Extreme weather and Mother Earth: nature gets legal rights in Bolivia

Evo MoralesAs 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.’

Alexis WrightIndigenous 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.’

Jane Gleeson-White

Jane Gleeson-White is a writer and editor with degrees in literature and economics. She’s a PhD student in creative writing and the author of Double Entry (2011), Australian Classics (2007) and Classics (2005). She blogs at bookish girl and tweets at @janeLGW.

More by Jane Gleeson-White ›

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  1. Wow – what a wonderful idea to give nature some status and I hope that this idea catches on. I would be very interested in hearing what Indigenous people think about the environmental issues and climate change…where does one go to find this information?

    Olga from Revedoa@blogspot.com

  2. The best way of keeping abreast of the development of this rapidly growing social movement is to join the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (www.therightsofnature.org). There will also be a Wild Law conference on these issues in Brisbane, Australia in September this year. It will be Australia’s 3rd Wild Law conference and from the outset there has been a strong emphasis on learning from indigenous knowledge.

  3. Yes, it’s a very powerful idea, I agree Olga.

    And thanks v much Cormac for your input and link, I see the Bolivian legislation is the tip of the iceberg. It’s the best strategy I’ve come across for addressing climate change and I agree with Pablo Solón that we’re at a critical crossroads, faced with a choice either to commercialise nature or give it rights. It’s an incredibly important issue especially as the momentum now seems to be with green economics and the commercialisation of nature, ie putting a price on natural resources, which now use gratis, and co-opting them into the market economy.

  4. I am totally grateful to Bolivia for being so brave as to brake with Tradition and put Mother Earth First!

    Thank you , what a fantastic set of rights, all countries should do this !
    much better than carbon Tax!

  5. You’ve actually inspired me to read/write more on it right now … the past week I’ve been learning a lot about the law and its context and significance. It’s quite profound. One very compelling nugget of information, in the light of the dramas around the mining tax here, was that the Bolivian’s have almost nationalised the hydrocarbon sector after bringing on taxes of between 18%-32%. The \wealth of the land\ is now being used for the good of the people, rather than ending up in the pockets of billionaire-colonists from elsewhere. I’ll be speaking about it as part of my work in Melbourne next week.

  6. how absolutely fascinating, Peter. I’d love to hear more. Yes, I’m v interested in how it relates to mining and transnational capital/corporations in practice, esp as it’s been designed with exactly those things in mind.

    So we work either side of City Road and we talk via OL website exactly 12 hours apart? I was supposed to be in Melbourne next week too. But had to cancel cos of current book edit. Shame, would have loved to have heard your talk. At ASAL? Where I was supposed to be.

    (As a lover of numbers, I’m intrigued by that exactly 12 hours difference thing.)

  7. Fantastic post Jane! I so enjoy reading your stuff – you write about the things I’m really interested in with such panache! I said Peru with such drunken certainty yesterday, but I checked my proposal and I think it was Ecuador who first gave rights to Pachamama (Mother Nature) in their constitution in 2008. We need to all follow suit!

  8. Thanks Gaby!
    And yes, you’re right about Ecuador, thanks for mentioning.
    When you say ‘my proposal’, is this part of your PhD? Did you tell me this over beers on Sunday? And yes, we SO need to follow suit. Let’s do it.

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