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Somewhere between Rhetoric and Reality: Environmental Constitutionalism and the Rights of Nature in Ecuador

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 March 2017

Louis J. Kotzé
Faculty of Law, North-West University, Potchefstroom (South Africa), and University of Lincoln (United Kingdom). Email:
Paola Villavicencio Calzadilla
North-West University, Potchefstroom (South Africa). Email:


Today, numerous constitutions provide for a rights-based approach to environmental protection. Based as they are on an instrumentalist rationality that seeks to promote human entitlements to nature, the majority of these rights remain anthropocentric. Although there are growing calls within academic and activist circles to reorient rights alongside an ecocentric ontology, only one country to date has taken the bold step to bestow rights on nature in its constitution. The Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008 announces the transition from a juridical anthropocentric orientation to an ecocentric position by recognizing enforceable rights of nature. This article critically reflects on the legal significance of granting rights to nature, with specific reference to Ecuador’s constitutional experiment. It first provides a contextual description of rights in an attempt to illustrate their anthropogenic genesis, and then explores the notion of environmental rights. The following part traces the discourse that has developed over the years in relation to the rights of nature by revealing aspects of an ecocentric counter-narrative. The final part focuses specifically on the Ecuadorian constitutional regime and provides (i) a historical-contextual discussion of the events that led to the adoption of the rights of nature; (ii) an analysis of the constitutional provisions directly and indirectly related to the rights of nature; and (iii) a critical appraisal of whether those provisions, so far, measure up to the rhetoric of constitutional ecocentric rights of nature in that country.

© Cambridge University Press 2017 

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The generous financial assistance of the North-West University and the National Research Foundation that made this research possible is gratefully acknowledged. We also wish to thank (in no particular order) Klaus Bosselmann, Linda Sheehan, Sam Adelman, David Boyd, Lynda Collins, Erin Daly, Josh Gellers, Peter Burdon, Anna Grear, Francois Venter, and Vito De Lucia for their very useful comments on an earlier version of this article. All views and errors are our own.


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18 Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador, Official Registry No. 449, 20 Oct. 2008.

19 N. Rhüs & A. Jones, ‘The Implementation of Earth Jurisprudence through Substantive Constitutional Rights of Nature’ (2016) 8(174) Sustainability, pp. 1–19, at 2.

20 Ecuador’s constitutional innovation has even recently been recognized by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in a Draft Resolution: UNGA, ‘Sustainable Development: Harmony with Nature’, UN Doc. A/70/472/Add.7, 14 Dec. 2015, available at:

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26 Public Act 2014 No. 51, Art. 4, available at:

27 See, among others, the various authorities cited throughout this article.

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29 See, e.g., the language of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Paris (France), 10 Dec. 1948, available at:

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34 Ibid., p. 310.

35 The idea of mastery over nature is said to have its roots in the work of Francis Bacon, who professed the need to change nature and to make it subservient to the needs, desires and benefit of man: Gillespie, A., International Environmental Law, Policy and Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, Pt II ‘Anthropocentrism’, pp. 4–13.

36 Ibid., p. 7.

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39 Henkin, n. 28 above, p. 27.

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41 Henkin, n. 28 above, p. 28.

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43 L. Kotzé, ‘Human Rights and the Environment through an Environmental Constitutionalism Lens’, in Grear & Kotzé, n. 1 above, pp. 145–69.

44 N. 29 above. L. Kotzé, ‘The Anthropocene’s Global Environmental Constitutional Moment’ (2014) 25(1) Yearbook of International Environmental Law, pp. 24–60.

45 Stockholm (Sweden), 5–16 June 1972 (Stockholm Declaration), available at:

46 The Stockholm Declaration (ibid.) continues its anthropocentric narrative in optimistic terms of unbridled hubris in para 5: ‘It is the people that propel social progress, create social wealth, develop science and technology and, through their hard work, continuously transform the human environment. Along with social progress and the advance of production, science and technology, the capability of man to improve the environment increases with each passing day’.

47 Grear, A., ‘Challenging Corporate “Humanity”: Legal Disembodiment, Embodiment and Human Rights’ (2007) 7(3) Human Rights Law Review, pp. 511543 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 M. Tallacchini, ‘Human Right to the Environment or Rights of Nature?’, in R. Martin & G. Sprenger (eds), Rights: Proceedings of the 17 th World Congress of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, Volume I (Franz Steiner Verlag, 1997), pp. 125–33, at 126.

49 Burdon, n. 10 above, p. 818.

50 The burgeoning debate on ecosystem services and efforts to quantify the benefits or use of an ecosystem that provides services to people is an example.

51 Tallacchini, n. 48 above, p. 127.

52 This right, as the analysis in this part shows, is anthropocentric and it does not suggest a ‘remarkable transition from a human right to the environment, to the rights of nature’, as Borràs suggests it does: Borràs, n. 21 above, p. 125.

53 E.g., the first principle of the Brundtland Report of the Commission on Environment and Development (World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987)) states: ‘[a]ll human beings have the fundamental right to an environment adequate for their health and well being’.

54 Tallacchini, n. 48 above, p. 130.

55 K. Bosselmann, ‘Human Rights and the Environment: Redefining Fundamental Principles?’ (2005), available at:

56 Tallacchini, n. 48 above, p. 129.

57 Kysar, D., ‘Global Environmental Constitutionalism: Getting There from Here’ (2012) 1(1) Transnational Environmental Law, pp. 8394 CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 89.

58 Grear, A., ‘Human Rights and the Environment: In Search of a New Relationship: Editor’s Introduction’ (2013) 3(5) Oñati Socio-Legal Series, pp. 796814 Google Scholar, at 801.

59 C. Stone, ‘Should Trees Have Standing? Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects’ (1972) 45 California Law Review, pp. 450–501.

60 Ibid., p. 464. Stone clearly fashions these thoughts around the idea that human beings must act as moral agents on behalf of nature, an idea which Nash expresses as follows: ‘Human beings are the moral agents who have the responsibility to articulate and defend the rights of the other occupants of the planet. Such a conception of rights means that humans have duties or obligations toward nature’: R. Nash, The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 10.

61 P. Sands, ‘On Being 40: A Celebration of “Should Trees have Standing?”’ (2012) 3 Journal of Human Rights and the Environment, pp. 2–3, at 3.

62 K. Bosselmann, Im Namen der Natur: Der Weg zum ökologischen Rechtsstaat (Scherz, 1992).

63 Grear, n. 47 above.

64 Bosselmann, n. 62 above, p. 115.

65 See generally D. Grinlinton & P. Taylor (eds), Property Rights and Sustainability: The Evolution of Property Rights to meet Ecological Challenges (Brill, 2011).

66 Bosselmann, n. 62 above, p. 373–4.

67 De Lucia, n. 9 above, p. 95.

68 Ibid., p. 95.

69 Ibid., pp. 103–6.

70 Ibid., pp. 114–5.

71 Ibid., p. 116.

72 Grear, n. 12 above, p. 227.

73 Burdon argues that law emerges from a social context and it is ‘animated by the worldview and moral horizon of the political class of a given society … This class has historically been closed on the basis of race and gender and continues to [be] represented predominately by the wealthy’: Burdon, n. 10 above, p. 818.

74 Nash, n. 60 above, p. 6.

75 See generally, E. Fitz-Henry, ‘Decolonizing Personhood’, in Maloney & Burdon, n. 13 above, pp. 133–48.

76 Art. 427 of the Ecuadorian Constitution (n. 18 above) states: ‘Constitutional provisions shall be interpreted by the literal meaning of its wording that is mostly [sic] closely in line with the Constitution as a whole’.

77 See also Rhüs & Jones, n. 19 above, pp. 9–11.

78 A. País, Plan de Gobierno 2007–2011: Un Primer Gran Paso para la Transformación Radical del Ecuador (2006), available at:

79 Ibid., pp. 8–12.

80 Fitz-Henry, n. 75 above, p. 139. However, some have criticized Correa’s apparent disdain for the rights of nature and indigenous cosmovisions: M. de la Cadena, ‘Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond “Politics”’ (2010) 25(2) Cultural Anthropology, pp. 334–70.

81 País, n. 78 above, p. 8.

82 O.C. Santiago, ‘El Contexto Político de la Asamblea Constituyente en Ecuador’, Mar. 2008, available at:

83 J. Colón-Ríos, ‘Constituent Power, the Rights of Nature, and Universal Jurisdiction’ (2014) 60(1) McGill Law Journal, pp. 128–72.

84 J. Shiraishi Neto & R. Martins Lima, ‘Rights of Nature: The “Biocentric Spin” in the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador’ (2016) 13(25) Veredas do Direito, Belo Horizonte, pp. 111–31, at 114–9.

85 P.C. Benalcázar, ‘El Buen Vivir, Más Allá del Desarrollo: La Nueva Perspectiva Constitucional en Ecuador’, in A. Acosta & E. Martínez (eds), El Buen Vivir: Una Vía para el Desarrollo (Abya-Yala, 2009), pp. 115–47, at 133.

86 An example is the environmental damage caused by Chevron-Texaco in the Ecuadorian Amazonia from 1964 to 1990 as a result of oil extraction: F. Lu & N. Silva, ‘Imagined Borders: (Un)Bounded Spaces of Oil Extraction and Indigenous Sociality in “Post-Neoliberal” Ecuador’ (2015) 2(2) Social Sciences, pp. 434–58; L. Greyl & G.U. Ojo (coord.), ‘Digging Deep Corporate Liability. Environmental Justice Strategies in the World of Oil’, EJOLT Report No. 09, Oct. 2013, pp. 51–4, available at:

87 A.B. Ortiz, ‘Derechos de la Naturaleza’, in L.Á. Saavedra, Nuevas Instituciones del Derecho Constitucional Ecuatoriano (INREDH, 2009), pp. 125–39, at 130.

88 Art. 283 of the Constitution (emphasis added); see also Art. 284(4).

89 E.g., since 2007 the Pachamama Alliance has initiated diverse dialogues with the government of Ecuador, emphasizing the importance of incorporating provisions to ensure better environmental protection in the new Constitution. The Foundation submitted to the Constituent Assembly a draft concerning the rights of nature, which was subsequently recognized and relied upon by the Assembly.

90 Art. 275.

91 S. Adelman, ‘Human Rights and Climate Change’, in G. DiGiacomo, Human Rights, Current Issues and Controversies (University of Toronto Press, 2016), pp. 411–35, at 425.

92 See also Arts 56–60.

93 E. Gudynas, ‘Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow’ (2011) 54(4) Development, pp. 441–7, at 446.

94 L. du Plessis, ‘Interpretation’, in S. Woolman & M. Bishop (eds), Constitutional Law of South Africa, 2nd edn (Juta, 2008), Vol. 2, Pt II ‘The Bill of Rights’, pp. 32.1–32.193, at 32.116.

95 See Arts 12–34 and the discussion below.

96 Arts 3(5) and 3(7).

97 Fitz-Henry, n. 75 above, p. 142.

98 Art. 10.

99 For a discussion see R. Masterman, The Separation of Powers in the Contemporary Constitution: Judicial Competence and Independence in the United Kingdom (Cambridge University Press, 2011); J. Limbach, ‘The Concept of the Supremacy of the Constitution’ (2001) 64(1) The Modern Law Review, pp. 1–10.

100 Art. 88. The Acción de Protección is a form of constitutional action which aims to ensure direct and efficient protection of the rights enshrined in the Constitution. It seeks to remove procedural barriers such as the traditional qualifications for standing and pleading formalities: E. Daly, ‘The Ecuadorian Exemplar: The First Ever Vindications of the Constitutional Rights of Nature’ (2012) 21(1) Review of European Comparative and International Environmental Law, pp. 63–6, at 63.

101 See s. 36 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.

102 Art. 11(8) (emphasis added).

103 S. 36 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, provides an example of criteria in terms of which rights ‘may be limited only in terms of law of general application to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom, taking into account all relevant factors’.

104 Emphasis added.

105 Art. 318 (emphasis added); see also Arts 411–2.

106 The ‘health’ aspect of the environmental right, and thus its human health focus, is reinforced by subsequent rights which provide that ‘[p]ersons have the right to a safe and healthy habitat and adequate and decent housing, regardless of their social and economic status’ (Art. 30); and ‘[h]ealth is a right guaranteed by the State and whose fulfillment is linked to the exercise of other rights, among which [are] the right to water, food, education, sports, work, social security, healthy environments and others that support the good way of living’ (Art. 32).

107 An idea that is underscored by the lengthy provisions of Arts 281–2, aimed at promoting food security through resource use and exploitation, and provisions in Art. 408, which stipulate: ‘The State shall participate in profits earned from the tapping of these [non-renewable] resources, in an amount that is no less than the profits earned by the company producing them’.

108 See generally K. Bosselmann, The Principle of Sustainability: Transforming Law and Governance (Ashgate, 2013).

109 Art. 395(4) (emphasis added).

110 Art. 61(2) confirms this intention by stating that ‘Ecuadorians benefit from the following rights: … To participate in affairs of public interest’.

111 Arts 250 and 259.

112 Art. 407.

113 Ibid.

114 Art. 11(6).

115 Art. 275 (emphasis added). One of the explicit environment-related objectives of the development structure that is also cast in anthropocentric terms is ‘[t]o restore and conserve nature and maintain a healthy and sustainable environment ensuring for persons and communities equitable, permanent and quality access to water, air and land, and to the benefits of ground resources and natural assets’: Art. 276(4).

116 Title IX.

117 Art. 425.

118 J.P. Méndez, Derechos de la Naturaleza: Fundamentos, Contenido y Exigibilidad Jurisprudencial (Corte Constitucional del Ecuador, 2013), pp. 116–8.

119 Emphasis added.

120 See also Arts 10, 11, 86–94 and 396–7. After the adoption of the Constitution in 2008, a debate developed about who might have the right to appear in court to sue on behalf of nature. Art. 38 of the Código Orgánico General de Procesos (Official Registry No. 506, 22 May 2015) eventually established that any natural or legal person, group or collective, or the Ombudsman, could call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature. The Office of the Ombudsman must carry out the protection of nature’s rights ex officio.

121 Human claims arising from the environmental right, in addition to those affecting the judicial system more generally, are dealt with by the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, which focuses on the ‘protection and guardianship of the rights of the inhabitants of Ecuador’: Art. 215. While the establishment of an ‘environment defender’ (Defensoría del ambiente y la naturaleza) has been discussed, this institution still does not exist.

122 Art. 396 further provides: ‘All damage to the environment, in addition to the respective penalties, shall also entail the obligation of integrally restoring the ecosystems and compensating the affected persons and communities’.

123 Art. 416(5); see also Art. 11(2), which provides in no uncertain terms that ‘[a]ll persons are equal and shall enjoy the same rights, duties and opportunities. No one shall be discriminated against for reasons of … sexual orientation’.

124 R. Kim & K. Bosselmann, ‘International Environmental Law in the Anthropocene: Towards a Purposive System of Multilateral Environmental Agreements’ (2013) 2(2) Transnational Environmental Law, pp. 285–309.

125 D. Kommers, ‘German Constitutionalism: A Prolegomenon’ (1991) 40 Emory Law Journal, pp. 837–73, at 855.

126 Art. 11(6).

127 See ‘Transitory Provisions One’ of the Constitution.

128 Fitz-Henry, n. 75 above, p. 142.

129 Margil, n. 24 above, pp. 149–50.

130 Fitz-Henry, n. 75 above, p. 139.

131 Human rights guarantees are usually deliberately drafted in general terms and they feature a ‘good deal of indeterminacy’: J. Merrills, ‘Environmental Rights’, in D. Bodansky, J. Brunnée & E. Hey (eds), The Oxford Handbook of International Environmental Law (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 663–80, at 674. Burdon says that ‘[t]he use of general language is common in constitutional drafting and allows for words to have broad interpretation and remain relevant over time’: P. Burdon, ‘The Right of Nature: Reconsidered’ (2010) 49 Australian Humanities Review, pp. 69–89, at 75.

132 For an analysis of additional cases relating to the Ecuadorian rights of nature, see Borràs, n. 21 above, pp. 138–42.

133 Arts 71 and 88.

134 Wheeler v. Director de la Procuraduría General del Estado en Loja, Judgment, Provincial Court of Loja, Case No. 11121-2011-0010, available at:

135 Ibid., paras 1, 2 and 4 of the execution order.

136 Ground 5.

137 Ground 8.

138 Ibid. (emphasis added).

139 Failure to comply with such formal requirements was also alleged in Aguirre y otros v. Gobierno Autónomo Descentralizado Municipal de Santa Cruz, Judgment, Second Civil and Commercial Court of Galapagos, Case No. 269-2012. The plaintiffs requested the application of a precautionary measure to suspend the construction of a road in the Province of Galapagos, alleging that the project did not have an environmental licence and that its development infringed the rights of nature. The Court granted the precautionary measure until the developers obtained the relevant environmental licence.

140 C. Kauffman & P. Martin, ‘Testing Ecuador’s Rights of Nature: Why Some Lawsuits Succeed and Others Fail’, paper presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention, Atlanta, GA (US), 18 Mar. 2016, p. 9, available at:

141 Ibid.

142 P. Andrade, ‘The Government of Nature: Post-Neoliberal Environmental Governance in Bolivia and Ecuador’, in F. de Castro, B. Hogenboom & M. Baud (eds), Environmental Governance in Latin America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 113–36, at 121–5.

143 E. Gudynas, ‘Estado Compensador y Nuevos Extractivismos: Las Ambivalencias del Progresismo Sudamericano’ (2012) 237 Nueva Sociedad, pp. 128–46, at 134.

144 País, n. 78 above, p. 8.

145 In one of his statements Correa highlighted that ‘we [the Ecuadorians] cannot be beggars sitting on a chest of gold’: ‘One Square Mile of Ecuador: Zaruma’s Gold’, BBC News, 1 June 2013, available at:

146 Mining Law, Official Registry No. 517, 29 Jan. 2009.

147 Art. 407 of the Constitution.

148 Mining Law, n. 146 above, Art. 25.

149 A. Acosta, ‘Delirios a Gran Escala: Correa en los Laberintos de la Megamineria’, Agencia Latinoamerica de Informacion (ALAI), 9 Jan. 2012, available at:

150 Ibid.

151 Amnesty International, ‘“So That No One Can Demand Anything”: Criminalizing the Right to Protest in Ecuador?’, AMR 28/002/2012, July 2012, pp. 17–20, available at: Indigenous and community organizations filed an action of unconstitutionality against the adoption of the law, but the Constitutional Court dismissed the application: Constitutional Court, Judgment No. 001-10-SIN-CC, 18 Mar. 2010, available at:

152 V.H. Jijon, ‘The Ecuadorian Indigenous Movement and the Challenges of Plurinational State Construction’, in M. Becker (ed.), Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorians Facing the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge Scholars, 2013), pp. 34–70, at 63–4.

153 D. Collyns, ‘Was This Indigenous Leader Killed Because He Fought to Save Ecuador’s Land?’, The Guardian, 2 June 2015, available at:

154 Viteri y otros v. Ecuacorriete S.A., Ministerio de Recursos Naturales, Procurador General del Estado, Judgment, 25th Civil Court of Pichincha, Case No. 17325-2013-0038, available at:

155 Grounds 6 and 9.

156 Ground 7.

157 Viteri y otros v. Ecuacorriete S.A., Ministerio de Recursos Naturales, Procurador General del Estado, Judgment, Provincial Court of Pichincha, Case No. 17111-2013-0317, available at: The plaintiffs decided not to appeal but presented their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR): IACHR, Report of the 154th Session, Washington, DC (US), 13–27 Mar. 2015, available at:

158 M. Varela, ‘Las Actividades Extractivas en Ecuador’ (2010) 79 Ecuador Debate, pp. 127–50.

159 Reform of the Hydrocarbons Law, Official Registry No. 244, 27 July 2010.

160 Acosta, A., ‘Ecuador: Unas Reformas Petroleras con Muy Poca Reforma’ (2011) 82 Ecuador Debate, pp. 4560 Google Scholar, at 47–52.

161 Jijon, n. 152 above, p. 64.

162 Larrea, C. & Warnars, L., ‘Ecuador’s Yasuni-ITT Initiative: Avoiding Emissions by Keeping Petroleum Underground’ (2009) 13(3) Energy for Sustainable Development, pp. 219223 Google Scholar.

163 Adelman, n. 91 above, pp. 426–7.

164 A. Araujo, ‘Petroamazonas Perforó el Primer Pozo para Extraer Crudo del ITT’, El Comercio, 29 Mar. 2016, available at:

165 Constitutional amendment, Art. 144, Official Registry No. 653, 21 Dec. 2015.

166 This initiative is led by Correa’s supporters through the Rafael Contigo Siempre campaign, which seeks a referendum to repeal the constitutional provision and, more concretely, the transitional provision adopted in Dec. 2015.

167 Adelman, n. 91 above, p. 426.

168 P. Burdon & C. Williams, ‘Rights of Nature: A Constructive Analysis’, in D. Fisher (ed.), Research Handbook on Fundamental Concepts in Environmental Law (Edward Elgar, 2016), pp. 196–220, at 210–11.

169 See, further, Sheehan, L., ‘Implementing Rights of Nature through Sustainability Bills of Rights’ (2015) 13(1) New Zealand Journal of Public and International Law, pp. 89106 Google Scholar.