Defending Mother Earth: Bolivia's 'Bill of Rights for Mother Nature'

Bolivia has granted our planet legal rights, but how to enforce them?

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Dr. Seuss fans will recall the stocky, moustached Lorax who burst from a felled tree stump and declared to an entrepreneurial logger, "I speak for the trees." The Lorax later spoke for the fish, fowl and other creatures, as toxic industrial muck muddied the waters and poisoned the air.

Grown-ups know that no one can actually, officially and authoritatively speak for Mother Nature. Yet Bolivia is taking a novel approach to natural stewardship by giving Mother Nature a voice and turning the American model on its head with a Bill of Rights for Mother Nature.

"All Americans want what's right for the environment, their families and their communities," said Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for the natural gas exploration and production company Range Resources and one of a dozen local stakeholders the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked to weigh in on the South American law. "But I think most working people would agree this [Bolivian policy] is a little out there."

Lawmakers in the landlocked country had a lot to tackle: the effects from generations of deforestation; unregulated silver, gold and tin mining; melting Andean glaciers and the iconic, evaporating Lake Titicaca. In 2010, Bolivia ranked 137th out of 163 countries in annual environmental performance index by Yale and Columbia universities. Iceland, Switzerland and Costa Rica lead the ranks while the U.S. is 61st, between Paraguay and Brazil.

Evo Morales Ayma, Bolivia's first indigenous president, called on world leaders at United Nations' climate talks to drastically reduce their carbon emissions in an effort to curb global warming.

This spring, Mr. Morales, who is a socialist and former leader of the coca-growers union, got congressional approval for a Bill of Rights for Mother Earth, that grants nature the same rights and liberties as human beings and treats resources as blessings.

It says Mother Earth has the right to exist, continue life cycles and be free from human alteration, the right to pure water and clean air, the right to equilibrium, the right not to be polluted or have cellular structures modified and the right not to be affected by development that could impact the balance of ecosystems.

The government, in turn, must create policies that protect nature and communities, promote clean and sustainable resources and prevent climate change. It must defend Mother Earth from exploitation and commodification of its resources that would affect climate change. It must promote peace and encourage the elimination of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction.

The ministry of Mother Nature will oversee enforcement.

In 2008, Ecuadorean lawmakers used similar language to amend their constitution, granting rights to nature. Both documents are rooted in the indigenous belief that all living creatures are equal.

Individuals who deal with U.S. environmental policy on a daily basis had a practical take on the Bolivian policy.

"There's a lot of fine sentiments in the law, but if history is any guide, the practical effects will probably not be very significant," said Joe Osborne, legal director of Group Against Smog and Pollution. "It's easy to state these kinds of grand principles, but, unless there is a specific enforceable requirement behind it, it's not clear how that law would be put into effect."

American laws are more targeted and fairly demanding in their specificity, said Christopher Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California who authored, "Should Trees have Standing? And Other Essays on Law, Morals and the Environment." He cited protections for marine mammals that make it unlawful to interfere with the migration of whales and sea lions and endangered species laws that restrict where timber may be cut or roads be built.

"This law could help Bolivia improve environmental conditions, or it could be more or less meaningless," said John C. Dernbach, director of the Environmental Law Center at Widener University in suburban Philadelphia. "The problem most countries have learned is there's no magic bullet in terms of environmental protection. No one law by itself is going to solve this."

Even with specific regulatory laws and enforcement agencies in place, he said, "If we count on courts alone to enforce the rights in laws like this, we will more often than not be disappointed. The literal language of the law will likely conflict with realities on the ground so starkly that courts may find a way to conclude that the language doesn't mean exactly what it says."

Some policy experts did not see the Bolivian legislative approach as entirely foreign.

"If you take out the Mother Earth language, a lot of it you can find in various laws in the U.S.," said Davitt Woodwell, vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

For the staff at Sustainable Pittsburgh, the Bolivian document kicked off a discussion about the genesis of American environmental policy. The staff ultimately agreed that 19th-century transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman shaped the consciousness of 20th-century conservationists John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. They said "the idea that nature should be protected and conserved" took root in the 1970s through the Clean Water, Clean Air, Endangered Species and Wilderness acts.

A provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution adopted in 1972 states: "The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."

This language helps Pennsylvanians conceptualize an ideal, but "we have not been able to use it in litigation to compel policy-making consistent with the ideal," said Jan Jarrett, who heads Penn Future. "Policy-making in Pennsylvania and the U.S. is highly politicized, and support for strong environmental protections tends to cleave on partisan lines."

Mr. Pitzarella, of Range Resources, tended to agree: "While political rhetoric and extreme views on both sides of environmental issues get close to being downright nasty and counterproductive from time to time, U.S. companies and the people who work for them adhere to the highest standards anywhere."

While Pennsylvania places the right to preserve nature in the hands of the people, the Bolivian law says "nature itself has rights, which is an interesting legal approach," said Mr. Woodwell, of the environmental council. "You can say that development should not have an impact, but ... implementing that statement is going to be close to impossible."

Every time you turn on a light, drive a car, mow the lawn or wash a load of laundry, you've altered the natural balance.

Another flaw in the Bolivian approach, said Mr. Stone, the environmental law scholar, is that nature is neither peaceful nor harmonious; it's in perpetual conflict:

"What's called a 'weed' is a plant that competes with us. What's called a 'pest' is a bug that competes with us. ... There's no law to protect rats; they're considered 'vermin.' ... 'Clean' water is a funny concept. ... It's slanted to protect people and maybe fish. Dirty, undrinkable water is probably very healthful for certain microbes."

Environmental policy also values endangered animals over those in abundance. Our humane laws protect dogs and horses but not cockroaches or bees.

At its core, U.S. environmental policy is reactionary, said Mr. Dernbach, of Widener's Environmental Law Center. "Pretty much everything we do in our current industrial society hurts the environment in some way. The purpose of environmental law is to minimize the damage."

State Rep. Camille George, a Democrat who represents mining and logging families in Clearfield County, often says, "The hand of man has been heavy upon the land." He encourages constituents to conserve the land and treat gas, coal and timber as the precious resources. He believes that Pennsylvanians can gain the economic benefits from the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves if extraction is handled correctly, said legislative aide Matthew Maciorkoski, executive director of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Raina Rippel of the Washington County-based Center for Coalfield Justice said the Bolivian approach reminded her of physicians' Hippocratic Oath to "first, do no harm."

"We need to change our way of thinking and say, 'How can we ensure that what we're doing from a policy perspective will not create harm for humans and by extension for the environment?' " she said. "In general, the U.S. tends to put the interests of business first -- as opposed to human health and, by extension, the environment."

"I would argue it's always the case that ensuring that we're protecting the environment ... is ultimately to everyone's economic benefit in terms of lost productivity, premature death, sick days, damaged crops, tourism. A particular individual may not do as well, but it will benefit the community as a whole economically," GASP attorney Mr. Osborne said.

"Environmental stewardship and safety is at the core of our industry's mission," said Kathryn Klaber, Marcellus Shale Coalition president. "We're truly blessed as a nation to have these abundant resources here at home, as well as the know-how, grit and ingenuity -- embodied by our local workforce -- to responsibly produce these reliable, homegrown natural gas reserves. It's because of these natural resources that the world is able to manufacture everyday goods and increase the quality of life for all."

Gabrielle Banks: .


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