January 10, 2024
Ecocide destroys the ecosystem, and therefore us: why should we care about the extinction of a rodent and a toad
Insight by Stella Levantesi
A rodent and a toad. The rodent used to live on an island off the coast of Australia, and weighed only 100 grams. The Bramble Cay melomys is probably the world's first mammal to go extinct due to climate change, scientists reported in June 2016. The golden toad in Costa Rica used to rely on rain for reproduction. Due to climate crisis-induced weather alterations, the golden toad could no longer reproduce and went extinct.
But why should we care about the fate of rodents or toads?
"The burning library of life"
According to the most commonly cited figure, there are 8.7 million species on Earth (other estimates range from 5.3 million to a trillion). Wildlife populations have declined by an average of 69% between 1970 and 2018, according to the latest data from the Living Planet Report, a biennial study on global biodiversity trends and the health of the planet by WWF.
According to the report, biodiversity decline in Latin America and the Caribbean is higher than any other region in the world: a 94% decrease was recorded between 1970 and 2018.
The study identifies the main cause of wildlife loss in human activities such as the destruction of natural habitats, largely to create agricultural land and exploit it. According to another study, species are dying at a rate up to 1000 times higher than before the existence of humans on Earth 60 million years ago.
So why should we care about the extinction of a rodent and a toad?
It's very simple: because everything that allows humans to survive comes from other species and the balance between these species and their natural habitat – including rodents and toads.
In the book "Ecocide. A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species", the author Franz J. Broswimmer answers questions like these and writes that "like all species, we collectively depend on other species for our existence".
Other species, he writes, "produce the oxygen we breathe, absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale, decompose our sewage , produce our food, maintain the fertility of our soil, and provide our wood and paper
"Humans are not only part of biodiversity, but profoundly depend on it", Broswimmer adds. Another reason, he explains, perhaps obvious but fundamental, is that extinctions are irreversible. "When an ecosystem is destroyed, re-creating it is either impossible or extremely difficult", he writes.
Biodiversity not only enables the sustenance and life of humans but also constitutes "the knowledge of the Earth". Humans, some researchers have written, are causing the "burning library of life".
Many of the causes driving biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction, including overfishing, oil spills, chemical and plastic pollution, mining, deforestation, agricultural pollution, and air pollution, are the same ones pushing ecosystems to collapse.
Some experts argue that these destructive activities can be addressed within an "ecocide law".
Ecocide: a voice for ecosystems in international law
"Ecocide" refers to the damage and destruction of ecosystems – harm to nature that is widespread, severe, or systematic.
Stop Ecocide International (SEI), co-founded in 2017 by pioneering lawyer Polly Higgins, who passed away in 2019, and current Executive Director Jojo Mehta, has been campaigning since 2017 to make ecocide an international crime. Repeated ecocide over decades, says SEI, is the main cause of the climate and ecological emergency we are facing.
"A law for ecocide would, for the first time, recognize the environment's own voice within criminal law. But more generally, it would provide a parameter for what is or is not acceptable action", explains Anna Maddrick, legal expert for SEI and climate advisor to the Republic of Vanuatu at the United Nations.
According to Maddrick, it's important to keep in mind that ecocide law doesn't require actual harm but merely the "crime of endangerment" or the risk of harm. This is because, she explained, environmental damage can take years to fully materialize, and many environmental damages are, among other things, "cumulative".
"As ecocide law would refer to an individual criminal act, then there may be a situation in the future where, for example, the decision to open a coal mine or an oil and gas reserve would constitute ecocide law", Maddrick adds.
The ecocide of climate
Because "environmental crime", including the activities of the fossil fuel industry, is largely driving the climate collapse, ecocide is also closely tied to climate change.
According to Maddrick, existing laws are not sufficient to address the problem. The current legal framework for environmental matters is based on the principle of "polluter pays", but an ecocide law, she emphasized, is based on the idea that polluters should not pollute, going directly to the cause of environmental damage rather than, for example, the effects of emissions only.
It's no coincidence that among the first states in favor of an international ecocide law is Vanuatu, a Pacific island nation that, like other island states, is the first to experience the effects of the climate crisis globally.
"Vanuatu is the first state to publicly call for an ecocide law, and it has been a strong ally of ours. Small island states are particularly at risk from anthropogenically induced climate change. They’ve already been experiencing its effects and waves, unparalleled to the rest of the world", explains Maddrick. But this is not the only reason Vanuatu supports an ecocide law.
"They are in favor for a variety of reasons, also because the ecocide law speaks to a recognition of the environment as a value in itself. The law is always framed through a human perspective. Small island states, in particular, are very interested in ecocide law, not only because it provides that degree of enforceability for climate and environmental justice but also because it speaks to a different kind of recognition of the environment", highlights Maddrick.
Despite the fact that ecocide is evidently harmful, the process to make it an international crime is long and complex.
"It's quite difficult to argue with the idea that serious harm to nature should be a criminal offense. It's a criminal offense to burn down a house; it should be the same for a forest, ultimately. But the political and bureaucratic process is really about making sure that once an ecocide law amendment is proposed, it is supported. So it's a matter of timing, but we are working towards that", clarifies Maddrick.
A legislative first step was taken in November 2023 when the European Union became the first international body to criminalize the most serious environmental damage. The European directive will be formally approved in the spring, and the text's preamble states the intention to criminalize "offenses comparable to ecocide with catastrophic results, such as widespread pollution or large-scale forest fires".
A collective interest
In addition to the legal movement to make ecocide a crime under international law, many activists around the world are fighting to make those who exploit and destroy ecosystems accountable for their polluting activities.
"You cannot replace an ecosystem. Polluting companies, such as oil or mining companies, are removing and forcing the displacement of indigenous populations from their lands, and these populations are the ones who have protected and preserved biodiversity for centuries. [These same companies] cause air and water pollution. Ecocide destroys communities", explains Namibian artist and activist Ina Maria Shitongo to Voice Over.
Shitongo fights against ecocide by supporting campaigns such as the one against the Canadian company ReconAfrica, which, to search for oil and gas in the Okavango area between Namibia and Botswana, is threatening the survival of the world's largest population of elephants and other endangered species.
"For me, as an activist, it's about expressing myself and speaking out against this injustice because if we don't speak and raise our voices, business as usual will continue as always", Shitongo stated.
This is the same thing that Broswimmer means when he writes that ecocide should be a matter of "collective interest" for humans. This is why we should also care about what happens to rodents and toads.
Translated in English by Voice Over Foundation.