“Re-encuentro con la Pachamama” in Bolivia: An Environmental Response to the Climate Crisis?

Bolivia’s government marked the Day of Mother Earth—adopted internationally in 2009 through a UN resolution, thanks to Evo Morales’ stewardship—by launching an event called “Re-encuentro con la Pachamama.” The event was called forth by Bolivia’s Vice President David Choquehuanca, former foreign minister (2006-2017) and Aymara union and campesino organizer in the 1980s, whose leadership was integral in the creation of MAS indigenous party and the adoption of precepts like “Vivir Bien” into the political agenda.

The event itself included several renowned speakers such as Bolivian philosopher Rafael Bautista, Vandana Shiva, NNimmo Bassey, UN Secretary General António Guterres, and Venezuela’s Minister of Exterior Jorge Arreaza Montserrat, among others. Venezuela’s presence, in particular, marked a noticeable reintegration of Bolivia into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). It is of important significance both as a rejection to the short-lived attempt of the right-wing rise to power, but also as a rekindled alliance with the so-called “socialists of the XXI century.”

Yet, the event was not short of controversy, particularly from critics who are wary of leftist governments in Latin America that can’t seem to shake their dependence on extractive development, which places them in direct conflict with water, land, and environmental defenders. 

For example, the Re-encuentro was an opportunity to introduce two important law proposals: one to typify the rights of nature into law and another against ecocide. It must be said that it is not the first time that these laws are brought forth. A “Ley sobre el Ecocidio” to criminalize the massive destruction of natural ecosystems, was placed on the table in Congress both in 2016 and 2017, but dismissed by Evo’s administration. The Rights of Mother Nature was signed into law but was never enacted. 

Pablo Villegas, a researcher with CEDIB (Centro de Documentación e Información de Bolivia), pointed out in a paper earlier this month that the Ombudsman Office to defend the Rights of Nature, which was to be created by law in 2010, never came to fruition. And Mother Earth, unable to speak for herself, can’t build a defense in court without proper legal representation, therefore, making the Law of Mother Nature null and ineffectual.

It is a call to the left of the Global North to avoid swooning for revolutionary speeches and government figures without asking hard questions, but most importantly, without listening to the voice of social movements that continue to grow and strengthen in the South, despite their flawed politicians.

It is not a coincidence that in many of the official speeches promulgated at the Re-encuentro, calling for an end to humancentric, capitalist/imperialist policies that are threatening Nature’s and our survival, there wasn’t a clear official stance against extractivism, nor calls for leaving fossils underground, nor criticisms against toxic developmentalism. However, those who were representing civil society at the event did voice a few warnings to the current Arce-Choquehuanca administration. 

For example, Ever Rojas, executive director of the largest and strongest campesino union in Bolivia, CSUTB (Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia), warned that they would reject any attempts from foreign companies to push for genetically modified crops and seeds. Originally, Rojas was not listed on the event’s program, but his short 5-minute speech drew cheers from the indigenous people standing at the back of the lecture room. GMO crops have been promoted by several right-wing governments, but Evo caused great controversy in 2019 for aligning with agribusiness in Santa Cruz to expand already-existing GMO soy crops. So although President Luis Arce repealed Añez decrees to expand GMO crops to corn, wheat, sugar cane, and cotton industries, Bolivians have a better institutional memory than that.

Eliana Torrico, a lawyer with the environmental organization Colectivo Árbol de Santa Cruz, warned the government needed to avoid past mistakes of persecution and criminalization of activists. “I do not come here to represent businessmen or to talk about a state that continues to support the wealth of neo-colonialist extractivist sectors…I come here on behalf of Bolivians and a sector that for decades has had no voice nor representation in the government: the environmental sector, mobilized in a constant struggle for the rights of nature.” She also added that any law without strong institutional frameworks won’t be able to be implemented and that Mother Earth would benefit most from drafting legal precautionary measures to protect her, instead of fighting for her “when it’s too late,” after environmental devastation is set and done.

Writer and philosopher, Rafael Bautista, reminded those present where the real power lies: “To the Bolivian people, receive my greetings: you took democracy back, never forget that…To [government officials], you are here to serve the people, don’t ever forget that either.”

It is also important to analyze public declarations that give us a better understanding of the views of the grassroots leftist movement and hopes for a new government. In a letter signed by multiple indigenous and campesino organizations and trade unions—including Bartolina Sisa, CSCIOB, CONAMAQ, CSMCIB, CSUTCB—, as well as Vice President Choquehuanca, they make a collective unambivalent call:

“Convinced that we must confront the climate crisis with integrated solutions that include a reduction of greenhouse gases, an energy transition, changing our patterns of consumption and production, a change in our logic of accumulation and concentration of wealth and power, a change in the logic of seeing Mother Earth’s beings as resources and commodities, instead of as brothers and sisters, our family; convinced that we must recover our ancestral harmonious relationship with Mother Earth […] We are convinced that to reunify [reencontrarse] with Pachamama requires a change in the system that implies overcoming extractivism, productivism, mercantilism, patriarchy, racism, egocentrism, individualism, neocolonialism, and anthropocentrism.”

CONTIOCAP, the National Coordinating Council of Indigenous Peoples for the Defense of Territories and Protected Areas, was even more confrontational in a letter signed by several organizations to say that the government of Evo Morales misused the label as defender of the Pachamama, while pushing for oil, mining, hydroelectric extractive policies, and agro-fuel and beef industries:

“We make an urgent call to all Bolivians, the people, social and civil organizations of Bolivia, regional and universal human rights institutions, do not encourage any longer the greenwashing of governments with an indigenista and pachamamista declamations, while the government in Bolivia and their economic allies, continue to commit ecocide, ethnocide, persecuting and prosecuting indigenous and campesinos defenders of human rights.”

So when Luis Arce announced the discovery of a new massive natural gas well, calling it “a gift from Pachamama for all Bolivians,” through a new alliance between Repsol of Bolivia, British Shell, and Pan American Energy company of Argentina, one can see the fear of many Bolivians that their renewed democracy—one that could be truly representative of a leftist, campesino, indigenous, labor, feminist, environmentalist, anticorporate movement—could be quickly slipping through their fingers.

It is a call to the left of the Global North to avoid swooning for revolutionary speeches and government figures without asking hard questions, but most importantly, without listening to the voice of social movements that continue to grow and strengthen in the South, despite their flawed politicians.