Panel on the Rights of Mother Earth


Greetings from the Postmaster General of Bolivia.  The Bolivian postal service is issuing two stamps that illustrate the impact of global warming in our country: an image of a glacier from the Bolivian Andes that only 10 years ago was still extensive, and now is completely gone — which the second stamp shows.
Panel participants: Miguel D’Escoto (former President of the United Nations General Assembly), Leonardo Boff (Liberation Theologian), Alberto Acosta (Ecuadorian economist and politician), Cormac Cullinan (South African environmental lawyer), Mari Margil (Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund)
Miguel D’Escoto: Not long ago there were meetings like this to discuss women’s rights and black people’s rights.  The human conscience is something that is constantly developing. Right now we are coming to understand belatedly that Mother Earth is alive and that we are part of it. That we are the part of the earth that thinks, and loves, and laughs. Why has it taken us so long to understand all these things? Aristotle said that, as opposed to animals, men are not born with instincts. Our only quasi-instinct is our intuition that we should do good and avoid evil. But we’re not clear about what kind of good we’re supposed to do and what kind of evil we should avoid. Not all human beings have the same ethical sensibility. Let’s look back at the industrial revolution. Marx raised his voice in defense of the rights of the exploited; he’s mostly an ethical person. We must reemphasize Marx’s ethical dignity. The church was silent during this period. Capitalism has put our ethical capacity to sleep. Now we must draw attention to the rights of Mother Earth or perish. Progress evident in the declaration of Earth Day on April 22nd by the UN; but we need to recognize that the UN has failed since it has failed to prevent wars, and the most war-like nation on the planet – the U.S. – has a permanent seat on the Security Council. We’ve proposed a World Declaration for acceptance by the General Assembly of a reconfigured UN. I do not believe the UN should disappear; on the contrary, I believe it will become the most important organization to help humanity survive. Within the context of the new charter, there are two issues relating to Mother Earth rights. We do not intend to replace the UN Human Rights Declaration but rather to complement and enrich it. These documents can be found at, which includes a feature to allow comments.
Leonardo Boff: We need to celebrate Miguel D’Escoto’s brilliant idea of creating a declaration of rights and a court to judge infractions. It’s not a question of markets or anything else, but of life in all its diversity. Evo’s presentation on April 22nd last year refocused from Earth Day to a celebration of Mother Earth. This was a revolutionary step. It’s one thing to say Earth, which can be bought and sold and exploited. It’s another to say Mother Earth, because you cannot sell or exploit your mother, you have to love her. To say this is to say that pachamama is a subject, with rights and dignity. This is new in terms of legal regimes. We need to get away from an anthropocentric vision that only sees human beings as carriers of rights and dignity. We need to remember that every living thing has an intrinsic value and has a right to exist. I’d like to present some thoughts on the right of Mother Earth to legal rights, because we need a philosophical framework to legitimate these rights.First of all, there is a great tradition of according dignity to Earth because it has all we need to live. The modern sciences have shown that Earth is not simply inert but is a living organism that is constantly producing life; this living super-organism has been called Gaia, which is the same reality as pachamama. James Lovelock, creator of the theory of Gaia, challenges us to put together the native people’s vision (since they understood the earth as pachamama) with the scientific viewpoint. Both these perspectives are vital. And the third element is the legacy that the astronauts have provided us by showing us Earth from outside, by showing us that there is no division between Earth and humankind.

This is why the etymology of “man” in Latin comes from humus or Earth. We are the Earth which thinks and feels and dances and celebrates. We must not deny our earthly roots, and we must not deny the autonomous value of the Earth. In addition, physicists have argued that all matter is a highly condensed form of energy. For Niels Bohr, for example, all of reality is made up of energy networks that are continuously related to one another. There’s nothing outside relationship. We’ve realized that matter not only has mass and energy but also information. So Earth stores the historical memory of its revolutionary trajectory — it has a subjectivity, one that’s different from ours. But this difference is not absolute, but rather one of degrees. And so it’s our duty to look after the Earth. I believe that we’re now entering the age of biocivilization when human beings will recognize our common fate. The twenty-first century will be the century of the rights of Mother Earth.

Alberto Acosta: We are gathered here to provide a specific response to the failure of Kyoto at Copenhagen. There were no concrete responses here, but an imposition of shameless behavior by the U.S. Today, countries like Bolivia and Ecuador are being excluded from funding because they refuse to sign on to the meaningless Copenhagen Accord – I consider this an intolerable form of blackmail. Today, climate change is already causing terrible crises around the world, including forced migration, droughts, famines, etc.  Climate change is accelerating as a result of the perverse logic of capitalism, which has put the logic of accumulation over the logic of life. So we’re seeing increasing commodification of nature and colonization around the world. One citizen from the US emits nearly 20 tons of CO2 per year, while the average Chinese person emit 3.2 million tones. In Ecuador, per capita emissions are 2.2 million tons per year. It’s clear where the responsibility lies, but let us not forget that there’s only one pachamama.  Within this context, the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth says that nature has been changed because it’s been changed into a factory. Our main task is to overcome this commodifying process of nature to understand that resources are for life not accumulation. What we’re living now is part of a process that began many centuries ago: a permanent expansion of rights, from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage to the present struggles for political, civil, social, and economic rights. Environmental rights expand on such rights. The European writer Italo Calvino created the tree baron to speak for the rights of trees and animals. But we must recognize that native peoples have never lost the vision that Mother Earth is sacred and that everything is related. This is the perspective that we need to recover now. The Bolivian Constitution recognizes the rights of nature as part of a plurinational state. We must begin to reconstruct our perspective on citizenship to include environmental citizenship, to include biodiversity, to include both human rights and the rights of nature.

With this in mind, we must claim environmental debt due to the poor of the world after centuries of exploitation. And we must implement an Environmental Court to prosecute those who exploit the Earth. And we must not follow the path of development of the North. We need to live in harmony with Mother Earth. In addition to the work of governments like Evo’s, we need to call ourselves to permanent global mobilization to protect pachamama.

Cormac Cullinan: We in the rest of the world are all aware that Latin America is giving birth to a new revolution, one that must spread throughout the world if our civilization is not to collapse.Before I talk about this, I’d like to talk about the caterpillar. The caterpillar starts out as a tiny creature that eats and eats, and grows and grows. If it kept doing this, it would eat all its food and die. But fortunately Mother Earth imposes limits. So the caterpillar eventually goes into a pupa and begins a transformation, forming new cells that remake the caterpillar into a butterfly. Because there is no future of a caterpillar that eats incessantly, a point to transformation must be reached. Each of the caterpillar’s cells have a plan for the butterfly written into them, and so the butterfly can be born into a new future.

I’m telling this story because, in the same way that the DNA in the cells of the caterpillar determine its ability to transform, so we in society have a certain DNA. The law of a society acts like DNA, determining possibilities for the present and the future. What we’re trying to do here is to establish a new DNA for society, a structure that will enable us to restructure ourselves and transform. This is an essential tasks, one as grand and far-reaching as the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly.

Unfortunately, the legal DNA that structures most societies is based on the idea of the Earth as a machine for exploitation. As a white South African, I was born into a culture of domination. Merely by being born into this society, I was born an exploiter, part of a society based on separation and exploitation of the majority. Fear of the majority created a ruthlessness and oppression of the majority. If you were born like me into such a society, you began blind. But as I grew older, I realized that I needed to reeducate myself and change many of the ways of thinking that my society had inculcated. I eventually realized that to be silent is to be an accomplice of injustice. We South Africans realized that there would be no future for the country unless we got away from this idea of separation.

This notion of separation is very strong in many other countries and cultures. Most of us grow up in cultures that teach us that we’re separate from others and from nature. We have to move from a society based on separation and domination to embrace our participation in life. In the whole universe, we have not yet discovered another planet with life. We are incredibly fortunate to be born into this community of life. But through out actions, we are breaking the rules of that community, and this will lead to our exclusion.

I have worked for many years as an environmental lawyer. I believed that I was one of good guys, and that we just needed better laws and better enforcement. But I began to experience problems that showed me that the problem is underlying and philosophical. I was fortunate to meet Father Thomas Berry, who said that the legal system as a whole legitimates and perpetuates the exploitation of the Earth. The law has been structured on the basis of an attitude of domination. For example, only human beings are capable of having rights; everything else is only a thing, and can only be a property of humans. The rest of creation, Mother Earth, is like a slave – simply property. There can never be a whole and healthy relation between slaves and masters.

We must address this fundamental imbalance. I wrote a book called Wild Law that proposes Earth jurisprudence. In addition, this metamorphosis is a personal transformation. It’s hard for a lawyer who’s been trained to believe that only people are rights-bearers to understand this perspective. We need to understand that there’s a source of law beyond us: the planet itself is a self-ordering system. We need to align our human legal systems with the legal system of which we form a part: Earth’s. We need to develop a concept of restorative justice. What we’re talking about is entering into a vast network of relationships that bind us each to one another. We have to start thinking in holistic terms, as beings connected to a community of inter-related beings, bound together by intimacy and love.

Mari Margil: These past several days, I’ve been a part of the working group on the rights of Mother Earth. Lawyers define nature as property, particularly in the U.S. Environmental laws legalize how much harm can occur to Mother Nature under the law. My community works with communities that challenge this approach. The U.S. legal regime is being exported around world. We can see the results of this all around us: collapse of fisheries, massive species extinction, climate change, etc. Nonetheless, these kinds of environmental laws continue to be adopted throughout the world. My organization works with communities that must fight enclosure of the commons, but they recognize that they cannot win such fights when the legal structure legitimates such acts of commodification.But people are beginning to recognize that these laws cannot be improved, but must be abolished, just as were laws that permitted slavery. These laws must be rewritten and replaced. We worked with a community in Pennsylvania, for example, to rewrite laws so that corporations could not take coal from under their land, so that corporations wouldn’t have rights of personhood, and so that ecosystems would have legally recognized rights. We worked in Ecuador in 2007 to draft proposed provisions for new constitution, one that was adopted in September 2008, provisions that include rights of nature. Ecuador and Bolivia are now leading the way for countries around the world to develop a different legal regime to protect nature. Every time a movement is launched to recognize rights for people who are considered rightless, these movements are called treasonous and radical. John Stuart Mill wrote that every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, and adoption. We know that movements for rights don’t achieve success quickly. We know that we’ll be vilified. We know that it will take a great shift in human consciousness to recognize the rights of Madre Tierra. But this is what we must do. We ask you to join us.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.