The seven justices of the Constitutional Court ruled that mining in a protected forest violates constitutional rights of nature, threatens the Los Cedros protected area’s right to exist and flourish, and is therefore prohibited in the forest.
Ecuador’s Highest Court Enforces Constitutional ‘Rights of Nature’ for Los Cedros Protected Forest
In an unprecedented case, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador has applied the constitutional provision on the “Rights of Nature” to safeguard the Los Cedros cloud forest from mining concessions. The court voted seven in favor, with two abstentions. In the wake of the ruling, which was published Dec. 1, the Constitutional Court will develop a binding area of law in which the Rights of Nature, the right to a healthy environment, the right to water and environmental consultation must be respected.
The court decided that activities that threaten the rights of nature should not be carried out within the Los Cedros Protected Forest ecosystem. The ruling bans mining and all types of extractive activities in the protected area. Water and environmental permits to mining companies must also be denied. Mining concessions have been granted to two thirds of the incredible Los Cedros reserve. The Ecuadorian state mining company ENAMI holds the rights. The new ruling means that mining concessions, environmental and water permits in the forest must be cancelled.
The case had been viewed as “one of the most important and worthwhile… of this century”
Conservation advocates welcomed a Wednesday ruling from the Constitutional Court of Ecuador that determined mining in a protected forest violates the rights of nature established by the nation’s constitution.
"This precedent-setting case is important not only for Ecuador but also for the international community," said Alejandro Olivera, senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Center for Biological Diversity.
In a statement, the court said it was "emphatic in declaring that the rights of nature, like all the rights established in the Ecuadorian Constitution, have full normative force and do not constitute only ideals or rhetorical statements, but legal mandates."
a historic victory in favour of nature
The legal battle centered on the biodiverse-rich Los Cedros Protected Forest and mining authorizations Ecuador granted covering approximately two-thirds of it.
To fight the project, the neighboring community of Santa Ana de Cotacachi’s bid—backed by international scientists and conversation groups—cited their legal authority to protect the forest, arguing the extraction ran afoul of the country’s landmark move in 2008 to enshrine the constitutional rights of nature, or Pachamama, and the right of communities to prior consultation.
According to Natalia Greene from the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature—who cheered the ruling as "a historic victory in favour of nature"—the impacts of the court decision are sweeping.
"The Constitutional Court states that no activity that threatens the Rights of Nature can be developed within the ecosystem of Los Cedros Protected Forest, including mining and any other extractive activity," she said. "Mining is now banned from this amazing and unique protected forest. This sets a great juridical precedent to continue with other threatened Protected Forests."
"Today," Greene added, "the endangered frogs, the spectacled bears, the spider monkey, the birds, and nature as a whole have won an unprecedented battle.”
ruling means greater protection of at-risk species and fragile ecosystems across Ecuador
Last year, over 1,200 scientists including famed conservationist Jane Goodall urged the government to uphold protections for the forest, noting in part that "as the climate changes and water resources throughout the world come increasingly under pressure, unlogged watersheds such as that of the Los Cedros Reserve and the other protected forests are accordingly precious."
In addition to being home to a threatened population of spectacled bears and "globally critically endangered" brown-headed spider monkeys—which have already lost 80% of their original range in northwest Ecuador—as well as endangered spectacled bears, the scientists noted the forest provides habitat to 207 species under threat according to Ecuador’s red lists.
Mari Margil, executive director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, which provided testimony in the case, welcomed the decision.
"We congratulate the community and everyone who worked so hard, for so long, to protect nature within Los Cedros," Margil said in a statement. "This is a very important ruling by the court that will mean greater protection of at-risk species and fragile ecosystems across Ecuador."
Los Cedros Case: Background
In 2017, Ecuador’s national environmental agency authorised two corporations to conduct exploratory mining in Los Cedros, a zone designated as Protected Forest in 1995. Los Cedros is a place of significant biodiversity and fragile ecosystems, including the humid forests of Chocó, the tropical Andes Mountain range, and a cloud forest. It is also habitat for 178 species of flora and fauna threatened with extinction, including the spider monkey (Ateles fusciceps) and the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus).
Concerned about the impacts of mining in Los Cedros, the nearby municipality of Santa Ana de Cotacachi went to court to dispute the government’s authorisations to the mining corporations. The municipality argued such authorisation was in violation of the constitutional rights of nature and other rights.
In 2019, the case was selected by the Constitutional Court of Ecuador. This is the highest court of Ecuador, and it has the power to select cases to review the application of constitutional rights and to define their legal content. To date, the Court has selected at least six cases on rights of nature. Verdicts issued in selected cases set standards of general application (erga omnes effect).
The Los Cedros case dealt with activity authorised by the government of Ecuador. Since the mining was in an early phase of exploration, the environmental requirements were not strict. In fact, the authorization was issued on-line, without a specific procedure to assess the impact of the mining on the rights of nature.
This is an important statement of the Court as the mining industry has argued that the rights of nature is limited only to protected areas, which covers only one-fifth of the country.
The Court addresses many other important aspects of rights to nature, including its autonomy and their impact on legislation regarding environmental impact assessment. Other constitutional rights, such as environmental rights are also addressed by the Court.
Source: CDER (Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights)
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