A landmark 7-2 court ruling makes Ecuador the first country in the world to give distinct legal rights to wild animals, namely the right to exist in their natural habitat.
The battle between humans and nature is fraught. The toll economic pursuits have on land and water include mass deforestation, ocean acidification, increasing loss of polar ice caps, and habitat loss for flora and fauna key to keeping the planet functioning. The science continues to show it is critical, especially under the looming threat of climate change.
Some of that imbalance though may soon be corrected in Ecuador as the “rights of nature” won legal protection thanks to a monkey named Estrellita.
The woolly monkey, whose name translates to ‘star’, was illegally removed from the Ecuadorian forest and became a family pet for more than 18 years. The animal honed advanced communication skills with her human family, capable of making gestures and sounds to express needs and wants.
But after nearly two decades as a pet, the animal was seized by authorities and moved to a zoo where she suffered a heart attack and died just a month after being removed from her home.
A landmark victory for animals
The family sued before the animal died, citing scientific evidence that woolly monkeys in particular experience complex cognitive and social realities, arguing that Estrellita “should at minimum possess the right to bodily liberty” and the “environmental authority should have protected Estrellita’s rights by examining her specific circumstances before placing her in the zoo.”
The court agreed, stating that the authorities violated the monkey’s rights. But it also ruled that the family did, too, by participating in Estrellita’s removal from the forest in the first place and keeping her in an unnatural environment for the rest of her life. That monumental decision led the court to propose new legislation to better protect all wild animals in Ecuador.
“The domestication and humanization of wild animals are phenomena that have a great impact on the maintenance of ecosystems and the balance of nature, as they cause the progressive decline of animal populations,” the court recognized in its ruling.
The suggestion builds on existing legislation—2008’s constitutional amendment to give nature rights in the country. But the definitions were murky when it came to individuals.
“While rights of nature were enshrined in the constitution, it was not clear prior to this decision whether individual animals could benefit from the rights of nature and be considered rights holders as a part of nature,” Ecuadorian environmental lawyer Hugo Echeverría explained in a statement. “The court has stated that animals are subject of rights, protected by rights of nature.”
The ruling doesn’t give animals the same rights as humans, but it does allow for them to “exist, flourish, and evolve”, in natural ways as part of their ecosystems. The ruling does not ban hunting, fishing, or forestry. But it could eventually.
The court noted that “wild species and their individuals have the right not to be hunted, fished, captured, collected, extracted, kept, retained, trafficked, traded or exchanged,” and that these creatures have individual value “not related” to their usefulness to humans.
The ruling orders the Ministry of Environment to create more protections for wild animals within 60 days of the decision.
“Typically, environmental law has not concerned itself with animals that aren’t considered important species, such as endangered species covered by the US Endangered Species Act,” said Kristen Stilt, a Harvard law professor. “There is a reckoning starting to happen that is breaking down the silos of animal law and environmental law, and this case is an important part of that development.”
The decision comes after another landmark victory in Ecuador. In February, the Supreme Court gave Indigenous communities the right to oversee the Amazon rainforest where they live, which accounts for 70 percent of the country’s rainforest. The groups now have jurisdiction over 23 million acres that have been razed for oil and mining.
“This is historic,” Academy Award winner and longtime environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio said in an Instagram post applauding the decision. “The ruling provides one of the world’s most powerful precedents on the internationally recognized right of Indigenous peoples to have the final say on oil, mining or other extractive projects that affect their lands – otherwise known as the right to Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC) – providing new strength to a powerful tool for Indigenous-led global climate action.”
The announcement also comes on the heels of the first-ever wildlife conservation bond issued by the World Bank. It’s directed at protecting critically endangered black rhinoceroses in South Africa. The bond will only pay returns if efforts to increase the rhino population in two protected areas are successful.