Vision: The Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth Is Our Roadmap to a Liveable Future

The following is a 3-part series of chapters excerpted (on AlterNet) from the recently released book, The Rights of Nature: The Case for a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, produced by the Council of Canadians, Global Exchange and Fundacion Pachamama. This book reveals the path of a movement driving transformation of our human relationship with nature away from domination and towards balance. This book gathers the wisdom of indigenous cultures, scientists, activists small farmers, spiritual leaders and US communities who seek a different path for protecting nature by establishing Nature’s Rights in law and culture. In addition to this excerpt, the book includes essays from Vandana Shiva, Desmond Tutu, Thomas Goldtooth, Eduardo Galeano, and many others. Copies of the book may be obtained through Global Exchange.

By Nnimmo Bassey

The prime anchor of the proposed Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth is that every element in Nature is interdependent and one cannot ignore the rights of the other without consequences. A grasping of this truth brings clarity to the fact that the Earth herself is finite and limited. It also helps us to grasp that if the resources of the Earth were used sustainably there would be enough to sustain every creature and living being in a continuously renewing manner.

Mahatma Ghandi rightly said that there is enough on Earth to meet everyone’s need, but not enough to meet everyone’s greed. This saying gets to the root of the matter. The interconnectedness in Nature demands that we deal respectfully with the bounties of Nature as well as with every other person. This is the pathway to sustainability.

The inordinate desire of man to dominate, accumulate and destroy has led to the emergence of many catastrophic events on Earth including climate change, hunger, disease, and a multiplicity of conflicts. The spirit of competition negates every element of solidarity and builds an insatiable taste for natural resources. To sustain this track of plunder, policy makers and their think tanks adopt delusory platforms that insist that humans can always find a fix for everything and therefore do not need to see the limits that exist on the highway of unrestricted exploitation.

The United Nations, in a bid to provide a socio-political environment in which minimum rights can be respected, has proclaimed a number of rights including the important Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more recently the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and now water has been declared a human right. The declaration of water as a human right is a milestone in the life of the august body. However, when the vote on the human right of water was taken, it is instructive to note that 41 countries abstained from raising their flags. These abstentions signalled the unpreparedness of some people to recognize the sanctity of life since water is such a basic element both in our make-up as humans, and a necessary element for the survival of all living beings. An Arab saying states, “The greatest crime to commit in a desert is to find water and to hide it.” Anyone who uses water as a tool for subjugation, exploitation and strangulation of others commits a heinous crime against humanity.

After acceding to water as a human right, it is time for the world to take the next necessary step to proclaim the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. This, in a manner of speaking, is the mother of all rights.

The urgency for this Declaration cannot be overstressed. Man’s exploitation of Mother Earth has left indelible scars that may never be healed. The actions of man through deforestation and the over-exploitation of water resources, for example, have caused the drying up of water bodies. Man-made climate change further compounds the situation. Massive accidents resulting from extractive industry activities, as well as other acts, show the limit to how man can exert control over the monsters that we create. Genetic engineering of crops, including the patenting of seeds and production of infertile seeds to secure control of the food chain on the altar of profit, hasten biodiversity and erosion. Highly depleted sources of fossil fuels have today led to the creation of false solutions including agro-fuels that are encouraging land grabs across Africa and other regions, raising the spectre of further conflicts in the midst of other crises.

Respecting the Rights of Mother Earth would make clear to all that over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources and the destruction of our environment are nothing short of criminal, and that those who engage in these acts should have their day in the dock of an environmental crimes tribunal. The Declaration recognizes that: “To guarantee human rights it is necessary to recognize and defend the rights of Mother Earth and all beings in her in line with existing cultures, practices and laws. Declaration also empowers human beings and institutions to defend the rights of Mother Earth and of all beings;” and seeks the establishment of “precautionary and restrictive measures to prevent human activities from causing species extinction, the destruction of ecosystems or the disruption of ecological cycles.” This is the holistic declaration needed to halt our reckless slide.

Mother Earth has been kind to us. We have been nothing short of prodigal in our relationship to her and to one another. The path we have beaten for ourselves is one that leads to annihilation. But it is not too late to pause, correct our ways and take the right route. We have come to a major crossroad and the sign is clear. A choice must be made. If we choose to work for the sustenance of life as we know it, we must all demand the urgent Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Climate Challenge

Without any doubt, climate change is a signal challenge to humankind and all of Mother Earth. Indeed, climate change demands a change of all humans and our societies. Based on peculiar reasoning, rather than fighting climate change, many policy measures being put forward and promoted are aimed at making profit out of the crisis. Rather than retracing from the path that stokes the atmosphere with more carbon, we appear determined to continue in the same mold that created the problem in the first place.

It is known that climate change has been triggered by the mass of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that these have been released mainly through the burning of fossil fuels and other anthropomorphic activities. Rather than moving into renewable energy modes of production, wars are being fought to secure supplies of crude oil and gas. Rather than reducing consumption levels, people are fighting to maintain their current and increased levels of utilization of polluting fuels. In fact, it appears that the carbon utilization level of a nation is the key measure of how advanced a nation is. The right to pollute continues to negate the right to life. There is a critical need and demand for climate justice, that the atmosphere must be decolonized, and the historical ecological (and climate debt) must be paid.

The climate challenge places heavy burdens on vulnerable communities that contribute little or nothing to the crisis and that are often not even aware of the causes of the catastrophes they are condemned to confront. Some people refer to freak weather events as “acts of God,” whereas they are basically caused by man’s actions that upset the balance in Nature and unleash reactions that we cannot resist and can hardly contain. The proposed Declaration rightly states in Article 2(2) that, “each being has the right to a place and to play its role in Mother Earth for her harmonious functioning.” The Rights of Mother Earth are not limited to things that we conveniently label as “living things.” Every element in Mother Earth is living, has a right and deserves to be respected.

The systemic roots of climate change cannot be denied. The model of civilization that is hinged on uncontrolled development will only compound the crisis. Wasteful consumption means higher energy needs; it ignores efficiency and elevates people’s capacity to buy what they want, and not what they need.

Negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change continue to gloss over the role of industrial agriculture in climate change. When agriculture is mentioned, the slant is usually that agriculture contributes so much to climate change. We hardly hear the truth that the culprit is industrial agriculture with its dependence on chemical fertilizers and predominantly monoculture modes. Meanwhile small-scale farmers continue to utilize local knowledge developed over centuries of practice on agro-ecological models that respect the environment, socio-economic and cultural systems.

While the official negotiations on climate change continue to drag, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth issued “The People’s Agreement” at the end of the conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2010. The agreement clearly took into consideration the Rights of Mother Earth as the true context for tackling climate change. The people spoke loudly and it is time for governments to listen.

The climate challenge requires binding targets for emission reductions and these cannot be met through the so-called carbon offsetting methods, or through the voluntary emission reduction targets such as what is suggested in the Copenhagen Accord. Those measures merely promote business as usual and set the stage for unacceptable temperature increases. As the Bolivian government consistently states, “the need to establish an adequate limit to global warming and that with an increase in global warming of two degrees Celsius, there is a 50 per cent chance that the damage caused to our Mother Earth would be totally irreversible.”

The dominant proposals being officially put forward to combat climate change are all based on market forces. Rather than redirect civilisation from its carbon path and leave fossil fuels in the soil or in the holes where Mother Earth has put them, the world promotes the drilling of oil in pristine and delicate environments and continues to intensify destructive mining activities. By these means waterways are polluted onshore and offshore. Aquatic lives are poisoned with toxic chemicals including crude oil dispersants, smothered under drilling mud, and killed by seismic explosions. The extraction of fossil fuels increases deforestation and destruction of terrestrial habitat. The major factor behind the persistence of this mode of civilisation is profit at the expense of life.

When a slight attempt is made to move from fossil fuel propulsion, it has been into moving within the same industrial logic of refineries, pipelines, gas stations and combustion engines through agro-fuels. We hear talk of ethanol made from crops being held up as a clean and renewable energy source. Little attention is paid to the fact that the entire set up is the same as that driven by fossil fuels. Little attention is paid to the fact that agro-fuels compete with food crops for arable land and remove farm labour from producing food for hungry populations. Even when it is said that the crops cultivated are not staples and are grown on marginal lands, this turns out to be another way of marginalising the poor so as to meet the needs and greed of others. As mentioned earlier, agro-fuel production has triggered land grabs in places such as Africa that reveal the immoral bent of man in seeking to maintain consumption patterns that are unjust, unsustainable and grossly infringe on the Rights of Mother Earth.

Technology is hoisted as the silver bullet that would solve all the evils pushed forward by the carbon economy. This is the logic that speaks of carbon sequestration and even holds forth such an oxymoron as “clean coal.” It is also this logic that breeds ideas such as the seeding of the atmosphere to reflect and thereby cool the Earth and seeding of the oceans to create carbon sinks.

Where technology does not provide the answer, other false solutions are brought up through mechanisms that allow the polluter to continue to pollute while performing penance by investing in so-called carbon sinks elsewhere in the world. In this guise, one such concept is Reduce Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation (REDD). Through this, speculators and carbon traders pounce on community forests and exclude peoples from their territories and access to their means of livelihood. Little attention is paid to the huge gaps in the REDD proposal. First, it merely seeks to reduce deforestation in the short term, whereas the world urgently needs to stop deforestation. It has no inherent mechanism to ensure that any deforestation being reduced is not merely deferred only to happen in the future. Neither does it have a way of tackling deforestation in any particular territory in a holistic way. This means that deforestation may be reduced in one region while it is being accelerated in another.

The Declaration of the Right of Mother Earth demands a paradigm shift and a conscious effort on the part of man to own up to our errors and settle on amending our patterns of production and consumption. The respect of Nature and socio-cultural contexts would have far-reaching implications and would result in the building of healthy societies where harmony is maintained and the rights of all beings are respected.

At the heart of the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth is the much needed assertion, promotion and protection of the sovereignty of peoples and other beings on Earth to grow in mutually beneficial relationships and support systems. For humans it would promote food sovereignty, energy sovereignty and sovereignty over territories and resources. It would truncate destructive exploitation, build resilience and strengthen the defence of all rights. This Declaration will provide the essential tool for the growth of global solidarity to take humankind into a civilisation based on sustainable principles.

In sum, the seeds of the real strategies to tackle climate change are embedded in the proposed Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. It is time for humankind to humbly accept that we have arrived at the precipice of reckless living, exploitation and destruction of Mother Earth and that even if water is found on other planets only the very rich may make it there. And we must accept that even those who make it there may need more than one lifetime to make the distance. We have only one Earth, the blue planet floating in space. The future security of nations will be based on the global solidarity, and not competition and domination. As one environmental and social activist said, “Without local, regional and global solidarity and vice versa the substantial transformations in the bosom of humanity will never be made.”

The machine of war will not provide security. And the vast resources being poured into the building of machines of war would be better invested in works to repair the open wounds on Mother Earth. It is time to tackle the structural causes of climate change on the principles of equity and justice. The Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth provides the manifesto and a roadmap to a liveable future if we must be rescued from the brink of runaway climate crisis. It is time to stand up to support this cause.

Nnimmo Bassey is the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He is one of Africa’s leading advocates and campaigners for the environment and human rights. He was awarded with the Right Livelihood Award in 2010.