Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bolivia's Bill of Rights for Mother Earth

On 13 December 2010, the Bolivian Parliament passed a Law for the Protection of Mother Earth. Although the story was largely ignored by the European and North American corporate press, it was carried in a number of Hispanic news sources which reported that Bolivia had declared Mother Earth to be a “juridical person.”

Of course, such a declaration would have been an absurdity. Mother Earth (or Mother Nature) is the Alpha and Omega of our physical and sensory existence. She encompasses all that is and we merely exist in her womb. It is not possible for All to be a part.

The Bolivian law did not, in fact, declare Mother Earth to be a person. To have done so would have merely established that she stood on equal footing with other legal persons, such as Occidental Petroleum Company, a prime devastator in the Andean/Amazonian eco-system.

As its title indicates, the law is more a Bill of Rights that, in its overall substance, enumerates a series of obligations owed to Nature by individuals, artificial persons and the nation state itself. Article One, states

“The purpose of this Law is to recognize the rights of Mother Earth and the obligations of society and the Pluri-national State [Bolivia] to respect those rights.”

The reason it was reported that Bolivia had conferred “personality” on Mother Earth is that both in Civil and Common Law systems of jurisprudence it is virtually impossible to conceive of ‘having rights’ without having ‘personality’. Thus, even though the Law never once mentioned the word ‘person’, the grant of rights to Mother Nature implicitly established her as a person-at-law.

But this typical “lawyers’ quibble” reveals something very interesting about the way we talk and how the way we talk influences our habits of being.

In the overall, and from a pragmatic perspective, the Bolivian Law (which is partly translated below) could be summarized as a strong “environmental impact law” coupled with an “ecological agenda” including certain demands for environmental compensation (both technical and monetary) on account of colonialist and capitalist devastation and plunder.

But beneath the “agenda,” lies a radical reversal of the Liberal paradigm. The individual is subordinated to the community in which he lives and the community to the environment in which it exists. In complete antithesis to the industrial culture of utilitarian dominance, Article Three, decrees that Mother Earth is to be considered "sacred."

By the time one finishes reading the text of the law, he or she ceases to conceive of Mother Earth as a conceptual “object” on which there can be an “impact”. Instead, one starts to think of self as a “subject” that is a mere component of a greater living construct.

In this respect the Law acts something like a litany or meditation. Unfortunately, this is not very translatable into English. The text in Spanish contains words and syntactical constructions sufficient to raise stern eyebrows at the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language in Madrid. It is evident that this legislation is the work of “indian peasants” or, in more politically correct terms, “indigenous persons.”

As the more or less condescending summary offered by the Mexico City daily Excelsior put it, “the text of the law mixes up religious, pantheistic, Andean, animist and ecological concepts in a plague of syntactical errors.”

That it does, which is why it draws a line in the sand; and which is why Centa Rek, a Bolivian senator in opposition, commented sarcastically that the law was a “song of sirens” which “rather lyrically” endowed Earth not only with “motherhood” but with living being. (Imagine that!)

Less sarcastically but more viciously, she explained that “In psychology this is called 'animism' which is the thought process of three year olds who endow living characteristics to inanimate objects.”

Ah yes, the sweet voice of scientific reason! To which it might be answered: what is wrong with “animism” anyway? Does Senator Rek prefer “mortism”? Her remarks are appropriately contrasted with two quotes from Hans Urs von Balthasar, an eminent 20th Century Catholic theologian

"[W]henever the relationship between nature and grace is severed... then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of 'knowledge', and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation — a world in which power and the profit-margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated — a world in which art itself is forced to wear the mask and features of technique." ('Love Alone' pp. 114-115.)

He goes on to write,

“Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.

"We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. ..." (Theological Aesthetics, Bk. I, Seeing the Form, p. 18.)
But the Creator’s first beauty was Mother Earth and a celebratory intimacy with her “goodness” was at the core of Amerindian habits and customs. Even if the pre-European sense of stewardship was not without its awful aspects, Nature was beheld as a living -- animated -- envelopment, as in “The House of Spring,” by the Aztec Emperor Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1450),

Cascade of flowers
gladness of song.
Above the flowers
the resplendent pheasant
His song unfurls
from within the waters.
And In refrain
red birds in chorus
sweetly sing.
A book of colors is your
You are the cantor.

Hispanic America has never quite lost its paradoxical mixture of Indo-Catholic, Andean, Mayan, pantheistic, ecological, communitarian concepts, which are still extant. It is precisely the humility and poverty of these indigenous communities that has allowed these concepts to survive beneath the glittering, polluted constructs of the National Bourgeoisie. It is precisely the “plague of syntactical errors” that lets us know we are hearing the dispossessed voice from below.

In his acclaimed book, Mexico Profundo, (Univ. of Texas Press 1996) Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, a noted Mexican anthropologist, argued that vast sectors of the rural and urban poor comprised a cultural and economic subsoil whose world-view remained rooted in Mesoamerican civilization. An ancient agricultural complex provides their food supply, and work is understood as a way of maintaining a harmonious relationship with the natural world. Health is related to human conduct and community service is part of each individual's life obligation. Time is circular and humans fulfill their own cycle in relation to other cycles of the universe. In Bonfil’s view, it is the developed, first world strata of Hispanic America that is “imaginary” because it lives in denial of the both the economic and cosmological reality lived by the greater part of Mexicans - or for that matter Guatemalans, Bolivians, Venezuelans...

Bonfil’s thesis is fairly evident to anyone who has travelled off the beaten tourist path in Hispanic America. However, a caveat is necessary. There is no such thing as an extant Amerindian civilization. That world ceased to exist with the Conquest. What exists in the “profundo” is inextricably (and at times imperceptibly) interwoven with Western forms, ideas, techniques and things -- which is why a German theologian can state the case for the Bolivian Law on Mother Earth.

In other words, we in “the West” need not self-denigrate and make an ideological totem of “indigenism.” Objectification, empiricism and profit are not the only constructs in Western civilization, Senator Rek notwithstanding. There are and always have been other voices within the European tradition.

Nor is this to say that primitive communities and primitive modes of production are up to the task of feeding six billion plus human beings as well as providing valuable technological benefits that are not possible without taking chunks out of Mother Earth’s flesh and gouging her body to extract her precious blood.

But we are at a cross-roads where Beauty is forcing us with due warning to take stock of what we, as a derelict species, are doing.

What the Bolivian legislation really does, (bad syntax and all), is raise a sequence of socio-ecological issues which we have to focus on and ponder, as a matter of law.


[Because the Law is not likely to be translated into English any time soon, the following translation and/or summary is provided. ]


Art. 1 - The purpose of this Law is to recognize the rights of Mother Earth and the obligations of society and the Pluri-national State [Bolivia] to respect those rights.

Art. 2 - The principles governing the aforesaid obligations are as follows:

(1) Harmony. Human activities ...should attain dynamic equilibriums with the inherent cycles and processes of Mother Earth;

(2) Collective Good. The interests of society..., in the context of the rights of Mother Earth, shall prevail over any acquired [individual] right;

(3) Regeneration of the Earth. The State...and society shall guarantee the conditions necessary for Nature’s diverse ecological systems to adapt to disturbances and to regenerate without significant alteration to their functional and structural characteristics....

(4) Respect & Defence of the Rights of Mother Earth. [The State and all persons are obligated to do both.]

(5) No Commercialization. [The clause is unclear but seems to say that nature’s life processes cannot become the private (?patented) property of any private person.]

(6) Inter-culturality.


Art. 3 - Mother Earth. Mother Earth is the dynamic and living system comprised of the indivisible community of all systems of life and living beings which are inter related, inter-dependent and complimentary and which share a common destiny.

Mother Earth is to be considered sacred, [as per] the cosmic-vision (“cosmovisiones”) of the original, agrarian indigenous nations and communities.

Art. 4 - Systems of Life. [The gravamen of the paragraph is that systems of life encompass all living and dynamic communities (including micro-organisms) commonly and mutually subject to ecological factors and productive practices.]

Art. 5 - Juridic Character of Mother Earth. For the protections and guardianship of her rights, Mother Earth is assigned the character of a “collective subject matter of public interest.” Mother Earth and all her constituent parts (“componentes”), including human communities, are beneficiaries (“titulares”) of all inherent rights recognized by this Law. The enforcement (“aplicación”) of Mother Earth’s rights shall take into consideration the particular nature and characteristics (“especifidades y particularidades”) of her diverse components. The rights established by this Law do not operate to the exclusion of other rights not enumerated.

Art. 6 - Exercise of the Rights of Mother Earth. All Bolivians, as members of living, component communities within Mother Nature, may exercise the rights established herein in a manner compatible with their individual and collective rights.

The exercise of individual rights are subordinate to the collective rights of the life-systems within Mother Nature and any conflict [between the two] shall be resolved in a manner that does not irreversibly affect the functionality of the life-systems.


Art. 7 - Mother Earth has the following rights:

1. To Life. [I.e.]the right to the maintenance of the integrity of life-systems and the natural processes which sustain them... including their regeneration.

2. To Diversity of Life. [I.e.] the right to preservation of the differentiation and variety of beings that comprise Mother Earth without genetic modification ... or in any form which endangers their existence, functioning or future potential.

3. To Water. [I.e.] the right to preservation of all water-cycles in such quality and quantity as necessary to the sustenance of life-systems....

4. To Clean Air. [Self-Explanatory]

5. To Equilibrium. [I.e.] the right to the maintenance or restoring of the inter-dependent, inter-related, complementary functionality of Nature’s life-systems in manner calibrated (“equilibrada”) to foster their cycles and the reproduction of their vital processes.

6. To Restoration. [I.e.] the right to opportune and effective restoration of life-systems [adversely] affected by human activities.

7. To Freedom from Pollution. [Self Explanatory]

Art. 8 - Obligations of the Plurinational State.

1. [To promote policies which prevent human activities which are existentially detrimental to living beings and life processes, including cultural systems which are part of Mother Earth.]

2. [To promote such modes of production and consumption which are conducive to the welfare (Vivir Bien) of the Bolivian people while safeguarding the regenerative and integral life processes of Mother Earth.]

3. [To develop such domestic and international policies which will defend Mother Earth against over-exploitation and commercialization of her life-systems and processes.]

4. [To develop policies which insure energy autonomy (soberanía energética) and clean, renewable sources of energy.]

5. [To demand in international forums, recognition of the environmental debt (owed to Bolivia and other similarly situated countries).]

6. [To work toward the elimination of all nuclear, chemical, biological weapons and WMDs.]

7. [To promote recognition of Mother Earth’s rights in bi-lateral, multi-lateral, regional and international relations.]

Art. 9 Obligations of Private Artificial Persons.

1. To Defend the rights of Mother Earth.

2. To promote harmony among all human communities and with all other of Nature’s systems of life.

3. To proactively participate personally or collectively in the formulation of polices directed towards the defence of the rights of Mother Earth.

4. To adopt practices of production and habits of consumption that are in harmony with the rights of Mother Earth.

5. To adopt sustainable uses and practices with respect to Mother Earth’s component [parts].

6. [To Denounce (?by legal action) all violations of this Law.]

7. [To Aid and Assist all lawful and authorized summons to action in defence of this Law.]

Art. 10 [Establishes a Ministry for the Defense of Mother Earth]

Spanish version :

©Woodchip Gazette, 2010


ronnie said...

Apparently Genesis 1:28 was overlooked when all those Catholics were educated.

Chipster said...

Ronnie - Thank you for taking the time to comment.

The word "dominion" derives from the Latin "domus" meaning "house" which in Greek is "oekos" the same root of the word "ecology". Thus, the command is to make the world our house and the authority implied is that of the pater-familias or father of the household.

Of course, as you would be right to point out, Genesis was written in Hebrew not Latin, so the question becomes whether "domus" is the correct translation. The two Hebrew words in question are "radah" and "kavash".

The links below are by non-Catholic scholars and they basically agree that the concept of Genesis 1:28 is one of oecological stewardship. They base this conclusion both on a study of the Hebrew word usage and also on interpretation of Sacred Scripture as a whole. They all agree that Holy Writ must be read as a whole cloth and not in patches and pieces.