On 15th October 2012, the Bolivian government made legal history by officially passing the first law granting the natural world equal rights to human beings. Named the Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development to Live Well, it honours the ancient Inca deity Pachamama (the Earth Mother). Pachamama remains an important part of the rich Andean cultural heritage today, and has become a symbol in many South American communities for a more ecologically sustainable and harmonious approach to development and to our relationship with the planet.
The government wants to keep Bolivia safe and sound for future generations
The government of Ecuador recognised the rights of Pachamama in its constitution way back in 2008, and both Ecuador and Bolivia are endeavouring to align their legislation and economic practice with the ancient concept of sumak kawsay. In the Quechua language, this means ‘good living’, known as buen vivir in Spanish. Whilst the idea of the good life might instantly make our mercenary minds leap to visions of luxury, this is in fact something quite different. A concept which might seem revolutionary to us today, but which is in fact as old as time: a focus not on the individual’s fulfillment, but on that of the entire community, of which Pachamama forms an equal part. The Earth is viewed not as something to be harvested for pure profit, but as a living entity, whose gifts we should be grateful to receive. Following sumak kawsay, we take only what we need from the Mother Earth for our survival, rather than exploiting her greedily.
A fertility goddess often depicted as a dragon or a snake, Pachamama is worshipped in Andean cultures as the bringer of harvests and prosperity. It is said that when she moves, she causes earthquakes. In the Quechua and Aymara languages, 'Pacha' means earth or cosmos, whilst ‘mama’ means mother. Many people today in the Andes regions continue to honour and worship Pachamama, often through a syncretism of these ancient beliefs and Catholicism, linking Mother Nature with the Virgin Mary. Before the start of meetings and festivities, Pachamama is often give the first sip of chicha in thanks for her benevolence. A few drops are poured onto the ground for the earth to drink up and join in the toast, a tradition known as challa.
'La Virgen del Cerro' (1720), depicting the syncretism of the Virgin Mary and Pachamama
At the end of the February carnival in the cities, and at the start of the cold month of August in the countryside, La Challa del Martes is celebrated in Bolivia. Food and drink offerings are made to Pachamama in order to thank her for all the earthly goods bestowed upon the people in the past, and to petition her future kindness. All houses, buildings and cars are decorated in her honour, whilst the ground is carpeted thickly with flower petals. Grains, nuts, wine, and occasionally guinea pigs or llama fetuses, are all collected and burnt upon the fire, and the ritual is accompanied by prayers to Pachamama. The remnants are then buried underground to nourish the land.
Inspired by this cultural recognition of the Earth as a living system with which we need to live in harmony and mutual respect, Bolivia has thus passed its ground-breaking law to the same effect. All living things are considered as equal to human beings, drawing on the ancient values of the indigenous people, who treated the Earth as a sacred being providing them with their home.
Offerings to Pachamama in Argentina
The law enshrines seven essential rights for our planet:
- To life
- To biodiversity
- To water
- To clean air
- To equilibrium
- To restoration
- To be free of contamination
And, perhaps most significantly, it emphasises the Earth’s right to be spared extensive and intrusive development, if these will negatively impact the area’s biodiversity or the life of local communities.
Some ways in which this new ecological focus to policy might become evident is in the gradual transition to renewable energy, a revision of agricultural practices, taxes on greenhouse gas emissions, and greater consideration of problems such as melting glaciers, extensive and destructive mining projects, and fresh water contamination in Bolivia.
European interpretation of Mother Earth (Cologne, C17th)
Establishing a new way of envisioning the world and all it does for us was inevitably going to be fraught with obstacles. And certain hurdles, such as the unsurprising misgivings of major mining companies, has thus far made the path to absolute harmony with the natural world a difficult one.
But the notion of seeing the Earth as our gift-bearing home and companion, as opposed to an insentient material good to be exploited, is surely a lesson from which we could all learn something. An all-encompassing, global rule laying down the rights of our natural world might seem a utopian dream, but we can certainly draw hope and inspiration from the example being set by the Bolivian and Ecuadorian governments, who are pledging to treasure Pachamama and her resources, though to the possible detriment of their own material and economic gain.