2012-04-18

The Beauty and the Tragedy

How can a rock have rights? How can a rock have interests? How can it be harmed or benefitted? But remember: think bigger. Think of ecosystems without reducing them down to a small part. When our legal system thinks of corporations as having rights, it doesn’t reduce them down to copy machines and paper clips. It regards the whole system of the corporation.

A few years ago, Ecuador was in the process of recreating its constitution. Ecuador was facing a number of environmental challenges. Texaco, for example, had dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste water into Ecuadorian rainforest. The president of the constitutional assembly, Alberto Acosta, was the former minister of energy and mines: a position that would seemingly support corporate interests. Yet Acosta proclaimed that to his mind, the law treats nature as a slave with no rights of its own.

The new constitution changed that. In 2008, Ecuador become the first country with a constitution that recognizes that nature has rights. The Ecuador constitution says that ecosystems have the right
“to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”
People seeking to defend ecosystems now have standing in Ecuador’s courts. That’s one piece of good news, I think, for Earth justice and also for people justice.

We need to understand that there are further complexities. We need to acknowledge that in the history of conservation, efforts have often come from wealthy who were perfectly willing to displace people for the sake preserving the pristine beauty of their recreation sites. When a move toward Earth justice leaves out people justice, it will fail both people and the Earth.

Even as we shift away from just human interests to recognize interests in nature itself, there is another necessary shift also beginning – back toward human interests whose needs must be taken account of if conservation is to stand a chance. In other words, we have seen a battle playing out between “nature as wealth resource” and “nature as spiritual grounding.” Since the early 19th century, more and more people have shifted to seeing nature is as a source of solitary spiritual renewal, as a place to escape modern life, enjoy solitude, and experience God.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Nature,” declared:
"To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.”
Our Unitarian forebears, the Transcendentalists, waxed rhapsodic about the spiritual qualities of the undeveloped woods and countryside. Nature was an idyllic, transcendence-enabling place – mostly for urban intellectuals.

I am a Transcendentalist, an Emerson fan, and, I guess you could say, an urban intellectual. And I do love those parks and wilderness areas. The best times LoraKim and I have ever had have been hiking about in public lands – parks and preserves. We have indeed found them to be transcendence-enabling places that both lift us up and ground us, that heal the fragmentation of modern life and make us whole.

There is tragedy that goes with that beauty, however.

The set-aside of wilderness areas has often involved resettling large numbers of people, too often without fair compensation for their lost homes, hunting grounds, and agricultural lands. According to the 2009 book, Conservation Refugees, by Mark Dowie, an investigative journalist now professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley:
"About half the land selected for protection by the global conservation establishment over the past century was either occupied or regularly used by indigenous peoples. In the Americas that number is over 80 percent." (Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples, 2009, p. 12.)
Estimates of the number of people displaced over the last century by conservation, Dowie reports, vary from five million to tens of millions. One Cornell University professor estimates that in Africa alone 14 million individuals have been displaced by conservation.

In 2004, the 200 delegates at the International Forum on Indigenous Mapping unanimously endorsed a declaration that:
"activities of conservation organizations now represent the single biggest threat to the integrity of indigenous lands." (qtd in Mark Dowie, Orion Magazine, 2005. Click here.)

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Part 4 of 5 of "Earth Justice, People Justice"
Next: Part 5: "Justice in the Anthropocene"
Previous: Part 3: "When Does a Tree Stand Without Standing?"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Rock and The Mountain"