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“Plants’ Rights” (NYTimes)

By CLAY RISEN, New York Times Magazine, December 14, 2008

In September, Ecuador vaulted to the forefront of international eco-politics when it became the first country to extend constitutional rights to nature. Approved by nearly 70 percent of voters, the Andean republic’s new Constitution grants nature “the right to the maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” The precise scope of nature’s rights is unclear. Referring to Pachamama, an indigenous deity whose name roughly translates as “Mother Universe,” the text puts less emphasis on defending specific species than on the rights of ecosystems writ large. And it is uncertain how, exactly, a country as poor as Ecuador can protect those rights – though observers expect to see a raft of new lawsuits against oil and gas companies.

Even so, it is a milestone for environmental organizations that seek to rewrite our treatment of nature. In fact, one such group, the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, helped draft the new protections in the Ecuadorean Constitution. The C.E.L.D.F. posits that most laws define nature as someone’s property, forcing environmentalists to prove extensive damage before regulations can be put in place. A rights-based approach, it argues, reverses that burden, putting the health of ecosystems first.

Ecuador isn’t alone in elevating the sanctity of nature: this year, the Spanish Parliament granted the right to be spared “abuse, torture and death” to great apes, and an ethics panel appointed by the Swiss Parliament called for protecting plants’ “reproductive ability.” As a consequence, Swiss researchers must now apply for approval before conducting scientific research on even the smallest of flora.

Ecuador’s new Constitution may go much further, arguably granting broad protections to simple life forms like algae and even bacteria. After all, who knows what they might evolve into?

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