Ecuador, producer of bananas, cocoa, tuna, prawns, flowers and crude oil (in addition to native handicrafts like the trademark Panama hat), is considering including the rights of nature in its new constitution. Not just human rights, mind you, or even equal rights, though the new constitution will include these as well, but the right of nature to receive protection as a tangible entity. The idea is so novel, there is no precedent from which to proceed.
Just how does a country go about insuring equal rights for nature? Human rights are easy to dictate, if occasionally hard to arbitrate. Even human rights for corporations, as established in the U.S. in the late 19th century, are workable, if one simply regards the corporation as an entity like the human body. Nature, however, is more amorphous; not an entity so much as a combination of conditions. Yet Ecuador intends to fashion a bill of rights to safeguard the rights of the air, earth and water in much the same way the U.S. Bill of Rights was designed to protect Americans, before increasing encroachment by the Bush administration.
Ecuadorians, by and large, agree with the idea, even where they are uncertain how to implement such a far-reaching concept. They agree because Ecuador’s history is one long saga of despoilment by foreigners who usurp the country’s riches and leave behind a legacy of pollution, sickness and poverty. Ecuador is the advance wave in a turning of the tide as developing nations throw off the yoke of colonialism and determine to keep their natural resources for themselves.
Take cacao, or chocolate, which is indigenous to Ecuador and was introduced to Europe by the Spaniards who conquered this small country perched between a mountain range and the Pacific Ocean. By 1600, chocolate had become the beverage of choice in wealthy, European households, rivaling only coffee (two beverages which this writer believes contributed to the Renaissance). Constant harvesting and minimal replanting over the intervening four centuries have led to increasingly poor production, with introduction of cacao trees to Africa and the Philippines leaving modern Ecuador seventh in chocolate production worldwide. In spite of this, Ecuadorian children are still used in cacao harvesting, and poverty continues to define 90 percent of the population.
Bananas are a similar harvest of woes. Banana plantations, as run by the infamously greenwashing Dole Corporation, are poisoned acres of anti-union, low-wage cultivation and harvesting where working conditions approach appalling. Child labor is common, and many children continue harvesting while the plantations are sprayed with pesticides.
Oil production is another nightmare of magnitude, with Texaco (now Chevron) delivering on the order of 18,000 gallons of pollutants in a two-decade span to the water, land and people of Ecuador, or roughly one-tenth of a gallon of poison per head. The paltry $40 million Texaco finally spent on cleanup represents 1/100th of Chevron’s profits for a single year.
It comes as no surprise that the people of Ecuador want their land back, and want to exclude foreign investment and development. Nor is it surprising that Ecuadorians want the beauty of their landscape protected under this new constitution, scheduled for completion in mid-May. Ecuador contains nine distinct ecosystems, including the Amazonian tropical rainforest, and each is more varied and beautiful than the last. When one has this kind of national treasure, it would be foolish to throw it away or sell it to strangers who see only the green of dollars, not landscapes.
The process of defining this new constitution, which began in 2007, will lead to the first national charter of its kind to specifically outline the Rights of Nature, and will revoke an existing constitution under which corporations are given rights (as they are in the U.S.) whose real purpose is to suborn the democratic process and destroy entire ecosystems on the premise that nature is simply property, to be ravaged for the corporate good.
Ecuador faces a tremendous challenge. Not only do legislators have to define these complex rights, and establish a paradigm under which to enforce them, but they have to resist importunate multinational corporations who would bribe, steal and lie their way to Ecuador’s resources. A draft of the proposed text states:
Natural communities and ecosystems possess the inalienable 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. Suits brought to enforce those rights shall be filed in the name of the natural communities or ecosystem whose rights have been violated, damages shall be awarded to fully restore the natural communities or ecosystems, and awarded damages shall be applied exclusively towards returning the natural community or ecosystem to its previous state.In addition to making corporations financially responsible for their messes, the new Ecuadorian constitution will likely outlaw foreign military bases on its soil, specifically U.S. bases.
Faced with this double-edged sword of Ecuadorian autonomy, multinational corporations will likely begin investing in other cheap and easy countries like Africa and Asia. The Ecuadorians are okay with this; in fact, they intend to go so far as making water a fundamental human right, and prohibiting its privatization. American money has brought them nothing but misery. This new constitution is a landmark statement defining the right of the natural world to exist unharmed, and trumps America’s paltry efforts at conservation and emissions reductions – policies which are currently dictated by the hand offering the biggest financial reward to politicians.
I applaud you Ecuador. Even if you don’t entirely succeed, you have embarked on an experiment that sends a clear message to the nations of the world. Nature is not to be used, violated and then ignored, and we do so at our own peril, as evidenced by the global warming that currently threatens even wealthy nations with want.