I started to do some digging into the response to the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth and, finding only a little discussion online, decided to do a little summary post here about those responses.
There are a number of reports that introduce the law fairly well: The Guardian, Wired, Upside Down World, or the Environment News Service . While they spend overmuch time on how the law reflects an ‘indigenous’ worldview and too little time on the law itself, they provide a nice overview. Some of these reports are positively disposed toward the law, some are relatively neutral.
Commentary on the law’s passing tend to exoticize the law, likely following too closely to the sort of reports noted above. Their disposition toward the law seems to be directly correlated with their disposition toward what they imagine an indigenous worldview to entail. They tend to contrast this indigenous mindset with a Western and/or Christian mindset rooted in human exceptionalism.
Wesley Smith’s conservative response characterizes the law as “Utter madness” that “obliterates human exceptionalism.” Pagan author John (here) eagerly joins indigenous, pagan, and scientific thought together in one neat bundle but think it “unimaginable” that such a law could be passed in the U.S. where human exceptionalism is taken for granted.
Druid Alison Leigh Lilly (here) characterizes the law as
declaring the rights of nature as equal to our own and demanding protection for her cycles and systems, free of exploitation, pollution and human manipulation and disruption
while wondering how to do that when humans form a part of natural systems.
These commentaries deal tangentially with the mechanics of the law itself. The law, after all, does not take any stand on human exceptionalism. It doesn’t focus on ‘human manipulation and disruption’ but instead emphasizes industrial manipulation and disruption. Rather than question how to protect nature from humans, it emphasizes the total health of the ecosystem of which humans are a part.
The law takes the public good of people to be the basis for giving nature legal rights. The law posits a link between human well-being and the well-being of the ecosystem in which humans live. This is an elegant and powerful solution. It doesn’t require any separation of humans from nature.
It articulates nature in a plural sense, as an interlocking system of ecosystems. This shifts environmental health from an abstract global world to multiple, local zones inhabited by individual communities whose communal health becomes the barometer of ecological health. This fuses environmental concerns directly to the concerns of people living in a region.
I have found two discussions of the law’s passing that provide genuine insight into the law’s possible significance. One, following closely the commentary of a U.S. environmental lawyer Christopher Stone (on Wired’s website here), provides some parallels for the law in the U.S. context. The other, Spanish-language coverage of Bolivian political situation surrounding the law, provides some much-needed context for the association of the law with the indigenous people of Bolivia.
Wired’s article highlights the insights that Christopher Stone has had in trying to find a place for the rights of nature within the existing framework of U.S. law:
He proposed people be allowed to claim guardianship of threatened natural resources, much as family or friends become guardians of loved ones unable to represent their own interests.
This points us toward avenues for legal change in our own country that doesn’t require some wholesale change in the beliefs of U.S. citizens. This notion of guardianship shifts the discussion away from rough shoals surrounding human exceptionalism and to the more navigable waters of legal praxis.
The Spanish-language coverage focuses on the dissatisfaction of the Unity Pact of indigenous and rural workers with the law. They seem to support the way in which the law reflects their understanding of how communities and environment are connected. However, they are dismayed at what was dropped from the final law–namely, provisos specifying the rights of locals to regulate access to their land and resources.
It’s worth noting, too, that this notion of how land and communities are connected is not strictly the result of a special ‘indigenous’ mindset. It also has its roots in Western discourse about labor, land, and community. The rights for which the Unity Pact struggles are bound up with the sort of rights negotiated in the U.S. Constitution or the Magna Carta.
The Unity Pact suggests the exclusion makes the law little more than a showpiece for the president to amplify his international standing. In amplifying his international prestige, he also furthers his national authority.
Rereading the law in this light reveals an important third dimension to this struggle–international interference in Bolivia’s development. This takes the form both of powerful nation states (like resource-hungry China) but also of international corporations who are often the ‘face’ of local resource exploitation.
The law, as passed, starts to look more familiar. Far from being an exotic indigenous notion given legal form, it is a legal effort to affirm the autonomy of the nation of Bolivia, it’s right to self-determination, and its capacity to play a leading role in the international scene.
The law’s passage achieves this through a two-fold process. First, it subsumes the right of local self-determination beneath an obligation to preserve the total system of interlocking locales. It establishes this obligation by pointing out how each local ecology influences other local ecologies, forming an interlocking and articulated whole. Second, by passing the law nationally and seeking to build support for an international version of it, Bolivia aligns itself with that obligation.
That doesn’t vitiate the importance of the law as a form of environmental action. It strengthens it. Bolivia steps toward being the voice of conscience in environmental matters. By joining those environmental concerns to the well-being of a community, Bolivia positions itself to take the lead in popular economic reform as well.
What it leaves unresolved is the degree to which the local, national, and international frames need to be integrated. In a system where every locality (be it a city, a region, or a nation) influences another locality, it is not enough that each group have final say over its own resources. There needs to be a system in place in which decisions that negatively impact another locality can be corrected.
This is, of course, is why the law has no teeth. Without concrete systems for negotiating between locales, the affirmation of each community’s obligation doesn’t quite rise above the level of good advice.
If Bolivia can realize that insight in concrete forms of negotiation and oversight, then they have the opportunity to be a leader to other nations. That would be a resounding achievement and one I would like to see a lot more nations striving toward.
There is also a potential legal strength in this dual attention to the intranational and international. The law emphasizes the importance of local communities as signs of the health of the environment while making clear that, due to the interlocking nature of the Earth system, you have to attend to the totality of local systems to make a proper judgment of ecological health.
Bolivia, of course, has good reason to be aware of this. As a nation, it has suffered heavily from industrial exploitation of natural resources. Its people are keenly aware of the way in which technologies which may have relatively ‘clean’ applications in other countries employ ecologically dirty measures locally.
This sort of law highlights that and emphasizes why international involvement is key to making the law work in the long term. If exploitation can just be relocated, the relative improvement in Bolivia will be negated by degradations elsewhere. And, as the law makes clear, those degradations have a concrete impact in Bolivis by way of the complex interlocking systems (economic as well as ecological) that join Bolivia with the rest of the world.