Can nature have rights?
“Nature, or Pacha Mama where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.
All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature. (…)” Art. 71 Chapter 7 Rights of Nature – Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution.
Ecuador was the first country in the world to include the rights of nature in its constitution in 2008. The following year it was Bolivia’s turn.
Both constitutions were given much impetus by environmental justice movements. The Andean region has shown its activism in recognizing the rights of nature with proposals in Latin America and the UN. Interest in recognizing the rights of nature has extended globally in recent years , including in India, Mexico, the United States, Nepal, New Zealand and Turkey, at national and local levels.
The rights of nature enshrine the right of ecosystems and natural communities (including human beings) to exist and maintain their traits, without being considered only assets to be exploited. Earth jurisprudence differs in this sense from classic e nvironmental law, which considers nature worthy of protection only when affecting it puts human existence at risk.
Alessia Romeo – Cies Onlus
What intergenerational and intragenerational justice are?
The concept of intergenerational justice draws from the better-known concept of environmental sustainability though it shifts the focus from development — a principle increasingly questioned — to fairness. J.M. Alier has discussed ecological distribution of the use of resources or environmental services, such as biodiversity, and of the burdens borne, such as pollution.
There can be ecological distribution over time (between different generations) and in space (between different places in the same period of time). A clear example of this type of distribution is nuclear energy; it is a benefit (as long as there are no accidents, that is) for present generations that will be paid by future generations in the form of radioactive waste. A crucial aspect is the use of carbon space or the carbon budget.
In more than a century of industrialization, the countries of the Global North have emitted so much CO2 in the atmosphere that it dramatically limits the carbon space available for future generations, who will have to deal with changes that have already been triggered and are irreversible. Putting the issue in terms of fairness also means recognizing that now some parts of the world are enjoying all the benefits of development (safe, comfortable housing, energy, high standards of living and consumption) while others are paying all the costs, as is the case of climate hot spots, areas directly threatened by climate change.
The concept of intergenerational justice must therefore be closely tied to that of intragenerational justice. The challenge to more equally distribute burdens and benefits was taken up in 2011 by another country in the Global South, Ecuador, with a plan to preserve the forests of the Yasunì — biodiversity and oxygen reserves for the entire world — as long as the world community would share the burden of the lost revenue from the oil not extracted.
The courageous project resonated throughout the world. Though President Correa declared it a failure in 2013 (due to the non-fulfillment of the states that had initially joined), it still suggested a path to take for genuine international solidarity for the costs and benefits to be divided fairly — truly — now and in the future.
Irene Fisco – Cies Onlus
Environmental Justice, or EJ, generally refers to the right of communities and citizens to live in a clean and healthy environment, according to their wishes and cultures, and without being harmed or affected by any economic or industrial activity.
EJ is a response from local communities and activists to the pressure on their local areas by industries and extractive activities like mining, dams, deforestation, nuclear plants, incinerators and waste disposal areas, etc., the uneven power in global trade, and lack of democracy on the ground.
The first to apply the concept in their daily struggles were Black and Latino communities in the United States in the 1980s, who denounced pollution and degradation happening in their neighborhoods and the lack of proper clean-up by industries and compensation by public authorities.
They drew attention to “environmental racism“ the link between pollution, race and poverty, and showed how they were disproportionately subjected to environmentally hazardous activities because of fewer economic alternatives, less political and economic power, and consequently many risks connected to activities being ignored. In response to this issue, the United States Environmental Protection Agency defines EJ as follows: “The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, sex, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”.
The concept of EJ then travelled around the world, inspiring and being enriched by many other groups and struggles. The South African Environmental Justice Networking Forum, for example, defines EJ as a matter of “social transformation directed towards meeting basic human needs and enhancing our quality of life […]. In linking up environmental and social justice issues, the environmental justice approach seeks to challenge the abuse of power that leads to poor people suffering the effects of environmental damage caused by the greed of others”.
As the South African network points out, environment and social issues always go hand in hand as inseparable spheres of community life. Like urban communities, many rural communities whose lives and livelihood have been severely affected by mining, deforestation, dams, industrial pollution, nuclear plants, etc. have been fighting for decades to preserve their local areas. Indigenous communities in forests rich in waters, minerals or precious wood are a widespread example; this often happens in marginalized areas, where people have less power to oppose, or where their voices are least heard and most violently repressed. In the meanwhile, natural resources extraction is dramatically increasing due to high consumption rates of a tiny part of the world population (the so-called Global North) and the accumulation of profit by transnational corporations.
It has become clear how environmental injustice and global inequalities are two sides of the same coin; while the top 1% now own more than 48% of global wealth, the bottom half of the global population owns 1%. Ironically enough, then, areas with high rates of environmental damages and pollution are also the ones that most suffer climate change impacts as they are left more vulnerable to erosion, floods, etc.
Daniela Del Bene – CeVi
Exemples of Environmental Injustice
These are five examples of environmental injustice, drawn from the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice and Resistance. They are described along with a brief summary of the underpinning national political economy and international trade. They show how these aspects are all interrelated and stress the importance of understanding environmental justice both from a local community-level perspective and a global one, related to trade, climate change, pollution, health and so forth.
- Land grabbing and trade: The Gambela Region in Ethiopia is the focus of a drive by the government to attract foreign investors to its agricultural sector (mostly sugar plantations for export) through tax holidays, duty-free imports of machinery, easy bank loans, cheap electricity and water from the controversial Gibe III dam. Here, 42% of the total land area is either being marketed or has already been given to investors. This is leading to deforestation and displacement of thousands of people through intimidation and violence.
- Agro-toxins and health: In 1996 a particular variety of transgenic soy, Roundup Ready soy (RR), was introduced in Argentina by the Monsanto corporation, which has complete control of soy production in the country, leading to large areas of monoculture. This GMO variety is resistant to some herbicides (e.g. Roundup), so allows using more pesticides. Thus, its introduction has caused several environmental and social problems such as the reduction of food production for domestic markets, the displacement of peasants from the countryside, and the massive use of highly poisonous agrotoxins spread by aerial spraying and widespread deforestation.
- Hydropower dams and state violence: The Ilisu Dam Project is part of the Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP) in the Turkish region of Kurdistan, with 1,200 MW of capacity installed; its reservoir will submerge approximately 300 km2 of land in the Tigris Valley, including archeological sites and cities. Civil society and Kurdish communities complain about the severe impact of the construction of the dam, but the central government does not listen and violently represses the protest.
- Transport infrastructure and militarization: The Turin–Lyon high-speed railway (called TAV) is a planned 220 km/h railway line that will connect the two cities and link the Italian and French high-speed rail networks. The project has been the source of heavy criticism for its impact on such a fragile territory and for possible corruption behind it. The NO TAV movement has been also advocating for a change in transportation policies but has been met with heavy militarization around the building area, and many activists have been arrested.
- Oil extraction, human rights and pollution: Oil is the main source of revenue for Nigeria. Commercial exploitation of crude oil commenced in 1958. Since then, the region has known no peace. The environment, soil and water bodies are polluted without environmental remediation and little or no compensation for destroyed livelihoods. According to the UNEP report 2011, the Shell Oil Company, one of the major firms involved, failed to meet its own regulations and was not meeting national regulations. Carcinogenic substances were found in water bodies 800 times above WHO standards. As a result, the oil fields have become a metaphor for wanton environmental despoliation by the multinational oil companies. Yet, the associated environmental impact is often externalized in the production process leading to conflicts, violence and extrajudicial killings.
Daniela Del Bene – CeVi