Where the Earth Has Legal Rights
An Environmental Article from All-Creatures.org


Earth in Transition
June 2012

While many nations don’t want to be “side-tracked” by what they see as the idealistic, socialist rhetoric of Bolivia and other poor countries struggling to adapt to a fast-changing world, they might do well, nonetheless, to take a closer look at a nation that is such a classic manifestation of the dilemma that the whole world is now beginning to face.

zoe earth rights

As the nations of the world prepare to meet in Brazil for the environmental summit Rio+20 (20 years since the first one there), one of Brazil’s neighbors, Bolivia, isn’t waiting for other countries to take action. It’s pushing ahead on what it calls the Law of Mother Earth.

Developed by grassroots social groups and agreed by politicians, the Law of Mother Earth recognizes that all living things have certain legal rights, and that the natural world has equal status to human beings.

Once it’s fully approved, the law will recognize the Earth as having 11 specific rights that include:

  • The Right to Life – the integrity of life systems and natural processes which sustain them, as well as the capacities and conditions for their renewal.
  • The Right to the Diversity of Life – the preservation of the variety of beings that comprise Mother Earth, without being genetically altered or artificially modified in a way that threatens their existence, functioning and future potential.
  • The Right to Water – the preservation of the quality and composition of water to sustain life systems.
  • The Right to Clean Air – the quality and composition of air to sustain life systems.
  • The Right to Equilibrium through the restoration of the interdependence of the components of the Earth for the continuation of its cycles and the renewal of its vital processes.
  • The Right to Restoration of life systems affected by direct or indirect human activities.
  • The Right to Live Free of Contamination from toxic and radioactive waste generated by human activities.

An initial act outlining these rights was passed by the Bolivian government at the end of 2010. It defines the Earth as a dynamic and “indivisible community of all living systems and living organisms, interrelated, interdependent and complementary, which share a common destiny.”

At its heart is an understanding that Pachamama (Good Mother Earth) is sacred, a worldview that derives from the indigenous Andean understanding of the Earth as a living being.

From Pristine Forest to Desert

Bolivia is one of the countries most threatened by climate change. Its glaciers, which supply most of its fresh water, are melting (most glaciers below 15,000 feet are expected to disappear completely within 20 years), and this leads to flooding and then, in its aftermath, to searing drought.

Research by glaciologist Edson Ramirez of San Andres University suggests temperatures have been rising steadily for 60 years and started to accelerate in 1979. If this continues, much of Bolivia will become a desert.

The Law of Mother Earth is part of a larger revision of the country’s entire legal system – away from the Western emphasis on growth and exploitation of resources to the indigenous concept of Vivir Bien – living well. According to the proposal for the law:

    Vivir Bien means adopting forms of consumption, behavior and and conduct that are not degrading to nature. It requires an ethical and spiritual relationship with life. Living Well proposes the complete fulfillment of life and collective happiness.
One example of its commitment to the Earth and its living creatures was Bolivia’s decision, last year, to close all circuses that exploit animals. As part of that move, the government worked with Animal Defenders International to send 25 circus lions to a sanctuary in Colorado.

A Clash of Worldviews

Of course, Bolivia can’t separate itself from international politics and economics. Its main trading partner is still the United States, which takes a dim view of the country’s moves toward socialism and its ideological ties to the Castro brothers of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. And it depends on partnerships with international corporations to develop its natural resources in order to feed its people, more than half of whom live in poverty.

One of its cash crops is coca. And while President Evo Morales (photo right) insists that his government is not involved in helping refine coca into cocaine, other countries, including the U.S. are suspicious.

Morales counters that “the central enemy of Mother Earth” is capitalism, and his rhetoric draws support from such countries as Iran and Syria that have little interest in protecting the Earth, but great interest in stirring up trouble with the West.

Morales himself comes from an indigenous Bolivian/Andean family. According to his heritage, the country’s rich mineral deposits would be seen as “blessings” rather than resources.

But Bolivia has long been subject to major environmental problems from the mining of tin, silver and other minerals. So the new law would 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.”

On the other hand, the country earns $500 million a year – nearly half its foreign currency – from mining operations. And Bolivia has the second largest natural gas reserves in South America, with a long-term agreement to sell that gas to Brazil through a pipeline that, in turn, creates environmental damage.

Plus, if it opens up lithium mining operations, Bolivia could become what people have begun to call “the Saudi Arabia of the Green World.”

The paradox, however, is that in becoming a green world supplier, it could destroy itself as a green country.

So Bolivia is caught in the bull’s-eye of of the dilemma that now faces the whole world and our economic and political systems.

The nation embraces a form of socialism that seeks to free its people from economic hardship wrought by centuries of exploitation and invasion from other powers. Yet socialism is largely failed economic system. Then again, the capitalist system that its government abhors has the possibility of freeing its people from that hardship – at least temporarily. But, then again, that means subjecting itself to a world system that’s now in crisis and could collapse, leaving the people of Bolivia with nothing but a desert that was once farmland and the end of one of the most diverse and pristine wildlife reserves in the whole world.

Next door to Bolivia, as its neighbor Brazil prepares to host the Rio+20 summit, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon calls the upcoming conference a “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real progress towards the sustainable economy of the future.” Whether the 100 heads of state and government and the thousands of parliamentarians, officials and business leaders will take advantage of the opportunity is a whole other question.

While many nations don’t want to be “side-tracked” by what they see as the idealistic, socialist rhetoric of Bolivia and other poor countries struggling to adapt to a fast-changing world, they might do well, nonetheless, to take a closer look at a nation that is such a classic manifestation of the dilemma that the whole world is now beginning to face.

Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

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