Nature as a legal subject
In 2009, Bolivia created a new constitution that did something unprecedented. It not only recognized political autonomy and expanded rights to the country’s 36 Indigenous communities, transforming Bolivia into a ‘plurinational state.’ But Bolivia also included environmental conservation as a core constitutional principle of its government.
The radical statement — catching the attention of environmentalists around the world when the news got out — comes in Article 342:
“it is the duty of the State and of the population to conserve, protect, and use natural resources and biodiversity sus tainably and to preserve environmental balance”
And in article 383, it specifically includes the protection of biodiversity and threatened species:
“The State will establish partial or total, temporary or permanent restrictions on the extractive uses of biodiversity resources. These measures will target the needs of preservation, conservation, recovery, and restoration of biodiversity that is at risk of extinction. Illegal keeping, handling, and trafficking of species will be penalized.”
One might ask: why is this so radical?
The United States passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. And other countries around the world have passed laws protecting wildlife and biodiversity. Not to mention international treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
But unlike Bolivia, environmental laws around the rest of the world are not written into the very constitution of a nation.
As the environmental historian, Ursula K. Heise writes,
“That the conservation of biodiversity and endangered species is mentioned at all in Bolivia’s constitution, much less highlighted as an explicit part of the state’s tasks and duties, is astonishing in comparison with the constitutions of most nations in North America or Europe, which one would scour in vain for any reference to such issues.”
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The Law of the Rights of Mother Earth
If this wasn’t already radical enough, a year later in 2010, Bolivia passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth (Ley de derechos de la Madre Tierra).
In this new law, “Mother Earth” was defined as a legal person. In doing so, Bolivia’s Law of the Rights of Mother Earth enshrines the Earth as sacred in national law.
A fascinating aspect of this law is that it not only uses modern legal language to grant the Earth the rights of personhood, and therefore the obligations of government and the people to protect la Madre Tierra. But underlying this act is a deeper philosophy of human-environment relationships rooted in an Indigenous Andean concept, sumak kawsay, translated into Spanish as Buen Vivir, meaning “Living Well” in English.
As the journalist Oliver Balch explains it, the concept of Buen Vivir or ‘living well’ is:
“Rooted in the cosmovisión (or worldview) of the Quechua peoples of the Andes, sumak kawsay — or buen vivir, to give it its Spanish name — [and] describes a way of doing things that is community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive”
To understand the Earth as a legal person within the worldview of Buen Vivir, is to view the Earth, not as a separate individual being ‘out there,’ but as an extension of our own, larger body, where human beings are simply members of the wider community. Or phrased another way, as the ecophilosopher David Abram says: “We are many sets of eyes staring out at each other from the same living body”
An interesting thing about the Bolivian Law of the Rights of Mother Earth is that it doesn’t simply reject a Western worldview that views nature as separate from, and often subordinate to humans. After all, it uses the modern legal language of the Enlightenment to grant legal personhood to Earth.
But by establishing Earth as a legal subject, the law expands our all-too-human notions of community, and therefore who we should include as citizens in that community. As the Law states in article 3, Mother Earth is,
“the dynamic, living system made up of the indivisible community of all life systems and living beings, interrelated, interdependent, and complementary, which share a common destiny. Mother Earth is considered sacred from the perspective of the cosmologies of original indigenous peasant nations and peoples”