"Law of Mother Earth": Nature to Get Legal Rights in Bolivia
04-25-2011, 02:47 PM
"Law of Mother Earth": Nature to Get Legal Rights in Bolivia
Bolivia enshrines natural world's rights with equal status for Mother Earth
Law of Mother Earth expected to prompt radical new conservation and social measures in South American nation
Bolivia is set to pass the world's first laws granting all nature equal rights to humans. The Law of Mother Earth, now agreed by politicians and grassroots social groups, redefines the country's rich mineral deposits as "blessings" and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry.
The country, which has been pilloried by the US and Britain in the UN climate talks for demanding steep carbon emission cuts, will establish 11 new rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.
Controversially, it will also enshrine the right of nature "to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities".
"It makes world history. Earth is the mother of all", said Vice-President Alvaro García Linera. "It establishes a new relationship between man and nature, the harmony of which must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration."
The law, which is part of a complete restructuring of the Bolivian legal system following a change of constitution in 2009, has been heavily influenced by a resurgent indigenous Andean spiritual world view which places the environment and the earth deity known as the Pachamama at the centre of all life. Humans are considered equal to all other entities.
But the abstract new laws are not expected to stop industry in its tracks. While it is not clear yet what actual protection the new rights will give in court to bugs, insects and ecosystems, the government is expected to establish a ministry of mother earth and to appoint an ombudsman. It is also committed to giving communities new legal powers to monitor and control polluting industries.
Bolivia has long suffered from serious environmental problems from the mining of tin, silver, gold and other raw materials. "Existing laws are not strong enough," said Undarico Pinto, leader of the 3.5m-strong Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, the biggest social movement, who helped draft the law. "It will make industry more transparent. It will allow people to regulate industry at national, regional and local levels."
Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said Bolivia's traditional indigenous respect for the Pachamama was vital to prevent climate change. "Our grandparents taught us that we belong to a big family of plants and animals. We believe that everything in the planet forms part of a big family. We indigenous people can contribute to solving the energy, climate, food and financial crises with our values," he said.
Little opposition is expected to the law being passed because President Evo Morales's ruling party, the Movement Towards Socialism, enjoys a comfortable majority in both houses of parliament.
However, the government must tread a fine line between increased regulation of companies and giving way to the powerful social movements who have pressed for the law. Bolivia earns $500m (£305m) a year from mining companies which provides nearly one third of the country's foreign currency.
In the indigenous philosophy, the Pachamama is a living being.
The draft of the new law states: "She is sacred, fertile and the source of life that feeds and cares for all living beings in her womb. She is in permanent balance, harmony and communication with the cosmos. She is comprised of all ecosystems and living beings, and their self-organisation."
Ecuador, which also has powerful indigenous groups, has changed its constitution to give nature "the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution". However, the abstract rights have not led to new laws or stopped oil companies from destroying some of the most biologically rich areas of the Amazon.
Coping with climate change
Bolivia is struggling to cope with rising temperatures, melting glaciers and more extreme weather events including more frequent floods, droughts, frosts and mudslides.
Research by glaciologist Edson Ramirez of San Andres University in the capital city, La Paz, suggests temperatures have been rising steadily for 60 years and started to accelerate in 1979. They are now on course to rise a further 3.5-4C over the next 100 years. This would turn much of Bolivia into a desert.
Most glaciers below 5,000m are expected to disappear completely within 20 years, leaving Bolivia with a much smaller ice cap. Scientists say this will lead to a crisis in farming and water shortages in cities such as La Paz and El Alto.
Evo Morales, Latin America's first indigenous president, has become an outspoken critic in the UN of industrialised countries which are not prepared to hold temperatures to a 1C rise.
Nature to Get Legal Rights in Bolivia
After decades of exile to environmentalism’s legal fringes, the notion that natural systems could have legal rights is receiving serious attention.
Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth is set to pass. On Wednesday the United Nations will discuss a proposed treaty based on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (.pdf), which was drafted by environmentalists last year. Both mandate legal recognition of ecosystems’ right to exist.
It’s highly unlikely that the United Nations would pass any such treaty in the foreseeable future, and the discussion has been criticized as a time-wasting political maneuver. But the intellectual argument for nature’s rights isn’t necessarily a patchouli-soaked Gaia fantasy translated into legalese. Some say it’s a practical extension of ecological insight.
“It has to happen. We have to be able to give legal protection and consideration to the rest of the natural world,” said Patricia Siemen, executive director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence. “It’s in the human best interest, as well as the larger natural world’s.”
The first principle of Bolivia’s law — here translated into English (.pdf) from the original Spanish — calls for human activities to “achieve dynamic balance with the cycles and processes inherent in Mother Earth,” with Mother Earth defined as “a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings.” A ministry of Mother Earth will be established, and an ombudsman appointed to hear disputes.
That the law would emerge from Bolivia is unsurprising. As the Guardian notes, the law was influenced by nature-embracing Andean spiritual traditions. Less abstractly, Bolivia is experiencing drastic environmental upheaval. Thanks to climate change, glaciers that provide fresh water to most Bolivians are drying up; parts of the country, including the capital, will likely become wasteland before the century’s end. The line between protecting nature and protecting people is very thin.
In the United States, the idea of legal rights for nature was planted by a 1972 article in the Southern California Law Review, entitled “Should Trees Have Standing?” (.pdf). Its author, University of Southern California law professor Christopher Stone, noted that established legal traditions recognized many non-human entities, from corporations to ships, as full-fledged people for legal purposes.
“To say that the natural environment should have rights is not to say anything as silly as that no one should be allowed to cut down a tree,” wrote Stone. But in his view, it was just as silly to think humans had inalienable rights to destroy communal entities like streams and forests. He proposed that people be allowed to claim guardianship of threatened natural resources, much as family or friends become guardians of loved ones unable to represent their own interests.
Stone’s claim would ultimately influence Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, who in his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton called for legal recognition of “valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.”
“Each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable,” wrote Stone. “This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of us.”
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