What Can Bolivia’s Nature Rights Teach Us about Economic Rights and Public Banks

Jun 27, 2015.

In December 2010, the Plurinational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia passed a body of law called Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra, or Law of the Rights of Mother Earth. The law contained ten articles, premised on the definition of the earth as a “collective subject of public interest.” The earth, human communities, and ecosystems, are all designated titleholders of inherent legal rights.

Under this new regime of rights, nature itself has the right to life and existence, as well as the right to “continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.” Controversially, it will also enshrine the right of nature “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

The antecedents of the law are both old and new. On the old side, as Nick Buxton writes:

The law draws deeply on indigenous concepts that view nature as a sacred home, the Pachamama (Mother Earth) on which we intimately depend. As the law states, “Mother Earth is a living dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”

On the new side, the law mandates, in effect, a transition to renewable energy, radically tight regulation of greenhouse gasses, and new economic indicators assessing ecological impacts.

To be fair, Bolivia is like many other countries–its ruling classes are divided and in conflict, there are competing interests among industries and political forces, and the nation has frequently come close to breaking its own law since its implementation, most controversially in regard to fracking. But if the fact that laws were broken were an argument against having laws, we wouldn’t have any laws.

These rights are economic as well as environmental, and often the two concepts are encapsulated in the same laws. Water is a good example of this convergence of environmental and economic protection. Under the new Bolivian law, “[i]t is the right of the preservation of the quality and composition of water to sustain life systems and their protection with regards to contamination, for renewal of the life of Mother Earth and all its components.” This includes a human right to water.

The United Nations also explicitly recognizes a human right to water.

On 28 July 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights. The Resolution calls upon States and international organisations to provide financial resources, help capacity-building and technology transfer to help countries, in particular developing countries, to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all.

In November 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted General Comment No. 15 on the right to water. Article I.1 states that “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights”. Comment No. 15 also defined the right to water as the right of everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.

The enumeration of such rights–whether preservation rights to the environment or resource rights to humans–serves as a criterial filter through which privatization or other economic policies would be evaluated–whether they were most conducive to realizing a recognized human right. Such criteria require economic enabling mechanisms. Moreover, if human rights to water exist, and if the earth itself has a right to sustainable practices, it is no great leap to conclude that humans–and the earth–have a right to sustainable economic practices, since economic practices are intimately tied to environmental impacts.

If collective economic rights exist, and if enabling mechanisms are required to actualize collective environmental rights, then this suggests a new angle with which to view public financial institutions. Such institutions can proceed from a mandate of sustainability. That mandate could be written into their charters.  Thus, a public bank could be chartered to fund only sustainable, renewable, and slow-growth projects. Or, at the very least, such projects could be prioritized in its charter.

But on a deeper level, sustainability could be a byproduct of public banks in general, if they are chartered to provide low- or no-interest loans. One of the chief causes of unsustainable growth is high interest, because in the status quo, profits must increase exponentially above and beyond sustainable levels in order for businesses to pay the interest that is embedded in everything we pay for, as well as the direct interest in business financing. Interest takes 35-40% of our GDP. Moreover, as Ellen Brown points out, citing Margrit Kennedy, “the bottom 80% pay the hidden interest charges that the top 10% collect, making interest a strongly regressive tax that the poor pay to the rich.” That surplus cost is one strong motivator for excessive, unsustainable growth. It is a hardwired discouragement of slow-growth schemes, sustainable economic practices, or equilibrium-based economics.

The conclusion seems reasonable: If the planet itself has rights, and if humans have rights as community members in relation to the planet, a sustainable economy is either directly one of those rights, or is an enabling mechanism for the realization of most other planetary and/or collective rights. Public banks avoid excessive interest and massive shareholder profit-grabs, and are thus the most sustainable of banking entities.

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