Why We Need to Make Ecocide Punishable by Law

An ecocide law would hold decision-makers in business and politics accountable for polluting or damaging the natural world.

By Pella Thiel

How do we stop the destruction of the Earths’ living systems, the glaring result of the industrial growth society? From rainforests turned to palm oil plantations, to seas deprived of many fish species, to mines opened in ancient lands of indigenous peoples — like the Sami in Sweden: the story repeats itself all over the world.

I recently met lawyer Pablo Fajardo, a former oil field worker who completed his law degree by correspondence course and is now the lead attorney for 30,000 inhabitants of Amazonian Ecuador in a lawsuit against the oil giant Chevron, who have refused to take responsibility for their oil operations over the course of three decades. While drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon from 1964 to 1990, Texaco (now Chevron) deliberately dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater, spilled roughly 17 million gallons of crude oil, and left hazardous waste in hundreds of open pits dug out of the forest floor.

By comparison, 10.8 million gallons were spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska 1989. However, the Texaco oil spills were not an accident but a conscious operation during many years. The contamination of petroleum hydrocarbons in these areas are on average 20 times higher than the Ecuadorean norms for the time of operation, and the oil has contaminated water, rendered agricultural land unusable and lead to severe health problems among the inhabitants, including more than a thousand deaths from cancer. The Ecuadorean citizens’ struggle for justice began in 1993. In November 2013, The Supreme Court of Ecuador condemned Chevron to pay compensatory damages for over USD 9 billion.

In this, one of the worst cases of oil-related contamination on Earth, often referred to as the Amazon Chernobyl, liability is in other words determined. But that doesn´t help, as Chevron, one of the largest companies on the planet, doesn´t accept it. They refuse to pay. Total revenues for Chevron in 2012 amounted to $230 billion dollars. Ecuador, with 13 million inhabitants, has a total annual fiscal budget of barely $26 billion.

Who will hold Chevron accountable?

The world has become increasingly global and consequences of ever increasing consumption are invisible from where that consumption is taking place. Power relations are shifting so that the greatest economies now are large corporations, with one underlying motive: profit. In this situation we find ourselves in, there is great need for new practices and institutions to preserve values we hold dear, like the health of people and ecosystems.

One such new institution might be the law of ecocide, proposed by among others Earth lawyer Polly Higgins. The law of ecocide recognizes other living beings as subjects with rights, not mere resources:

Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.

Ecocide is not a new invention — the history of the idea can be traced back to the 1950s. Polly believes that the Rome Statute, the treaty that regulates the International Criminal Court in The Hague, should include ecocide as the fifth crime against peace alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

Many cases of potential ecocides are committed in countries that don´t have the political or economical strength to protect the interests of their citizens, but that is not always the case. The tar sands of Athabasca, Canada, the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest by logging, mining and beef production, and the oil extraction in the Niger Delta have been suggested as potential ecocides.

While we worry about levels of emissions from greenhouse gases, we still invest heavily in a fossil economy. The largest companies in the world are dealing with fossil energy. The large pension funds in Sweden, for example, have approximately 5 billion dollars invested in these companies. These investments not only lead to climate change, they are also extremely damaging at the sites of extraction.

The Chevron case described above is an attempt to hold a corporation accountable to the polluter pays principle. Even that seems impossible within current legislation. A law of ecocide would be much more bold — it would be an attempt to make polluters stop polluting. Decision-makers in business and politics who have had a possibility to foresee risks of ecocide would be personally accountable and would run the risk of prosecution.

However, the aim of a law of ecocide is not to put CEOs behind bars, but to shift to a society that puts people and planet before profit. Large corporations are very bad at that at the moment. Their foremost goal is to produce revenue for shareholders. According to that logic, a CEO who abstains from projects that are profitable but destructive could rightly be sacked. A law of ecocide would be a factor beyond profit present in boardrooms. It would support decision-makers to be conscious about the impact of their decisions on living systems. It could shift flows of investments from damaging ecosystems to sustainable innovation. A law of ecocide would support a shift to a circular economy.

The concept of ecocide reflects a worldview where humans are part of living systems, instead of dominating them, where nature is valuable in itself, not just as a resource for humans. The need for such a cultural shift is growing, and support for a law of ecocide is actually not very far away. When the Rome Statute was negotiated, ecocide was considered for inclusion, but was left out for unclear reasons. Today the cases of ecocide are painfully obvious. It is time for a law for life.

Visit the End Ecocide on Earth website to join the movement.

Originally published in April 2014 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.

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