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Bolivia Climate Conference Moves to Establish Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth

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One of the key initiatives of the climate conference in Bolivia is to come out with a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. We speak with South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan, the co-president of the Rights of Mother Earth Working Group at the summit. He arrived at the climate change conference with a draft Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth that formed the basis of the discussion. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


On this Earth Day special, we’re broadcasting from the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth here in the Bolivian town of Tiquipaya. One of the key initiatives of the climate conference here in Bolivia is to come out with a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

South African environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan is the co-president of the Rights of Mother Earth Working Group here at the summit. He arrived at the climate change conference with a draft Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth that form the basis of the discussion here. Cormac Cullinan joins me here in Tiquipaya.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

CORMAC CULLINAN: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what is happening with this declaration.


Well, it’s been a slightly chaotic process, but with incredible participation by everybody. Every day in the working group, we’ve had more than 400 people. And yesterday at the plenary group we had well over that number, probably possibly a thousand people. And everybody’s been contributing directly to the text and to the substance of it.

There was a text which was produced beforehand, and then that was workshopped at a pre-conference here in Bolivia. But there have been contributions from all over the world. So the challenge really has been to ensure that we’ve integrated all the different comments and points of view. And it’s been an amazing process.

One of the difficulties is that we are essentially expressing an entirely new worldview, particularly arising from an indigenous perspective, in legal language which is understandable by essentially another culture. So that’s been quite a challenge in drafting.


Explain what this declaration is, though.


What the declaration is, essentially, is — it’s intended to complement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of — on the Human Rights. So the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights only recognizes that human beings have got inherent rights. In other words, it says just because you exist as a human being, you have these rights, regardless of whether your country or government tries to take them away from you.

What we’re saying is that everything has inherent rights. By virtue of the fact that the earth exists and all other creatures and mountains and rivers exist, they must also have inherent rights. At least the right to exist, to play their part in the evolutionary processes of Mother Earth. So the problem is, because we’ve only recognized human rights, we’ve created an imbalance. So human rights trump everything else, because they don’t have rights. And we’re trying to redress that balance by recognizing the rights which surround human rights.


And how does it stand at the United Nations?


At the moment, it would require a state, such as Bolivia, to raise it at the United Nations and get it onto the agenda. So at this stage, it’s still very early in the process. But I think the important thing about this in relation to climate change is this an initiative that looks at the causes of climate change. It’s not about arguing about the technicalities of cap and trade or technology, etc. This is saying why do we have — why is climate change arising? And it’s because of our relationship with Mother Earth. And this is attempting to heal that relationship.


Your book was called Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice. Why Wild Law?


I was trying to draw attention to the fact that our legal systems are aimed at controlling and dominating nature, essentially, and that we need to change to an attitude of participation, and that wildness, in a sense, is a kind of a synonym for the natural creative energy of the universe, and that we need laws that enable that to flourish, rather than attempt to dominate it.


And where does all of this stand in South Africa? How is this received?


Well, it’s by no means accepted. There are little bits and pieces in legislation that I’ve drafted. But really it’s something that’s happening all over the world. So, in the United States, you have the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund working for local communities on these issues. In India, you have the earth democracy movement, led by Vandana Shiva, as she’s been a major player in that. In Africa, these ideas of earth jurisprudence — in other words, an earth-centered approach to law — are spreading. There are wild law conferences in England every year, and Australia has just started. So it’s really beginning to spread throughout the world.


Finally, the criticism of the conference, what does it mean? How is it binding? Or do you look at it as a gathering of people, 15,000 people, that would never have been able to participate in these world UN conferences?


I think it’s a symptom of much more important shift in global governance, because democracy used to be something that happened between diplomats behind closed doors, etc. Now we are saying — you’re seeing people saying, “This is too important. We cannot leave this to governments. We have to take responsibility for addressing these issues.” So this is about people saying, “We’d like the UN to take this up, but even if it doesn’t, we are — this is what we believe, and we’re going to work on these issues right now.”


Also, the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, how does that fit in?


That essentially came out the horrors of the Second World War, you know, and people feeling that something had to be done, this can’t go on anymore. And we’re in a similar position in history. We are sitting here saying climate change is threatening humanity and many species, etc. And what ‘s happening through these very formal negotiating processes between governments aren’t fast enough and don’t go far enough and don’t address the root causes. And so, this is an initiative which comes out of a similar period of crisis to say we’ve go to cut to the chase: what is wrong is our relationship with Mother Earth, and we must heal that. So a lot of this declaration is about human responsibilities to Mother Earth, as well as the rights of Mother Earth.


I want to thank you very much for being with us, Cormac Cullinan, South African environmental lawyer, co-president of the Rights of Mother Earth Working Group here in Tiquipaya. He arrived at the climate change conference with this draft Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth that’s forming the basis of much of the discussion here. People are chanting outside on this Earth Day, on this concluding day of the World Peoples’ Summit.

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