The first country in the world to enshrine the rights of nature in its Constitution in 2008, Ecuador had recently set an example in the fight against climate change by banning a mining project in the protected nature reserve of Los Cedros, which is home to lush rainforest and a rich biodiversity already threatened by human activities. Today, the South American country goes beyond the limits of biodiversity protection by extending the constitutional protection of the rights of Nature to all wild animals. We come back to this good news!
“Wild animals have distinct legal rights, including the right to exist, to develop their innate instincts and to be free from disproportionate cruelty, fear and distress”
This is what I said recently Ecuador’s Supreme Court in Historic Decision interpret the country’s constitutional principles relating to “Rights of Nature”.
Generally recognized for ecosystems, this is the first time that the rights of nature, and in particular the right to exist and regenerate, are extended to animals. In fact, according to Kristen A. Stilt, a professor of law at Harvard University and director of the faculty related to animal rights, “What makes this decision so important is that now the rights of nature in Ecuador can be used to benefit small groups of animals or just one individual”.
More important, this decision now elevates animal rights to the category of constitutional rightsthus guaranteeing them the highest degree of protection enshrined in the Ecuadorian legal scenario. “Although the rights of nature are enshrined in the Constitution, it was unclear prior to this decision whether individual animals could benefit from the rights of nature and be seen as holders of rights as part of nature”delighted Hugo Echeverría, an Ecuadorian lawyer specializing in the environment.
Estrellita, the surprising fate of a hairy monkey
star, furry little monkey, had been captured in the wild, then one month old, and kept as a pet by Ana Beatriz Burbano until the age of 18. Possession of a wild animal is illegal under Ecuadorian law, in 2019, the authorities seized the primate to entrust it to a zoo. Unfortunately, after just a month, Estrellita succumbed to the stress of the change in her environment.
Before learning of the monkey’s death, its former owner filed a lawsuit, in the form of habeas corpus, a legal mechanism to determine the validity of an individual’s detention, and therefore asked the Justice to reinstate Estrellita and recognize that The Ecuadorian authorities violated the rights of the woolly monkey.
In this historic decision, the highest legal body in the country has recognized that animal rights have been violated by the government after its forced removal from its usual environment, given that the transfer, the living conditions at the zoo and the trauma caused by the separation from its owner probably contributed to the premature death of the woolly monkey. Nonetheless, the Court also found that Estrellita’s rights were violated by Ms. Burbano when he was removed from his natural habitat .
Despite his tragic fate, Estrellita pioneered the recognition of wildlife rights at the constitutional level and paved the way for greater protection of biodiversity in Ecuador.
Extended reach of the rights of nature
Among the various recognized rights of wild animals, the Court declares thatthey have the right “living in harmony, existing, having a habitat, not being hunted, fished, captured, collected, extracted, kept, retained, trafficked, traded or exchanged, as well as the right to the free development of their animal behavior, which includes the guarantee of not be tamed”.
According to the Court, these rights derive from the innate and individual value of animals, long erased in favor of their usefulness and value to human beings..
This decision is particularly important because for the first time, through the application of the rights of Nature, brings together aspects of environmental law and animal law in a single biodiversity protection mechanism.
Usually, the principles of the rights of nature applied to ecosystems entire, composed of many animals and inanimate entities of the biosphere, such as rivers, forests or mountains. Classical environmental law, on the other hand, did not protect ultimately than animals taken as a whole, when they belong to categories of species whose conservation is considered important due to the risk of extinction. As for animal rights, it is primarily concerned with animal abuse.
However, according to an argument presented to the Court in the form of aamicus curiae from the Harvard Animal Law School and the Non-Human Rights Project, species composed of individual animals, removal of a single individual from its natural environment can have negative effects on ecosystems and the entire species concerned.
Therefore, to compensate for the lack of effectiveness of Ecuadorian law in guaranteeing the effective protection of wild animals, the Court recognized the importance of challenging the traditional view that only ecosystems and species are protected by the rights of Nature, not individuals.
Each animal can now assert its rights through an individual or a representative of an animal protection association.
Greater protection of biodiversity
To avoid any incident similar to that of Estrellita, the Court adds that when the deprivation or restriction of the liberty of a wild animal is illegal, the authorities must imperatively consider the most appropriate solution ensure the victim’s protection, liberty, integrity and all other related rights.
The Ecuadorian Constitutional Court also ordered the Ministry of the Environment and Congress to draw up a protocol to assess the circumstances and needs of wild animals in captivity, in order to guarantee their protection, as well as prepare a text of law on the rights of animals that guarantees all the rights and principles developed in its judgment.
About domestic animals and livestock, the Court does not mention them directly, but the sentence implies that the rights granted to wild animals could be extended to them.
Furthermore, the Court makes it clear that certain human activities such as herding, hunting and fishing are permitted. Indeed, on the basis the right of people to benefit from the environment, in particular, she stated that these activities are consistent with the “biological interactions” between species that are essential for the balance of ecosystems. Nonethelessit is necessary to respect pre-existing environmental laws, including those relating to protected species, and to carry out these activities while limiting the suffering of animals as much as possible. .
In the context of the climate crisis, this decision, by extending constitutional protection to all animals, from the species to the individual animal, unquestionably constitutes one of the most important legal advances regarding the right of non-human communities to life. On the eve of the sixth mass extinction of biodiversity, the rest of the world must undeniably be inspired by the lessons of Ecuadorian jurisprudence.
 Ecuadorian Constitutional Court, Macaco Estrellita Case – Rights of Nature and animals as subjects of rights, Case #253-20-JH, English translation, January 27, 2022, available at: https://animal.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/Final-Judgment-Estrellita-w-Translation- Certification. pdf
 Surma, K., “The Supreme Court of Ecuador determines that wild animals have legal rights” in Inside Climat News, March 29, 2022, available at: https://insideclimatenews.org/news/29032022/ecuadors-high-court-rules-that-wild-animals-have-legal-rights/
 Lai, O., “Ecuador becomes first country to recognize the legal rights of animals” in Earth.org, April 4, 2022, available at: https://earth.org/ecuador-becomes-first-country-to-recognise-animal-legal-rights/
 Frost, R., “Wildlife in Ecuador now has legal rights, thanks to a monkey named Estrellita” in EuroNews, 6 April 2022, available at: https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/04/01/wild-animals-in-ecuador-now-have-legal-rights-thanks-to-a-monkey – called -estrellita
 no human rights, A historic decision for animal rights in Ecuador, March 23, 2022, available at: https://www.nonhumanrights.org/blog/landmark-ruling-animal-rights-ecuador/
 Ibid., https://insideclimatenews.org/news/29032022/ecuadors-high-court-rules-that-wild-animals-have-legal-rights/