In praise of Indigenous wisdom

By Emmanuelle Galeotti

"El regalo de la Pachamama",Unknown artist, from UCLA Latin America Institute collection

“El regalo de la Pachamama”,Unknown artist, from UCLA Latin America Institute collection

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
Rachel Carson

Protecting Pachamama…and us
The most progressive and meaningful action to protect our environment, the most vulnerable populations and the rights of future generations altogether went almost unreported back in April 2011, when Bolivia passed a law that gives Nature equal rights to humans in its constitution [1]. Called the “Law of the rights of Mother Earth” (Law 071), it comprises eleven specific rights summarized as follows:
(i) the right to exist and to have natural cycles operating without human modification,
(ii)the right to clean air and water,
(iii) the right to balance and to not be polluted,
(iv)the right to integrity as in not genetically modified,
(iiv)the right to not be disturbed by large development project for both nature and communities[2].

Pachamama (Mother Earth) is considered a living entity by the indigenous population of the Andes. The Bolivian population is 60% indigenous, comprising 2.5 millions Quechuas [3], it is the highest percentage of indigenous population in all Latin America.

The “Law of the rights of Mother Earth” opens the door to new avenues for conservation, social well-being and legal protection. Because this law is the product of grass roots groups, politicians and communities, I see in it the achievement of traditional ecological knowledge coming into the sphere of decision making. The first indigenous Bolivian president, Evo Morales, said in 2008 in his pamphlet “Ten commandments to save the planet, humanity and life”:

“We indigenous peoples will continue to talk until we achieve real change. Our voice comes from way back . Our voice is the voice of the snow-capped mountains which are losing their white ponchos.”

In the last decade the country went through one natural disaster after another, including severe droughts that put the already poor subsistence farmers at an even greater risk. Bolivia has also suffered from environmental issues related to the exploitation of its numerous natural resources by foreign companies. Since his election in 2006, Evo Morales is working on a comprehensive change for Bolivians, and this included refusing the drastic neoliberal Washington Consensus. He initiated the nationalization of the natural resources sector and services deemed as human rights (e.g., water supply, telecommunications). Bolivia is now free of debt and boasting a 6.5% economic growth in 2014[4].

Empowering EIA
Can the overall EIA process really achieve its goals without a legal framework that gives rights to nature and the future generations? In improving the state of the environment, NEPA and CEAA have been instrumental, but aren’t they limited to only some projects?
Any negative impact on the environment will ultimately impact human beings soon or later and near or far. We must remember this when conducting an EIA, as we are measuring and predicting impacts on the environment to inform a rational decision that should be made in the best interest of society as a whole. To me, the goal of an EIA is to prevent undue damage to the environment and to ourselves. If we do not reaffirm the human-nature connection as professionals, how can we expect those who do not have our education to take steps to reduce their own impacts?
In Bolivia Mother Earth and its ecosystems, including human communities, have constitutional rights equal to that of a person. However, in the USA (and in most developed countries) it is corporations who have that right. I believe taking inspiration from Bolivia’s approach to environmental protection would bring the fundamental change required for our societies to place sustainability at the top of our development agenda.

[1]http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/apr/10/bolivia-enshrines-natural-worlds-rights (accessed on March 15.2014)

[2]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_the_Rights_of_Mother_Earth  (accessed on March 18.2014)

[3] http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/bolivia-population/(accessed on April 2014)

[4]http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/17/world/americas/turnabout-in-bolivia-as-economy-rises-from-instability.html (accessed on march 16.2014)

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