EAST LANSING, Michigan — Bolivia adopted a new approach to environmental law in 2012, part of a movement called Rights of Nature. This move surprised several countries, considering its status as the poorest country in South America. About 39% of its nearly 11 million citizens live in poverty. Environmentalists support this law, but economists fear the possibility of it making life more challenging.
What Is It?
Bolivia’s Mother Earth Law essentially gives nature more rights in courts. It’s based on indigenous values and challenges the idea that the Earth is a resource subject to exploitation while considering humans 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 epitomizes “Bolivia’s dedication to sustainable development, respecting the balance between human life and the natural environment and prioritizing the rights and knowledge of the country’s majority indigenous population.”
However, in the eyes of Paola Villavicencio, a Bolivian law expert at Universitat Rovira i Virgili, it hasn’t been at all successful. Primarily because in July 2020, President Jean Añez enacted two new regulations that allowed for millions of additional hectares of land to be cleared for cattle and soy farming. An economically-motivated decision, according to Villavicencio. “The laws that have been adopted for agriculture expansion are basically contrary to what the Rights of Mother Earth says,” Villavicencio said in an interview with The Borgen Project.
What Implications Does Agriculture Expansion Have In Bolivia?
Agriculture employs around two-fifths of Bolivia’s population. It’s one of the most important sectors in Bolivia’s economy, contributing about one-seventh of the GDP. Even so, agricultural productivity suffers, a consequence of outdated technologies and a lack of knowledge and skills among farmers.
Over the past century, there’s 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 food. Winona LaDuke, an Indigenous environmentalist, stresses combining science with indigenous knowledge to improve farming capabilities worldwide and adopt sustainable practices.
It’s 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 develop in a way that doesn’t compromise the planet’s health. If well implemented, it could have acted as a voice for indigenous Bolivians, who make up almost 70% of the population.
Problems With Agriculture Expansion Resolutions
The agriculture expansion resolutions President Añez passed upset many environmentalists in the region. They say that Bolivian soils cannot sustain “intensive agricultural production” much longer, citing the destructive fires as evidence. 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 the new regulations allow clear-cutting in the name of agriculture in formerly protected lands. Residents call the Tucavaca Municipal Reserve community a facilitated protected area, a source of livelihood. To their dismay, it’s in the Santa Cruz department where cattle production is massive. Santa Cruz and Beni produce 74% of all South American cattle. They’re hopeful the agriculture expansion laws might place Bolivia as one of “the top 15 beef producers” in the world. This would be bad for the environment and the area’s inhabitants.
“If you wanted to respect the Rights of Mother Earth, we need to change our economic model that is basically extraction,” Villavicencio said. Professor Villavicencio talked about how a lot of the expansion activities occur in the low land areas that are good for farming. Since the population is smaller in these areas, the inhabitants have little voice in extracting their lands. This goes against what Bolivia’s Mother Earth Law says. Before development occurs, the developers should consult inhabitants in the region as it directly affects their livelihoods.
How Can Bolivia Balance Sustainability And Poverty Issues?
Though many environmentalists call for the reworking of Bolivia’s Mother Earth Law and draw on its necessity in light of the agriculture-induced wildfires, some feel it’s not doable and would hurt the economy, something already suffering in the impoverished country.
Soybean producers specifically have protested the law. It outlawed genetically modified seeds, a provision that would affect 90% of the crop. They said it wouldn’t stop there and would hike up the price of other crops, like corn and rice, making it harder to get food in a country where 15.9% of its residents are undernourished, the highest level in South America.
The landlocked country heavily relies on exports and foreign investment to make money. Rich in minerals and natural gas, exploitation in Bolivia has long occurred. For example, China and Russia are two Bolivia-reliant countries. Bolivia made serious cattle deals with them, which heavily degrades soil health.
How Can Bolivia Balance Sustainability With Its Needs?
When the law was first passed, the North American Congress on Latin America said, “it’s possible for the Bolivian state to harness extractive industry without destroying the environment, for the benefit of impoverished Bolivians, allowing them to “live well” (vivir bien), in equilibrium with nature”
Ideally, Bolivia must foster sustainable revenue and enact a Mother Earth law that people respect. “The agriculture situation is not changing for Mother Earth of the people living there,” Villavicencio said. The best way to do better is to consider the needs of the people, country and the earth. Bolivia should aim to develop in a lighter and more eco-friendly way to sustain and respect Bolivian life.
– Cameryn Cass