As extreme weather becomes the norm Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, believes that to fight climate change we need to recover the values of indigenous people.
Indigenous Australian writer Alexis Wright says something similar in her essay ‘Deep Weather’ in the latest issue of Meanjin. Noting the devastation of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, the 2011 floods in eastern Australia and Cyclone Yasi, as well as extreme weather events around the world, Wright wonders ‘what the traditional Indigenous caretakers of the land think about these extreme weather events of flood, fire and wind’ and asks why we’re not hearing their ancient stories about ‘how to respect the weather’. Her blunt reply? What Indigenous Australians say ‘is not considered relevant’.
This is not the case in Bolivia, where indigenous understanding of the earth is being applied to environmental problems in a radical new way. In January 2011 the Bolivian government enshrined the rights of nature (as ‘Mother Earth’) in law. The new law defines Mother Earth as: ‘the living and dynamic system formed by the indivisible community of all life systems and living things who are interdependent, interrelated and which complement each other sharing a common destiny. Mother Earth is considered sacred by worldwide communities and indigenous peoples.’ The law recognises natural resources as ‘blessings’, allows for a Ministry of Mother Earth and an ombudsman to advocate the rights of the earth. It grants nature eleven rights, which include:
• the right to maintain the integrity of life and natural processes
• the right not to have cellular structure modified or genetically altered
• the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration
• the right to pure water
• the right to clean air
• the right to be free of toxic and radioactive pollution
• the right to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.
Speaking in New York on 20 April 2011 at a UN General Assembly, Bolivia’s UN Ambassador Pablo Solón said of the rights of nature: ‘to think that only humans should enjoy privileges while other living things are simply objects is the worst mistake humanity has ever made. Decades ago, to talk about slaves as having the same rights as everyone else seemed like the same heresy that it is now to talk about glaciers or rivers or trees as having rights.’
After all, 125 years ago we granted inanimate collectives of capital designed to generate profit (corporations) the same rights as human beings. In 1886 the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations were ‘persons’ and entitled to the same rights granted to people under the US Bill of Rights. Today corporations are legal people in most jurisdictions of the world and dominate the planet. It seems only fair that the planet be granted similar rights in its fight to survive the ravages of corporate profit seeking.
The Mother Earth legislation is Bolivia’s attempt to end the serious environmental damage it’s suffered at the hands of this corporate profit seeking, especially mining. Its glaciers, which were once the source of most of the country’s fresh water, have now disappeared.
Environmental lawyer Begonia Filgueira calls Bolivia’s Mother Earth law a legal milestone, ‘the only way to balance the rights that humans have with the protection of the planet and ultimately the human race’. According to Filgueira, the Bolivian law makes two fundamental changes to the legal status of the earth:
1. It grants the earth legal personality, which means it will be able to bring legal action to defend its rights as people and companies currently can. She predicts this will ‘drive environmental policy at the highest level’.
2. It characterises the earth as being of ‘public interest’. This is a major shift, given that ‘public interest’ is usually determined largely by economic standards, not the wellbeing of the earth.
In April 2011 Evo Morales took his Mother Earth law to the world, tabling a draft UN Environmental Bill to grant the earth an international Bill of Rights. Canadian activist Maude Barlow has high hopes for Morales’ Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and says that one day it will stand as ‘the companion to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the guiding covenants of our time’.
According to Pablo Solón, ‘Humanity finds itself at a crossroads: we can commercialise nature through the green economy or recognize the rights of nature.’ Bolivia has chosen the latter path. Solón rejects green economics because it attempts to bring the laws of capitalism to bear on nature. He also rejects technological solutions, arguing that: ‘The answer for the future lies not in scientific inventions but in our capacity to listen to nature.’
Indigenous knowledge of nature is also embedded in the ancient stories that thread Australia. Alexis Wright argues that treaties with Indigenous Australians might go some way to fostering the respect and trust required if their stories of our land are to be shared. In these times of extreme weather, maybe we should follow the Bolivian example and allow Australia’s indigenous people to contribute their knowledge to solving the various climate and natural crises we face. Maybe we should find a way to start listening to ‘the ancient stories of this country – that knowledge that goes back thousands of years. This is where you will find the weather charts, the records about the climate and how Indigenous people learnt to survive on this continent.’