Calling for Global Climate Justice

The Illimani glacier as seen from the Bolivian city of La Paz (Source: Raoul Kaenzig/Université de Neuchâtel).

The current state of climate policy in Bolivia is one of caveats: activists have carved out a legal space for indigenous concepts such as “Mother Earth,” but state policies simultaneously encourage the expansion of agriculture further into the Amazon. In addition, CO2 emissions have reached an all-time peak, contributing to the melting of the Andean glaciers and emerging environmental crises in Bolivia like drought. In a recent article in the Journal of Political Ecology, Anders Burman theorizes a corrective to the contradictions that are inherent to the Bolivian’s conservation efforts. The divide, as he sees it, exists along the axis of differing ontological practices—what forms of existence are deemed rational and acceptable to indigenous and non-indigenous actors. By bringing the capitalist and the indigenous into sincere dialogue, he seeks to resolve these growing climate disturbances.

Indigenous voices are by no means quiet in Bolivian politics, and indeed indigenous cultures have even been celebrated by the government since a wave of neoliberal multiculturalism took root in Bolivia in the 1990s. But Burman argues that the Bolivian government, even in legally granting subjectivity to entities like mountains, glaciers, and rivers, failed to actively integrate the ontological legitimacy of those indigenous spirits. Indigenous Aymara practices have been treated as folklore—as imperfect embodiments of scientific truth. In other words, the Bolivian state pays lip service to notions of multiculturalism without actually accepting those other cultures as existentially valid.

Quinoa farmers in the Bolivian countryside (Source: Alfredo Camacho/Bioversity International).

The gap in ontological rendering also intervenes between non-state activists and indigenous leaders. Even where climate activists and indigenous organizations are in fundamental agreement, they express the problems of climate change in fundamentally different ways, preventing them from working together. For climate activists, climate change is coded into a terminology that emphasizes greenhouse gas emissions, CO2, and the Keeling curve, while indigenous Aymara people speak about climate in terms of achachilas, awichas, ajayu uywiris, and maranis. Indigenous delegates are invited to participate in climate meetings, but they are not called upon to speak; rather, they listen to urban activists recount the proceedings of the Kyoto Protocol. 

A migrant woman in La Paz (Source: Raoul Kaenzig/Université de Neuchâtel).

The climate movement in Bolivia, while characterized on the surface by plurality and heterogeneity, is effectually a non-indigenous, middle class movement. The form of climate action in Bolivia that receives media attention and political space does not emerge from any progressive synthesis of differing ontological positions, but from a select group of well-positioned actors. This asymmetrical power dynamic, in which scientific knowledge is seen to constitute legitimate knowledge, participates in the greater global system of power asymmetries, whereby capitalist, western-centric, colonial levers continue to extract value from the non-western world.

In climate negotiations within Bolivia, Burman sees the vestiges of European colonial expansion, which was characterized not only by the colonization of peoples, but of knowledge itself. With the expansion of the colonial sphere came the destruction of different ways of conceiving of the world and one’s place within it. Indigenous and local forms of knowledge were brutally repressed, and even after former colonies became liberated, the coloniality of knowledge lingered.

Part of Burman’s task is to integrate extant indigenous knowledge into the project of environmentalism. But what exactly do those forms of knowledge look like? In contrast to the prevailing Western notion of nature as an amoral, outside entity, in Andean conceptions of nature, mountains, rocks, glaciers and rivers are agents with intentionality, perceptive to human actions. Human beings and non-human entities are equally endowed with ajayu, the force of living agency and subjectivity. Powerful actors, like ancestors, are the same substance as the mountains, and they control the weather. If the human world does not adhere to a certain ceremonial and ethical standard, the natural world responds by punishing the local community. 

From 1963-2009, the Illimani glacier lost 35% of its ice area (Source: Candelaria Vasquez/Creative Commons).

So the indigenous concept of “pacha usu,” which can be translated as “climate illness,” while linguistically similar to the scientific notion of climate change, refers not merely to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but to the ethical degradation that attends to modern practices such as mechanized agriculture, industrially processed foods, ritual disappearance, and community alienation. To indigenous activists, the snow is melting on the mountains and glaciers because of an ethical failure on the part of one segment of humanity. For the Aymara people, the segment of the population responsible for climate change are called Q’ara. They exploit the land and the labor of others and do not participate in the moral economy of the indigenous community. The Jaqi, however, are those whose lives are characterized by reciprocity—with the land, the community, and the spirits. These are ethical labels related to specific livelihoods and social practices and are not limited to any individual ethnic category.

The city of La Paz is a popular destination for rural migrants (Source: Cliff Hellis/Creative Commons).

Burman sees the epistemological practices of the Aymara as an alternative approach to structuring relations between the self and the world, and as a challenge to the colonial, extractive apparatus that is destroying the planet. This effort, which he calls “ontological disobedience,” is a mode of securing the space necessary for alterities to transform the dominant capitalist framework. Under this framework, CO2 molecules coexist with maranis, and INDCs and achachilas cohabit the conversation about climate justice.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Burman described ontological disobedience as acts that do not comply with the reality that is mandated by the powerful. “It might be as simple as introducing other concepts and notions – and, in the end, other beings – than the ones sanctioned by modernity into the environmental justice debate. This may be the basis for a radical critique of capitalist extractivism – a critique from outside of the modernist ontological concepts that underpin the current world-system. Environmental conflicts are often also ontological conflicts, and as an anthropologist working with environmental issues, I see it as my responsibility to try to face up to that analytically,” he stated.


Climate, Economy, Family: Migration in the Bolivian Andes

The Illimani glacier as seen from the Bolivian city of La Paz (Source: Raoul Kaenzig/Université de Neuchâtel).

High in the Bolivian Andes, the pace of glacial retreat is accelerating, which may significantly decrease the amount of glacial meltwater available to streams and aquifers critical to farming communities in the region’s river basins. In addition to the long-term threat posed by glacial retreat, these communities are also threatened by economic uncertainty and climatic variability. As a response to livelihood insecurity, many Bolivian farmers choose to migrate, temporarily or permanently, to nearby urban centers. But how exactly are migration decisions understood within these migrant households?

In a recent chapter in Global Migration Issues, Regine Brandt and her team interview farmers in two Andean valleys to understand the factors contributing to migration decisions. The research demonstrates that migration has increased in importance as a livelihood strategy and that rural Bolivians consider environmental factors, social ties and economic needs together when making these decisions.

To obtain these findings, the team conducted research in the municipality of Palca, a high-altitude rural area where 80 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. They asked members of migrant farming households in two separate glacier-fed river basins to describe any factors that had influenced temporary or permanent migration decisions. In analyzing their data, the researchers looked to the frequency with which each causal factor was mentioned in each interview. If, for example, climate change was mentioned several times as a factor for a household, but social conflict was only mentioned once, climate change was understood to be of greater importance to that household in making their decision.

Quinoa farmers in the Bolivian countryside (Source: Alfredo Camacho/Bioversity International).

According to Raoul Kaenzig, one of the article’s co-authors, the impact of glacial retreat on farmers in the Andean highlands is still poorly documented. In the 1980s, Bolivia underwent a severe drought and has since experienced a rise in the frequency of extreme weather events, as well as a shift in rainfall patterns. In response, some peasants changed their agricultural practices, while others began sending individual family members to urban areas. Internal migrants rarely travel beyond their home region and maintain connections to their rural origins, often spending only part of the year in nearby cities, according to the study. In Bolivia, migration is seen as a means of contributing to the greater household economy— an individual may migrate to find work but with the intention of helping to support the family back home.

A migrant woman and her child in Cochabamba (Source: Raoul Kaenzig/Université de Neuchâtel).

In an interview with GlacierHub, Corinne Valdivia, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, explained how the threats posed to farmers in this and surrounding regions have increased in recent years. “The production risks have increased in the region of the North and Central Altiplano of Bolivia, as well as in Southern Peru, with longer periods without rainfall, and short and intense rains,” she said. “Pests and diseases have also increased. These threaten the livelihoods of families who are producing for their consumption and for the market. Migration is a strategy to address this, but in turn means that less labor is available to tackle the stresses posed by the changing climate.”

From 1963-2009, the Illimani glacier lost 35% of its ice area (Source: Candelaria Vasquez/Creative Commons).

For 60 percent of the regional migrants interviewed in the study, better educational opportunities were the primary driver of their migration decision. Additionally, nearly every respondent pointed to an increasingly unpredictable climate as a factor in their migration. Individuals living near the Illimani glacier, which has become a symbol of climate change in Bolivia, were significantly more likely to emphasize climatic variability, glacier retreat and water problems as factors in their migration than those living near a less iconic symbol of glacial melting, Mururata. The authors attribute this difference to a combination of observable environmental change and discourse.

Unsurprisingly, off-farm work, which is more commonly available in urban areas, has become important in diversifying household income. Of migrants from Mururata, 94 percent were between the ages of 14 and 38, meaning that the onus of migration tends to fall on the most productive members of the household. However, young migrants do not typically return to rural areas. In an interview with GlacierHub, Kaenzig stressed that there are political roots to this phenomenon. “Since the agrarian reform of 1953, household agricultural land is divided within the family. Therefore, each generation has less agricultural acreage, and eventually, only one family member typically maintains the farm while others migrate in search of alternative income sources,” he said.

The city of La Paz is a popular destination for rural migrants (Source: Cliff Hellis/Creative Commons).

Other factors affecting migration decisions include inadequate income, employment opportunities, and farming resources, such as access to water and land. Because the links between climate change and reduced productivity are not always clear to farmers, the authors conclude that environmental factors should not only be understood through statements the farmers make that directly bear on climate change, but also through the economic factors that are distinctly tied to climate change. In an interview with GlacierHub, Regine Brandt, one of the chapter’s co-authors, emphasized the importance of understanding how these stressors work together. “There are no simple explications for causes and effects, nor simple solutions for how to support the farmers to adapt to the effects of multiple stressors. I think that social, technical, political and other factors and their roles as stressors should not be ignored in the debates about climate change adaptation,” she said.

What does the future hold for these communities? Depending on temperature and precipitation scenarios, as well as high-altitude water conservation efforts, millions of people in the Bolivian highlands could be without a continuous source of freshwater in the coming decades, Kaenzig told GlacierHub. But so far, necessary steps are not being taken to prepare for these changes. “Despite wide recognition that rapid retreat of glaciers necessitates the construction and strengthening of existing water reservoirs and dams, few measures have been undertaken in Bolivia,” he said.

An Andean villager and her son (Source: Raoul Kaenzig/Université de Neuchâtel).

The authors conclude with a call to action: impoverished farming communities, both in the Central Andes and other mountainous regions around the world, are in urgent need of support to cope with current and looming climatic instability. According to Brandt, it is only by understanding linkages between migration factors that rural development programs can be adapted to meet the needs of these vulnerable farmers.



Indigenous Livelihoods at Bolivia’s Highest Mountain

A new study conducted at Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia, shows that local indigenous populations have been able to adapt to the changes in water resources that result from glacier retreat. Other environmental changes, as well as shifting economic and political circumstances, have also shaped their responses. Villarroel and her coauthors describe the area in detail in their recent paper in the journal “Mountain Research and Development.”

Wetland in Sajama National Park (source: Lorini/AguaSustentable)
Wetland in Sajama National Park (source: Lorini/AguaSustentable)

With an elevation of 6542 meters, Sajama, an extinct volcanic cone, rises more than two kilometers above the surrounding plains, known as the altiplano. Precipitation is concentrated in a short rainy season in this semi-arid region. The vegetation varies with elevation and topography, with large areas of grassland, sections with shrubs, and some wetlands, which are concentrated along the streams that are fed by glacial melt and groundwater from the mountain. Though the wetlands are relatively small in area, they have great economic and ecological importance, because the herbs, sedges and grasses that grow in them remain green throughout the year.

The indigenous Aymara of the altiplano have long practiced livelihoods that are suited to this environment, centered on the raising of alpacas, a native ruminant that was domesticated millennia ago in the Andes. They carefully maintain irrigation channels that distribute water from the streams, expanding wetland areas. Though profoundly influenced by Spanish colonial rule and by the policies of the national governments of Bolivia, the Aymara have a high degree of self-government, in which communities govern the affairs of the many hamlets that compose them, through structures of customary leaders and assemblies. These communities gained recognition in the 1950s, and received additional support in the 1990s through constitutional reforms and the creation of a national council of indigenous communities.

Villarroel and her coauthors have traced the shifting patterns of water use and alpaca herding through “rights mapping methodology,” integrating the methods of the Nobel prizewinner Elinor Ostrom for studying natural resource management with participatory mapping based on Google Earth images. They found that the Aymara communities around Sajama had for decades practiced communal grazing. Households had free access to the community’s grasslands, which provide grazing during the rainy season. They also were able to graze their animals on the wetlands associated with their hamlets.

Alpacas at Sajama (source: twiga269/Flickr)
Alpacas at Sajama (source: twiga269/Flickr)

Pasture has become a scarce resource in the last two or three decades, as the water supply in streams has decreased because of glacier retreat. The population of the communities has also grown, increasing demand for pasture. Overgrazing had become a problem. In response, the communities shifted to delimiting grassland areas to which particular households have access, and individual hamlets have fenced off the wetlands. In this way, they can better limit the number of alpacas that graze in any area. They also organize meetings between hamlets and between communities to resolve disputes over access to water from streams. In addition, many households now purchase alfalfa and barley, trucked in from moister regions of Bolivia, to use as supplementary fodder. A number of the men leave the region for several months a year, earning wages to pay for this fodder.

Irrigation canal in a wetland in the Bolivian altiplano (source: Coppock/Rangelands)
Irrigation canal in a wetland in the Bolivian altiplano (source: Coppock/Rangelands)

The Sajama National Park has also influenced the response to water scarcity. Founded in 1939 as Bolivia’s first national park, it began active conservation management only in 1995, virtually eliminating alpaca grazing in the higher grasslands, and reducing hunting as well. These restrictions have led to the growth of populations of pumas and foxes, predators of the alpacas, and have brought about a resurgence of the vicuña, which had become locally endangered.

The loss of access to this area has placed further pressure on the other grasslands and on the wetlands, but it has also brought a new income source to the communities. They conduct annual round-ups of vicuña herds, in which the animals are shorn and then let free, in a kind of “catch and release” program. The wool commands a high price on the world market, and provides a supplementary livelihood. The participation of Aymara communities in the management committees of the park seems likely to assure that this arrangement will continue. Though this and other forms of market involvement allow the Aymara communities to continue other forms of traditional livelihood and self-governance, it adds another source of vulnerability as well, as Villarroel and her coauthors point out. It exposes local populations to price fluctuations, and may provide incentives to weaken community control of resources, at a time when further glacier retreat could water scarcity more acute. The future may well bring additional challenges to these resilient communities.

GlacierHub has also covered the involvement of indigenous communities in national park management in Peru.