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The Rights of Mother Earth - David Humphreys

6 March 2015
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On 22 April 2009 the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, declared at the UN General Assembly that 60 years after the UN had adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 'Mother Earth is now, finally, having her rights recognised'.

The ideas of rights of nature and Mother Earth reflect a distinctly Andean worldview. Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, is the giver of life, an Andean goddess who to the peoples of the Andes has rights irrespective of human needs. The concept of Pacha Mama appears in the 2008 constitution of Ecuador, the first constitution to recognise rights of nature. In 2010, one year after Morales spoke at the General Assembly, Bolivia passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth according to which nature has the right to exist, not to have cellular structure modified, to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration, and not to be polluted. To date Bolivia and Ecuador are the only two countries to recognise rights of nature.

Those who argue for the rights of Earth insist that our most important duty is to respect the Earth, both from a moral standpoint (because it is right) and from an instrumental standpoint (because human rights flow from the Earth, and only by respecting nature’s rights can human rights such as those to food, water and health be fully realised). The idea that nature has rights that sit above those of people, and that human rights can only be defined in relation to nature, promises a very different type of development. It would require imposing severe and legally enforceable limitations on the exploitation of nature by business corporations and the state, with environmental use permitted only to the extent that it does not disrupt harmony with nature.

Respecting the rights of nature would render very different global economic relations. Rather than seeking to promote trade liberalisation and the elimination of tariff barriers to economic growth, international trade agreements would seek to regulate the global economy in order to maintain the global ecological balance. This would require a fundamental redefinition of international law and would represent a radical challenge to contemporary global governance which is currently based on the economic exploitation of natural resources.

This may all seem outlandish, maybe even ridiculous, but the notion of nature’s rights is gaining traction in international civil society, including the US-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, and is likely to feature more prominently in development discourse and ideas of social justice in the years ahead.

Dr David Humphreys is Reader in Environmental Policy in the Geography department. He has served as an advisor to the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development, as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the European Forest Institute, and with various UK government delegations to the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF). He was also a member of the IUFRO Task Force on International Forest Governance.

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