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Ecuador and Earth Law

Reading about the oil companies closing in on Ecuador’s lush rain forest, I went through my normal range of responses. I wanted to do something to help stop it, but I didn’t know what that might be. I wanted to go there and paddle down a river in a canoe. Mostly I felt a familiar despair about our rather feeble collective effort to stave off irreparable damage to just about every eco-system on Earth.

Environmental ruination and “climate change” is, as we know, a collective problem. One of the most vital and potentially creative areas for change is in the field of law and perhaps the most radical action has been taken in Ecuador itself. And it’s part of a growing body of law which could spread.

The 2008 Ecuadorian constitution gives rights to non-human parts of the ecosystem and to nature itself. Nature, it says, “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” These rights are potentially enforceable (via human agents) in a legal setting. It will be interesting to see if this amounts to a hill of beans when the oil companies move in for the kill.

This constitution is part of a wider movement in law variously called Wild Law, Earth Law – or Earth Jurisprudence if you want to sound posh. It draws inspiration from indigenous peoples and the scientific observations which demonstrate how the earth seems to function as a whole, as radically interconnected as the parts of a human body. Here’s something I wrote about that for Wild Law UK.

From an Earth Law perspective human law should be made in accord with how the Earth as a whole functions and not solely to serve the needs of humans. In particular it rejects the entrenched view that only humans should be the subjects of a legal system with everything else seen as an object of property or otherwise for human use and enjoyment. As all things rely on a balance of forces made up of all other things (interdependence), giving enforceable rights to only one species is unbalanced, not realistic and likely to lead to disturbance in Earth systems.

Earth Law means that, in the future, a river delta or a mountain or an orang-utan may be able to take a mining company to court. It has precedents in Spain, where quasi-human rights have been granted to higher apes. This sounds a bit bonkers to many people, but so did giving property rights to women not so long ago. However it happens, legal systems need to better reflect the interdependent nature of conditions on Earth, otherwise this clash with reality is sure to end in suffering.

So is Earth Law Buddhist? Yes and no. It does seem nearer to a view that everything arises in dependence on a vast web of conditions and that full and final separate self-hood is nowhere a reality. It also leads to an inspiring view of the Earth as essentially living, rather than just dead matter. For more on this see Stephan Harding’s wonderful work Animate Earth – now also a documentary film.

But if you conclude that mankind’s problem is primarily an ecological one, or that it can be resolved through law, then you miss the major part of the Buddhist perspective. The Buddha pointed at mind-led causes of suffering, and a different sort of effort is needed to root that out. But that’s another subject…

One Response to “Ecuador and Earth Law”

  1. Vidyadaka says:

    This could be published elsewhere. A really well measured, positive and interesting piece of writing.

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