The Natural Contract: From Lévi-Strauss to the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court

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by Erin Fitz-Henry. – In 2008, the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly became the first juridical body in the world to legalize what Michel Serres might have called a ‘natural contract.’ With the assistance of the U.S.-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, representatives at the Assembly in July of 2008 re-wrote their 1998 constitution to include a landmark series of articles delineating the rights of nature – a notion long familiar to Indigenous communities in the Andean region, actively propagated by anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss at the French National Assembly as early as the 1970s, and often mocked by mainstream Western jurists for its conceptual confusion about the sorts of entities that can properly be said to have rights.

Drawing on the experiences of activists currently engaged in the first national-level lawsuit to make use of these rights as well as a range of both activists and non-activists involved in alternative implementations of them, the article explores the possibilities, limitations, and paradoxes of this extension of rights-based discourse. At a time when the natural world is increasingly being talked about at the United Nations and elsewhere not as a ‘rights-holder,’ but as an ‘ecosystem services provider,’ I suggest that while the discourse of ‘rights’ signals promising shifts in how Andean governments are conceptualizing agency and responsibility in ways that productively break with the trend toward marketization, it also runs the risk of providing the administration with symbolic cover for its intensifying commitment to what Eduardo Gudynas has called, a ‘new extractivism.’

Erin Fizt-Henry, University of Melbourne, published in Oceania, 82, 2012.

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