Bolivia is expected to pass the world’s first comprehensive law to protect the rights of nature, granting all nature equal rights to humans. According to The Guardian, the new “Law of Mother Earth” would lead to “radical new conservation and social measures” designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and hem in “mega-projects.” Nature would get 11 new rights, including 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.” Lastly, nature would also be protected from being “affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.”
The Guardian says the new law has been influenced by a “a resurgent indigenous Andean spiritual world view which places the environment and the earth deity known as the Pachamama at the centre of all life.” The law is also part of a complete rethink of the Bolivian legal system, which resulted from constitutional change in 2009. If enacted, the government will create a new “ministry of mother earth” and appoint an ombudsman. Communities will also have “new legal powers to monitor and control polluting industries.”
The law may be a backlash against the widespread environmental damage caused by tin, silver, and gold mining industries. Undarico Pinto, leader of the Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, a 3.5-million member social movement, helped draft the law in an effort to improve Bolivia’s legal weapons against pollution from firms digging up and processing these minerals. He told The Guardian: “it will make industry more transparent. It will allow people to regulate industry at national, regional and local levels.”
Balancing the needs of nature and local indigenous peoples along with the demands of macro-economic development will be tricky. Mining leads to heavy water and air pollution, degrading ecosystems and creating health issues for affected local populations. However, the country earns $500m (£305m) a year from mining companies, which equals one third of the country’s foreign currency. To make the situation more challenging for Bolivia, climate change will soon have a direct impact on the lives residents there given that most of the country’s glaciers are expected to melt within 20 years, leaving much of the population of La Paz without drinking water. The country’s leaders are gearing for mass migration.
Wired magazine notes that the idea of protecting the rights of nature has also been bandied around in the U.S. As early as the 1970′s, one law professor introduced the idea that nature could be legally treated as a person, just as a ship or a company is. Building on this idea, Bolivia may begin to associate values beyond spiritual to these core rights of nature. Just as when a person who has an intrinsic set of rights has been injured, they are expected to receive a settlement for any loss or damages, nature (and its beneficiaries among the Bolivian people) could be reimbursed for any ecological damage in the future. The concept of ecosystem services could be used to provide an important economic framework to help Bolivians preserve, manage, and sustainably use nature’s benefits, and establish the financial value of these rights of nature.
Over the long-term, the key may be to move the economy towards more sustainable economic activities and invest in training so more Bolivians can join greener industries. Following through with new, more stringent laws that specifically take aim at industries that pollute or destroy the environment will also be needed.
In other news, The Economist put the Anthropocene, a concept long-discussed among scientists, on its cover. The idea is that humans in a relatively short time frame (if considered in terms of the history of the planet) have actually altered core planetary functions. “From their trawlers scraping the floors of the seas to their dams impounding sediment by the gigatonne, from their stripping of forests to their irrigation of farms, from their mile-deep mines to their melting of glaciers, humans are bringing about an age of planetary change.”
Image credit: Iténez protected area, Bolivian-Brazilian border / WWF