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The rights of things non-human

The case of corporations and nature

A Tale of Two Countries
In September of 2008 Ecuador became the first nation on earth to recognize the Rights of Nature. Two years later, the United States Supreme Court ruled that corporations and people have the same rights. In terms of their history and current economic political significance, the two countries could not be farther apart: Ecuador is small Latin American country with a growing but quite small developing economy; and the United States, in spite of its current economic problems, continues to be the world’s most significant economic and military superpower.

Ironically as it may be, the two countries have something important in common: both of them have opened a space within their legal systems to non-human objects, by recognizing Nature and Corporations as people-like bearing entities. By doing so the two countries have posed important questions regarding the entitlement, extension, and bounds of the human rights map and territory.

A Brief Genealogy—Ecuador
The Ecuadorean Constitution defines Nature using the Quichua language signifier Pacha Mama or ‘mother earth’, a pre-Columbian linguistic utterance that aims to express the indigenous perception of nature as a nurturing mother to be respected and revered.

The idea of natural preservation in Ecuador is not new. It officially originated in 1936 with the designation of the Galapagos Archipelago as a National Park. This original measure was ‘insular’ both figuratively and realistically speaking, when we compare it to the current Ecuadorean Constitution, which in Article 10 states:

Persons, communities, peoples, nations and communities are bearers of rights and shall enjoy the rights guaranteed to them in the Constitution and in international instruments. Nature shall be the subject of those rights and the Constitution recognizes for it.

And further, in article 71:
Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles structure, and evolutionary processes. All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to protect nature to enforce the rights of nature.

United States
In the American case, the personification of corporations has a more recent lineage than the Ecuadorean personification of Nature. The most immediate ancestry of this legal prosthetic of humans on corporations was “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” which ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals. According to NPR’s Nina Totemberg:

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 First Amendment decision in 2010 that ex-tended to corporations for the first time full rights to spend money as they wish in candidate elections — federal, state and local. The decision reversed a century of legal understanding, unleashed a flood of campaign cash and created a crescendo of controversy that continues to build today.

Do people really count?
It may be important to consider the possibility that the existence of a universal human nature that would justify the existence of universal human rights is historically a relative new concept. The concept of ‘human rights’ practically did not exist in antiquity, and rights (of any kind) tended to be rather selective and exclusivist (think of women and slaves in the past). Historically people have counted very little. The American Philosopher Richard Rorty notices:

For most white people, until very recently, most black people did not count. For most Christians, until the seventeenth century or so, most heathen did not count. For the Nazis, Jews did not count. For most males in countries in which the average income is less than two thousand pounds, most females still do not count.

In the United States, the ‘people don’t count’ record does not get any better. The idea that Blacks were not really human allowed the Founding Fathers to think of themselves as enlightened humanists, and not as cynical and hypocritical violators of the constitution they have just written down. Even when blacks were recognized as people with the abolition of slavery in 1865 (The Thirteenth Amendment), this situation remained unchanged. Prejudice, stigmatization and discrimination practically continued—with small degrees of variation—for a hundred and eighty eight years, from 1776 to 1964 when the Civil Right Act was signed.

But in Ecuador the ‘people don’t count’ record does not get any better. Although slavery was formally abolished in 1821, (simultaneously with Colombia, and Venezuela), the semi-feudal and semi-enslavement conditions of production and existence inherited from the Spanish colonization continued to affect most of the indigenous people. This state persisted also with small variations until the first half of the 20th Century.

The Role of Culture and Politics
Historically it wasn’t a ‘self evident truth’ about human nature that made possible the acknowledgement of the rights of people. The determinant factor was closely related to the ways society was organized at any given historical time, and who controlled power at the time (generally speaking those who controlled it write the laws). But also, and most importantly, it had to do with the actions and struggle of those who challenged that power and made possible changes within the system, or the replacement of the system itself. Think of the Civil Rights Movement in the first case, and the French Revolution in the second. People count when they make themselves count.

Do things count?
Given the tortuous history of ‘people’s rights’, the granting of rights to non-human entities (Nature and corporations) rests apparently on even more trembling grounds, since neither decision can be defended or criticized on superior moral considerations. Both decisions came to be as the result of legal resolutions of two different independent states at a particular time in their individual history, deciding to transfer human rights to inanimate things.

In the Ecuadorean case, Nature is granted rights as the result of a wide leftist coalition of popular forces in opposition to neo-liberal forms of political and economic organization. In the United States corporations acquire the same rights of people as an expression of the power and insatiable appetite of the capitalist neo-liberal elites of this country. Things count depending on how we use them.

Who Should Have Rights?
Nature or corporations, who should have rights? Well … they both do at the time, so the question is void of meaning. A better question probably is, which right bearing entity would be more beneficial to larger numbers of people? Or, because of that reason, which one should be deprived of those rights and how do we make it happen? You have the right to choose and most importantly, the right to do something about it. A few days ago hundred of thousands of people marched all over the world (eighty blocks long rally just in NYC) to express their concerns about climate change. They are doing something about nature and at the same time expressing their rights.

Enrique Quintero, a political activist in Latin America during the 70’s, taught ESL and Second Language Acquisition in the Anchorage School District, and Spanish at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He currently lives and writes in Olympia.

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