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Bolivia Enacts New Law for Mother Earth

“Mother Earth is the living dynamic system made up of the indivisible community of all living systems and living beings, interrelated, interdependent and complementary, which share a common destiny. Mother Earth is considered sacred; it feeds and is a home that contains, sustains and reproduces all living things, ecosystems, biodiversity, societies and the individuals that compose them.” – Bolivia’sFramework Law for Mother Earth and Holistic Development to Live Well, October 2012

Can the Earth have legal rights? Is a radical change in the way governments and people interact with the planet possible? A new Bolivian law says yes, defining Mother Earth as a living system with rights instead of an object open to unlimited exploitation.

Legislation rethinking human relationships with the planet was drafted by some of Bolivia's strongest social movements, including indigenous groups and small-scale farmers, in 2010. That same year President Morales signed an abbreviated version of the document, called the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth. Now, after years of discussions, a much wider reaching text named the Framework Law for Mother Earth and Integrated Development to Live Well is also law.

The wide-ranging document addresses topics including the environment, land distribution, access to employment, healthcare and education, using the concept of “living well” as its core theme. Seen as a return the indigenous values, “living well” is a way of life that values the collective over the individual, and having enough over having a lot. In Bolivia “living well” is also presented as a turn away from capitalism, which regards the planet as a commodity, in favor of sustainability and a harmonious relationship with Mother Earth.

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In addition to defining the planet as a living system with rights, the law generally calls for an end to practices that damage the environment—a large undertaking for a country where existing environmental norms frequently go unenforced.

So how would a new relationship of living well with the Earth take shape? One example of the human-Earth balance the law sets out is an approach to food security requiring that the state take action to avoid privatization of water and the participation of monopolies in the production of seeds and foods, along with promoting sustainable agriculture that doesn't exhaust soil. The law also calls for Bolivia to gradually eliminate the use of genetically modified seeds.

Some critics question exactly how dramatic a change to the current relationship with the planet the law really proposes. Bolivia's economy is heavily dependent on extractive industries such as oil and mining, which often have large-scale negative environmental impacts. The law lays out the government's duty to develop those industries while affecting the environment as little as possible. However, some critics say this is a watered-down version of the original call for radical change, and that it is incompatible with “living well” because it allows Bolivia to continue relying on the Earth's non-renewable resources as commodities.

President Morales, on the other hand, holds that it is possible to extract non-renewable natural resources, such as minerals, while respecting the environment—and that when a country carefully invests gains from those industries in the population it leads toward “living well.”

Bolivia must now begin forming the government positions and oversight committees necessary to make the ideas set out in the new law a reality, and only time will prove what role it plays in redefining human relationships with the Earth in Bolivia and, perhaps, beyond.