Ecuador’s Rights of Nature

Anna writes*

Environmental degradation has occurred because of the tension between growth and sustainability, where renewable resources were exploited at a rate higher than they be can restored, and nonrenewable resources were used without regard to their stocks (Weiskopf et al., 2020). Further, climate change-intensified natural disasters are predicted to lead to up to $12.5 trillion in economic losses by 2050 (WEF, 2024). To limit further degradation and minimize the economic impacts of climate change, better techniques to protect the environment are needed.

“Rights of Nature” (RoN) is a proposed solution to these problems where either ‘naturehood’ or ‘personhood’ is given to natural entities so that degradation can be directly legally argued as injury (Ogboru, 2024). RoN has the potential to make legislation less anthropocentric and place humans within an ecological system. On the other hand, its lack of clarity may result in it becoming another failed attempt to protect the environment. The primary question regarding RoN is whether it is effective in limiting environmental degradation and pollution.

Ecuador was the first country to enshrine the RoN (Kauffman & Martin, 2017). In 2008 after pressure from indigenous and environmental groups, the constitution was amended based on principles of the Buen Vivir lifestyle (Kauffman & Martin, 2017; Ogboru, 2024). Interestingly, Ecuador’s economy is based on extractivism which directly contrasts the goal of protecting nature’s resources (Kauffman & Martin, 2021). Thus we can investigate cases in Ecuador to determine if and how RoN can protect the environment.

Early implementation was delayed and insufficient, for example the case of the Vilacambra River, where a road development project dumped debris into the river, which caused flooding. The court ruled in favor of the river, setting stipulations that the company needed to conduct an environmental impact assessment, create and conduct a remediation plan, and set up a monitoring compliance mechanism. Although the ruling was in favor of the plaintiffs, none of the mandates were followed, resulting in a secondary claim to the constitutional court in 2012. However, this ruling was stalled for six years, and the government complied with the environmental impact assessment during that time (Ogboru, 2024).

In a 2021 case, the Ministry of Mining granted a license to exploit Los Cedros, a mega-diverse forest. The Constitutional Court blocked the license, citing RoN as a legal mandate. The court’s ruling is an example of using the precautionary principle to prevent irreversible harm. The court also ordered  that public servants be trained to defend RoN. This case was seen as a significant step in normalizing the use of RoN in in court (Ogboru, 2024).

Initial attempts to implement RoN were flawed because plaintiffs had to sue and judgements were not enforced. Jurisprudence is now strengthening, and 10 out of 13 cases relying on RoN have succeeded (Kauffman & Martin, 2017).

Bottom Line: Rights of Nature can protect the environment — once precedents are set.

* Please help my Real Donut Economics** students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

** Why “Real”? In short, because (a) Raworth’s claims to being a “21st century economist” denies that all of her ideas were presented by others in the 20th century and (b) she presents no viable mechanisms (besides “be nice”) for achieving equality and sustainability. My students are more realistic. In long? Read this.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Ecuador’s Rights of Nature”

  1. Great post. It is really impressive to see that RoN works for a country that based its economy on extractivism. It made me wonder how this law can be implemented in richer countries or what impacts arise from implementing RoN in countries subject to exploitation through global outsourcing?

    1. Hey Anna, thanks for an interesting post. I wanted to ask about the problem of enforcement with this solution. Do you think that there should be for example and international court for ecocide or similar tools? Do you think that following the model of ICC this could help more than the RoN solution? Or do you think these could co-exist? My concern with RoN is holding private companies accountable for their actions internationally since even nation vs. nation this is not very effective(Putin).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *