ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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If Mountains and Rivers Could Speak

By granting rights to Nature, Bolivia and Ecuador have subverted conventional wisdom on the use of natural resources.

What if the Niyamgiri mountain in Orissa were able to assert its right to exist without being gouged out for the bauxite that lies under its rocks? What if the Narmada River were able to declare that it wanted to flow freely without being blocked by large dams? What if the many rivers that have died due to unchecked pollution could cry out that they too had a right to live? This might sound like the script of another Avatar-like Hollywood film. It is in fact a concept that has been translated into law by two countries in South America – Ecuador and Bolivia – and is being seriously considered by at least half a dozen others. If Bolivia’s proposal to the United Nations to accept a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth along the lines of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, goes through, it could well lead to a serious rethinking of standard environmental laws and approaches towards maintaining a balance between humans and nature.

The countries that have led the way in this reformulation are economically poor and yet rich in natural and mineral resources. For years they have had to suffer predatory international capital that has left a trail of destruction. In fact, on 4 January this year, an appeals court in Ecuador upheld the judgment of a lower court in a legal battle waged over 18 years, holding the United States oil giant Chevron responsible for environmental damage to the Amazon forests and imposing a fine of $18 billion in damages. Between 1960 and 1992, when Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) extracted oil from Ecuador, it was accused of dumping 18 million tonnes of oil in unlined pits over two decades in the Amazon, thereby contaminating the groundwater of over 1,700 hectares and causing serious health problems to thousands of local people.

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