The law redefines natural resources as blessings and confers the same rights to nature as to human beings, 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. Perhaps the most controversial point is the right "to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities".
In late 2005 Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales. Morales is an outspoken champion for environmental protection, petitioning for substantive change within his country and at the United Nations. Bolivia, one of South America's poorest countries, has long had to contend with the consequences of destructive industrial practices and climate change, but despite the best efforts of Morales and members of his administration, their concerns have largely been ignored at the UN.
Just last year, in 2010, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca expressed his distress "about the inadequacy of the greenhouse gas reduction commitments made by developed countries in the Copenhagen Accord." His remarks were punctuated by the claim that some experts forecasted a temperature increase "as high as four degrees above pre-industrial levels." "The situation is serious," Choquehuanca asserted. "An increase of temperature of more than one degree above pre-industrial levels would result in the disappearance of our glaciers in the Andes, and the flooding of various islands and coastal zones."
In 2009, directly following the resolution of the General Assembly to designate April 22 "International Mother Earth Day", Morales addressed the press, stating “If we want to safeguard mankind, then we need to safeguard the planet. That is the next major task of the United Nations”. A change to Bolivia's constitution in the same year resulted in an overhaul of the legal system - a shift from which this new law has sprung.
The Law of Mother Earth has as its foundation several of the tenets of indigenous belief, including that human are equal to all other entities. "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," Choquehuanca said. "We indigenous people can contribute to solving the energy, climate, food and financial crises with our values." The legislation will give the government new legal powers to monitor and control industry in the country.
"Existing laws are not strong enough," said Undarico Pinto, leader of the 3.5m-strong Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (a group that helped draft the law). "It will make industry more transparent. It will allow people to regulate industry at national, regional and local levels."
Bolivia will be establishing a Ministry of Mother Earth, but beyond that there are few details about how the legislation will be implemented. What is clear is that Bolivia will have to balance these environmental imperatives against industries - like mining - that contribute to the country's GDP.
Bolivia's successes or failures with implementation may well inform the policies of countries around the world. "It's going to have huge resonance around the world," said Canadian activist Maude Barlow. "It's going to start first with these southern countries trying to protect their land and their people from exploitation, but I think it will be grabbed onto by communities in our countries, for example, fighting the tarsands in Alberta."
Ecuador has enshrined similar aims in its Constitution, and is among the countries that have already shown support for the Bolivian initiative. Other include Nicaragua, Venezuela, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda.
National opposition to the law is not anticipated, as Morales' party - the Movement Towards Socialism - holds a majority in both houses of parliament. On April 20, two days before this year's "International Mother Earth Day", Morales will table a draft treaty with the UN, kicking off the debate with the international community.
Read the entire document (in Spanish) here.
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