A law that’s an ode to Mother Earth

By Dev Nadkarni

The intensity of activism on most issues concerning the common people’s interests always tends to taper off as one goes up the hierarchy in any democratic political system.

Commonly, therefore, activism is most visible and vocal at the level closest to the masses – at the grassroots level. The extent for support for it tends to thin off as one travels up the political food chain in any elected government. Issues are kept alive by the opposition but the motive in doing so more of ten than not is to gain political mileage.

Any activism favouring the larger interests of the people and one that starts at the top of a country’s political pyramid is rare anywhere in the world. And when it is reported from one of the poorest nations with some of the lowest human development indices, the world better take notice.

Legislators of the largely impoverished South American nation of Bolivia are on the verge of passing a rather unusual law called the Law of Mother Earth, that guarantees to grant nature the same rights and protections as humans. The Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra legislation has the ring of any grassroots political activist’s perfect cause to it – but the big difference is that it comes from elected leaders.

And the beauty is that it is not just top down legislation foisted on the people, as may often be the case with governments making most laws that affect a country’s economy. It is an acknowledgement of a grassroots movement that has existed over the past few decades where the country has suffered because of the indiscriminate exploitation of its natural resources by powerful commercial interests.

The legislation puts a political stamp of approval, as it were, by the highest body representing the people, the country’s legislature, on the urgent need to encourage and set in motion a radical shift in conservation attitudes and actions. This is designed to lead to a regime that will help enforce new control measures on industry, with the ultimate goal of reducing the rampant destruction of the environment around the country.

There is almost a poetic ring to the legislation, which is completely different from other draft laws that seem a veritable verbal forest bedding down procedures and processes in a maze of the dullest possible long drawn phrases.

The Law of Mother Earth, while conferring the same rights to nature as to human beings, redefines natural resources as blessings.  As in the case of humans, the piece of legislation confers on mother nature, personified as the Goddess Pachamama in Bolivian culture, 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.

In incorporating the most modern scientific concepts such as genetically engineered agriculture and forestry, which in itself is highly controversial territory with a slew of ethical and religious implications, the legislation commits to preserve the natural balance and equilibrium in nature’s own processes. While this will undoubtedly fuel raging debates, it is the first time that a law has been contemplated to preserve the integrity of nature’s own systems.

But what is most commendable for a politician, especially one who is in power, is to appear to do something contrary to what is not only an easy revenue stream for the country but also that goes against what is often a vested interest for the powerful political class anywhere in the world: the exploitation of natural resources. That activity is a source of huge corruption and has long established gravy trains in all parts of the developing world, which are hard to derail.

On this matter, the law goes on to guarantee for mother earth “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities.”

The effects of indiscriminate logging and exploitation of other natural resources including minerals and other forestry products have scarred Bolivia and much of South America. These activities have affected thousands of living species including remotely living tribes. Many of these species have been driven to their extinction.

This is a legislation with a heart and it is driven by the President of the country himself. Evo Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous President and has always championed the cause of mother earth and has been quite outspoken about his disappointment with the world’s efforts at addressing climate change. He has been openly critical of the accords signed at Copenhagen and Cancun and has been pushing for change at a more fundamental, people’s level.

Indigenous beliefs that run through the ancient cultures of American Indians both in North and South America are at the heart of the legislation. In many parts its provisions are redolent of the famous 1850s speech of the Chief Seattle, which professes respect for nature, the earth and all its creatures (no matter if skeptics doubt its very veracity).

“Our grandparents taught us that we belong to a big family of plants and animals. We believe that everything in the planet forms part of a big family,” the country’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said in true Chief Seattle style. “We indigenous people can contribute to solving the energy, climate, food and financial crises with our values.”

Bolivia’s initiative shows great promise because it is rooted in genuinely deep respect for nature that has its roots in its people’s culture, mythology and everyday life. It codifies in law what has been practiced by its people for millennia. While all this looks ideal, Bolivia will have to yet work out how to balance the commercial activity that has to do with the exploitation of natural resources – which indeed is a dire requirement for the country’s GDP and its people’s prosperity and financial security – with these beautiful concepts.

Having come this far on the legislation, there is little doubt that its lawmakers will find a way achieve that balance as well. Let us hope they can. If successful, Bolivia would have taught the world a thing or two about conservation and dealing with climate change like no mega conference involving 190 countries could ever.

By the looks of it, Bolivia is already having a few followers in its own neighbourhood: Ecuador appears to have incorporated similar aims in its constitution while Nicaragua, Venezuela, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda have shown vocal support for Bolivia’s initiative.

Call her Pachamama, Gaia, Dharti Maa or Mother Earth, an acknowledgement that She sustains all life is a fact that mankind had buried in the rubble of his search for riches. We owe it to Bolivia for showing the way.

First appeared in Islands Business, June 2011