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.
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.
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.
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.
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.