By Ruth Conniff
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Nature knows full well that even the best human laws treat her as a piece of property, never as a holder of rights. But the revindication of nature is under way in Latin America.Nature Is Not Mute
The world is painting still-lifes, forests are dying, the poles are melting, the air is becoming unbreatheable, and the water undrinkable, flowers are food and becoming increasingly plastic, and the sky and earth are going absolutely insane.
At the same time, a country in Latin America, Ecuador, is debating a new constitution that opens up the possibility for the first time ever of recognizing the rights of nature.
Nature has a lot to say, and it has long been time for us, her children, to stop playing deaf. Maybe even God will hear the cry rising from this Andean country and add an eleventh amendment, which he left out when he handed down instructions from Mount Sinai: ‘‘Love nature, which you are a part of.’’
An Object that Wants to Be a Subject
For thousands of years, almost all people had only the right not to have rights. In reality, quite a few remain without rights today, but at least now the right to have rights is recognized, and this is considerably more than a gesture of charity by the masters of the world to comfort their servants.
And nature? In a way it could be said that human rights extend to nature because she is not a postcard meant to be viewed from afar. But nature knows full well that even the best human laws treat her as a piece of property, never as a holder of rights.
Reduced to no more than a source of natural resources and good deals, she can legally be gravely wounded and even exterminated without her complaints being heard, and there is no law preventing those who harm her from acting with impunity. At the most, in the best of cases, it is the human victims who can demand a more or less symbolic indemnity, and this will always come after the damage has been done, though the law neither prevents nor deters assaults on the earth, water, and air.
It sounds odd, doesn’t it, that nature could have rights? Sheer madness. As if nature were a person. And yet it sounds perfectly normal in the United States that major businesses take advantage of human rights. In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court, that model of universal justice, extended human rights to private corporations. They were recognized as having the same rights as people, the right to life, free expression, privacy, and all the rest, as if companies could breathe. More than 120 years have passed since then and it is still the same. Nobody has paid attention to it.
Cries and Whispers
There is nothing odd or abnormal about the bill that would include the rights of nature in the constitution of Ecuador. This country has suffered repeated devastation over its history. To give just one example, for more than a quarter of a century, until 1992, the Texaco oil company vomited 18,000 gallons of poison into the rivers, land, and the people. Once this gesture of beneficence in the Ecuadorian Amazon was completed, the company, which was born in Texas, was married to Standard Oil. By then Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had changed its name to Chevron and was being run by Condoleezza Rice. Afterwards, a pipeline carried Condoleezza to the White House, while the Chevron-Texaco family continued to pollute the world.
But the wounds cut into the body of Ecuador by Texaco and other companies are not the only source of inspiration for this great juridical innovation that some are trying to carry forward. Moreover, and this is equally important, the revindication of nature is part of a process of recuperating some of the most ancient traditions of Ecuador and all of Latin America. The bill under consideration would have the state recognize and guarantee to vital natural cycles the right to continue and regenerate. It is not by chance that the constituent assembly started by identifying their objectives of national growth with the ideal of ‘‘sumak kausai,” which means ‘‘harmonious life’’ in Quechua: harmony among people and between us and nature, which engendered us, feeds us, shelters us, and which has her own life and values independent of us.
These traditions remain miraculously alive despite the heavy legacy of racism, which in Ecuador, as in the rest of the Americas, continues to mutilate reality and memory. And it isn’t just the patrimony of its large indigenous population, which knew how to perpetuate them over the five centuries of prohibition and scorn. They belong to the whole country, and the entire world, these voices from the past that help us to divine another possible future.
Since the days when the sword and the cross made their way into the Americas, the European conquest punished the adoration of nature, which was seen as the sin of idolatry, with the punishments of whipping, hanging, and burning. The communion between nature and people, a pagan custom, was abolished in the name of God and later in the name of Civilization. Throughout the Americas, and the world, we are paying the consequences of this divorce.
Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan writer and journalist, is the author of “The Open Veins of Latin America,” “Memories of Fire,” and “Mirrors/An Almost Universal History.”