Bolivia Grants Legal Rights to Mother Earth

Looking for novel ideas for protecting the environment? Bolivia is way out ahead of any other nation.  In January it enacted the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, to recognize natural resources as “blessings” and enumerate eleven specific rights of nature. As reported by The Guardian (UK), these rights 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.”

The law declares, “She [Mother Earth] is sacred, fertile and the source of life that feeds and care 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-organization.” Mother Earth is also granted the right “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.”

While such legal language is often seen as symbolic and aspirational, the Bolivian legislature has given some substance to its enactment. The new law establishes a Ministry of Mother Earth and an ombudsman position to advocate the rights of Mother Earth in legal proceedings. Perhaps as significant, communities were granted new legal powers to monitor and control polluting industries.

In a sense, the law brings to fruition the idea put forward by Christopher Stone in a prophetic and now-classic 1972 law review article, "Should Trees Have Standing?" which was released as a book in 1996.

For those of us born and raised in highly industrialized countries, the idea of “Mother Earth” feels like a sentimental affectation. The term harks back to "primitive" cultures and conjures up an intimacy with nature that seems bizarre to the iPad-toting, jet-setting folkways of modern life. Who among us can name the five most commons animal species in our bioregion, or even identify our bioregion?

Not surprisingly, the Bolivian initiative has inspired controversy. When I read an account of a proposed UN treaty along the same lines that Bolivia is advocating, many of the 1,800 comments by readers of that news story (!!) were vicious, mocking and incredulous. Some charged that the idea amounted to socialism or mass lunacy. One of the more moderate comments was: “This is crazy. It can lead to anything they want under the guise of ‘protecting mother earth.’ Well defined and enforced property rights are the best route to save and conserve on our environment.”

In a sense, the law brings indigenous culture into a confrontation with modernity. Evo Morales is the first indigenous president of a Latin American country, who has given voice to the long-suppressed indigenous religious sensibilities of many Bolivians and others in the Andes who regard “Pachamama” – Mother Earth – as the center of all life. We moderns have long fancied ourselves as enlightened, scientific secularists, emancipated from pre-modern “superstitions” that ascribe presence and mystery to the Earth itself. Perhaps we should be more modest given the failure of our science and technology to “solve” the growing array of ecosystem catastrophes.

It’s unclear what the practical effects of the new Bolivian law will be. Some warn that bugs and other lowly creatures will be treated as equal to humans. Others wonder which human beings will be the most legitimate voice of Mother Earth in legal proceedings. Fair questions. But it’s hard to argue with the sensibility that gave rise to the law: “It establishes a new relationship between man and nature, the harmony of which must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration,” said Bolivia’s vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

It will be fascinating to see how this new legal regime will be administered in practice, and how it does or does not succeed in getting commercial and industrial enterprises to change their rip-and-run practices.  My bet is that indigenous peoples have a lot of useful wisdom to convey to the “modern” world. In the meantime, Americans and Europeans should get past their squeamishness about the idea of Pachamama, and start to entertain the idea that – as Native Americans have long said – we belong to the Earth, not the other way around.