In the future, citizens of Bolivia may be able to challenge environmental destruction in court, on the basis that ecosystems and species have rights equal to those of people. This medium-sized country in South America, which has a long history of grappling with environmental problems, is poised to pass a sweeping new law that would grant legal rights to nature. It is just the latest example of how the Bolivian government has made news by taking far-out positions on environmental issues. However if Bolivia can make the new Law of Mother Earth work, it could serve as a model for other countries tired of seeing their ecosystems managed as exploitable resources.
Bolivia is establishing the Law of Mother Earth during a process of re-shuffling the government following revisions to the constitution in 2009. The Law of Mother Earth will grant the natural environment eleven legally defendable rights. According to the UK Guardian these include the right of other life forms to exist, to continue natural cycles, to be free of pollution, to maintain the integrity of their genetic makeup, and not to be damaged by giant infrastructure projects. The intent of the Law of Mother Earth is to re-define the relationship between humans and nature, and ensure development does not proceed at the expense of natural ecosystems.
The law, which is supported by Bolivian President Evo Morales and his Move Toward Socialism party, was drafted with input from civil society groups and social movements. It is partially the product of Bolivia’s rising indigenous movement, with wording that draws heavily from indigenous philosophies and ideas. Throughout its text the law refers to the planet’s natural ecosystems as “Mother Earth” (“Madre Tierra” in Spanish), calling to mind the indigenous concept of an Earth goddess or spirit known as Pachamama. Perhaps not coincidentally, President Morales is the first indigenous head of state in Latin America.
Pro-nature groups in Bolivia are expected to praise the Law of Mother Earth, which should easily pass through Bolivia’s legislature. However enforcing the law will probably be a much more difficult task than writing it. Deforestation and mining currently threaten much of Bolivia’s remaining natural environment, and the economic forces that put these activities in motion will not be reversed overnight. Bolivia is in a similar situation to that of Ecuador, another South American country which in 2008 granted rights to nature as part of its new constitution. The constitutional changes did not immediately halt environmental degradation in Ecuador, and full enforcement of the law is likely to be a process that takes years.
Bolivia is now experimenting with its own policy of giving right to nature, and like Ecuador will probably be struggling for years to make the concept of equal rights for ecosystems a reality. Yet if any country is up to the task it may well be Bolivia, which has already challenged conventional thinking on environmental issues many times.
Bolivia has been more outspoken than almost any other country in its critique of international climate negotiations, which have so far failed to yield a legally binding treaty. Last December at climate meetings in Mexico, Bolivia was the only country to outright oppose a deal it says will not do enough to protect the world from catastrophic climate change. Though no other nation has gone as far as Bolivia in openly defying industrialized countries, Bolivia’s position on climate has prompted other developing nations to question whether the large economies that dominate climate meetings really have the planet’s interests at heart. Last year Bolivia hosted a “People’s Conference on Climate Change,” to serve as a venue for countries and groups wanting to discuss forward-thinking climate policies.
Now Bolivia seems to determined to follow its own advice, granting legal rights to nature and putting ecosystems above corporate interests—at least in theory. The years ahead will show how effectively Bolivia manages to translate lofty ideals into real change on the ground. Whatever the outcome, the country is one of the first to fully take on the question of whether nature should have basic rights. In this sense Bolivia truly has become a pioneer for the environment.
Photo credit: Sam Beebe