Rights of Nature: Indigenous Perspective on Climate Action

Ecuador, despite its constitutional devotion to protect the Rights of Nature, is still allowing the installation of invasive projects such as the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) project.

The project was first launched in 2016 and intends on drilling almost 100 wells in the field of Yasuni National Park to extract 287m of crude oil. Former president Rafael Correa, who initiated the constitutional Rights of Nature as part of his presidential campaign, has now turned his back on his word that said project would alleviate poverty and boost economic growth. However, all of this comes at the expense of preserving the biodiverse space of Yasuni, which also increases the likelihood of colonizing the indigenous Waorani people who live in the park. The current president Lenin Moreno, who was celebrated for his environmental commitments by the United Nations, now faces a dilemma as he himself allows the project to continue. He however agreed to hold a referendum on whether to expand the project.

Cancillería 15 de septiembre de 2010 By Cancillería Ecuador (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Article 71 of the Ecuadorian Constitution, states that ‘Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes’. This is premised on the core beliefs of Buen Vivir, which loosely translates to ‘good living’ but more appropriately termed in kichwa ‘sumak kawsay’–a wealthy life coexisting with people and Nature. In this respect, the Western notion of nature-culture dualism is dismantled as Buen Vivir provides a decolonized platform that celebrates the interconnectedness and interdependence between nature and people. Thus citizenship is inclusive to humans, sentient creatures and other-than-humans.

The first successful application of the constitution dates back to March 2011 when Richard Wheeler and Eleanor Huddle presented the case of the mistreated Vilcabamba River. Despite winning over the provincial government, Richard and Eleanor claimed that because the concept was fairly new in the constitution, they had to fight harder to present a strong defense to the judge. In short, the main issue was the lack of awareness around the notion of ecocentricism in this indigenous philosophy, making it a struggle to properly administer the law itself.

The Flaws in the Constitution:

As revolutionary and groundbreaking Ecuador’s constitution is, it fails to strictly enforce Nature’s rights. It’s flawed characteristics cannot help but perpetuate anthropocentric and neoliberal model of the West. There is no clause that mandates informed consent by local communities, which remains one of the fundamental flaws of the constitution, says Mari Margil, Associate Director of the Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Mari also closely worked with members of Ecuador’s constitutional assembly on writing legally enforceable Rights of Nature.

Because of this, the government may adopt new laws that appear counterintuitive to the constitutional Rights of Nature. For example, in 2009, the Mining Law was established to allow for the extraction of non-renewable energy resources and open-pit mining operations. The law is easily enforced as it is authorized by the exception clause (Article 407), that requires only ‘substantiate request of the President of the Republic’. This not only infringes article 71 of the constitution, but also article 57 (5) that states to keep ownership of [indigenous] ancestral lands and territories.

The constitution also lacks a clearly defined standing doctrine. A defined standing doctrine determines whether the court will hear a particular lawsuit based on evidence the plaintiff provides. Even though the Vilcabamba case was successful, Richard and Eleanor struggled to present multiple environmental point of views to provide a compelling argument. In her article, ‘The Problem of Enforcing Rights of Nature under Ecuador’s Constitution: Why the 2008 Environmental Amendments have No Bite’, scholar Mary Whittemore suggests Ecuador could benefit from adding a ‘precautionary principle’ which will allow plaintiffs to sue before harm is even done. This principle, however, exists through an anthropocentric lens, with the intention of saving future generations so they can benefit from safer environments.

The values of Buen Vivir is more than simply benefitting from safer environments, it is about recognizing the agency of nature itself. Its sole existence is to place Nature’s worth as a fundamental and crucial element in the interdependent and reciprocal relationship among humans, sentient creatures, and other-than-humans.


 Is Constitutionalizing enough?

It is important to understand that the principle of ecocentrism in Buen Vivir is a challenging concept to the western way of knowing. The western way of knowing prefers to regard humankind as the most important element of existence while dismissing other lives such as sentient creatures and the other-than-human. While putting a new law in place is useful, systematic efforts must be taken to create awareness and embed values of Buen Vivir into society. To solidify such efforts, educating citizens through storytelling and promoting discourse around Rights of Nature may prevail.

Firstly, in order to foster education around Buen Vivir, increased participation with indigenous communities and the government remain essential. The lack of a direct relationship with indigenous peoples speak volumes to the unsuccessful execution of the law. For instance, in response to the backlash against the Mining Law, Correa himself shut down the Development Council of the Indigenous Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador (“CODENPE”) as well as delegitimize the National Directorate of Intercultural Bilingual Language (“DINEIB”) that supported the anti-mining protests. Instead of shunning them, it is important that there is an active role in sharing narratives as their spiritual relationship with the land, and their way of life is hugely impacted. Moreover, their important and valuable knowledge originates from building a responsible relationship with their surroundings that has been in place for more than thousands of years. Due to this, Buen Vivir undeniably creates a unique vision to climate action and sustainable living as it teaches people to think from a perspective of their surroundings. Hence, recognizing the agency of Nature itself. The role of engaged storytelling teaches citizens and politicians the essence of Buen Vivir, while devoting to a path of peace and solidarity. If the constitutional adoption of Buen Vivir remains, it is therefore pragmatic to hold a conversation that converges both worldviews.

Secondly, using a discourse around the Rights of Nature can help increase awareness about Buen Vivir and its values. The discourse will essentially be instrumentalized in the form of biopower. Drawn from Foucault’s influential work, ‘The History of Sexuality’, biopower is described as a way of knowing what life should be. This form of power is infiltrated in the most private spaces of life, allowing the power of the sovereign to strengthen. Its existence is designed to regulate population as well as discipline the body for economic purposes; and through a series of interventions, like surveillance and the discipline of the body, the sovereign manipulates citizens who may engage in any out of the norm activities in their households. For instance, during the 18th century, and arguably even today, homosexuality does not appear optimal to society because it does not fit with the productive and economic usefulness of the body. In fact, Foucault’s biopower helps explain why even today homosexual couples are seen ‘unfit’ for parenting, and are more likely to struggle to adopt a child than heterosexual couples. Through intervention, and the denial of citizen rights, the sovereign ensures the continuation of ‘what life should be’–a compulsory heterosexual relationship that is not only ideal for parenting but also for creating a disciplined and productive population.

Despite its dark history, biopower has a remarkable way of reaching people on an intimate level, providing an opportunity to re-evaluate and reclaim its power. It can be used as a consciousness-raising tool that may eventually lead to a promising shift in the current ways of thinking politically, culturally and socially. In this case, the shift from anthropocentric to ecocentric values.

 Using media as an instrument of biopower is effective as it is easily accessible. The discourse of Rights of Nature can effortlessly infiltrate into the private homes of people, making it easier for them to learn about the basic principles of Buen Vivir. For example, in the documentary David Suzuki’s Andean Adventure, they highlight what is a rather revolutionary use of technology–an activist game called the Age of Yasuni. The game was created to raise awareness about the Yasuni project and with the hopes of reaching people globally. With simply downloading the free game application, people are able to play the Age of Yasuni all around the world while also learning why the Yasuni Park should be saved. In this vein, constructing biopower as an educational tool may increase the number of informed citizens who will more likely use the constitution confidently and effectively.

 In conclusion, it appears that simply instating the constitutional rights of nature alone is inadequate in enforcing nature’s rights. It is more important to pay attention to the source of the problem rather than instituting a law that is only equipped for short-term fixes. That being said, with persistent efforts in educating people about Buen Vivir as well as listening and directly communicating with indigenous communities, Ecuador can redeem itself from its past mistakes and productively use its own constitution to defend Nature’s Rights.


Aarisha Elvi

Aarisha Elvi

Intern at InPRA
Aarisha has recently graduated from UBC with a Political Science Degree. Her interest lies in a myriad of political topics such as Latin American politics, Gender and Environmental politics as well as Indigenous-government relationships. After returning from her trip to Peru where she was living and learning with the Kichwa Lamista community, her vision, and understanding of the world has been hugely impacted. She primarily takes the lesson of storytelling and applies to all areas of her work and life
Aarisha Elvi

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