Defining rights: A critical look at Bolivia's Law of Mother Nature

In French: "Ramblers, Mother Nature welcomes you. Respect her!" Photo by Annie in Beziers |

For those of you haven’t heard, Bolivia recently became the first country to grant rights to nature, or “Mother Earth,” as they say.

This Law of Mother Nature is intended to promote a shift in the way people think and act about preserving Earth’s precious resources, as well as keep industries in check and slow the process of environmental destruction. The law gives nature the same rights as human beings, including: the right to life and to exist; the right not to be polluted; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered; and the right to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities, among others.

Reading about this law immediately brought me back to a course I took this year on global health governance. In our seminars, we discussed at length the strategic motives behind calling something a ‘right’ and expecting the public to think differently about it. In some cases, the lines are drawn easily and this strategy has worked well. In others cases, the lines are blurred.

For example, consider the right to health.  An editorial in The Lancet, called Why and how is health a human right?, asks how health can be a right when there is no way of ensuring that everyone can obtain it. It also asks why we would think of health as a right, rather than health care, since it is health care that is actually under the control of policy-making. In fact, there are voices out there saying that the entire process of calling everything a ‘right’ could actually be doing more harm than good. Is it wasted time to go through the process of pushing papers and having meetings and writing drafts, when we could just go out there and clean out a river? Perhaps. To read more about the criticism surrounding rights, check out David Kennedy.

In my humble opinion, granting rights to Mother Earth is probably a positive move. It brings attention to preservation efforts and does give us the opportunity to think about nature in a novel way. It makes policies stronger and gives the voices of environmental activists more authority.

However, it does seem odd that we would even have the power to grant these rights. Saying that the trees and plants and lakes now have rights gives an unsettling impression, that they did not have these rights before we decided to grant them. This proves to be ironic, since they were here on Earth long before we were.

Furthermore, the law is not particularly action-oriented, since it is merely granting rights to nature and not directly forcing anyone to act any differently than they had already been. For example, all humans have the right to education, a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, and a right to freedom of opinion and expression, but we all know that not everyone has these things. It seems that the rights to nature mentioned above would be particularly difficult to uphold. Consider the right to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities (as states in Bolivia's new law). Given the ever-expanding  population and the rapid urban development happening around the world, it seems next to impossible to impede this growth in any way.

It will be interesting to see whether the international community feels pressure to follow suit. Will Canada pass the same Law of Mother Nature in the next few years? How will this law be enforced, if at all? Interestingly, does this mean that nature that exists outside of Bolivia, in comparison, doesn't have any rights?