EAST LANSING, Mich. — Bolivia adopted a new approach to environmental law in 2012, as part of a movement called Rights of Nature. This decision surprised several countries, given its status as the poorest country in South America. About 39% of its approximately 11 million citizens live in poverty. Environmentalists support the law, but economists fear it will make life more difficult.
What is that?
The Bolivian Mother Earth Law essentially grants nature more rights in the courts. It is based on Indigenous values and challenges the idea that the Earth is a resource subject to exploitation while viewing humans as equal to everything else. This movement is relatively new, adopted by only a few countries and cities around the world. Chile even made a provision and included it in its constitution.
Ideally, the law embodies “Bolivia’s commitment to sustainable development, respect for the balance between human life and the natural environment, and the prioritization of the rights and knowledge of the country’s majority indigenous population.”
However, in the eyes of Paola Villavicencio, an expert in Bolivian law at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, this did not succeed at all. Mainly because in July 2020, President Jean Añez signed into law two new regulations authorizing the clearing of millions of hectares of additional land for raising cattle and soybeans. An economically motivated decision, according to Villavicencio. “The laws that have been passed for the expansion of agriculture are fundamentally contrary to what the Rights of Mother Earth say,” Villavicencio said in an interview with The Borgen Project.
What implications does the expansion of agriculture have in Bolivia?
Agriculture employs about two-fifths of the Bolivian population. It is one of the most important sectors of the Bolivian economy, contributing around one-seventh of the GDP. Even so, agricultural productivity suffers as a result of outdated technologies and a lack of knowledge and skills among farmers.
Over the past century, there has been a 75% decline in agricultural biodiversity worldwide. In today’s world, we get the vast majority of our daily calories from the same 30 varieties of foods. Winona LaDuke, an indigenous ecologist, emphasizes the combination of science and indigenous knowledge to improve agricultural capacities around the world and adopt sustainable practices.
This is why so many environmentalists were happy to see the Rights of Mother Earth become law in Bolivia. They saw it as a way to respect the earth and help it heal and grow in a way that didn’t compromise the health of the planet. If implemented well, it could have served as a voice for indigenous Bolivians, who make up almost 70% of the population.
Problems with farming expansion resolutions
The agricultural expansion resolutions passed by President Añez have upset many environmentalists in the region. They say Bolivian soils cannot sustain “intensive agricultural production” any longer, citing destructive fires as proof. Agricultural burning to clear land for cultivation often causes fires in Bolivia. It’s good for the economy but bad for the environment.
The fires have destroyed protected habitat areas and new regulations allow clear-cutting in the name of agriculture in formerly protected lands. Residents call the Tucavava Municipal Reserve community an facilitated protected area, a source of livelihood. Much to their dismay, it’s in the Santa Cruz department where beef production is massive. Santa Cruz and Beni produce 74% of all South American cattle. They hope agricultural expansion laws could place Bolivia among “the top 15 beef producers” in the world. It would be bad for the environment and the people in the area.
“If you wanted to respect the rights of Mother Earth, we have to change our economic model which is basically extraction,” Villavicencio said. Professor Villavicencio explained that much of the expansion activity is taking place in lowlands suitable for agriculture. Since the population is smaller in these areas, the locals have little voice in the extraction of their land. This goes against what the Mother Earth Law of Bolivia says. Before development occurs, developers should consult with local people as it directly affects their livelihoods.
How can Bolivia balance the issues of sustainability and poverty?
Although many environmentalists are calling for an overhaul of Bolivia’s Mother Earth Law and are citing its necessity in light of agriculture-induced wildfires, some believe it is not feasible and would harm the economy, which is already suffering in the impoverished country.
Soybean growers specifically protested the law. He banned genetically modified seeds, a provision that would affect 90% of the crop. They said it would not stop there and would raise the price of other crops, such as corn and rice, making it harder to get food in a country where 15.9% of its people are undernourished. , the highest level in South America.
The landlocked country relies heavily on exports and foreign investment to earn money. Rich in minerals and natural gas, mining in Bolivia has a long history. For example, China and Russia are two dependent countries of Bolivia. Bolivia has serious livestock contracts with them, which greatly degrades the health of the soil.
How can Bolivia balance sustainability with its needs?
When the law was first passed, the North American Congress on Latin America said, “it is possible for the Bolivian state to exploit the extractive industry without destroying the environment, for the benefit of Bolivians poor, allowing them to “live well” (live well), in balance with nature”
Ideally, Bolivia should promote sustainable incomes and enact a law of Mother Earth that people respect. “The situation of agriculture does not change for the Mother Earth of the people who live there,” Villavicencio said. The best way to do better is to consider the needs of the people, the country and the land. Bolivia should aim to develop in a leaner and more environmentally friendly way to support and respect Bolivian life.
– Cameryn Cass