Ecuador scored a victory yesterday for Mother Nature (or Pachamama as she is called by the indigenous people) by becoming the first country in the world to establish a Bill of Rights for the environment. Initial results say that 65 percent of Ecuadorians voted to approve a new constitution that includes a bill to grant inalienable rights to nature, blending Western modes of legal thought with native Ecuadorian respect for the natural world. The Bill of Rights, drafted by the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), states that “nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

Ecuador is home to 13.3 million people, nearly every ecosystem in South America, and just enough oil — 1.2 billion barrels of crude — to cause trouble for its citizens. Ecological and human treasures such as the Amazon River, the Galapagos Islands, and at least 2 “uncontacted” Amazonian tribes have come under threat since discovery of the country’s oil. The country is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Chevron over the petroleum giant’s dumping of tons of oil in unlined pits over two decades, contaminating the groundwater system in defiance of international law. Chevron denies the allegations, but the people of Ecuador are determined to avoid such disasters in the future by changing the legal status of Ecuador’s forests, water, air and islands from property to a right-bearing entity, similar to the status granted to the South American republic’s human citizens.

How the bill will be put into practice is, as yet, unclear. Some within the country even believe it to be “populist greenwashing,” because President Correa wants to expand mining and petroleum operations within Ecuador to alleviate poverty at the same time that he is advocating this new bill. Also, the bill doesn’t include a clause mandating prior and informed consent by communities for any development project that would affect their local ecosystems. At this stage, it’s too early to say how the bill will be implemented — if at all — but the fact that it was put in the constitution at all is certainly significant.

What makes this bill so extraordinary is that currently, no matter how polluted or degraded an ecosystem may be, environmental litigation can only be pursued against the polluter if the plaintiffs can prove direct human injury. You can’t sue on behalf of the environment itself, which works to the advantage of multinational corporations that exploit natural resources in developing countries without bothering to clean up afterwards. Ecuador completely changes that paradigm, redefining the legal relationship between humans and nature. Who knows? If eco rights become a trend, maybe our friend the Lorax will lawyer up and learn to speak legalese for the trees we’re cutting down as fast as we please.

Story by Rachel Brown. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008