Towards a Peace with Nature Constitution

People ask why I carry a ‘Peace with Nature’ flag at Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. I say it’s because humanity has got into the habit of waging war on nature, but this is a war that we simply cannot win. So we need to give up, surrender, relax, and submit to ecological reality instead. But the habit of war against nature is so strong – how do we break it? My answer is that we need a process of steady, educational change in a consistent direction, as our forces are demobilised and our societies reorganised for peace and sustainability. Then I explain about the daring and imaginative ways that Costa Rica has used to build Peace with Nature over decades. And I say that it’s time to pay attention and learn how to do peace.

Costa Rica is a country in Central America, between Panamá and Nicaragua. In 1948, it abolished its armed forces and redirected its military budget to healthcare, education and environmental protection. During the 1970s and 1980s, despite this early wisdom, rapid deforestation convinced local conservationists that virtually all private lands were likely to be cleared of natural ecosystems. Their lobbying led in 1989 to a National Biodiversity Planning Commission, which started with the premises that biodiversity was economically valuable so should be preserved and used for public benefit, and that forest protection could not succeed unless the people living around each protected area were willing to help protect it. The Commission proposed new laws to consolidate a National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), with all the units being managed locally and for local benefit. To help pay for this, the Commission recommended a national biodiversity inventory, to find out exactly what made up Costa Rica’s biological richness and what it might be used for, and also the creation of a National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to manage the inventory. All of this was done, and it led in the early 1990s to the high-profile birth of bioprospecting as a strategy for tropical developing countries to use and conserve their own living resources for their own long-term benefit.

By the mid 1990s, the logic of using ecosystems creatively to pay for their own conservation and contribute to national well-being had resulted in a ‘payments for ecosystem services’ (PES) programme in Costa Rica. This is a national system to manage payments for carbon storage, hydrological services, and the protection of biodiversity and landscapes. It is mostly financed by a 3.5% sales tax on fossil fuels, but the aim is that all beneficiaries of environmental services eventually pay for those they receive. In 1997-2004, some US$200 million was invested in PES to protect over 460,000 hectares of forests, to establish forestry plantations and to provide additional income to more than 8,000 forest owners. It had the effect of turning deforestation in Costa Rica into net reforestation by the early 2000s.

These environmentally-based economic programmes, together with debt-for-nature swaps and the rapid growth of genuine ecotourism (i.e. nature-based tourism that pays for conservation and promotes environmental education), helped to transform the country’s self-image and future, and by 2007 Costa Rica was ready for the next logical step, which was to declare Peace with Nature. This involved a number of specific commitments by the government, to abolish all forces that destroy nature by 2021: by banning net GHG emissions and single-use plastics, and promoting environmental action planning by all state institutions, investment in the protected area system and biodiversity, arrangements for users of ecosystem services to pay for their conservation, and environmental education in all schools.

Costa Rica’s 30-year process of change is built on consistent ecological reasoning, appropriate technologies and the sharing of costs and benefits to involve multiple aspects of society and the economy. The factors that made such an approach feasible in Costa Rica (with historical starting positions, luck, and leadership among them) need to be understood, but there are lessons to be learned here that are applicable in all other countries. Three factors are particularly relevant:

  • First, that the social and ethical development of a country or group of states needed for a Peace with Nature Declaration can now be achieved far more quickly than it was in Costa Rica, since we’ve all been wrestling with and learning from similar issues.
  • Second, that ‘Peace with Nature’ need not stop at a declaration and a set of government programmes, even over-arching and mainstreaming ones. Rather it could also be the basis for constitutional reform, applicable equally to a country like the UK that currently lacks a written constitution, and to countries where an existing constitution lacks adequate attention to environmental sustainability.
  • Third, that with ‘experimentalist governance’ as a proven idea (i.e. networked, exploratory peer learning, as applied in the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, the EU Water Framework Directive, the Chinese and Canadian development processes, and in air-traffic and nuclear safety systems), Peace with Nature can provide a goal to which all countries aspire and which they compete and cooperate to achieve.

I reckon that every country needs a Peace with Nature Declaration (to include commitments to Climate Emergency and Carbon Neutrality, but going far beyond them), and a cross-sectoral implementation programme through which to give it meaning, and a Peace with Nature Constitution to embed the key principles at the heart of its legal system, so that laws passed by its parliament can be challenged and judged against the standard of compliance with ecological reality, and struck down as unconstitutional if they fail the test. This would allow a country’s laws to be guided steadily, quickly and irreversibly towards ecological compliance, which is the key essential part of any survival strategy for our species and biosphere. And that’s why I carry a ‘Peace with Nature’ flag at Extinction Rebellion demonstrations! Do join in.

© Julian Caldecott