“This is just the start”

Polly Higgins: Bolivia’s Law for Mother Earth could spark a new world of ecological justice

It’s a historic moment for Bolivia. In granting rights to the Earth, the traditional but silent rights of corporations – to extract, pollute and destroy – will no longer be the primary drivers of business decisions.

And this is just the start. Bolivia is also the flag-bearer for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which has been submitted to the UN. On a par with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if this new declaration is adopted, right across the world the protection of interests will shift from those few who have ownership, to safeguarding life for the wider Earth community.

Climate negotiations have failed primarily because their focus has been on building carbon markets and profits for the few without looking at the core problem, namely the destruction of the Earth (out of which arises an excess of carbon emissions). True ecological justice begins when we create international laws to rebalance the scales in favour of the wider Earth community.

No longer can the Earth be used and abused without consequence. In Bolivia, obligations on the government and industry to halt destructive practices will now come under scrutiny as the world looks on.

The new Bolivian constitution includes a declaration that its natural resources are the exclusive dominion of the Bolivian people, to be administered by the state. Standing up against the system takes courage; as a result of these policies, foreign private investment in Bolivia has plummeted.

However, where flow of finance closes in one direction, another will open. It takes just one person to stand up and refuse to accept the norm for new ideas and systems to take their place, and that is what is so desperately needed throughout the world, not just in one country.

Bolivia is a country where the voice of its many indigenous groups and their wisdom is strong. Ecuador, which also has a powerful indigenous voice, changed its constitution in 2008 to give nature “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” New laws to support their statement of intent, such as Bolivia’s Earth law, could further embed these principles and provide the starting point to ensuring true and proper protection of the Amazon.

What’s more, the Union of South American Nations is due to become a functioning entity this year.  If it were to adopt Earth laws right across the whole region, this body could pave the way for a new world of ecological justice.