Something to be optimistic about

15 04 2011

Lately, I’ve been trying to keep an eye on what goes on in Central and South America (emphasis on trying). My reasons for doing so are a bit of a tangle. I have an increasingly historical interest in the region, to be sure, but I am also interested in how progressive politics have taken shape in the region. They face many of the same challenges as we in the U.S. do (sometimes more dramatically), so it seems worthwhile to be more conscious of how they are trying to deal with them.

Bolivia, recently, has gone and done something very interesting: la Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra (some English coverage here). The law’s primary influences seem to have firm local connections to the growing influence of indigenous people in Bolivia while being directed to the international situation. Admittedly, Bolivia isn’t exactly a power player in international politics, but taking there is surely no shame in staking a claim as the conscience of the world.

There is a lot I like about the language of the law. While it is easy to get fixated on the ‘Mother Earth’ language, the legal framework behind it is even more interesting. The law specifies that the legal form of ‘Mother Earth’s’ claim is collective public interest. It stakes that public interest against the interest of commercial corporations in exploiting resources. Compare that to so much U.S. law that gives pre-eminence to the commercial corporation over the person.*

The law also specifies how human communities are themselves aspects of Mother Earth (defined as the ‘system of life’). This gives the talk of public interest added depth and focus. The ‘system of life’ includes the different ways in which actual communities of people live in the world.

It acknowledges that cultures grow up in response, and as part of, their environment. Eliminating cultural forms isn’t just a matter of eliminating ways of talking or making art, but ways of establishing relationships with particular environments. The law identifies learning from other cultures how they live with the world as a central reason for their preservation. That opens the door to communication and potential changes to all ways of life based on that intercultural dialogue.

That is a charmingly unromantic interculturalism. It doesn’t look to protect cultures for their own sake, but as part of the broader system of life. That leaves plenty of room to be critical about this or that aspect of culture and still fosters an attitude of open adaptation among all cultures. How refreshing!

While clearly influenced by Western industrial discourse about technology and knowledge, the law doesn’t privilege the industrial/post-industrial way of living. It identifies a number of forms of pollution that it produces as contrary to the collective public good and so suggests that the industrial/post-industrial way of living needs to be curtailed. The problems with that way of life, in turn, becomes compelling reason to re-evaluate other ways of life.

I quite like how the document uses the language of obligations as much as, or more than, the language of rights. I do wonder how much of that language can be traced back to Simone Weil’s** work on justice but, regardless of the source, I am enthusiastic about it.  That suggests a governmental emphasis on facilitating opportunities for citizens to perform their duties and obligations rather than on preserving personal comfort.

I’m curious to see how this develops. As the Guardian article points out, right now this is more promise than substance. It remains unclear how or if the law will be realized in legal process. Still, it buoys the spirit just to see the subject so cogently addressed at the national level (even if it isn’t in my own nation).

*Yes, technically, the notion of corporate personhood just gives the corporation equality to the person in certain situations. Once you factor in how corporations can rally their resources in a way that a person cannot, though, corporate personhood tends to give corporations an edge over real people in many legal situations.

**”An obligation which goes unrecognized loses none of the full force of its existence. A right that goes unrecognized is not worth very much.” (I think from “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations”)

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