Pioneering a New System of “Rights-Based” Environmental Protection
In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to write the Rights of Nature into its National Constitution. Earlier this year, Bolivia recognized legal Rights of Mother Earth. And in the United States, some thirty local governments have enacted laws establishing Rights of Nature.
Such moves change the status of ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being treated as rights-bearing entities. Importantly, the new laws also grant authority to individuals, groups and governments to enforce and defend the Rights of Nature.
In 2011, the first Rights of Nature Constitutional cases were decided in Ecuador. In one, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the Vilcabamba River, to stop a highway construction project that was harming the river ecosystem and thereby violating the legal rights of the river. Environmental rights laws are clearly a potent weapon against environmental crimes, as well as a shield to protect the rights of nature.
Under a rights-based system of law, a river may be recognized as having the right to flow, and the flora and fauna that live in or depend upon a river may be recognized as having the right to thrive. This legal framework seeks to protect the natural ecological balance of that habitat.
Under existing law, people defending ecosystems can only recover damages based on an individual’s loss of use of that ecosystem. By contrast, a legal system of ecosystem rights would guarantee that the ecosystem’s right to exist and flourish could not be impaired. Damages would be measured by the damage inflicted on the ecosystem itself, and the cost of bringing that ecosystem back to its pre-damaged state.