The following post was co-written by Osprey Orielle Lake & Shannon Biggs.—
A Summit on the Equator, Seeking New Rules for Nature
Hosted by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN), leaders of the emerging Rights of Nature movement gathered for an international summit in Pensaqui, Ecuador from January 13-17, 2014. We gathered to take stock of where we’ve been and create a unified strategy toward next steps around the world. Specifically, we wanted to assess the experiences of places like Ecuador and Bolivia where national laws have been put in place to give nature legal standing—and in US communities where nature’s rights have also been recognized.
Striking Fear in Ecuador: President Correa attacks our allies
Holding the meeting in Ecuador was particularly poignant, as President Correa‘s policies and desire to expand oil production have come sharply into conflict with the Constitutional provision guaranteeing nature’s right to “exist, thrive and regenerate its vital cycles.” Tension began to build in the months leading up to the Summit and exploded in December, when Correa’s Minister of Environment passed an executive order to arbitrarily and illegally dissolve the offices of our allied organization, the Quito-based non-governmental organization, Fundación Pachamama, falsely accusing them of terrorist acts. Fundacion Pachamama played a key role in bringing Rights of Nature forward to the Constitutional Assembly, and is a strong ally for Indigenous communities throughout Ecuador in pursuit of maintaining their traditional lands and livlihoods. Following the police shut-down of their offices, Correa then took to the airwaves in his weekly public address, to accuse our allies of “fomenting dissent and violence,” calling our activists by name and creating a state of fear for anyone who might speak out against his plans for massive extraction and oil plundering of the Amazon basin, particularly in the Yasuni National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. A single hectare of the Park contain over 2,000 plant species, 600 species of birds, 150 kinds of amphibians, and is home to two Indigenous tribes, who have protected this diversity.
Among the ways internationals were asked to support their struggle, we signed a referendum to President Correa, asking him not to abandon the Yasuni-ITT. News of our summit’s activities reached various international media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal.
Sign the Petition to pressure the Correa government of Ecuador to re-open Fundacion Pachamama
Ancient Wisdom, New Laws: The Movement for Rights of Nature
Though it may seem unlikely given our current lifestyle, for most of human history we as a species have seen ourselves as part of nature, though over time Western societies began to assume a dominant stance toward the rest of the natural world. The Rights of Nature movement draws on Indigenous wisdom in positing a new jurisprudence that recognizes the right of nature in all its forms to exist, persist, evolve and regenerate.
Nearly 100 grassroots organizations in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe are members of the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature, advancing the Rights of Nature movement in their municipalities, counties, provinces and countries. The Rights of Nature movement is grounded in the worldview that humans are part of an interdependent community of the web of life. All of our human social, economic, cultural, and governance constructs are completely interdependent on the well being of forests, plants, animals, atmosphere, oceans, rivers, ecosystems and all the beings of our living planet. The Rights of Nature movement also emerges philosophically and spiritually out of a sense of the wonder, beauty and awe that the natural world has inspired in humans and our understanding of the sacredness of life.
The first three days of the Summit were held in a historic hacienda where Simon Bolivar once stayed in Pinsaqui, Ecuador near Otovalo, known for its Indigenous market. Sixty leaders from around the world met for these strategic conversations. Each morning leaders hailing from Australia, Switzerland, South Africa, United States, Spain, Canada, India, Romania, Bolivia, Argentina, and the United Kingdom, as well as Ecuador started the day with spiritual ceremonies led by Indigenous leaders, grounding our meetings in deep connection with nature.
In-depth conversations at the Summit ranged from furthering legal cases for establishing Rights of Nature legislation worldwide to establishing and aiming toward democratic rights – not just who governs but how governing happens and who it is for. Governments are in the business of protecting property and commerce and this needs to change to upholding rights of people and natural world. Corporate rights and power, no matter where in the world we look, are currently more powerful than “we the people.” Consequently, unless we address corporate rights in our legal system, we don’t have democratic power.
Indigenous leaders at the gathering pointed out that we really cannot have Indigenous rights without recognition of rights of Mother Earth; they go hand in hand. Another issue very critical to the work of Indigenous peoples is their Cosmo-vision as Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network from North America and Blanca Chancoso, Kichwa leader and educator from Cotacachi, Ecuador expressed. They shared how their origin stories and Cosmo-vision reach beyond philosophical concepts and how it is very important that we have an integrated worldview when we develop principals of rights and when we are looking for new structures of democracy and rights of Mother Earth.
The final two days of the summit were held in Quito, which began with two meetings: one with Ecuadorian and international attorneys to further explore the legal aspect of Rights of Nature; and one with Indigenous women leaders from many different regions of the Amazon and Vandana Shiva, who delivered a deeply inspirational talk to the leaders. This was a particular highlight for the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus (WECC) and our international network, the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) because we have recently launched a Women for Forests and Fossil Fuel Resistance program which partners with women in the Amazon and other rainforest communities. The meeting afforded the opportunity to have an in-depth deliberation about the resistance movements in various regions of Ecuador and how women are fighting to protect the rainforest and their way of life.
As they expressed their different views on wealth and Buen Viver (well-living or well-being) we were offered delicious roasted corn that the women had grown and prepared. One woman conveyed her experience of traveling to several cities in the United States and observing how people in the cities have only one kind of corn to eat and that it is also the same exact corn that the animals are fed. She said she was sorry people were so poor in the U.S. with having only one kind of corn because she and her community grow over ten different varieties of corn. They have special corn for all kinds of different activities, ceremonies and times of the year. This is in part what is meant by living well as defined by Indigenous peoples, the wealth of diversity, which is central to the idea of Rights of Nature, Rights of Mother Earth.
The first step toward a permanent Tribunal on the Rights of Nature
The final day of the Summit, the Global Alliance held the world’s first Ethical Tribunal on the Rights of Nature. Representing Global Exchange as one of a handful of global “witnesses” testifying to the worst violations of Nature’s Rights, it was a far more powerful event than we could have anticipated, essentially giving voice to the Earth.
Native rights activist Casey Camp-Horinek (Ponca from Oklahoma, US) and Patricia Gualinga, an Indigenous of the Amazon and director of Sayaku, set the stage for the day, providing expert witness testimony on the meaning and importance of recognizing the Rights of Mother Earth. Their words were met with tears by many, and thunderous applause by the 500 person audience. Chaired by Vandana Shiva, physicist and internationally renowned environmental activist, this “Seed” Tribunal was a hearing of nine cases to determine their admissibility for adjudication at a later Tribunal.The cases were:
- Chevron-Texaco pollution case (Ecuador) presented by Julio Prieto;
- Fracking (USA) presented by Shannon Biggs;
- BP Deep Horizon oil spill (USA) by Esperanza Martínez;
- Yasuní-ITT oil project (Ecuador) by Carlos Larrea;
- Great Barrier Reef destruction by coal mines (Australia) by Michelle Maloney;
- Condor Mirador open-pit copper mine (Ecuador) by Nathaly Yépez;
- Persecution of Defenders of Nature (Ecuador) by Carlos Pérez;
- Genetically Modified Organisms (International) by Elizabeth Bravo; and
- Climate Change (International) by Pablo Salon.
The first members of the Ethics Tribunal for the Rights of Nature and Mother Earth were: Alberto Acosta, economist and former president of the Constituent Assembly from Ecuador; Blanca Chancoso, Kichwa leader and educator from Cotacachi, Ecuador; Cormac Cullinan, lawyer and author (Wild Law), Earth Democracy Coop, Cape Town, South Africa; Tom Goldtooth, Dine’/Dakota, director of Indigenous Environmental Network, Minnesota, USA; Julio César Trujillo, constitutional lawyer for Yasunidos, Ecuador; Elsie Monge, human rights activist and president of CEDHU and FIDH, Ecuador; Atossa Soltani, founder and director of Amazon Watch, USA; Enrique Viale, environmental lawyer, Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Tantoo Cardinal, actress (Dances with Wolves) and activist from the Tar Sands of Canada.
The Ethics Tribunal for Rights of Nature offered the potential to explore how we can change the paradigm of our governance. The current path we are on is predictably a path of human extinction. The Tribunal allowed for reflection on what are the possibilities of surviving on Earth in our own peoples’ court since our traditional courts are not listening. Hearing cases in this kind of platform can give us insight as we make Rights of Nature real in every sphere of the way we think of science, economy, democracy, politics, and what we value and our work.
After the hearing of each case, Special Earth Prosecutor Ramiro Ávila from Ecuador argued with great passion and conviction for the Tribunal to admit all nine cases in the name of the ecosystems, species and indigenous peoples in isolation that were being represented. Members of the Tribunal admitted all the cases. The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature also agreed that the Tribunal for Rights of Nature will become permanent and will hear cases around the world in the future.
Amazon Watch captured these comments from Chair of the Tribunal, Vandana Shiva, who spoke directly about Ecuador,” I condemn the actions of Chevron and BP and I stand with those indigenous communities who have won their case against Chevron. She went on to say, “I ask Ecuador’s President and the National Assembly to not give up the vision, the dream of Yasuni. Everyone can drill, but Ecuador would dream bold by having the rights of nature in its constitution and creating the vision of Yasuni ITT.” In closing, Dr. Shiva called for the cases that were admitted by the Tribunal “to be deepened until the rights of Mother Earth become the framework for governing our lives.”
Osprey Orielle Lake is the Founder/President of The Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus (WECC) and is Co-Chair of International Advocacy with the Global Alliance for the Rights Of Nature. She is the author of the award-winning book, Uprisings For The Earth: Reconnecting Culture with Nature.
Shannon Biggs is the Director of the Community Rights program at Global Exchange, where she assists communities to enact binding laws that place the rights of communities and nature above the claimed legal “rights” of corporations. She is the co-author of two books including, The Rights of Nature. She is a founder of GARN, and co-chairs the International Advocacy Committee.