Extract the rights from mother earth

Somewhere amidst the sprawling agenda, the 1,000-people working groups, the ritual Chávez love-in and the pot shots at American capitalism, there was a big idea trying to escape.

I hesitate to refer to the Cochabamba conference by its full name. The phrases “people’s world” and “rights of mother earth” evidently induce an allergic reaction amongst editors of respectable western media.

Beyond the enterprise of Democracy Now, IPS News and OneClimate, I have been unable to detect any English language coverage of the event which concluded last Thursday. This is unfortunate because the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, has a strong core proposition, in addition to his undoubted talent for rambling digression.

Disgusted with the superficial nature of the Copenhagen Accord, Morales is attempting to locate the fundamental cause of environmental breakdown, of which climate change is only one symptom. Even his bête noir, capitalism, is acknowledged to be the agent of destruction rather than its root.

Instead, Morales suggests that our grounding in human rights offers insufficient protection to humanity. It’s no use underwriting the right to food in international law if we remain compulsive polluters of our air, soil and water.

The idea of a universal declaration of earth rights plugs this gap. Earth laws enforced by an international tribunal would bring environmental offenders to account.

The concept resonates promisingly with the Gaia theory of James Lovelock. If the earth has self-regulatory mechanisms which maintain the ecological equilibrium that we depend on, then awarding those mechanisms the right to protection makes good sense.

The problem of course is that we don’t understand the theory well enough to know just how much disturbance the equilibrium can tolerate. Our species has always thrived by its unique capacity to exploit the biosphere. How to define the limits to this exploitation is therefore the hard bit.

I have been unable to find a translation of the final draft declaration of earth rights but the pre-conference version dwells too much on animal rights, an unlikely path to consensus.

It was helpful that Morales was harassed throughout the conference by discordant voices in his own backyard. Protesters from the region of the San Cristóbal silver mine near Potosi expressed their grievances on pollution and overuse of water. Commentators were also quick to point out that extraction of gas, oil and lithium is prominent in Bolivia.

Challenged by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now on these apparent violations of earth rights, Evo Morales could only acknowledge that “it will be difficult …they’re telling me that I should shut down oil wells and gas wells. So what is Bolivia going to live off of? So let’s be realistic.”

This dilemma is not a reason to dismiss the efforts of the Cochabamba conference. On the contrary, it’s a reminder that other potential approaches to rights-based sustainability are making no headway. In the last week alone there have been three significant blows to the cause of mother earth.

The Potsdam Institute reported that commitments under the Copenhagen Accord are insufficient to prevent global temperature rising by at least 3 degrees by 2100. The Brazilian government gave the go-ahead to the controversial Belo Monte hydro-electric dam, set to become the third largest in the world. The AGM of Anglo American, held in London on Earth Day, rejected demands to abandon its plans for the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

These setbacks continue despite a generation of environmental activism, human rights advocacy, corporate social responsibility and UN diplomacy. Earth rights deserve a fair hearing.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK