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Good Living for Whom? Bolivia’s
Climate Justice Movement and the
Limitations of Indigenous Cosmovisions
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Movement and the Limitations of Indigenous Cosmovisions, Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic
Studies, 8:2, 159-178, DOI: 10.1080/17442222.2013.805618
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Vol. 8, No. 2, 159–178, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17442222.2013.805618
Good Living for Whom? Bolivia’s
Climate Justice Movement and the
Limitations of Indigenous
Climate change has become an important issue in Bolivia as communities across the
lowlands and highlands are beginning to feel the direct effects of the ecological crisis.
While Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia, has surfaced as an international
superstar for the climate justice movement, behind his public appearances at UN
climate conferences are indigenous organizations and social movements who work
daily to map out strategies for adaptation and mitigation. This paper analyzes how
indigenous climate justice activists in Bolivia mobilize a particular vision of Andean
indigeneity, frozen in time and space, to make specific political claims about their rights
in relationship to the environment and propose alternative economic structures. Many
activists argue that the ecological problems of this century are a direct result of
advanced capitalism, which has turned lands, forests, and natural surrounds into
commodities. However, their timeless vision of indigeneity, particularly using the
imagined ayllu or pre-Columbian land-holding patterns as solutions to climate crisis,
poses dangers for the millions of Bolivians who live and work in urban centers.
Keywords: Climate change; resources; indigeneity; ayllus; social movements
Bolivia, like other countries in the Global South and North, is beginning to feel the
direct effects of climate change. In the Bolivian Amazon, regions have suffered from
terrible floods, while the desert lowlands have witnessed severe droughts. In the
highlands, the two main glaciers that provide drinking water are shrinking. The
Chacaltaya glacier disappeared completely this year and others have lost 40–50% of
their capacity. These melting glaciers are affecting availability of water in places like
La Paz and El Alto (Hoffman, 2005, 2008; Ramirez, 2011). It is for these reasons that
Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, has proposed the sweeping policy reform agenda of
climate debt – which has to do with the debt owed to the Global South by indus-
trialized countries because of their primary responsibility for greenhouse gas emis-
sions. 1 Climate debt is just one of the many creative proposals emerging from poorer
countries and, more specifically, from indigenous peoples, who are scaling up their
demands from a national to an international level. While most observers and
© 2013 Taylor & Francis160
commentators have focused on Morales as the central figure, a range of social
movements and indigenous groups has influenced his decision-making and amplified
This paper will explore La Plataforma Boliviana Frente al Cambio Climático, the
Bolivian Platform for Climate Change, or one sector of Bolivian civil society’s
response to climate change involving national and international NGOs and social
movements. To set the necessary historic context, the article begins by describing the
creative strategies employed by movements fighting to reclaim resources from the
1990s to the early 2000s. These movements were focused on mobilizing indigeneity,
particularly Andean indigenous visions, as justification for resource reclamation and
resource sovereignty. The concerns and politics regarding extractivism morphed over
time into a series of critical questions regarding the linkage between movement-
building, the degradation of the environment, and climate change. Secondly, this
paper analyzes how climate justice activists mobilize a particular vision of Andean
indigeneity, frozen in time and space, to make specific political claims about their
rights in relationship to the environment. In turn, these movement activists have
proposed alternatives to the capitalist model of development, which they see as
causing the ecological problems of our century.
Importantly, despite anthropology’s best effort to complicate analyses of indigene-
ity, many Aymara activists choose to characterize their struggles in earlier representa-
tions of native peoples and their communities as unchanged. This is especially the
case as indigenous groups use parts of their mythic history and cultural forms to
construct political and ecological ideals of the nexus between indigeneity and envir-
onmental reform. In this way, these symbols have evolved from a powerful ‘justifica-
tion’ for change to the reform ‘solution.’ In this paper, I question the migration of
these discourses into international arenas as solutions to contemporary, complicated,
and interconnected problems. How can such solutions provide the necessary frame-
work for reversing the damage wrought by climate change? Can pre-Columbian
models of collective land-holding and subsistence agriculture provide the necessary
infrastructure to deal with climate related issues?
The data for this article has come from extensive ethnographic fieldwork in La
Paz and El Alto during the months of June, July, and August 2009–2012 2 : observing
spaces of organizing, participating in climate-related meetings in Bolivia and inter-
national spaces of climate negotiation. Further, I interviewed key members of the
climate justice movement in La Paz, Bolivia. I turn now toward the history of
resource-based struggles of the climate justice movement in La Paz and the creative
strategies of resistance in the 1990s and 2000s in order to illustrate the transforma-
tion of activism from ‘reclaiming the commons’ and ‘questions of national sover-
eignty’ to new concerns regarding environmental restitution and climate change.
From Resource Recovery to Environmental Retribution
In the 1990s and 2000s, social movements creatively mobilized ideas about natural
resources as intimately tied to the public good. For instance, they framed water as
part of the ‘commons’ (Assies, 2003; Perreault, 2008) and gas as essential to nationalBolivia’s Climate Justice Movement
sovereignty (Perreault, 2006; Spronk & Webber, 2007). Both of these examples
illustrate popular resistance against neoliberal efforts to privatize public resources.
Bolivia, along with other nations in the Global South, accepted privatization as
conditions of IMF and World Bank loans in the 1980s to ‘structurally adjust’ their
ailing economies. Part of the international development bank prescription was to
liberalize trade (particularly international trade), privatize state-owned industries and
services, and introduce market-oriented management practices to reduce the public
sector (Kohl, 2002; Perreault, 2005; Kohl & Farthing, 2006). Acting within this
neoliberal framework, politicians sought to selectively roll back specific state func-
tions, particularly the provision of social services and regulatory restraints on corpo-
rate practices (Perreault, 2005) The first round of neoliberal reforms took effect in the
mid-1980s under President Victor Paz Estenssoro and the second round in the 1990s,
which included the privatization of transportation, electricity, water resources. A
package of decentralization policies was also enacted. Neoliberal reforms had a
particularly complicated relationship to the processes of environmental transforma-
tion, environmental governance, and environmental movement development
(McCarthy & Prudham, 2004; Perreault, 2005). Geographer Karen Bakker (2002),
for example, has described the ways in which resource privatization rerouted govern-
ance away from states and municipalities and toward external, sometimes transna-
In the case of Bolivia, resource-based struggles sparked conversations that circu-
lated across issues of indigenous citizenship, national sovereignty, and the rewriting of
new legal frameworks like the constitution. Bolivians have referred to these move-
ments as part of a broader ‘proceso de cambio’ or processes of change (Postero, 2010;
Canessa, 2012). It was within this context that a wealth of academic scholarship
emerged after the Water Wars of 2000, exploring the ways in which the privatization
of water sparked new forms of organizing across identitarian, class, and regional
distinctions. As Albro (2005) and Olivera and Lewis (2004) noted, the Water Wars
mobilized a discourse centering on the defense of indigenous ‘traditional use and
distribution of water’ as collective cultural right. Many of the protestors were urban
mestizos (not self-identified indigenous); yet usos y costumbres became a powerful
discourse which cut across race, class, and social sectors in order to negotiate for
‘collective’ water rights. Geographer Tom Perreault (2008) notes that this discourse of
water governance, based on traditional customary practices of water management,
was mobilized and scaled up to the level of regional water concerns through complex
and dense associational networks of NGOs. These water movement activists mobi-
lized essentialized discourses of usos y costumbres, emphasizing indigenous uses of
water in order to create a strategic platform for local and regional struggles to reclaim
water from private hands.
Three and a half years after the Water Wars, when President Gonzalo Sánchez de
Lozada announced his plan to export Bolivia’s gas through Chile by pipeline, a
number of groups, largely located in the Aymara city of El Alto, developed a
campaign to resist the dispossession and alienation associated with the extraction
and exportation of this resource – known as the Gas Wars of 2003. The Gas Wars
amplified the ways in which local movements could help frame a national political162
agenda to recover control over a resource that was seen as the country’s national
patrimony (Perreault, 2006). Demands for nationalization were fused with other
demands for indigenous rights, greater indigenous representation, and the rewrit-
ing of the constitution (Gustafson & Fabricant, 2011). This organizing around
resource reclamation, recovery, and nationalization propelled ex-coca grower and
union leader Evo Morales to the Presidency of Bolivia. Morales was elected on a
platform to a) undo the legacy of neoliberal reforms, b) incorporate the indigen-
ous majority into the country, and c) implement the October Agenda, which
included nationalization of resources, constitutional convention, and an end to
impunity. What the election of Morales represented was a joining of a local
movement politics to a national change agenda and in turn the electoral politics
of shaping and advancing a legislative agenda to turn back neoliberal reforms.
This was a rapid ascent of both the power and ambition of Bolivian social
movements. Some part of the promise was that the movement had captured the
state and in turn had an opportunity to create a ‘social movement state’
(Gustafson, 2009). What remained unclear was the degree to which movement
leaders could negotiate this shifting terrain of politics and change.
As part of his broader platform to undo the legacy of neoliberalism, Morales
promised to direct resource wealth from the affluent to the poor to generate economic
development; but, as scholars have noted (Kohl & Farthing, 2012; Postero, 2013),
structural constraints of extractive industries in combination with the limitations of
electoral legislative processes have produced daunting obstacles to the achievement of
these goals. Kohl and Farthing (2012) focus on the clash between social movement
ideals of resource reclamation and realities of long-term extractive dependent econo-
mies. Postero (2013) has honed in on Morales’ self representation as an international
‘savior of Mother Earth’ and the discrepancies between ‘discourse and deed’ as he
continues the nation’s reliance on an extractive economy. Recently, these conflicts
have exploded around El Parque Nacional y Territorio Indígena Isiboro-Secure – the
Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, popularly referred to as the
TIPNIS case (Paz, Forthcoming; Camacho, 2012). Morales signed a contract with a
Brazilian development agency to run a massive highway through indigenous lands
and territories in lowland Bolivia. Despite Morales’ ‘social movement state’
(Gustafson, 2009) and performances of allegiance with distinct indigenous commu-
nities, he has not only moved forward with proposals to construct the highway, but
also undermined lowland indigenous organizations by publicly outing them as ‘con-
nected to US imperialistic endeavors’ and silencing opposition to the highway. As
McNeish (2013) argues in this volume, these new conflicts have fractured and
demobilized many movements in contemporary Bolivia. The broad-based umbrella
organizations of highland and lowland indigenous social movements – which made
the election of Morales possible and served as an engine for the broader procesos de
cambio – have largely been dissolved.
In the 1990s and 2000s, movements focused on issues of resource recovery and
successfully scaled up demands to regional and national levels. Their political use of
indigenous rural usos and costumbres of water, as in the case of the Water Wars, had
a concrete agenda: to reclaim ‘the commons’ from private hands. In the case of gas,Bolivia’s Climate Justice Movement
issues of resource sovereignty or national development were also very concretely tied
to indigenous incorporation into the nation-state and the rewriting of the constitu-
tion. Toward the end of this millennium, many of these same movements have begun
to focus their attention on climate change, particularly as rural indigenous commu-
nities have begun to feel the direct effects of such ecological shift. Postero (2013)
notes that the Amazonian regions have suffered terrible floods over the last few years:
these floods have uprooted whole communities while destroying productive engines
and possibilities for self-sufficiency. Increasingly, indigenous peoples in the highlands
describe more extreme weather patterns, including warmer winters and much colder
summers. Among the El Alto residents, the glacier retreat was quite visible from their
homes. Many spoke about the physical signs of global warming. However, some
colleagues in El Alto told me that they experienced more water in their pozos or wells
and were uncertain as to how this retreat would affect long-term water availability.
With this threat of global warming and radical environmental shifts, which could
potentially undermine livelihoods, communal life, and social organizations, indigene-
ity has surfaced once again as an alternative frame of explanation and change. This
time, however, indigeneity is not a platform for how to reclaim resources from
transnational corporations, but rather a means to present distinct ‘cosmovisions’
drawn from indigenous cultural history and practices as an alternative to capitalist
forms of production and distribution.
One important part of this alternative platform is the proposal by some activists to
return to the ayllu – Pre-columbian land-holding patterns based upon kin relations
and collective work patterns (Murra, 1975, 1978; Zuidema, 1977). The ayllu has
circulated from localized and ethno-territorial projects, to national policy for climate
change and even to international climate change negotiations. The central tenet of the
politics of the ayllu is that indigenous peoples need to adopt a model of development
built upon Andean communal and productive strategies (Lucero, 2011). Ayllus were
the basic units of the archipelago-like communities that stretched over multiple
ecological zones and existed well before Europeans arrived in the Americas over
five hundred years ago (Murra, 1975, 1978). Many ayllus and markas (a larger
communal unit made up of several ayllus) maintained their organizational form
well into the Republican period. Following the Social Revolution of 1952, however,
ayllu governance faced its biggest threat as the state imposed a uniform sindicato
(union) model throughout the rural areas (Lucero, 2011; Rivera Cusicanqui, 1987). In
part, this transformation of ayllu to sindicato was about incorporating indigenous
peoples into the state apparatus, or what Albó refers to as rebaptizing Indians as
peasants (Albó, 1991). Despite these state-based efforts of control, there have been
several cases in which rural communities in the altiplano continued to act as
Ayllu as Political Discourse of Culture and Land Reclamation
The rebirth of the ‘ayllu’ as a political discourse, with the capacity to scale up as a
global symbol for indigenous rights, occurred in the 1980s with NGO support. 3 The
activist Aymara intellectuals of the Taller de Historia Oral Andina, or Andean Oral164
History Workshop, also known as THOA, have carried out much of the intellectual
work of reconstituting the ayllu. The THOA movement, under the leadership of
Aymara sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (1987), calls for the recognition of the
original colonial territorial bounds in order to reclaim rights to land, community, and
to the reestablishment of traditional Andean forms of governance.
Anthropologists have written about the ways in which THOA activists use the ayllu
discursively as an alternative counterpublic and oppositional consciousness (see
Weismantel, 2006; Orta, 2001; Stephenson, 2000). While THOA does the intellectual
work, CONAMAQ (National Council for Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu) was
founded in 1997 to do some of the political work of reclaiming and reconstituting
the traditional ayllu and marka structure in Western Bolivia (Perreault & Green,
2013). This work has involved eighteen indigenous/originario organizations from the
Altiplano and Andean valleys (from the departments of La Paz, Ororuo, Potosi,
Cochabamba, Chuquisaca and Tarija). CONAMAQ defines its mission as an ethno-
territorial project, with an emphasis on reconstituting an imagined cultural space of
the indigenous past (Perreault & Green, 2013). They conceptualize the ayllu as an
egalitarian and Pre-columbian kin-based and collectively owned territorial space: the
key to their political work is claiming autonomy and self-sufficiency.
CONAMAQ’s Vision for Alternative Forms of Development
Today, CONAMAQ is a key member of the Bolivian Platform for Climate Change,
which was founded in 2009 in order to develop Bolivian legislation on climate change
and promote concrete proposals for international action. The Platform is comprised
of international NGOs such as OXFAM International (a British NGO focused on
issues of poverty and inequality), Christian Aid (a British relief and development
agency), and CAFOD (a British development agency focused on issues of social
justice), along with rural social movements such as CONAMAQ (the National
Council of Ayllus and Markas of the Qullasuyu), The Bartolina Sisa Movement (a
rural peasant movement which focuses on women’s struggles), CIDOB (the
Confederation of Lowland Indigenous Peoples, which focuses on indigenous rights
in the lowlands), CSUTCB (the Unified Syndical Confederation of Rural Workers,
which is the largest peasant union in Bolivia), and CPESC (the Confederation of
Ethnic Communities or Towns of Santa Cruz) (Oxfam, 2009).
Within the climate justice arena, CONAMAQ has mobilized the ayllu as an
alternative to expansive and destructive capitalism. In large part, its members see
extractive industries and Bolivia’s dependency upon non-renewable natural resources
as not only harming the environment, but also contributing to climate change. As
well, the movement has mobilized a universal indigenous discourse of ‘Buen Vivir’ or
‘living well.’ 4 (Interview, June 10, 2010). This discourse and practice emerges out of
idealized Andean constructs of gender complementarity: harmony and equilibrium
between men and women, egalitarian ayllu communities, and protection of natural
environment. This cosmovision and the discourse of historic meaning and contem-
porary aspiration of the ayllu has a specific meaning in relationship to living well. It
means living in harmony and equilibrium with others and the larger environment.Bolivia’s Climate Justice Movement
This ‘imagined ayllu’ (Weismantel, 2006) as space of egalitarianism, gender comple-
mentarity and small-scale, sustainable forms of production set a course for rebuilding
social, economic, and environmental relationships in an era of crisis.
As Political Scientist Antonio Lucero (2011) notes, these ideas regarding ‘ayllu’ as
an alternative to capitalism did not occur in a vacuum, but rather are part of
complicated ‘development encounters’ between indigenous peoples and their inter-
national supporters. As John Gledhill (2005) notes, international development pro-
jects in the 1980s and 1990s emphasized ‘culture heritage and revitalization’ as critical
to their work. 5 In many ways, this has to do with the convergence of neoliberal
economic reforms – which opened Bolivia’s borders to international development
solutions to problems of poverty and inequality – and multicultural reforms which
simultaneously created a space for indigenous recognition and political influence. It is
within this context, for example, that Oxfam International directly supported groups
such as THOA’s work on the ayllu because they conceptualized the ayllu as an
ancient form of community organization that served as a device of empowerment
to articulate disparate claims and defend rights (Andolina, 1999, 2001; Albro, 2005).
This is something that Andolina, Laurie, and Radcliffe (2009) discuss as the institu-
tionalization of indigenous agendas within official development policies.
International development organizations, while once addressing issues of land,
water, and gender, have recently focused much of their work on climate-related
issues and disaster relief (Oxfam, 2009). They have also mobilized strategies of
‘culture revitalization’ such as investing in the ayllu in order to deal with these
problems. They rely upon cultural frames and models to promote new forms of
adaptation and risk management against disaster that are culturally acceptable to
indigenous groups and therefore more likely to be utilized. The expectation is that
these works of culture revitalization and alternate practices will reduce the chance of
catastrophes and enable local indigenous communities to provide emergency relief
throughout Bolivia alongside the government.
The marrying of local belief or custom with NGO resources and technique was
expected to maximize the impact of specific environmental initiatives. As Lucero
(2011) notes, international development organizations like Oxfam International help
root politics in domestic soil and scale downwards. However, he also astutely points
out that they serve ‘authenticating’ roles, serving as part of the complex processes of
legitimizing certain identities while delegitimizing others. This is particularly impor-
tant when it comes to issues of climate change: Oxfam International has several
projects in lowland Beni and in the rural highland areas. 6 However, as Roger Quiroga,
the Oxfam Director of Disaster Relief, told me, all of their projects fit within this
ethno-territorial model of development (Interview, June 10, 2010). Along with a team
of archaeologists, Oxfam has launched a project in the Beni region where it has
rescued a Pre-Columbian system for dealing with droughts called camellones: raised
earth platforms which protect crops during moments of flooding. 7 In the highlands,
the organization has supported ayllu projects as ethno-territorial projects and as
alternatives to large-scale agricultural dependency and to promote food sovereignty.
He described these projects as successful because ‘these indigenous communities have
deep connections to land, territory, and space’ (Interview, June 10, 2010). However,166
he contrasts rural indigenous communities with the urban, arguing that it is very hard
to address climate change in ‘El Alto because they do not have deep connections to
territory [...] they are a hotel city, in constant motion’ (Interview, June 10, 2010).
When it comes to urban or periurban areas, this ethno-territorial model can leave
many indigenous peoples out of the conversation, legitimizing certain indigenous
identities, while deligitimizing others.
Ayllu and The Good Life in National Projects on Climate Change
Rafael Quispe, the leader of the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of the
Qullasuyu, has been involved in the Platform for Climate Change in Bolivia since
its inception in 2009. It was a cold day in July 2010 when I met him in the
CONAMAQ headquarters located close to the Plaza España in Sopocachi, La Paz
to discuss the Platform’s national proposals for addressing climate change. A middle-
aged man in his early 40s, Quispe was dressed in an Aymara Fedora Hat and a
colorful woven shawl. Like other members of CONAMAQ, he wore these indexical
markers of indigeneity with obvious pride. When I asked him about the proposals
coming out of indigenous organizations, he launched into a discussion about how
capitalism was destroying the planet.
Capitalism is the problem. It is extractive, consumerist, and developmentalist. In this
sense capitalism and socialism are the same. We have to speak of a new model of
development, an alternative to this system. Because both capitalism and socialism will
go on hurting the planet. The development model of the indigenous peoples is the ayllu
or the communitarian model. This is the solution.
His response seemed nearly identical to an interview conducted by Bill Weinberg, a
US journalist reporting for NACLA (Report on the Americas), several years earlier in
2009 for a September/October 2010 issue. When asked by Bill Weinberg about an
alternative to resource extractivism, Quispe launched into a verbatim response:
Capitalism or socialism is extractive, consumerist, developmentalist. In this sense, they
are the same. We have to speak of a new model of development, an alternative to the
system. Because both capitalism and socialism will go on changing the planet. And the
development model of the indigenous peoples is the ayllu, the communitarian develop-
ment model. We original peoples for thousands and thousands and thousands of years
have been living in equilibrium and respect for our Pachamama (Mother Earth), from
whom we emerged.
The only difference was that Quispe added for Weinberg: ‘We original peoples for
thousands and thousands of years have been living in equilibrium and respect for our
Pachamama.’ One could analyze this performance of indigeneity as the ways in which
people ‘package identity’ for North American audiences. Anthropologists and jour-
nalists, often representing these struggles to a broader community, have access to
desperately needed funding. Therefore, these interactions become sites of perfor-
mance for indigenous leaders who hope to wield some power and monetary gain.
Possibly, Quispe felt as though this simplistic and essentialized vision of ‘unchanging
indigenous peoples who live in harmony with natural surrounds’ would be a direct
ticket to international recognition and support.Bolivia’s Climate Justice Movement
This performance of indigenous peoples as protectors of natural environments,
living in equilibrium with Mother Earth and relying upon an egalitarian democratic
system or structure of ‘ayllu’ democracy resembles early anthropological representa-
tions of native peoples and their closed corporate communities. This body of litera-
ture in the 1970s and 1980s focused on the ayllu as untouched by colonialism and
expanding capitalism, and ‘lo Andino’ or Andeanism reflected a long ethnological
area studies literature that imagined and understood native peoples in relation to
ecologies, often in deterministic and essentialized ways (Isbell, 1977; Brush, 1977;
Bastien, 1978; Allen, 1988). Orin Starn’s (1992) attack upon ethnographers for
‘missing the revolution,’ which he characterized as failure to understand how broader
global and political economic shifts affect native or South American peoples, very
much influenced a new wave of anthropology. However, despite his attempt to
rewrite this problematic history, what most appeals to some Aymaras like Quispe is
this very idea of ‘lo Andino:’ native peoples as timeless, grounded in rural realities,
and inherently connected to local ecologies.
In sharp contrast to the increasingly dynamic academic approaches to indigeneity,
‘the noble savage’ or ‘eco-Indian’ has traveled, been transformed, and deployed by
indigenous peoples for political purposes (Dove, 2006). As Tom Perreault and
Barbara Green (2013) argue, groups like CONAMAQ in the West and autonomous
movements in the East mobilize essentialized understandings of indigenous identity
in order to legitimate historical claims to territory and political rights. They are
primarily interested in the ways in which indigeneity has come to inform conceptua-
lizations of territory and of nation. Mobilizing indigeneity to claim rights to space,
territory, or natural resource wealth has been important in concrete political projects
like CONAMAQ or Camba Nation; but what happens when the same strategies travel
into the realm of climate change?
In this instance, romantic ideals of indigeneity serve as grounds for restitution for
historic environmental injustice wrought by long histories of resource extraction. As
Kohl and Farthing (2012) argue this dependency upon extraction has been referred to
as the ‘resource curse,’ which they note has been a simplified way of looking at
resource dependency. Nevertheless, from silver and gold mining in early history to
much more recent natural gas extraction, the abundance of natural resource wealth
has not benefitted Bolivia. Alongside such forms of extraction is environmental
degradation. Linda Farthing (2009) has written about this kind of environmental
injustice. She states:
You don’t have to look far to see the destruction. Even the most casual visitor to La Paz
is likely to cross the turbid, foaming waters of the Choqueyapu River, which cuts across
the city, some of it underground. From its head-waters 21 miles to the north in the
altiplano, the crystalline glacial flow tumbles into the magnificent basin that cradles La
Paz and is transformed into an open sewer. Heavy metals from the Milluni mine some
20 miles northeast of La Paz, industrial waste from neighboring El Alto’s textile and
food industries, and household garbage mix into a poisonous stew that races downhill to
the community of Río Abajo. (Farthing, 2009, p. 26)
This kind of environmental degradation has disrupted ways of life for many indigen-
ous communities. Some communities have been unable to use the waterways for168
agriculture and been displaced as a result of such ‘a toxic and poisonous stew.’ As
indigenous peoples search for answers, then, it seems reasonable that representatives
like Quispe would blame both capitalism and socialism as being equally destructive in
terms of ‘harming the environment.’ While both capitalism and socialism have track
records in terms of environmental degradation, Pre-columbian ways of life are
imagined as purer and more ecologically sustainable.
What is somehow left out of this conversation is the ways in which indigenous
peoples have contributed to the development of capitalism and benefited from
extractive industries that have wreaked havoc upon the natural environment.
Some scholars of the Amazon have pointed out the ways in which indigenous
communities have been involved in extractive industries such as logging instead of
conserving ‘their forests’, as happened with the Kayapo (Turner, 1995). Further,
anthropologist Juliet Erazo (2013) discusses the REDD+ projects 8 (reducing emis-
sions from deforestation by purchasing carbon credits) and the ways in which
particular indigenous communities see the benefit in commoditizing nature for
much-needed infrastructure development. As problematic as REDD+ projects are
when it comes to commoditizing nature, these indigenous groups do not necessa-
rily place themselves inside the noble savage slot, but rather see the advantages of
these market-based mechanisms. Despite Jose Antonio Zamora Gutierrez’
(Bolivia’s current Minister on the Environment and Water) proclamations that
these mechanisms make indigenous peoples believe that they will provide enough
resources to solve poverty in peasant communities, 9 Erazo (2012) illustrates how
some natives see REDD+ programs as improving the well-being of their commu-
nities and leading directly to much-needed development. Much contemporary
anthropological work on indigeneity captures the ways native communities take
part in these kinds of market-based mechanisms (McNeish, 2013), yet indigenous
movements like CONAMAQ fail to capture this dynamism in their political work
and discourse. Increasingly more problematic and dangerous has been the migra-
tion of these discourses from national agendas to international arenas as solution
to the climate crisis.
Scaling up The Ayllu and ‘The Good Life’ in International Climate Arena
According to Platform members, they have influenced Morales’ stance on the need
for radical climate change policy (Interview, June 12, 2010). Bolivian climate nego-
tiators, Morales in particular, were outspoken in the 2009 UN Climate Change
Conference in Copenhagen, the 2010 Conference in Cancun, Mexico, and more
recently the 2012 event in Doha, arguing that ‘the climate is not for sale.’ Morales
has also advanced an agenda that demands that the Global North lead with mitigation
actions and concrete financial and technological transfers to the Global South.
Despite such efforts, there has been a stalemate at the international level because
industrialized nations continue to resist assuming responsibility for their share of
greenhouse emissions. Obviously, there is much at stake in reaching a binding inter-
national agreement. The forces at work to stall or halt this initiative were in part
revealed by The International Forum on Globalization through its Report ‘Faces behindBolivia’s Climate Justice Movement
a Global Crisis’ (Hellberg, et al. 2012). They ‘outed’ US carbon billionaires investing
enormous sums of money to halt climate change policy solutions. While Bolivia has
taken a radical stance in international climate change negotiations by, for example,
proposing alterations to our global political economic system, it holds very little power
to enact such solutions when opposed by billion dollar fossil fuel giants like the Koch
Brothers (who since 1998 have spent $12.6 million on campaign contributions to both
houses of congress to lobby against climate change, and $6 million in dirty energy
money to representatives in congress since 1999). US intransigence largely accounts for
the international impasse at UN climate conventions. Doha is but the most recent
example of failed attempts to solidify binding agreements on climate change that
accords with scientific recommendations (see Fabricant & Hicks, 2013).
It is within this context, then, that the World’s People Conference on Climate
Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was convened in Tiquipaya, Bolivia in April
of 2009. In large part, this event was intended to signify the civil society’s response to
this international stalemate. Morales decided that if voices from the Global South
were not recognized at the UN meetings, then, Bolivia would simply take interna-
tional matters into its own hands. Over a three day period, seventeen working groups
comprised of activists, labor organizers and indigenous peoples met to discuss issues
of climate change ranging from climate debt to the dangers of carbon trading.
Importantly, CONAMAQ surfaced critical concerns regarding the contradictions
between the expansion of an extractive model of development and proposals for
climate justice. Their strong opposition to the government’s climate policies resulted
in their expulsion from the conference. As a result, they set up a table outside the
conference, called Mesa 18. In turn, they demanded the expulsion of all extractive
industries from Bolivia (Weinberg, 2010). They also encouraged the government to
adopt a new development model based upon the ayllus and local self-sufficiency
(Weinberg, 2010). More specifically, the ayllu model’s approach to development
(including collective land holding, equitable distribution of resources, rotational
leadership, and accountability) was proposed at the conference as an alternative to
destructive and expansive capitalism, more concretely in response to extractive
industries. Their final resolution was not officially adopted at the conference.
However, key ideas regarding this ayllu development model were presented at the
conference and have come to influence climate organizing in Bolivia. Critically, this
was a signal moment in which the allyu had moved into the discourse of international
climate change bodies.
The Cochabamba meetings concluded with the writing and passing of the People’s
Agreement, which was another instance of allyu and Buen Vivir being infused into
international discourse. One important objective of this document was to pass
proposals for new commitments to the Kyoto Protocol and to present these proposals
at subsequent UN meetings. In this document, Buen Vivir is posed as an alternative
to the continuing degradation of the environment when the authors note, ‘we must
recognize Mother Earth as a source of life and forge a new system based upon the
principles of: harmony and balance among all and with all things; complementarity,
solidarity, and equality; collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic neces-
sities of all; people in harmony with nature; recognition of human beings for what170
they are, not what they own; elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and
interventionism; peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth’ (People’s
Agreement of Cochabamba, 2010).
More recently, however, Buen Vivir has scaled up, not only to inform national
development policy, but also international and transnational climate negotiations.
Eduardo Gudynas (2011) argues that the early formulations of the Buen Vivir
emerged in reaction to classical development strategies, either due to its negative
social or environmental impacts, or the debatable economic effects. Geographer Sarah
Radcliffe (2011) astutely points out the limitations of this model in Ecuador as
indigenous worldviews have become institutionalized by the state, warning of the
dangers of imagining this as a post-development, post-neoliberal moment. But what
happens when such discourses migrate across national borders?
According to the documents that emerged from this conference, the objective is
not to return to a pre-industrial era, but rather to use parts of pre-history to re-
establish the links between humans and nature that have been ruptured by
extractive industries. In a theoretical sense, this proposal inverts what Marxist
geographer David Harvey (2006) describes as the web of capitalism. Harvey
emphasizes the diverse material processes (physical, ecological and social) that
must be appropriated, used, bent, and reshaped to the purposes and paths of
capital accumulation. His idea of the material ‘embedding’ of social processes in
the web of life has to do with the capacity of the ‘accumulation’ mode of
production to literally transform everything into commodities (Harvey, 2006).
The Platform for Climate Change proposes an alternate web that inverts these
dynamics: new relationships between humans and nature, and new responsibilities
of the state, which include protection of air, water, soil, biodiversity, forests, etc.
The two primary ideas, that are proposed as solutions to the climate crisis are: (a)
return to the ayllu model of development, coming out of a highland Andean
understanding of territory, kin relations and land ownership, and (b) the uni-
versalizing of Buen Vivir as a broad-based indigenous construct for living differ-
ently, re-embedding the economic, social, and cultural into a system which lives
in harmony with Mother Earth.
A bourgeoning literature in geography has unpacked the conventional belief that
spatial scales are a given. They suggest that social actors constrain, create, and shift
scales, and actors can change power and authority by working across distinct spatial
scales (Swyngedouw, 1997a, 1997b; Swyngedow & Heynen, 2003; McCarthy, 2005).
They can alter access to resources, decision-making processes, and even power
relations, particularly with respect to resources. However, globalized discourses of
ayllu and good life, when they become detached from concrete political projects, pose
dangers as they migrate into international arenas. In their very migration, such
constructs loose its territoriality and materiality: for example, what are the multiple
variables of economic inequality, access to resources, and climate change that might
be interacting to cause increasing vulnerability in both urban and rural communities?
How will the ayllu create concrete solutions (re: plans for adaptation and mitigation)
in urban and peri-urban spaces of Bolivia? In the following section, I turn toward one
critical example of climate change/climate crisis in urban El Alto, which illustrates theBolivia’s Climate Justice Movement
limitations of this primarily rural and indigenous vision of the ayllu as solution to
climate change. This booming migrant city is an important example of the multiple
and intersecting variables – related to economy, urban inequality, and ecological
shifts – left unaccounted for in Platform documentation. Free floating ayllu discourses
or a ‘return to our roots ideology’ does not incorporate the millions of people living
and working in informal economies in El Alto, nor does it provide material and
concrete solutions to deal with water scarcity.
Climate Change and Water Scarcity in Urban, El Alto
Migration to the city of El Alto exploded in the 1980s, in the era of neoliberalism. The
city expanded from approximately 11,000 in the 1950s to a city of 1,184,942 in 2010.
After the Social Revolution of 1952, the government and foreign aid organizations
directed assistance to Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, where a new group of agricultural
exporters began to emerge on the land that had been unaffected by the land reform. A
series of military dictatorships in the 1970s exacerbated this inequality in the East as
they gifted large extensions of land to friends as political patronage. Aymara peasants
never received the credit, technical assistance, price support that enabled lowland
commercial agriculturalists to develop and prosper (Gill, 2000; Arbona, & Kohl,
2003). Moreover, the fragmentation of landholdings through inheritance reduced
the average size of fields and made subsistence agriculture more difficult. Many set
their sights on the city of La Paz and migrated to the area known as La Ceja, the
eyebrow of El Alto.
Sketching the complicated urban terrain and the new water problems associated
with climate change must begin with the haphazard and uneven development of the
city. This is the economic element that seems to have been left out of climate change
conversations based upon Platform and rural visions. The rapid migration led to an
intensified need for services, resources, employment and basic infrastructure during a
period of neoliberal reforms that took aim at the public sector and radically reconfi-
gured the economy toward private entities (Kohl, 2002; Kohl & Farthing, 2006;
Arbona, 2007). It is no coincidence, then, that migrants had to construct and build
their own water infrastructure, independent of municipal or state-based direction,
leading to leaky and faulty pipeline construction.
Simultaneously, self-management was further codified by the privatization of El
Alto’s municipal water supply in the 1990s. This played on a philosophy of ‘green
neoliberalism’ where privatization was explicitly sold by international financial bodies
as a means of overcoming limited resources and local expertise, pricing water appro-
priately to promote conservation and benefiting both multinatinonal corporations
and poor consumers (Laurie & Crespo, 2007; Spronk & Crespo, 2008). Aguas del
Illimani (a consortium led by French company Suez) capitalized on this self-organi-
zation of Alteños (Lazar, 2008; Zibechi, 2010) by relying upon their labor once again
to build infrastructure. Since ‘profit’ was the bottom line for private water companies,
Aguas del Illimani relied upon cheaper materials and shallow tubing, and required
neighborhoods to commit labor each month to building and maintaining the system.
All of this created increased susceptibility to leakage and contamination. In some172
areas, residents built their own clandestine networks and pipelines, while in other
areas, they turned to ground water for meeting basic needs (Revilla, 2011).
Aguas del Illimani’s concession was unsuccessful. After several years of increased
fees for initial connection and monthly service, and failure on the part of the
company to extend service to 200,000 residents, part of their initial commitment,
the Federación de Juntas Vecinales de El Alto, Federation of Neighborhood Councils
or FEJUVE (an organizational umbrella which brought distinct community organiza-
tions together) was instrumental in mobilizing residents to resist privatization
(Spronk, 2007; Finnegan, 2002).
These problems of infrastructure reaching communities have not gone away, but
rather, have been exacerbated by increased population pressures as more and more
rural Aymara migrate to urban El Alto. Compounding this problem of population
pressure is the issue of global warming and melting glaciers. Communities across the
altiplano get much of their water from precipitation during the rainy season, but
during the dry season, glaciers play a critical role in buffering water supply. Scientists
from La Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento, The Public Social Water and
Sanitation Company, EPSAS (the state based water company that replaced Aguas del
Illimani), reported that reservoir volumes were 30% below average in 2009, and
concern has been rising that rationing water will become necessary in the near future.
Although the Bolivian Altiplano is not as arid as some regions of the globe, it is a
large region that will face water scarcity due to the lack of technical expertise and
resources for large-scale infrastructure development to address this problem. Each
solution (building new dams, pumping groundwater) is likely to exacerbate declining
environmental quality. While there remains considerable scientific uncertainty about
the effects of glacial melt on the regional hydrological cycle, there is also a pressing
need to begin developing long-term solutions to the problem, particularly in urban
areas like El Alto where over one million people work in the informal sector. The lack
of a voice (from El Alto and other complicated urban environments in the Platform)
and the lack of research focusing on how climate change might interact with urban
infrastructural problems, economic insecurity and population pressures could set the
scene for climate-related disaster. Further, ideas regarding ayllu development model
and Buen Vivir, unless they are grounded in political economic detail of life in urban
and periurban areas, remain abstracted from everyday struggles of these residents.
Alteños do not imagine returning to rural areas and ‘reconstituting ayllus,’ for
many of them moved to the urban environment because they could not survive as
small-scale subsistence farmers. As one Alteño relayed to me, ‘My life is in this urban
area, I do not want to return to the rural community where my parents are from ...
my children are here, my work is here, and my life is here in this city’ (Interview, June
15, 2010). Further, the ideas regarding Buen Vivir are not only sufficiently vague, but
focus primarily on rural realities: how to live in harmony with the environment? How
to protect the natural surrounds? They fail to incorporate urban concerns such as the
daily problems of poverty and inequality in these complicated urban areas, the lack of
sanitation services and/or toxic waste seeping into their waterways, to mention just a
few. Living well in a place like El Alto would incorporate a whole new vision of
service delivery and infrastructure development.Bolivia’s Climate Justice Movement
What will be the solution when it comes to issues of water scarcity and climate
change in urban areas? What will adaptation and mitigation look like? This concern
over how urban areas will organize around climate change extends well beyond
Bolivia. Sociologist Daniel Cohen (2013) discusses similar challenges facing the favela
movements in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While the urban poor in Rio might be dis-
proportionately vulnerable to flooding and landslides (which climate change is
already exacerbating), more often they are deprived of adequate sanitation, and
more exposed to contamination where they live and to air pollution during their
longer commutes. These kinds of daily struggles of poverty and inequality are more
pressing than global warming, which seems far on the horizon and rather intangible.
The political ecological critiques of productivism and consumerism are hard to sell to
poor people’s movements or to unions. In the case of Bolivian urbanites, the radical
Aymara ‘return to our roots’ discourse is also hard to sell to the urban poor as well.
In conclusion, there are several problems with the new use and mobility of
essentialized indigenous constructs as a solution to climate change. An over-reliance
or focus on indigenous ways and customs as detached from political and economic
realities can prove dangerous. Ideas like Buen Vivir (as they travel from concrete
ethno-territorial projects to globalized discourses) can be easily picked up by distinct
groups, commoditized, and refashioned to advance corporate/rightist agendas. On
one hand, rural indigenous organizers commoditize this idea of the egalitarian ayllu
where indigenous peoples protect and preserve the natural environmnent. On the
other hand, agribusiness elites have had to claim an indigenous identity (linking
themselves to lowland indigenous groups through spectacular performances) in order
to stake claims to the lowland region and to critical resources in the region (Fabricant,
2009; Fabricant & Postero, 2013). So why shouldn’t we be wary of indigeneity as a
free-floating construct or signifier? Who gets to claim rights to the indigenous? How
and in what ways do these essentialized constructs limit the possibility for the real
critical work that needs to be done on climate change: bridging of urban and rural
space, indigenous and mestizo concerns, reflections upon consumption and extractive
models of development from all angles.
The ecological crisis is bound up with our economic system. As David Harvey and
others have noted, this latest phase of capitalism has turned land and productive
resources into disposable commodities that are being exploited and discarded. If and
when discourses of indigeneity (in the form of ayllu and Buen Vivir) have the power
to provide concrete solutions in both rural and urban areas, then, this could be a first
step. Some of these details must include how to provide governmental support for
self-sustaining agricultural communities, to find new and alternative forms of energy
(reducing dependency upon fossil fuels), and to implement productive engines that
do not continue to destroy the environment and that have the potential to create jobs
and stimulate the economy. The Morales government, as of yet, has not figured out
how to do this.
This probably will not happen based solely upon the work of Bolivian social
movements. I suggest joint efforts between activists in Global North and those in
Global South will be necessary. After all, the international stalemate has everything to
do with money and power coming from billionaires who are invested in non-N. Fabricant
renewable resources and the very capitalist system which depends upon fossil fuels
and extractive industries to fuel a particularly comfortable life of consumption.
As anthropologist Bret Gustafson notes (2013), moving beyond ‘extractivism’ in the
South does not seem like a real possibility in a place like Bolivia, deeply dependent
upon resources like natural gas for economic development and social programming.
He asks: What might need to happen to move political debate and discussion toward
a deeper articulation between workings of power and politics and the fossil fuel
industry? These insights extend beyond rural/urban, beyond indigenous/non-indi-
genous divides, and focus on how difficult it may be for activists in the Global South
to take a ‘privileged’ anti-carbon, anti-fossil fuel stance when a large portion of the
economy depends upon such forms of resource extractivism. Nevertheless, climate
change is perhaps the single most important issue of our time. Groups like 350.org, a
US-based organization attempting to build a global grassroots movement to address
climate change, are trying to bridge these divides by organizing communities across
the North and South, East and West. But perhaps more work needs to happen in each
country (bridging rural and urban realities, indigenous philosophical tenets and non-
indigenous worldviews) in order to come up with solutions for how communities will
adapt to these problems. Researchers, practitioners, and movement activists will have
to be dynamic, elastic, and creative in their thinking because the same old solutions
will not provide the necessary structural, infrastructural and technological support
necessary to deal with the extent and scale of the problems we will all be facing.
I wish to thank the members of the Bolivian Platform for Climate Change and the vecinos
of El Alto for their time and generosity. I am indebted to Tom Perreault for his insightful
comments and suggestions. I wish to extend a special thank you to Nancy Postero for her
support, guidance and patience in this process. Thanks to all the anonymous reviewers for
strengthening the argument of the paper. All errors are mine.
According to the Bolivian Platform for Climate Change, in order to reverse the effects of
climate change, humans must accept a carbon threshold representing the total amount of
carbon that the Earth’s natural systems can absorb. Consonant with the threshold is a tax
that would be levied on the highest nation state users of carbon resources. This tax would
redistribute resources from wealthier to relatively poor economies. At an international level,
negotiations focus on how to share the Earth’s atmospheric space between rich and poor
countries, and how to share the means – the financing and technology – required to live in
this space (see World People’s Conference on Climate Change, http://pwccc.wordpress.com/
This is part of an interdisciplinary and longitudinal study on the localized experiences of and
the new organizational tactics to address water scarcity as a result of the melting glaciers in the
highlands. Kathryn Hicks from the University of Memphis and Carlos Revilla from UNITAS
(National Unity of Institutions for Social Action), a Bolivian-based NGO focused on social
justice, are also principal investigators.
Oxfam International played an important role in supporting these early Ayllu projects. As
Lucero (2011) notes, the relationship between THOA and Oxfam America is emblematic ofBolivia’s Climate Justice Movement
the transnational nature of the resurgence of the ayllus. Support for indigenous organizations
marked a trend in the 1980s when Oxfam America began to fund indigenous organizations as
part of its rights-based approach to addressing issues of poverty and social exclusion.
In Aymara, Buen Vivir is referred to as Suma Qamaña. In Guarani, Good Living is Ñandereko.
In Quechua, Buen Vivir is Sumak Kawsay.
As Nancy Postero (2007) notes, much of this NGO discourse and practice was shaped by
multicultural reforms passed under the Sanchez de Lozada administration in the 1990s, which
recognized Bolivia as a ‘multiethnic’ and ‘pluricultural’ nation.
Similar NGO-funded projects in the 1980s and 1990s have encouraged the use of creative
strategies from the ancient Andean past in order to deal with agricultural problems in the
contemporary period. Due to the failure of the Green Revolution to provide food security,
several governments, working in collaboration with NGOs, created the Proyecto
Interinstitucional de Rehabilitacion de Waru-Waru en el Altiplano (PIWA), which aimed at
assisting local farmers in the reconstruction of system of raised fields that evolved on the high
plains of the Andes about 3000 years ago. These waru-warus consisted of platforms of soil
surrounded by ditches filled with water. They produced bumper crops in the face of floods,
droughts, and the killing frosts common at altitudes of almost 4000 m. Some of these projects
proved quite successful (see Altieri, 1996).
For more on Oxfam’s project, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8187866.stm.
There has been a lot of discussion about REDD+ (to reduce emissions from tropical defor-
estation and forest degradation, the second largest source of emissions that cause climate
change) at international climate change negotiations. The Bolivian delegation has been quite
outspoken in these international arenas, pointing toward the ways in which the forest has been
turned into carbon stocks. Further, the forest provides a role as food security, a water source
and biodiversity for indigenous populations. REDD reduces the function of the forest to just
one, carbon stocks. For more on this, see http://www.rtcc.org/news-flash-bolivia-opposes-
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Nicole Fabricant is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology,
Anthropology at Towson University, 8000 York Road, LI 318 E., Towson, Maryland 21252