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In Bolivia, Ecuador and Pittsburgh, Nature Has Rights

The days of human beings having a monopoly on individual rights may soon be coming to an end.

Bolivia is in the process of enacting the world’s first law giving nature legal rights equal to those of human beings. The Law of Mother Earth decrees that nature has 11 rights including the right to biodiversity without genetic modification; the right to water in sufficient quantity and quality to sustain life, protected from pollution; the right to clean air; and the right to restoration of ecosystems damaged by human activity. To administer the new law, a Ministry of Mother Earth will be established, with an ombudsman appointed to hear disputes.

The Law of Mother Earth is supported by Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, whose party holds a majority in both houses of its parliament. Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president, of native Aymara descent. The Aymara people subscribe to the Andean worldview that all living things have equal rights.

The practical motivation for Bolivia’s new law is clear. The country is experiencing serious environmental changes, including the vanishing of glaciers that provide fresh water to most Bolivians.

A garbage-strewn beach in the Dominican Republic reflects the need for greater respect for nature.

Although this marks the first time that a country and modern politician has fully placed nature on equal footing with humanity, Bolivia is not the first country to assert the rights of nature. Indeed, it is becoming a worldwide phenomenon picking up greater and greater momentum. In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to rewrite their Constitution to include rights for nature, although these rights still remains mostly abstract. In 2010, in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, affirmed the rights of communities and nature over those of corporations when it enacted a city ordinance banning fracking techniques—which include pumping gels, foams and even radioactive sands into a regional water supply—for shale gas extraction. Almost two dozen other municipalities in the United States have passed similar ordinances.

International laws may follow suit. The UN General Assembly recently discussed the implementation of new international standards based on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which was adopted by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Bolivia last year. These standards would provide rights and legal standing to nature and ecosystems, not just to individuals and businesses negatively impacted by exploitation and destruction of natural resources.

“The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth is a crucial link in this process and will one day stand as the companion to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the guiding covenants of our time,” Maude Barlow, former senior advisor on water to the president of the UN General Assembly and chairperson of the Council of Canadians advocacy group, said in a press release.

Although at this point UN ratification of the declaration remains a hope for the future, Barlow expects other countries to join Bolivia and Ecuador in adopting federal laws recognizing the rights of nature.

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