Going beyond nature

By: Helena Durán


Encuentre la versión en español de este blog aqui

Last year, most Colombians celebrated a Constitutional Court ruling that granted rights to the Atrato River, an ecologically rich and bio diverse basin in the country’s pacific coast, severely threatened by illegal mining. The decision was innovative and was seen as a step forward for environmental protection. A few months later, the country’s Supreme Court followed the Constitutional Court’s footsteps and declared the Amazon Rainforest a subject of rights, as a strategy to protect the rainforest against deforestation and to protect the rights of 25 plaintiffs (represented by Dejusticia), all younger than 25, which were being threatened by the government’s inefficiency to tackle deforestation. The case was not only the first climate change lawsuit in Latin America, but was also seen as a breakthrough for the protection of the world’s most important lung.  

Photo: Maarten van den Heuvel

Photo: Maarten van den Heuvel

Even though I found both of these decisions groundbreaking and celebrated the fact that a new way of seeing, understanding and relating to nature was beginning to advance, I had, and still have, some doubts. What does granting rights to nature really mean? How can the rights of nature be materialized? Which rights? Where does this recognition leave the communities that have traditionally inhabited and helped to conserve certain areas? Is recognizing nature’s rights the most effective way to protect our rapidly degrading natural environment? Is it the best way?

I still don’t have an answer to those questions, but a few days ago I attended a meeting that left me with the same unrestful feeling. The meeting was about a new program, Herencia Colombia, intended to guarantee an increase in the number of hectares covered by protected areas, and their financial sustainability in the long term. I think I was the only participant in the meeting that was not especially dedicated to conservation issues, and was surprised by the little mention of the communities that inhabit protected areas during the meeting. And I guess that this is what perplexes me in the discussion of whether nature should have rights of its own: how can we separate nature from human beings?  And, should we do it?

A few days after this meeting, I discussed the subject with a colleague from Dejusticia that had just visited the Sarayaku territory in the Amazon region of Ecuador. She told me about Kawsak Sacha, a Kichwa concept that translates to “living jungle”.  Beyond the concept, Kawsak Sacha is a Sarayaku initiative, first launched in the COP 21 Paris Climate Summit 2015, which seeks, as an ultimate goal, to attain national and international recognition for Kawsak Sacha as a new legal category of protected area, in which the division between humans and nature does not exist.

What I found interesting while reading about Kawak Sacha, is that it understands the jungle, and all the living and spiritual beings in it – including humans- as whole that cannot be divided and that cannot thrive if it is not seen in a holistic way. It is not a discussion on whether nature should have rights or if communities should have rights over specific territories, or if nature should be protected due to its intrinsic value or because it is essential to fulfill the needs of the human species. Rather, it goes beyond that discussion and sees nature, the jungle, and the communities and spiritual beings that have been historically inhabiting it, using it and protecting it, as a whole.

Ecuador is a good example of why and how the discussion must include new concepts, like Kawsak Sacha. The Ecuadorian Constitution is one of the few constitutions that recognize nature as a subject of certain rights. It also recognizes collective territorial rights to indigenous communities. But this has not been enough to protect their territories and the special, spiritual relationship between their communities and the environment. According to the Kichwas, nature is seen only as a green space, and not as a space that contains living beings that are alive and that live in an integral and harmonic balance.

Photo: Amy Rollo

Photo: Amy Rollo

The Kawsak Sacha declaration will be officially launched in an event in Quito, Ecuador, on July 25 -29, 2018. With the declaration, the Kiwchas intent to preserve and conserve territorial spaces, and the material and spiritual relationship between indigenous peoples and the living jungle, in a sustainable way; also, to guarantee their right to self-determination and the power to decide over their lands and livelihoods. This is one of the most radical proposals regarding conservation by indigenous communities, and could be an interesting formula for other communities.  The proposal is summarized like this:

“the entire world is peopled by beings that sustain our planet thanks to their way of living in continuous interrelation and dialogue. This vision is neither a quaint belief nor a simple conservationist ideal. It is instead a call to the people of the world to learn once again to feel this reality in their very being. This metamorphosis will only be possible once we learn to listen to and dialogue with these other beings, who are part of a cosmic conversation that goes well beyond the dialogue of the deaf until now carried out exclusively among us humans.”

I’m still not certain which is the best way forward towards guaranteeing a stronger environmental protection and a sustainable future. I’m not even certain if there is one correct way. However, what Kawsak Sacha made me realize is that in order to conserve certain territories, we need to hear the voices and proposals of communities that have historically inhabited these territories, and recognizing their role in conserving and maintain their ecological value, should be a starting point.

*Helena Durán is a researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

Featured photo: Austin Neill on Unsplash