The Law of Mother Earth: A Vision from Bolivia

“Mother Earth has the following rights: To life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to pollution-free living.” So states the Law of Mother Earth, a Bolivian law passed in December 2010 as a binding societal duty. Bolivia is the first country on Earth to give comprehensive legal rights to Mother Nature; this week we explore the language contained in the legislation and assert that Bolivia may be inventing a social model that will show how we as a global community might transcend conflict and division toward a harmonious and sustainable future.

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The Law of Mother Earth declares both Mother Earth and life-systems as titleholders of inherent rights.

Just when you think the world is impossible, the world surprises. Looking forward into the future one can easily despair over the scale of change required, the intractability of vested interests and governments, and the human energy and imagination required to make any change for the better. We talk of hope, but when specific actions are considered and expressed, all the reasons against often overwhelm the possibility.

Enter Bolivia, where in December 2010, in response to an understanding of the impacts of climate change on the nation’s economic and community health, the National Congress voted to support an act to protect the well-being of its citizens by protecting the natural world — its resources, sustainability, and value — as essential to the common good. The act was supported by Bolivian President Evo Morales; revisions of the national legal code were explored; over 2900 specific conservation programs and anti-pollution projects, conceived as expressions of the practical application of the Law, were implemented in all 327 municipalities.

The language is astonishing. Here are the binding principles that govern:

1) Harmony
Human activities, within the framework of plurality and diversity, should achieve a dynamic balance with the cycles and processes inherent in Mother Earth;

2) Collective Good
The interests of society, within the framework of the rights of Mother Earth, prevail in all human activities and any acquired right;

3) Guarantee of Regeneration
The state, at its various levels, and society, in harmony with the common interest, must ensure the necessary conditions in order that the diverse living systems of Mother Earth may absorb damage, adapt to shocks, and regenerate without significantly altering their structural and functional characteristics, recognizing that living systems are limited in their ability to regenerate, and that humans are limited in their ability to undo their actions;

4) Respect and defend the rights of Mother Earth
The state and any individual or collective person must respect, protect and guarantee the rights of Mother Earth for the well-being of current and future generations;

5) No Commercialism
Neither living systems nor processes that sustain them may be commercialized, nor serve anyone’s private property;

6) Multi-culturalism
The exercise of the rights of Mother Earth require the recognition, recovery, respect, protection, and dialogue of the diversity of feelings, values, knowledge, skills, practices, transcendence, science, technology and standards of all the culture of the world who seek to live in harmony with Nature.

The Legislation continues:

Mother Earth has the following rights: To life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to pollution-free living. And it further outlines the obligations of the State and the people to these principles and rights as a binding societal duty.

The Bolivian economy does rely heavily on natural resource export activity, earning a significant part of its foreign exchange thereby. But this moves forward nonetheless, as an endeavor initiated and supported by Bolivian political groups representing some 3 million voters. Bolivia attempts to move forward, to show us another way, and nearby Ecuador, with similar intent, is right along side.

The Law of Mother Earth: it’s not just an idea; it’s more than a vision. Something new. Something real. Change must begin somewhere, sometime. Perhaps Bolivia is inventing the social model and role of governance that will demonstrate how globally we can transcend the divisions and conflicts, beyond the destruction and despair that we feel, toward an harmonious, effective, efficient, and equitable society connected by the true value of nature as sustainer? If so, should we not pay attention?

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

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