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Aruba may become the second country in the world to legally recognize the inherent rights of nature

a beach in aruba
Image Credit: Unsplash // Gregory Wangsadikrama

On September 28, 2008, the citizens of Ecuador voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the rights of Mother Nature, known as the Andean Earth Mother goddess Pachamama, into its constitution.

Now, in 2023 Aruba may become the second country in the world to amend its constitution to recognize the inherent rights of nature.

Since Ecuador established the world’s first constitutional rights of nature, the provisions have protected Ecuadorean rainforests in numerous cases. Most recently in November 2021, Ecuador’s high court reaffirmed the constitutional protections for the rights of nature in a landmark decision, ruling that mining in the protected rainforest Los Cedros threatened its right to exist and flourish.

Just two months prior, the country ruled in favor of mangroves, finding that at the time, the present rules did not protect the trees.

For a decade-and-a-half, Ecuador has remained the only country to recognize nature’s rights in this way, and while at least 30 countries have some form of national, state, or local recognition of nature’s rights, with ecosystems in at least 14 countries winning the legal right to exist and flourish, Ecuador is the only one with a body of court decisions explicitly barring some human actions because of their effects on Pachamama’s regions.

Now, Aruba could be joining Ecuador. Like the South American country, Aruba’s pending amendment would elevate the protection that ecosystems receive, adding to what is guaranteed by conventional regulatory laws, and making mortality a legal obligation.

As Inside Climate News reports, the proposed amendment has not yet been publicly released but must clear all legal hurdles, including being approved by two-thirds or at least 14 members of Aruba’s Parliament and receiving a sign-off from the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

While Aruba is mostly self-governing, with its own executive, legislative and judiciary branches, Aruba has been a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands since its inception in 1815. It became a legal country in 1986, but the Netherlands remains responsible for both foreign policy and the defense of the country.

So why is Aruba, which has long been known for its beautiful tropical ecosystem, working to legally protect the rights of nature now? It is because of a growing concern for the environment that their citizens rely on for food and work and their economy relies on for tourism.

According to Aruba’s minister of nature, Ursell Arends, “Without nature, there is no economy, no health, and no tourism. If we don’t have those things, there is no Aruba, no us.”

Aruba is home to many tropical forests, whether they be the lush terrestrial mangroves or the underwater coral reef biomes. It’s no wonder that people flock there in search of an island vacation, which the country’s economy relies on. In 2021, Aruba was the sixth most visited country in the Caribbean, and according to the global market intelligence group, The Economist Group, the sector accounts for about 90% of GDP and 80% of employment.

While tourism in Aruba is since seeing a resurgence since the COVID-19 pandemic, it faces another threat: climate change, fossil fuels, and the environmental effects of the industry.

As explained in the forward of the Centrale Bank van Aruba’s 2021 report on future policy, “Likewise, the rising costs of fossil fuel energy, health care services, and housing are well recognized, as are the risks of overtourism, irresponsible waste management, and the complimentary risks of ocean acidification, mangrove deforestation, beach erosion, and climate change.”

The report showed how economic prosperity and the well-being of Arubans are dependent on natural resources, and the natural habitats must be restored and regenerated. Thus, the recommended policy changes focusing on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and restoration of its ecosystems like reforestation, investing in low-carbon technologies like renewable energy, and assessing the impact of environmental changes on residents’ health.

Despite the clear steps to take, Geert Rep, an Aruban lawyer who has won 15 court cases against developers on the island on the basis of conventional environmental and other laws since 2016, says the main opinion of the government right now leans toward short-term economic interests at the expense of nature.

“Recognition of the rights of nature would create more of a balance between nature and the economic side of things,” Rep said via ICN. “I think that even our tourism industry sees that enough is enough—at some point you kill your own treasures.”

Arends has been working toward getting the rights of nature added to the constitution since he incorporated it into the platform of his left-leaning RAIZ political party in 2017. Then last month, Arends formally kicked off the process of getting the job done.

Last month, Aruba hosted a gathering of government officials, civil society, and international organizations, including leaders of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, to launch the legal process of enshrining the rights of nature.

The day before the event, on the eve of Earth Day, Arends sent a draft of the amendment to the country’s Department of Legislation and Legal Affairs. Arends believes it will take a year for the draft to make its rounds through the department, his own ends’ office, the country’s Advisory Council, and finally to up the latter to be put to vote at the Parliament.

He’s confident it will not only receive the two-thirds vote to become law in his country but believes it will set an example for other countries to follow.

“Together, we can restore the balance between people and Nature, and taking care of what belongs to us,” he said at last month’s meeting. “We are not giving any rights to Nature. Nature has rights. This is a first step toward acknowledging that.”

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