The Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia: Progress and Challenges

by Paola Villavicencio-Calzadilla

Mother Earth is a dynamic living system comprising an indivisible community of all living systems and living organisms, interrelated, interdependent and complementary, which share a common destiny.” (Law of the rights of Mother Earth, art. 3)

Over a decade ago, Bolivia attracted international attention by adopting ground-breaking laws challenging dominant paradigms and recognising rights of Nature or Mother Earth. On paper at least, this legal paradigm shift provides an ambitious framework to challenge the prevailing extractivism – for instance, of fossil fuels, minerals and agro-food products – that threatens Mother Earth and to overcome the idea that Nature is a resource to be exploited. With this recognition, Bolivia, one of the world’s biologically diverse countries in the world, has become a global leader of the Rights of Nature movement and the second country worldwide, only after Ecuador, to recognize the rights of Mother Earth on a national level.

Despite its importance, the Bolivian case shows that while passing laws specifically recognising the Rights of Nature is a critical step in protecting Mother Earth, it is only one of the first steps necessary towards bringing about deeper socioecological transformations.

Mother Earth is not only sacred, she has rights too

In December 2010, Bolivia’s Legislative Assembly passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, the first law in the country that explicitly recognises Mother Earth not only as a sacred being (as already indicated in the country's Constitution), but as a being with legal rights. The adoption of this law originated, at least partially, from a proposal prepared by a coalition of indigenous and peasant organisations in the country – the so-called Pact of Unity – which was intended to transform the exploitative and oppressive practices around Nature in the country by recognising her own rights. These organisations’ proposal was prepared in the follow-up of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which had taken place a few months earlier in Bolivia and resulted in the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Law on the Rights of Mother Earth recognises that Nature has seven specific rights, such as the right to life, the right to the diversity of life, to water and clean air, to maintenance of her components in a balanced way, to preservation from pollution and the right to be restored. Likewise, alongside these rights, the law sets out corresponding responsibilities of people and the State, including the legal duty and responsibility to enforce Nature’s rights on her behalf by reporting and addressing violations. Also, for the first time, the law orders the creation of a new first-of-its-kind institution: A “Mother Earth Ombudsman’s Office” (Defensoría de la Madre Tierra), in order to promote the protection and enforcement of the Rights of Nature.

These rights and responsibilities were reaffirmed by a more extensive law adopted two years later: the 2012 Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well. This piece of legislation focuses on shifting the country away from an extractivist and capitalist model toward a different holistic development in harmony with Mother Earth.

Thus, with the inclusion of the rights of Mother Earth in the country’s legal system, Bolivia would have a new legal framework based on an ecocentric counter-narrative and rooted in indigenous values and concepts intended to confront the anthropocentric orientation of existing rights.

Challenges and obstacles in the implementation of the Rights of Nature

Although the country has been at the forefront to recognise the Rights of Nature, the actual implementation of such rights in Bolivia is still a challenge. The commitment to the protection of Nature’s rights collides with the successive governments’ development agenda focusing on maintaining and even intensifying the ecologically destructive extractivist paradigm.

In addition to eased environmental standards, the government has adopted laws and policies in recent years fostering mining activities, large hydroelectricity projects, and oil and gas exploitation in biodiversity-rich protected areas traditionally inhabited by indigenous people, such as the Amazon and Chaco region. Moreover, it allows the expansion of the agricultural frontier, especially for the cultivation of soy and sugar for cattle production and exports and for biofuels production, which is incentivising an ever-increasing deforestation and uncontrolled fires affecting the Amazon basin and the unique ecosystem within the Chiquitanía region (dry Chiquitano forest) which are also territories of indigenous peoples.

These laws and policies are not only contrary to the rights of Mother Earth, but are also contributing to the escalation of socioenvironmental conflicts, especially between indigenous peoples and the government.

The TIPNIS case – a conflict concerning the construction of a highway tearing through a highly biodiverse protected area and indigenous territory – and the Bala-Chepete case – a hydroelectric mega dam project in the Amazonian region that threatens the Madidi National Park and Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Indigenous Territory – are some examples of how the extractivist model remains paramount in the Bolivian political economy and how practice falls short of rhetorical promises regarding the rights of Mother Earth.

While the devastation of extractivism remains unchecked in different parts of the country, there have also been limited advances in the defence of the rights of Mother Earth. For instance, the Mother Earth Ombudsman’s Office ordered by the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth and thought to promote the protection of Nature’s rights, has not been created yet. Also, rights of Nature lawsuits have only just begun to be filed in Bolivia, and the judiciary has timidly started to rule on them. For instance, in February 2021, an Agro-environmental Court settled in favour of ‘44 trees’ that would be impacted by the construction of a ‘vehicle corridor’. The court ordered the project suspension as a precautionary measure as it does not respect the rights of Mother Earth. Yet, in its decision it does not go into the substance of the issue nor helps to clarify the meaning and content of these rights.

Despite this, the court decision is a valuable first step in the judicialisation of the rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia and might inspire new actions in the future.

The way forward

Bolivia’s case exemplifies that the making of new visionary ecocentric laws recognising the Rights of Nature is a necessary but only the first step and that more efforts are needed to promote real changes in policies and practices, especially for countries relying on an economy based on the exploitation of Nature.

It is certainly difficult to abandon this dependence overnight, however, there are actions that can be taken while moving forward: for example, avoiding the adoption of regressive policies and laws dismantling environmental safeguards and violating Mother Earth’s rights or the authorisation of notoriously ecologically destructive projects. Also, as institutions and mechanisms are needed to implement the Rights of Nature, the creation of an independent and impartial Mother Earth Ombudsman’s Office with the powers to promote compliance with the Rights of Nature especially in these contexts is a necessity.

Mother Earth’s rights and interests should actually be heard, defended, protected and taken into account in all decision-making processes affecting them.

Therefore, the state has the obligation to provide a safe and enabling environment in which environmental defenders or Mother Earth protectors who speak up to protect her rights can operate free from threats, intimidation, criminalisation and violence.

Finally, awareness and training on Rights of Nature should be offered widely to the legal community – including lawyers, prosecutors and judges – as well as to public and private sectors and the civil society. Research and teaching on the topic should also be promoted at all educational levels and institutions, to challenge and move away from anthropocentric notions of nature and to reorient education towards a culture of respect for and protection of all forms of life.


Dr. Paola Villavicencio-Calzadilla is a Bolivian legal scholar and consultant with over 15 years of working experience on the socio-legal issues surrounding the climate and environmental crisis. Her recent work focuses on climate justice, energy justice, climate litigation and Rights of Nature. She has written and presented widely on these topics.

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