – believe that Rights of Nature can and should play an influential role in the future of our world.

Quito and Mt. Cotopaxi, as seen from Rucu Pichincho