In political debates in general, as well as in discussions about development strategies, it is very common to appeal to generalized and, therefore, ambiguous labels. Among the best known cases are the use of words like indigenous or Indian, and more recently, Pachamama. Some believe that it is enough to mention them to turn their political or electoral purpose into a positive appeal, while others use them as criticism, a disqualification, or an insult.
The term Pachamama is eloquent because it was used in publicity campaigns to defend government development projects and, at the same time, it was present in protests led by citizens who resisted them. Articles and books were written where some defended her and others attacked her. There have been periods of intensive use and others of relative calm, but despite years gone by, with all the energy and resources invested, it could be said that many sailed in superficiality anyway. And that happens precisely because of the simplistic use of these terms.
I do not intend to solve the question here about the meanings contained in these words, but I rather focus on a previous moment. That moment in which instead of going through a more rigorous analysis, to try to unravel what is behind these words, we fell into using labels. This is particularly impactful for certain actors and propositions.
Specifically, and above all, it hinders and blocks minority groups, that is, subordinate or historically and politically marginalized groups (it is easier for those in power to dismiss any indigenous standpoint as a “Pachamamist” rather than try to understand it); and since the initial diagnose and analysis are precarious, the proposed alternatives are also insufficient (for those who exercise power, they take advantage to dilute real change to underlying problems). In this situation, caution is imperative.
The Pachamamism label
Take the use of the label Pachamamism, for example. It can be said that it has been around for more than a decade. Some use it to disqualify others, to attack positions that may be indigenous, Indian, environmental, autonomous, etc. Others use Pachamama almost to mean the opposite: as a slogan that justifies, for example, environmentalism itself.
The best known cases occurred in Bolivia. In 2011, Félix Encinas pointed out on Patria Insurgente that Pachamamism was a “mythical, animistic concept, a symbol based on the Andean cosmovision” but that “represented and acted under the ideological and political precept of capitalism” (1). Lunging at MAS (Movement for Socialism, the ruling party in Bolivia at the time) from within and from outside, he argued that the Pachamamistas were making a romantic environmental defense but did not understand its capitalist contradictions.
Around the same time, Pablo Stefanoni, an Argentinian journalist close to Evo Morales’ government, said that Pachamamism was a fashionable “neolanguage” that dissolved “the deep anxieties of Bolivians for change” and that it prevented “combining development expectations with smart eco-environmentalism” (2). All this analysis is striking because anti-Pachamamicos, the same people that Stefanoni defended, triumphed in controlling state policy, but neither development goals nor eco-environmentalism were achieved in the ten years that followed. In fact, the opposite happened, and it was made possible because of the light use of labels and slogans.
With the passage of time, indigenous and non-indigenous people, within or outside the government and so on, positioned themselves under that catchword. For example, in 2019 and from other perspectives, Carlos Macusaya, a well-known Bolivian promoter of “indianista” ideas, pointed out in a book that the Pachamamistas naively adopted ideas from academics in the Western world that resulted in marginalizing or keeping indigenous people away from power. “Pachamamismo is a just a tale and an ‘inanity’ that distracts ‘Indians’,” he wrote (3).
More recently, the new Bolivian President Luis Arce announced the discovery of a gas field in the department of Chuquisaca, accompanied by a shocking concluding statement: the gas well “is a gift from our Pachamama for all Bolivians” (4). Once again, the invocation of Pachamama appears intermixed in political discourses and development strategies.
It is clear that confrontations, characterized by brawls and superficiality, have prevailed. For example, Pachamamicos were questioned under a messy scale of indigeneity, since at one point they were accused of not being indigenous, given that Vivir Bien lacked true roots in the original peoples; followed by being denounced for being too indigenous, given their supposed aspiration to want to return to a pre-colonial past, which would also to lead to the “collapse of the country.”
Little and no progress was made on crucial questions that needed to be explored: can only indigenous people invoke the Pachamama? Is Pachamama the same as Nature? Is Indianism a contradiction to Vivir Bien cosmovisions? If neoliberal kataristas do exist, as defined by Xavier Albó, could there be Pachamamista kataristas? And thus, we can ask many additional questions.**
Moreover, if we take up President Arce’s declarations, is it correct to maintain that the Pachamama is giving gas to Bolivians, or would it be more appropriate to assume that humans are tearing hydrocarbon from its entrails? If it is a gift, are there reciprocities? Which would those be? If the presidency maintains that Pachamama gives away gas, the doubt immediately arises whether the vice presidency thinks the same.
It is very difficult to advance in these reflections if what prevails is an exchange of accusations of Pachamamism between them.
Behind the labels
Faced with this situation, a call for caution is appropriate on several fronts. Let’s start by remembering that the initial invocations to Pachamama, Mother Earth, or similar ideas, were usually associated with Buen Vivir or Vivir Bien discourses, included a clear criticism of conventional developmentalism. Therefore, those who argued that Vivir Bien or the defense of the Pachamama were functional to developmentalism or capitalism, in reality ignored, neglected, or avoided those contributions. Caution is necessary to be able to recover that narrative.
In turn, those who argued that Pachamamism was an invention of militants or intellectuals of the global North, who were far removed from local communities’ urgencies, were invisibilizing or underestimating important national contributions. We could mention the research and practices of Simón Yampara or Mario Torrez, for example, from the Bolivian highlands, which cannot be ignored, whether you’re in favor or against those views (5). Caution means respecting the work of others and taking the time to analyze them.
We must also recognize that the Pachamama label was taken for all kinds of speeches, slogans, and undertakings. The mystical invocations offered by David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s foreign minister at the time, along with other similar positions, fueled the excessive use of the term, and this in turn encouraged disparaging critics (6). Some academic political analysis of the global North were also superficial, such as Walter Mignolo’s praise for the presidency of Evo Morales as an indigenous rebirth (7). We got naive mixed uses of the label through contributions of academics, particularly from the global North, who assimilated their dreams, and a few egos, with what was happening in Bolivia and Ecuador. Once we admit these and other problems, we must immediately recognize that more or less the same happens on the opposite side: that the fields of politics, business, and academia are not a paradise of coexistence and humility, when that’s where conventional developmentalism is generated and reproduced. So caution is necessary to unravel these complexities, where each could be assigned strengths or weaknesses.
Taking caution also means discerning that the use of Pachamamic as a qualifier was not innocent, since it had the political intention of invalidating any criticism to developmentalism, particularly because of its potential to hinder extractivisms. In Bolivia, that qualifier was promoted from a position of power as early as 2010. This was a foreshadowing of the attacks that years later would be launched against citizen organizations and movements. To use it today, in the year 2021, implies accepting and repeating a ruse of government policy from a decade ago.
Therefore, while many entertained themselves fighting about slogans, developmentalism by private and state companies continued, devouring natural resources. This reveals another critical aspect in the dynamic of how superficial discussions about qualifiers end up playing in the hands of capitalist developmentalism and its social structures. In other words, the criticisms of Encinas or Stefanoni claiming to oppose capitalism ended up shielding it, guaranteeing extractivist developmentalism and shrinking social justice to economic redistribution through bonds and monetary aid.
There were many who insisted that Vivir Bien and Pachamama was of concern to a minority of the population; an invention of Simón Yampara, some people told me in Bolivia. Those critics never understood the enormous potential of these ideas, the reflections they triggered, and how they had disseminated throughout multiple social sectors. But those who did understand it very well were various government officials and their support base in academia. They had enough clarity to understand that this way of thinking was a real threat, and it was for that reason that they launched a dual goal.
On the one hand, they reconfigured Vivir Bien by making use of a diluted concept, so much so that it did not become an obstacle to extractive developmentalism controlled by the state. On the other hand, they ended up silencing the voices critical of developmentalism by discrediting all Pachamamistas, those who used ideas superficially as well as those who wielded a sharper reflection.
Beyond the staging and ritualizations of an “indigenous” government, which we were alerted to early on (8), all of it was used to support the delicate operation of replacing the original ideas of Pachamama, locally-rooted in socio-natural communities, for a category of a planetary, global Mother Earth. This substitution, not always noted, is of enormous importance since it allowed to fit perfectly with the ideas of Alvaro García Linera, Bolivia’s vice president, that the only revolution possible was one that broke out in all countries at the same time, on a global scale (9). As long as that could not be achieved, it was fine to continue being an extractivist within the capitalist world, his doctrine continued.
Caution is again necessary to understand that in the confrontations about development, the notions about Nature, Pachamama, and other categories, are present regardless of whether we notice them or not, and regardless of whether they are visible or hidden by interests.
Therefore, when today’s president invokes Pachamama, we need to begin to discuss not only what is the meaning that the government is granting to that category, but how it is connected to its development plans, such as efforts to exploit more hydrocarbons or expand agribusiness.
The proliferation of slogans and hasty uses of qualifiers can be seen again in other terms such as indigenous, Indian, native, campesino, etc. Labeling put a slab on those concepts and concealed the attacks on listening and dialogue. Rigorous analysis of ideas, the effort to unravel what others were proposing, were replaced by mockery in some cases.
Anders Burman is absolutely right to expose the limitations of any discourse, criticism or ritual, whether of governments, social movements, or intellectuals, that characterizes Pachamama, achachilas, wak’as, awichas, uywiris from the start as Pachamamism (10). Something similar occurs with the simplification of conceiving Vivir Bien as exclusively indigenous, since in reality, it was nourished by dialogues and learning between indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge. One must acknowledge not only the colonial origin of the indigenous term category, but how differences have been hidden behind that term. That is, the Quechua in southern Peru, the Aymara in the highlands, or the Nasa in Colombia do not share the same knowledge and sentiments. We must not fall into a naive stance and admit that people belonging to those nations have viewpoints both in favor and against Modernity, from those who have embraced consumerism to those who resist it.
When we fall for oversimplification, we fail to recognize valuable criticisms of the rationality of Western Modernity, or opportunities to consider other ways of conceiving and organizing what surrounds us. Atawallpa Oviedo Freire warns that even some criticisms that formally come from Indianism actually replicate modern rationality, often utilitarian and positivist, and therefore are prone to defending conventional developmentalism (11).
A serious debate forces us to reflect on whether identity, autonomy, or alternatives to development are resolved, say, by promoting mining, celebrating gas wells, or transgenic seeds and crops. This is what Modernists already do, and they do it from a place of power. It is worth noting that this is not about scientific or technological blindness, since scientific evidence is what shows the enormous impacts of these activities.
In Bolivia, as in other countries, people have argued for more than a century that classical development would lead to well-being and prosperity. But if we continue to imitate conventional developmentalism, the country will be decimated. The lowlands will succumb to deforestation, turned into landscapes of monocultures and extensive cattle ranching; the Amazonian rivers will be polluted by mercury; Andean farmland will be buried under mining contamination; poverty will persist. This developmentalism, based on exporting natural resources, is incapable of solving social problems, and we have already witnessed that.
In order not to avoid repeating those same mistakes, alternatives beyond Modernity are needed. Undoubtedly, the perspective of Vivir Bien does not offer solutions to all these questions, but it is one of the expressions that allows options other than the normality of Modernity. Behind the obsession of labels that disqualify, there is a violence that nullifies heterodox alternatives but also against those who postulate them, in many cases subordinate groups, such as indigenous people and peasants. Caution is necessary, because if the disputes between labels, such as Pachamamista or others, are again repeated, we will remain trapped in a superficiality that prevents us from addressing the root of the problems.
- “Origen del Pachamamismo,” F. Encinas, Insurgent Homeland, September 24th, 2011, http://patriainsurgente.nuevaradio.org/?p=432
- The original text is reproduced in ¿A dónde nos lleva el pachamamismo?, Tábula Rasa, Bogotá, 15: 261-264, 2011.
- Batallas por la identidad, Carlos Macusaya, Nanuk, Lima, 2019.
- L. Arce Catacora, on twitter, December 24, 2020, https://twitter.com/ LuchoXBolivia/status/1342161366757609473
- Just as an example, Aymar ayllunakasan qamawipa, Los aymaras: búsqueda de la qamaña del ayllu andino, S. Yampara H., R. Choque C. and M. Torrez E, CADA, El Alto, 2001.
- See interview with David Choquehuanca, “25 postulados para entender el ‘Vivir Bien’” in La Razón, La Paz; reproduced in Rebelión, https://rebelion.org/25-postulares-para-entender-el-vivir-bien/
- “Evo Morales: ¿giro a la izquierda o giro descolonial?,” W. Mignolo, ALAI, Quito, December 25th, 2005, https://www.alainet.org/es/active/10270
- See, for example, the text originally presented in 2008 by Pedro Portugal Mollinedo, “Mistificación indigenista e inicios del gobierno del MAS” in Pukara No.140, 2018.
- For example in “Las empresas del Estado. Patrimonio colectivo del pueblo boliviano,” A. García Linera, Vice-presidency of the Plurinational State, La Paz, 2012.
- “El ch’akhi ontológico y el ‘pachamamismo’: Una crítica a la crítica,” A. Burman in Memorias de la Sexta Conferencia Internacional Indio-Tiwanaku (F. Acarapi, ed ), CIMUWI and Pacha School of Thought, El Alto, 2016.
- “Pachamamistas y pachapapistas: el camino y el caminante,” A. Oviedo Freire, ALAI, Quito, April 19th, 2016, https://www.alainet.org/es/articulo/176869
The Spanish version of this article was published in Servindi (Indigenous Information Service; Lima), in January 2021; in turn, it is based on a text originally published in the newspaper Pukara, La Paz (Bolivia) in January 2021. This version was revised by the author.
* Eduardo Gudynas is senior analyst at the Latin American Center of Social Ecology (CLAES); he can be followed on Twitter @Egudynas and his blog www.AccionyReaccion.com
** To learn more about these terms, you can view an explainer here.
Eduardo Gudynas is a researcher at the Centro Latino Americano de Ecología Social (CLAES) in Uruguay. Analyst in environmental and development issues, and defender of Nature. Visiting professor at universities in Uruguay and other countries in Latin America, the United States, and Europe. He accompanies the struggles of social organizations, from environmental groups to indigenous federations, in different countries of the continent.