Until recently, so-called “rights of nature” provisions that confer legal rights to rivers, forests and other ecosystems have been mostly symbolic. But late last year, Ecuador’s top court changed that. In a series of court decisions, the Constitutional Court translated the country’s 2008 constitutional rights of nature provisions into reality, throwing the future of the country’s booming mining and oil industries into question.
The most important of the decisions came in the Los Cedros case, where the court blocked a mining project in a protected forest, finding that it violated the rights of nature.
The ruling sent shock waves through the mining community, with industry representatives denouncing the decision for upending existing environmental law. But for environmentalists, the case set an important precedent, requiring industry and the government to undertake “precautionary and restrictive” measures, like carrying out detailed scientific studies, to ensure a project’s activity does not harm fragile ecosystems and endangered species.
In cases where there is scientific uncertainty about the environmental effects of a project, as in Los Cedros, the rights of nature may prevent the project from going forward. The ruling marks a sea change in the way that extractive industry projects will be approved in Ecuador, shifting the burden to industry to prove its actions are not harming fragile ecosystems. [Continue reading…]