Law of Mother Earth: A Vision From Bolivia

Just when you think the world is impossible, the world surprises.

Looking toward 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 2,900 specific conservation programs and anti-pollution projects, conceived as expressions of the practical application of the law, were implemented in all 327 municipalities; $118 million was invested; and full legislation enabling this new social and economic model is expected to be ratified soon.

The language contained in the legislation 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) Multiculturalism: 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 three million voters, is on its way to finalization and implementation as national law, supported by the local and national government, with an already existing ministry to implement revisions to the legal system and to continue the applicable programs already underway. Bolivia attempts to move forward, to show us another way, and nearby Ecuador, with similar intent, is right along side.

As importantly, consider the impact of such a change on the most divisive issues elsewhere: the growing global conflict over excess consumption of coal, oil, gas, cement, minerals and marine resources, pollution that destroys the sustainability of the land, privatization of water, genetically modified agriculture, air quality, ocean acidification, species extinction, action to meet the now and future conditions of a changing climate--all the things we fight about elsewhere against the overwhelming evidence that we, through ill-considered, continuing actions, are exhausting the capacity of the earth, taking from nature, and then taking more, with no awareness, at least no evident interest in sustaining any of it for the future.

The Law of Mother Earth: not just an idea, 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?