Bolivia gives legal rights to the Earth

Seán Dagan Wood

Law of Mother Earth sees Bolivia pilot new social and economic model based on protection of and respect for nature

Bolivia is to become the first country in the world to give nature comprehensive legal rights in an effort to halt climate change and the exploitation of the natural world, and to improve quality of life for the Bolivian people.

Developed by grassroots social groups and agreed by politicians, the Law of Mother Earth recognises the rights of all living things, giving the natural world equal status to human beings.

Once fully approved, the legislation will provide the Earth with rights to: life and regeneration; biodiversity and freedom from genetic modification; pure water; clean air; naturally balanced systems; restoration from the effects of human activity; and freedom from contamination.

The legislation is based on broader principles of living in harmony with the Earth and prioritising the “collective good.” At its heart is an understanding that the Earth is sacred, which arises from the indigenous Andean worldview of ‘Pachamama’ (meaning Mother Earth) as a living being.

“Living Well means adopting forms of consumption, behaviour and conduct that are not degrading to nature. It requires an ethical and spiritual relationship with life”

An initial act outlining the rights – which was passed by Bolivia’s national congress in December 2010 and paves the way for the full legislation – defines Mother Earth as a dynamic and “indivisible community of all living systems and living organisms, interrelated, interdependent and complementary, which share a common destiny.”

Bolivia’s government will be legally bound to prioritise the wellbeing of its citizens and the natural world by developing policies that promote sustainability and control industry. The economy must operate within the limits of nature and the country is to work towards energy and food sovereignty while adopting renewable energy technologies and increasing energy efficiency.

Preventing climate change is a key objective of the law, which includes protecting the lives of future generations. The government is requesting that rich countries help Bolivia adapt to the effects of climate change in recognition of the environmental debt they owe for their high carbon emissions. Bolivia is “particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” according to an Oxfam report in 2009, with increasing drought, melting glaciers and flooding.

On the international stage, the government will have a legal duty to promote the uptake of rights for Mother Earth, while also advocating peace and the elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Following a change in Bolivia’s constitution in 2009, the law is part of a complete overhaul of the legal system. It represents a shift away from the western development model to a more holistic vision, based on the indigenous concept of Vivir Bien (to live well).

The proposal for the law states: “Living Well means adopting forms of consumption, behaviour and and conduct that are not degrading to nature. It requires an ethical and spiritual relationship with life. Living Well proposes the complete fulfilment of life and collective happiness.”

Unity Pact, an umbrella group for five Bolivian social movements, prepared the draft law. They represent over 3m people and all of the country’s 36 indigenous groups, the majority of whom are smallscale farmers with many still living on their ancestral lands. The bill protects their livelihoods and diverse cultures from the impacts of industry.

Undarico Pinto, a leader of the social movement Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, said: “It will make industry more transparent. It will allow people to regulate industry at national, regional and local levels.”

Signifying a fundamental shift away from exploitation of nature, the draft law referrers to mineral resources as “blessings” and states that Mother Earth, “is sacred, fertile and the source of life that feeds and cares for all living beings in her womb. She is in permanent balance, harmony and communication with the cosmos.”

A Ministry of Mother Earth is to be established to promote the new rights and ensure they are complied with. But with its economy currently dependent on exports of natural resources, earning nearly a third of its foreign currency – around £300m a year – from mining companies, Bolivia will need to balance its new obligations against the demands of industry.

The full law is expected to pass within the next few months and is unlikely to face any significant opposition because the ruling party, the Movement Towards Socialism, has a considerable majority in parliament. Its leader, President Evo Morales, voiced a commitment to the initiative at the World People’s Conference on Climate change, held in Bolivia in April 2010.

Photo title: Evo Morales addresses a crowd.

Photo credit: © Sebastian Baryli (

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  • Chawn A. Whitsitt

    The New Consciousness arising, predicted and spoken about by many prophets, clairvoyants and “sensitives”, this is good news. Even if the words are spoken, written this overdue proclamation will permeate throughout the globe. Saving the trees will not be such a fight as it is currently everywhere, this is Divine justice.

  • This is great news but is it true that Bolivia was ‘first’ as you say? Didn’t Ecuador already incorporate the same rights in their 2008 constitution?

  • Seán Dagan Wood

    Hi Graham. In a comment piece for us, Environmental lawyer Polly Higgins describes Ecuador’s incorporation of rights for nature in its constitution as a “statement of intent,” as compared to the detailed legislation being developed by Bolivia. I wrote that Bolivia is to become the first country to give nature “comprehensive legal rights,” because of this difference. I hope that clarifies.

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  • Ruth Forsythe

    Here’s a piece of wonderful legislation that our country could model

  • Shunya

    Just returned from the Amazon in Bolivia. Stayed in the stunning Madidi Reserve in Chalalan Eco-Lodge. Our guide, Sandro an indigenous brother of the area, and formally a hunter, is now dedicated to the conservation of the land. His community, along with many others, proudly showcase their million-acre plot, a mere speck in the grand scheme of things, but a place so rich in bio-diversity it’s breath-taking. Huge families of monkeys, like the Capuchin and Squirrel Monkeys, have proliferated in the sanctuary of the reserve. Some just newly identified species – the Golden Palace Monkey – have taken up residence; as have the Red Howler monkey. Cayman and piranha are commonly seen, as are several species of Toucan, Macau, Tarantula and Boa. On one night walk, we were exceedingly privileged to have seen the very shy and elusive Tapir.
    Sandro informed us, on the last day, that he was going off to join thousands of his indigenous Bolivian brothers who were marching on foot from the jungle to La Paz to petition Morales on his betrayal of the people – the proposal of a road running from Brasil through this stunning Madidi reserve and into Peru; and the various plans for urbanisation in areas around the Bolivian Amazon basin. Rumours have it that Brasil is pushing for arterials through from the east coast to the west – to facilitate the flow of resources. Alarms bells surely ring.
    According to Sandro, and contrary to the article above, Morales, an indigenous Bolivian himself, is turning his back on his own people. The article states that this law is to be pushed through without opposition. Well, that it is partly true. The fact is, these indigenous people have no true representation – the recent elections echoed this with over 75% of the population voting ‘null’. No voice yet has truly spoken from the heart of the people.
    Whether Bolivia becomes the first nation to give nature comprehensive rights is yet to be seen. For the sake of the people and for the thousands, if not millions of different plant and animal species living in a delicately balanced ecosystem, let us pray that this be so, and the legislation has substance. If not, let’s see what the 75% are capable of.

  • Izabel

    This article brought a smile to my face!
    I’m backing Pachamama all the way. Thank you Positive News!

  • KayJay Klaus

    Glad to see it in my lifetime!!!!!

  • Didgelobo

    I actually just returned from Bolivia, and stayed in the same Ecolodge at Chalalan! I had a great experience there as well, and it serves as a very positive model for the whole eco-tourism community. I agree with your points on how the Bolivian government seems to playing both sides of this environmental issue. One thing is political rhetoric and adding another law to the constitution, another is action through protection of the natural resources, reserves and people of Bolivia. One way is to support natural parks like Parque Madidi so that ecotourism can benefit from and conserve the nature and culture. It seems that pressure from Chile and Brazil’s economic interest are superceding those of the Bolivian people. Unfortunately, this seems like another classic case of the once oppressed becoming an oppressor.

  • David Vincent

    Eco-tourism is fine as long as it is the start of the “journey of discover” not the end!

    In any event the biggest threat to the rainforest in Bolivia and to the livelihoods of small indigenous groups is not in the National Parks such as Madidi, which are far too inaccessible to ever be suitable for agriculture but in the lowlands beyond, where mainly migrant settlers from the Andean plateau – often former mining communities that have suffered the same fate as our own – have been granted land rights for subsistence farming – and are continuing to clear the land by “slash and burn”. This degrades the soil before they even start to grow anything but the crops they choose to grow also leach any remaining nutrients – and so the process continues. This land clearance has contributed to a significant change in local weather patterns, with more violent flooding in the wet season and more extended drought in the dry season – all of which affects biodiversity and reduces the productivity and health of the soil.

    So for onward trip of discovery, can I please suggest that you visit:

    – and when you’ve “been there and done that” you can then go to:

    – and spend a little more rediscovering that warm inner glow that comes from supporting things that are really worthwhile.

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  • we need this the world over , this type of change is what is needed, we need a green life not green taxes.

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  • i wish all the countries could adapt to this way of thinking

  • stephen

    People aren’t swift to note that this is not just an act that gives rights to nature. It gives right to indigenous cultures that depend on nature for survival and prosperity. The governments of most countries have committed or are committing genocide on the indigenous people by destroying their sources of survival and prosperity and increasing urban population and poverty. I commend the president of Bolivia for this decision that will protect both natural and human rights. The rest of South America should follow his example. They are currently making a lot of inferior modern trash out of the rainforest.

  • Budhy

    acabamos de assumir oflctaimenie o art 37 das recomendacoes da rio + 20 pelo reconhecimento da Pacha mama como organismo vivo e vamos convidar a global alliance apra acompanhar a votacao no x sem int de sustetnabilidade dia l9 de junho no pier maua e apos Carta do Riod e Janeiro para ser entregue para o sec geral da ONu Ban ki Moon no dia 2l de junho na Rio + 20 .

  • kami mosawy

    Way to go Bolivia!

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