Recently, in a bold move, Bolivian President Evo Morales and his Congress established the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, giving the environment full protection under human rights law.
Human Rights Law Club February 2015 Newsletter
Morales, Latin America’s first Indigenous president, has consistently designed policies that enshrine traditional values and progressive ideologies. For example, he advocated for the international legalization of coca leaves, which are considered a traditional medicine throughout the Andes region. Despite significant backlash from administrations of the Global North, he committed to his stance and withdrew from the UN Single Convention Against Narcotic Drugs of 1961, stating that he would re-join only if the coca leaf was removed from the list of scheduled drugs.
Photo from islandbreath.org
The Law of the Rights of Mother Earth is in line with Morales’ motivations to promote “harmony with nature.” It will result in significant implications for corporations working in the country by limiting their access to non-renewable resources and imposing stricter regulations on business practices. The Law is novel and creative, but it raises many questions. Will its implementation be feasible? What implications does it have for human rights law? Will this be emulated by other countries in the region striving to achieve similar goals?
While its symbolism is powerful, it is clear that Bolivia’s legislators intend to go far beyond that by creating legitimate legal recourse for the infringement of the Earth’s rights. It is not clear what exactly it will mean for “Mother Earth” to have the same legal rights as a person, and this will not be easily clarified in the coming months. In theory, the law will allow individuals to bring actions against those found to be engaging in unsustainable practices. How those actions will be brought forward and how unsustainable practices will be identified or measured has yet to be determined.
Over the course of the last half-century, human rights have increasingly become viewed as infallible and paramount to other legal rights. There is little doubt that Morales is using the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth to show the importance of preserving the environment by equating it with the sanctity of human life. Still, there remains a concern that this policy is too wide-reaching and utopian, rendering it nothing more than a symbol, powerful as it may be.
The question must follow: what effect will this law have on human rights law? If successful, it is likely that this development will act as a new avenue for human rights claims. As natural disasters become more frequent and more deadly, this may be a very practical legal development that could provide entire communities with legal remedies. Though difficult to prove whose actions cause disasters like landslides, events like oil spills, which are a direct result of human actions and which damage the human and ecological environments, would provide a legal avenue for recourse against, for example, a negligent drilling company. This is very significant as it has the potential to more accurately reflect the long-term damage to communities resulting from such incidents. This law may be the nexus between human rights and group rights that has been missing.