Court issues ruling in world's first “Rights of Nature” lawsuit

Intercontinental Cry
February 16th, 2017
By: Julianne A. Hazelwood

After six and a half years of combined suspense and patience, finally on January 11 2017, Ecuador’s Esmeraldas Provincial Court handed down its decision on the world’s first constitutionally-based Rights of Nature lawsuit.

This demand for justice—which simultaneously begs for a shift in merely human rights-based paradigms—was made by people who literally and figuratively live in the margins of Ecuador: The Canton of San Lorenzo.

This once-rainforested Chocó ecoregion—part of the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena Biodiversity Hotspot—is located along Ecuador’s northwest Colombian border in the coastal province of Esmeraldas, which is the only province in the country where almost half the population is Afro-ecuadorian. Even many Ecuadorians themselves are not aware of the presence of Indigenous nationalities and territories in Esmeraldas, where—not by coincidence—you can find the majority of the remaining (less than 3%) Ecuadorian coastal lowland rainforests.

The plaintiffs—the Afro-descendant community of La Chiquita and the Awá community of Guadualito—filed the landmark intercultural constitutional court case against Los Andes and Palesema Oil Palm (i.e. African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis) Companies, on July 23, 2010, a little over two years after Ecuador recognized the Rights of Nature in its 2008 constitution.

Requesting repairs in relation to the Rights of Nature, Living Well (Sumak Kawsay in Kichwa, El Buen Vivir in Spanish), and pluricultural self-determination over territory, the plaintiffs contended that both Los Andes and Palesema Oil Palm Companies were responsible for massive deforestation, widespread biodiversity loss, excessive river pollution, and the subsequent deterioration of health and food sovereignty of the two communities. With the plantations surrounding their ancestral territories—and Chiquita River’s headwaters falling within the limits of the plantations—the communities asked the court to suspend any and all harmful plantation activities. They also asked for the companies to repair the damages.

For more information about the case see

Though acknowledging that reparations were necessary, Judge Juan Francisco Gabriel Morales Suarez only “partially” accepted the communities' claims, demonstrating that the judge agrees with the evidence provided by the plaintiffs while also evading a determination that the oil palm companies are guilty as charged. As one La Chiquita resident stated, “The sentence does not have either heads or tails.”

For example, Judge Suarez ordered the Ecuadorian State to restrict future expansion of the agricultural frontier with oil palm in San Lorenzo canton, and this is indubitably a victory for La Chiquita and Guadualito!

Paradoxically however, of the seventeen criteria established by the sentence for reparations of the social and environmental damages, the Los Andes and Palesema Oil Palm Companies were charged with just three responsibilities:

To adhere to the environmental law that requires an eight-meter buffer zone, the two oil palm companies must plant bamboo (instead of oil palm) by the river sides in the plantations;

They must pay for employees to take a required history course that includes the cultural and “incarnate” (e.g. about the forest spirits—seemingly a mockery) histories, myths and traditions of the Indigenous and ancestral peoples of Esmeraldas; and

The oil companies must uphold cordial and respectful relationships and solidarity with the earth and with the plaintiffs and their families.

In reaction to these three criteria, the community’s current lawyer stated, "It is absurd and ridiculous to make a sentence that determines that damages could be remediated through a history course for oil palm workers—not even if the world's greatest experts were the participating professors.”

It should also be noted that, despite the recognition of the need for reparations, Judge Suárez distributes most responsibilities to remedy damages in the communities between twelve state and provincial institutions. The sentence thus limits a comprehensive approach and the clarity and effectiveness necessary for following up with the execution of the actions.

Read more at Intercontinental Cry.