A group of environmentalists from several countries in the southern hemisphere filed a lawsuit against British Petroleum (BP) in Ecuador last week for environmental damages related to the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. They did so before the country's Constitutional Court by citing universal jurisdiction, and in reference to Article 71 of Ecuador's new constitution that grants rights to nature.
"This morning we filed this lawsuit to defend the rights of Nature, in particular the rights of the Gulf of Mexico and the sea, which were violated by the BP oil spill," said Vandana Shiva, world renowned author and environmental activist who is one of the plaintiffs. "It's about universal jurisdiction beyond the boundaries of Ecuador because Nature has rights everywhere, and that is why a global coalition were the first signatories to say: we as citizens of the earth have a duty to protect Nature everywhere."
Ecuador's new constitution, drafted in 2008, has several new provisions that focus on environmental protection. Amongst them, it prohibits the cultivation of transgenic crops and seeds, it prohibits the patenting of "collective knowledge" associated with national biodiversity, recognizes water as a human right, and makes nature a rights-bearing entity. It is the first country in the world to do so.
In this lawsuit, the plaintiffs are claiming that BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this past April falls under universal jurisdiction for crimes committed outside the boundaries of a prosecuting state. That is, universal jurisdiction grants legal authorities in a country the faculty to prosecute crimes committed by nationals or foreigners in any part of the world.
"Universal jurisdiction is set under the philosophy of prosecuting acts that offend humanity´s conscience, and the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico offends that conscience," said Diana Murcia, the plaintiffs' lawyer. Although universal jurisdiction has been traditionally applied to human rights, in this case it will be applied to the rights of nature granted under Ecuador's new constitution. "Nature is the only subject that has been absent from the legal discussions surrounding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and one of our goals is to introduce Nature in the international debate as a rights-bearing entity," Murcia added.
The plaintiffs of the lawsuit include: Shiva, recognized rights defender and ecofeminist from India; Nnimmo Bassey, president of Friends of the Earth International in Nigeria; Alberto Acosta, ex-president of the Constitutional Assembly in Ecuador; environmentalist Ana Luz Valdéz from Mexico; and indigenous leaders, Blanca Chancoso and Delfín Tenesaca from Ecuador, among others.
As part of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are requesting a full disclosure of all information pertaining to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. They also demand that British Petroleum leaves the same amount of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, underground, unexplored; and that it redirects any further monetary offshore drilling investments for the purpose of leaving oil underground much like Ecuador has done in the Yasuni National Park. It also recommends that the United States calls for an immediate moratorium on offshore oil drilling.
"This disaster was clearly predictable because the oil industry was engaging in very dangerous activities," said Nnimmo Bassey. "Polluters don't respect national boundaries. The oil spill is a tragedy for the whole world and we all know who is responsible."
If they were to win the case, the plaintiffs are not requesting monetary compensation for the damages because they say they specifically do not want to put a prize on the enviroment. They want to remove Nature from the bio-centric point of view of a means to exploit natural resources for profit-making, taking the discussion "beyond the logic of money" and towards a more nature-centered world.
"Ecuador, by putting the rights of nature [on their constitution], created history, and now there's legal ground to file these cases rather than letting those lines in the Ecuadorian constitution lie inert," said Vandana Shiva. "This is the way to bring them to life, and we hope this will trigger cases on the rights of nature and cases on crimes committed against nature around the world."
The Constitutional Court of Ecuador has accepted the demand and is expecting to review the case starting next year. Even though this was a southern initiative, amicus support is expected to pour from different parts of the world, and in particular from those countries that were most affected by the oil spill.
"It is important we understand there's only one Pachamama [mother earth], rather than one in the north and one in the south," said Alberto Acosta, "and that is why we have to join forces, to make the great changes that we want and make a new civilization. A civilization that isn't focused on the concentration of capital, in predatory individualism, but rather a civilization that reclaims life itself, that reclaims collective responsibility, and that reclaims a new way of life in harmony with nature."
Sofía Jarrín is a multimedia journalist with a focus on human rights, social movements, indigenous people and Latin America. She can be reached at www.sofiajarrin.com.