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Does Nature Have Inalienable Rights?

Relatively speaking, most U.S. environmental groups are pretty tame. For a hint of what actual green radicalism would look like, check out what's going on in Ecuador. As Andy Revkin reports over at Dot Earth, tucked away in the country's recently ratified constitution is a novel provision that would grant inalienable rights to the environment. Nature, reads the relevant passage, "has the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions, and its processes in evolution." That's going pretty far. And now Nepal's thinking about doing something similar for its new constitution.

So what would this mean? Presumably, communities and individuals would have legal standing to defend nature in court, though it's unclear how that would actually work. The provision was penned by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which has been working with towns in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Virginia to draft laws that "change the status of ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities." Most environmental laws—say, the Clean Water Act—treat nature as property and simply regulate how much destruction can occur on that property. The CELDF laws, by contrast, put an outright ban on any development that would significantly disrupt the local ecosystem—a much stricter standard. (Where the precise lines are drawn around "significantly disrupt" is, it seems, something left to the courts.)

Anyway, Cyril Mychalejko has more on the local politics of this move in Ecuador. One major motivation seems to be the country's ongoing class-action lawsuit against Chevron, whose former incarnation, Texaco, stands accused of dumping billions of gallons of toxic oil waste in Ecuador's rivers and streams. Chevron—which could owe as much as $16 billion—has called the suit a "shakedown," refuses to pay, and has leaned on Congress to exclude Ecuador from trade agreements as a means of pressuring the country to abandon the suit. In the process, the company had convinced many activists that the balance between development and ecology had tilted way too far in one direction.

So will the new constitution rectify that—or will it tip things too far the other way? Again, the big question mark is how the ecology provisions shake out in practice. Some activists are already predicting that Rafael Correa's government will simply argue that most of its proposed mining projects are sustainable and go ahead with them anyway, with the blessing of the courts. (Correa rejected a clause that would've required prior consent from affected communities for any development—a provision that would've had a real effect, and almost certainly caused a lot of havoc.) Maybe not so radical, after all.

(Photo credit: Eduardo Valenzuela / AP)

--Bradford Plumer