In a world first, the people of the South American Republic of Ecuador have voted in favour of a constitution that gives nature - that's rainforests, rivers and air - legal rights akin to those given to humans.
Two thirds of Ecuadorians voted in the new laws which state nature has the "right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution" and mandates that the government take "precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles."
Under the new system if nature is damaged it will be compensated, just as a person might be if unlawful harm was brought to them. The laws give humans the right to sue on behalf of the natural environment or ecosystem that is damaged even if they themselves have not been hurt. Until now environmental lawsuits were people based where it needed to be proven a human had suffered injury.
Ecuador has many natural and valuable resources beneath its earth. The mineral rich soils and pockets of natural gas have been the target of multi-national companies entering it to exploit its natural resources for years. The country is still fighting US oil company Chevron in the courts. Texaco, a company the oil company bought in 2001, allegedly dumped huge amounts of crude oil and toxic waste in the Amazon over a period of twenty or so years. Heavily contaminating groundwater, the pollution has had devastating effects on the local ecosystem and native people. If Chevron is found guilty they could pay in excess of £8 billion in damages.
Even though the new laws will not help the Chevron case they could aid one of the most biologically diverse places in the world, the Yasuni National Park, where two ‘untouched' Amazonian tribes still live. The land is being pursued by companies wanting to extract the large reserves of untapped crude oil believed to lie beneath it.
As these laws are unprecedented across the globe there's no knowing what may result from them. The entire world is watching to see how they are used, and so we should, our earth's lungs are at stake here.