Does Nature Have Rights?

Does Nature Have Rights? A Case from the NW Ecuadorian Cloud Forests

United Nations released a report warning that climate change is coming faster than predicted and that the world is losing time to act. Bio-cultural diversity loss contributes to the thrashing of livable planetary boundaries. As a cultural anthropologist and activist who has worked in NW Ecuador for more than thirty years, the zone Intag-Manduriacos has lessons for the world. Identified by global ecologists as a hotspot for biodiversity conservation, the local communities are at extreme risk of being turned into zones of mineral extraction. This potential catastrophic future comes despite Ecuadorians’ prescience in ratifying the 2008 Constitution of Monticristi, guaranteeing rights of Nature/Pachamama and cultural rights for the pluri-nationalities within Ecuador. Heralded by the global community as the first constitution to codify rights of Nature, Ecuadorians dared to transform rules of governance and created a legal blueprint for action to avert a grim climate future. The application of these rights in an area where biodiverse communities hold their cultural, economic, and hydrological systems together has both concrete and philosophical implications for us all.

Does Nature/Pachamama Really have Rights?

In 2017, right before President Correa left office, the Ecuadorian government announced new mining concessions, including Protected Forests. Protected Forests encompass approximately 6 million acres of land in Ecuador, and since 1994 have been foundational to the conservation of forests and the right to clean water.

A National Referendum in 2017 asked Ecuadorian citizens to value their ecological patrimony. More than two-thirds of adults voted they did not want extractive industries allowed in Protected Areas; however subsequent governments have identified extraction as a top priority in the National Plan for Development.

Is the world going to continue bungling towards the apocalypse?”
José DeCoux, Director Reserva Biológica Los Cedros, August 2018

Reserva Los Cedros consists of more than 12,000 hectares and has inspired diverse groups of co-citizens to join forces toward conservation stewardship. Global and local scientists, students, educators, naturalists, volunteers, guides, and visitors have been keen to document, conserve and promote life at Reserva Los Cedros. Research findings based on have been published in approximately two-hundred peer reviewed journals and/or chapters, advancing scientific knowledge, cultural exchange, and cooperation. Through biological research over the past quarter century, forest species have been documented, creating a baseline to measure change, while certain species stand out as bioindicators who monitor planetary health.

In 2018, miners set up an exploration camp in a remote area of Reserva Los Cedros. Allies of the Reserva led by local government filed a lawsuit in local courts to contest the exploration activities. The Cantonal court rejected their case because “no human groups lived in the Protected Forests,” stating that due to multi-species “lack of voice in the case, those filing the brief did not have standing.”

The allies and Cantonal/Municipal government appealed to the Provincial Court of Imbabura. June 2019, a three-judge panel made the arduous seven-hour journey on muleback to visit the abandoned mining camp deep within the wilderness, witnessing firsthand damages to the forest. The provincial judges recognized the value of these Protected Forests for water security in the villages in the Guayllabamba Valley below. With courage and attention to detail, they built precedence based on the rights of people, Nature/ Pachamama.

In response to this finding, the mining company appealed to Ecuador’s Constitutional [Supreme] Court in Quito. On October 19, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Judge Grijalva presided over the other Superior Court Judges. The video-conference court hearing was broadcast on Facebook-live and lasted for twelve hours thanks to testimony from mining officials, researchers, activists and community members. They spoke to whether the argument was really jobs versus Nature, or do we need a new model that harnesses local and global socio-ecological solidarity.

Community members spoke of their quality of life and right to clean water. Biologists and social scientists from across the world stressed that cloud forests are a rarity among rainforests, providing so many ecosystem services and contributing to socio-ecological wellbeing well beyond any one community’s territory: These forests and forest people are doing essential work for the planet. The hearing demonstrated how local and global communities can express their mutual interest in creating conditions for persistent, adaptive and resilient systems, including increased economic alternatives that promote a place at the table for forest people as well as multiple species.

Reserva Los Cedros and other Protected Forests safeguard Earth’s hydrological and biodiversity boundaries. However, policy makers are squeezed between a rock and a hard place by budget priorities and the power of international financial institutions to call in interest payments that exceed more than fifty percent of the country’s economy. In Ecuador, the tremendous courage to adhere to the Constitution would shake up and support community-based conservation to reach goals of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon by 196 countries in 2015. Imagine if even a quarter of what is spent on extractive projects was invested in community-based projects to restore and adapt for resilient futures.

The Constitutional Court of Ecuador has the power to reaffirm what Ecuadorian citizens and their representatives declared in 1994 (Protected Forests), in 2000 (Ecological Ordinance for the Cantón), in 2008 (Constitution of Monticristi), and in 2017 (National Referendum). Repeatedly, Ecuador’s electorate has stated that they value pluri-nationalities, Nature/Pachamama and each other. Reserva Los Cedros Protected Forests offer a place of refuge for Earth’s diverse abundance—an Ark for the twenty-first century where communities can also thrive. These sylvan landscapes unleash human imaginations and connect us spiritually, through the humanities and science to diverse ways of belonging to the world. We are only beginning to appreciate how these fragile landscapes yield such generous socio-ecological dividends for the common good.

Linda D’Amico is a cultural anthropologist who teaches at Winona State University.