New Clear Vision

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Enshrining the Environment

January 05, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Current Events, Ecology, Jay Walljasper, Politics

From the Commons to Our Constitutions

by Jay Walljasper

There’s a nagging misconception that all significant environmental progress begins in wealthy nations, which then shoulder the noble task of aiding and arm-twisting poor nations to do their share in taking care of the planet.

While it’s true that limited financial resources hinder environmental protection throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, it’s not at all accurate to paint the developed nations as green and developing ones as a brown splotch of ecological ruination.

Indeed, looking at per capita rates of greenhouse and toxic emissions, you might think just the opposite — the overdeveloped nations of the world need to follow the example of their poor neighbors to the south, which dump far fewer pollutants into the global commons. After all, these are the places where precious biodiversity, rainforests and other ecological treasures still exist — the natural ecosystems of Europe and North American were largely ravaged a century ago.

But the developing world doesn’t simply do less of what’s wrong, they also have taken some bold steps in embracing a greener future. In some cases, they are pioneering new approaches to protecting the environment rooted in a sense of the commons — the idea that some things belong to all of us.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution. The document now asserts that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution” — an innovative new form of environmental legal protection.

And just last month Kenya adopted a “new constitution” that declares in Article 42: “Every person has the right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes the right — a) to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations through legislative and other measures.”

Article 69 of the new constitution also holds the state responsible for maintaining tree cover over at least ten percent of the nation’s land; for encouraging public participation in protecting and managing the environment; protecting indigenous knowledge of biodiversity; and establishing systems of environmental impact assessment.

Obviously, it is easier for a poor nation to implement such rights than to enforce them, but Ecuador’s and Kenya’s actions are more than symbolic. They show the possibilities for making environmental protection part of the bedrock of our legal systems.

Burns Weston, Law Professor emeritus at the University of Iowa and Senior Research Scholar at the Vermont Law School, suggests that Kenya’s new constitution might be a model for U.S. states “to improve their state constitutions along these lines.”

Jay Walljasper is co-editor of He is the author of the new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press, 2010), a Contributing Editor at National Geographic Traveler, a Senior Fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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