What’s Up With That? … Could Mother Earth Be Granted Human Rights?

On April 22, 2011, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly observed International Mother Earth Day with a debate on the theme of “Harmony With Nature.” The UN organized the program in response to the General Assembly’s Resolution 65/164 passed in December 2010. That resolution called for dialogue “to inform the on-going preparations for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 (Rio+20).”


April 22 is the date used traditionally for (plain old) Earth Day, an observance coordinated by the Earth Day Network. But in 2009, the UN expanded the idea of the April 22 observance with the “Mother Earth” designation. This language is significant, as it connects the UN observance with a growing movement to grant legal rights to “Mother Earth.”

Speaking of the earth as a mother personifies the earth and raises an interesting question: If the earth can be thought of as a living entity, could it also be given rights as a “legal person”? When the 63rd session of the UN General Assembly adopted the International Mother Earth Day observance in 2009, the president of the General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, used such figurative language in introducing the resolution, saying that “International Mother Earth Day promotes a view of the Earth as the entity that sustains all living things found in nature.”

Concept of Mother Earth “Not Universally Accepted”

Outside of environmental circles, reactions to the idea of granting rights to Mother Nature range from guarded to scornful to outraged. Critics of the idea complain about the involvement of socialist political figures in the movement, its likely negative effects on economic development, or the possibility that insects might end up with the same rights as humans.

Anne Bayefsky of Eye on the UN, a watchdog group and project of the Hudson Institute, tells Jonathan Wachtel of Fox News that the Mother Earth Day spectacle is typical of the anti-West bias at the UN, implying a narrative in which “the rights of inanimate objects” are “violated by developed countries.” She says,

The UN is a one-act show … Western democracies are responsible for the world’s ills and developing countries are perpetual victims.

A little more restrained, a spokesman for the U.K.’s mission to the UN tells Wachtel that

The concept “Mother Earth” is not universally accepted. In general, our view is that we should focus on tackling important sustainable development issues through existing channels and processes.

Pamela L. Martin, professor in the politics and geography department at Coastal Carolina University, has studied some of the efforts in developing countries to grant legal protection to the earth. She tells me that, from the point of view of commercial interests,

An opposing argument would be that such rights could threaten industries if they perceive that, for example, trees would have more rights than a multinational corporation would have to deforest. Some might argue this would be anathema to capitalist free-market thinking — giving value to something that does not produce anything in a material or industrial sense.

On the other hand, she points out, environmental protection itself can give rise to business opportunities:

Ecological economists might argue that nature is in itself a value and that granting it rights enhances the value of ecosystems services … [implying] a possible boom for future green industries and markets.

Bolivia’s “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth”

The UN’s report on the April 22 discussion says it was the delegation from Bolivia that in 2009 took the lead in the adoption of the International Mother Earth Day designation. This is significant in that Bolivia (formally, the Plurinational State of Bolivia) is now preparing legislation, called La Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra (Law of the Rights of Mother Earth), that would grant rights to the earth and its living systems in that country.

Discussing the legislation, Nick Buxton, writing for Yes! magazine, says that

In practical terms, the law requires the government to transition from non-renewable to renewable energy; to develop new economic indicators that will assess the ecological impact of all economic activity; to carry out ecological audits of all private and state companies; to regulate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to develop policies of food and renewable energy sovereignty; to research and invest resources in energy efficiency, ecological practices, and organic agriculture; and to require all companies and individuals to be accountable for environmental contamination with a duty to restore damaged environments.

In part, the motivation for enacting strong environmental protections in Bolivia grows out of the country’s environmental problems with its mining operations, writes John Vidal of The Guardian. However, he points out that “the government must tread a fine line … Bolivia earns $500m (£305m) a year from mining companies which provides nearly one third of the country’s foreign currency.”

As might be expected, industrial interests in Bolivia are opposed to the new law. According to Buxton, the Asociación Nacional de Productores de Soya (National Association of Soybean Producers) has said the law “will make the productive sector inviable.” He writes that within the government itself “there are many ministries and officials that would also like the law to remain nothing more than a visionary but ultimately meaningless statement.”

Mother Earth and the Constitution of Ecuador

In article 71 of its new constitution adopted in 2008, the Republic of Ecuador establishes that “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” The constitution also provides that “Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognition of rights for nature before the public organisms.”

Coastal Carolina University’s Pamela Martin has taught in Ecuador and has studied environmental efforts in the country. She tells me that in practice the mandate for protection of nature up to now “has been scantily implemented,” at least “in the case of oil extraction in Yasuní National Park,” which lies atop huge oil reserves. Although extraction in national parks is prohibited in the new constitution, she says, “the government claims it is merely honoring previous contracts — prior to 2008, that is.” Martin thinks stronger protection is likely in the future, though. One example is the Ecuadorian government’s Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which would keep the park’s oil reserves underground to protect its peoples and biodiversity.

How Could Such Efforts Affect International Law?

Although not stressed as a primary objective of the recent UN meeting, the concept of granting legal rights to the earth clearly entered into the discussion.

South African environmental attorney Cormac Cullinan told the Assembly, according to the UN’s report of the discussion, that “The best way to reorient human societies with regard to the natural world … was by adopting an international declaration on the inherent rights of the earth.” Developing a society that lives in harmony with nature “would require a fundamental shift in world view, he said, from the erroneous notion that the earth revolves around humans to one that accepted the reality that people only played a role in the earth’s community.”

Cullinan called for a declaration of the rights of the earth similar to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948.

The thinking of those who advocate rights for the earth and its ecosystem can be seen coalesced in the People’s Agreement released at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, a conference held April 19-22, 2010 in Bolivia. This agreement says in part,

We propose to the peoples of the world the recovery, revalorization, and strengthening of the knowledge, wisdom, and ancestral practices of Indigenous Peoples, which are affirmed in the thought and practices of “Living Well,” recognizing Mother Earth as a living being with which we have an indivisible, interdependent, complementary and spiritual relationship…

In an interdependent system in which human beings are only one component, it is not possible to recognize rights only to the human part without provoking an imbalance in the system as a whole. To guarantee human rights and to restore harmony with nature, it is necessary to effectively recognize and apply the rights of Mother Earth…

The legal instruments demanded by the accord are complex, but they include enforceable international accords along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, international tribunals, legislative and enforcement actions to be taken by national governments, and funding for environmental protection and human rights efforts. One of the specific demands is the establishment of “an International Climate and Environmental Justice Tribunal that has the legal capacity to prevent, judge, and penalize States, industries, and people that by commission or omission contaminate and provoke climate change.” Another specific demand is the development of a “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.”

Coastal Carolina University’s Pamela Martin thinks that the development of such a declaration, similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, might be a feasible legal instrument for protection of the environment. She tells me,

The rights-of-nature issue is not really all that different than the protection of human rights. Such international norms developed over a number of years and now include the norm of responsibility to protect people — R2P — when their state is not doing so. The outcome of such rights at the international level is the international criminal court — in which the U.S. does not participate. Some scholars of environmental law are calling for a world environmental court to enforce the myriad of environmental conventions the world has…

Martin acknowledges that the body of law emerging in Ecuador and Bolivia is based on “an indigenous concept that assumes that humans and nature are not separate entities,” whereas, “most of the developed world operates on the understanding that humans can alter nature, rather than live within it as part of a system.”

Martin thinks that it is feasible to build a body of law and a world economy that balance the interests of nature and humanity — which are ultimately intertwined:

I think there is a happy medium in which we value nature and create an economy based on its services to people and the greater ecological system. In the end, this is a durable economy that can thrive without harming the planet and future generations.

In spite of efforts at the international level, environmental attorney Cullinan thinks ultimately that “Earth-centered legal systems will have to grow organically out of human-scale communities, and communities of communities, that understand that they must function as integrated parts of wider natural communities.” Writing for Orion magazine, he cites as an example the Tamaqua Borough of Schuykill County, Penn., which passed a sewage sludge ordinance in 2006 that “recognizes natural communities and ecosystems within the borough as legal persons for the purposes of enforcing civil rights.” The ordinance, Cullinan writes, “also strips corporations that engage in the land application of sludge of their rights to be treated as ‘persons.’”:

One of its effects is that the borough or any of its residents may file a lawsuit on behalf of an ecosystem to recover compensatory and punitive damages for any harm done by the land application of sewage sludge. Damages recovered in this way must be paid to the borough and used to restore those ecosystems and natural communities.

So, while nations and international bodies might issue proclamations and declarations and recommendations, human depredations to the environment might be most effectively fought at the local level.

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