This last October Bolivia enacted an expanded version of its already revolutionary 2010 Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.  Titled the Framework Law on Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well, the new law exemplifies indigenous values in that it recognizes Mother Earth as a “living dynamic system,” and grants Her comprehensive legal rights that are comparable to human rights.

Honoring the Larger Living System that Envelops & Sustains Us

In general, the law “…says Mother Earth has the right to exist, continue life cycles and be free from human alteration, the right to pure water and clean air, the right to equilibrium, the right not to be polluted or have cellular structures modified and the right not to be affected by development that could impact the balance of ecosystems.

The law is seen as a bold step in the right direction for a number of reasons.  Bolivia has particularly felt the effects of climate change, as the video above portrays, as well as environmental damage from deforestation and its dependency on extractive industries.  “In 2010, Bolivia ranked 137th out of 163 countries in annual environmental performance index by Yale and Columbia universities.”  It is hoped this law will improve environmental and human rights conditions in Bolivia itself, and expand on the precedent Ecuador set when it incorporated rights of nature into its constitution.

Challenges On the Path To Realizing Mother Earth’s Right to Thrive

Not surprisingly, however, there are critics and skeptics who question the appropriateness, and/or perceived idealism, of giving Mother Earth legal rights.  And there is also the question of how the law will be enforced.  While a Ministry of Mother Nature will oversee enforcement, and an ombudsman will be appointed, the big question is how the law will be realized on the ground.  Even champions of the law recognize this will be difficult, at best.

On a practical level, there is resistance to measures the new law calls for that require existing practices to change.  For example, the right of Mother Earth not to “have cellular structures modified” means genetically modified seeds will be phased out.  At the same time, much of Bolivia’s agricultural industry uses genetically modified seeds.  Ninety percent of all soy, Bolivia’s third-largest export crop, is grown with transgenic seeds.  Demetrio Pérez, the president of the National Association of Oilseeds and Wheat Producers, says Bolivia cannot return to traditional technology because “99% of crops are transgenic.”  And in this article, originally posted in Yes! Magazine, Nick Buxton writes, “In 2010, 70 percent of Bolivia’s exports were still in the form of minerals, gas, and oil. This structural dependence will be very difficult to unravel.”

Two leading Bolivian indigenous rights groups ,CONAMAQ and CIDOB, have also rejected the law, stating that it undermines indigenous rights by not requiring indigenous consent for development projects, and promotes “standard development” that will continue to harm the environment.

On a conceptual level, some argue that the law is contradictory, mixing human’s and Earth’s rights together, leaving the door open for one or the other to be exploited.  Carwil Bjork James writes:

The rights of Mother Earth, rights of indigenous peoples, rights of peasants, right to development, and the right to escape from poverty are all intermixed. CONAMAQ argues the law “incorporates the ‘right to development and the right to esacape from poverty’ so as to justify a developmentalist, extractive, and industrializing vision.  In my analysis (and here I’ll put my environmental policy degree on the line), combining these rights into a single mix will allow future Bolivian governments to decide on which right gets prioritized. Under the aegis of “‘integral development,” governments can decide to value oil revenues spent on antipoverty programs over an indigenous people’s rights to refuse drilling on their territory.

The validity of these concerns and doubts can only be speculated on at this point.

Stepping Toward a New Vision by Re-thinking What Counts as the “Public’s Interest”

Despite concerns, it’s difficult to deny the law points us in an important direction.  It recognizes the inextricable connection between human and environmental well-being, that we are pushing Mother Earth past sustainable limits, and that all people and institutions need to take part in reversing this trend.

Begonia Filgueira states in this article, “To say that the Earth is of public interest is also a major shift. There are many EU and UK laws which allow the public interest to trump over environmental concerns; the public interest not being normally defined as the well-being of the Earth community or the Earth, but determined largely by economic standards. By including the Earth in the public interest, there is an automatic shift from the human centric perspective to a more Earth community based perspective.  And if there is a conflict between human (individual) and Earth/human (collective) rights, how is this meant to be resolved? The law says that the bar, the limit will always be the destruction of living systems.”

At bottom, Bolivia deserves credit for recognizing, in a more substantive way than any other nation so far, that humans ultimately will not thrive if the Earth as a whole cannot.  We’d love it if you would share your thoughts on Bolivia’s law, and/or giving rights to nature in general.  Please comment below, or on Facebook.

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