Bolivia: Earth-worshippers in power, sort of

Bolivia: Earth-worshippers in power, sort of

Eileen Lydia Haley © 2012

This is a written, and slightly adapted, version of a workshop presented at the GAIA Conference (Transformation), Southport, Queensland, Australia on 20 October 2012.

Glenys’s note: Eileen also presented another updated version in MoonCourt, Blue Mountains, Australia on February 23rd 2013, which included mention of the 2012 Summer Solstice, celebrated in Bolivia as the shift of the centre of Earth’s energy to Lake Titicaca, the womb of the world, and the beginning of a time of harmony and balance.

Eileen Haley is a Sydney-based crone, poet and PaGaian with longstanding connections to Latin America and a love of magic realism in all its forms. Eileen will present an ever updated version, wherever she is invited: contact Glenys.


In December 2010 the Bolivian Parliament passed the Rights of Mother Earth Act (La Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra).

The Act gives Mother Earth a legal personality, and recognises that She has rights that the Bolivian State, society and individuals have obligations and duties in relation to.

This was the first law in the world that gave legal personhood to Mother Earth, and invested Her with rights.

This is a story of how the Rights of Mother Earth Act came to be, and what has come of it. A story, I say; because there may be, there are, others.

But this is the tale I wish to tell, here, at this time, in this place, with the Nerang River to the south of us; the magnificent Cloud-Catcher caldera to the south-west; Tamborine Mountain — Wild Lime Mountain — to the west; to the north Coombabah Lake and the island Minjerribah, whose colonial name is Stradbroke; and to the east the great Pacific Ocean.

I begin the tale by acknowledging that we sit today on the land of the Yugambeh people, and that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land:

And by acknowledging that we sit today in the lap of the Great Goddess we know by the name of Gaia, and feel Her tug through our feet, our sitting bones, our buttocks, our breasts, our shoulders, our jaws.

And by acknowledging Gondwanaland, the larger mass this land we sit on was once part of. Long after the Indian subcontinent had separated out of this mass and headed north, long after Africa had separated out of this mass and headed north, Australia, Antarctica and South America remained together. As recently as 35 million years ago they continued to form a single land, covered in the same conifer forests, the Araucarias that today are hoop pines, bunya pines, the monkey-puzzle trees of Chile. And populated by birds that would become the parrots in both Australia and South America. And by a tree-dwelling creature that carried its young in a pouch, a possum-like creature, the ancestor of the zarigüeyas of South America and the Virginia opossum of North America, as well as the kangaroo, the wallaby, the wombat and all the rest.

25 million years ago, after South America had at last drifted apart from Antarctica and Australia, Gaia’s slowest and most majestic motions, Her powerful plate tectonic forces, pushed into and under the western coast of South America, pushing the land high, high up into the air; and so were born the Andes.

The Nazca plate continues to push under the western coast of South America, making Bolivia and its neighbours earthquake-prone and marked by active volcanoes. Those who, like me, have experienced an earthquake will know what I mean when I say that there is nothing like going through an earthquake to fill you with awe of our Great Mother.

Some 20,000 years ago, humans arrived in the Americas, crossing from Siberia into Alaska when there was still a land bridge that joined them. (That’s of course about 30 thousand years after humans arrived in Australia.)

Humans slowly spread southwards from Alaska, came down along an isthmus that by then joined the continents of North and South America, and arrived in what is now Bolivia about six thousand years later. That is, about 14,000 years ago. So quite recently, hey.

Bolivia is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn and its northernmost point is at about 10º south of the Equator. So about the same latitude and size as an area from Rockhampton to the Torres Strait islands. Of course it’s the altitude that makes the difference! The Bolivian altiplano or high plateau, the widest part of the Andes has an average height of 3,750 metres. (That’s about 1,500 metres higher than Kosciuszko, the highest mountain in Australia.)

The peoples of what is now Bolivia arrived as gatherer-hunters, and were so for the next 8 or so thousand years. Indeed, in the eastern part, in the rainforests at the headwaters of the Amazon basin, there are people who still live largely in this way. In other words, the peoples of what is now Bolivia remained gatherer-hunters for several thousand years longer than the populations of the Middle East, Europe and China, the ancestors of most of us.

Still strong among the peoples of what is now Bolivia was, and is, the knowledge they brought with them across the Bering land bridge.

What was and is that knowledge?

The knowledge that everything is alive. Has consciousness, emotions, intelligence and moods. Everything is alive. Not just animals and plants, but rocks, earth, water, sun, moon, wind and stars as well.

That all of these beings are vividly, vitally interconnected, such that individuals are no more than nodes or clusters, a density, of filaments in a great web of fine filaments.

That the web is held together, operates, through reciprocal relationships between the nodes or clusters on a basis of the complementarity of opposites.

That the consciousnesses of the non-human world can speak. That they can communicate with us through signs like dreams and unusual events. And that some members of the human community, both women and men, through skill or gift or calling or a combination of these, can become expert in communicating more directly with the consciousnesses of the non-human world. Can speak to them and receive messages from them. Can thus find out what these beings need from humans, and what they are prepared to give in return. And can find out from these beings what is needed in order to restore or maintain balance, and by so doing ensure the well-being of the web and all within it.

That a sudden shock or fright can cause a person to lose his or her soul and then strange forces can invade that void. This is what causes illness, and the restoration of health can only come through the restoration of wholeness, getting the soul back.

That there have been previous worlds, that have been overturned, and that the present world will too be overturned, and so on forever.

In the new landscape, the Central-South Andes, this knowledge grounded as the peoples developed, became what is now known as the Andean cosmovision. Quechua-speaking peoples developed in the central Andes, from what is now Ecuador south through what is now Peru and into what is now Bolivia. The Aymara were further south in the Bolivian altiplano. There were, and are, other peoples as well, but this story is mainly about the Quechua and Aymara.

On the altiplano, the people recognised the particular power of the majestic snow-capped mountain-tops where weather formed, and whose glacier melt brings water to streams and lakes. Each mountain is a powerful, conscious being, an apu to the Quechua, an achachila to the Aymara. An ancestral being. There were (and are) other places of power too, all known by the general term of ‘waca’. Thousands of years later a Spaniard charged with persecuting the Andean religion was to list them as:

 streams, crags or large stones, hills, mountain tops, springs, sources of rivers, and finally any natural thing that appears remarkable or differentiated from the rest.

Those with special expertise in communicating with such beings became known as yatiris (in the Aymara language) or paq’os (in Quechua). ‘Yatiri’ means ‘one who knows’, a ‘knowledgeable person’.

It was (and is) acknowledged that a mark of being called to be a yatiri is to be struck by lightning — a message from an achachila. But that is not sufficient. Such a person must then seek out a mentor and serve an apprenticeship. The word for such a mentor, among the Aymara, is ch’amakani, literally, ‘one who owns the darkness’.

About 6000 BC, a development took place that set the Andean peoples on the same road taken thousands of years before by the peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa: the domestication of animals and a society based on herding. And at the same time spinning and weaving developed too, using the wool of the alpaca. This was the beginning of the spectacular textiles the Andes are so famous for.

The llamas and alpacas gave up their freedom, but they gained as well, in security from predation and other dangers. From that time on, they have co-evolved with the people of the Andes. There is complementarity, reciprocity, in this. But the domestication of animals is a major disruption to the intricate web of being. What adjustments, what compensations, were necessary, to restore and maintain balance in the web? That would perhaps be another story, important but overtaken by far more dramatic disruption that took place about a thousand years later — the domestication of the potato, thanks to the use of llama dung as fertiliser.

This happened around 5000 BC in the region of Lake Titicaca, largest lake on the altiplano ‘the womb of the world’. The lake is an awicha, a female ancestral being. Lake Grandmother!

The domestication of the potato brings into centre stage our protagonist: Mother Earth, the Madre Tierra, Pachamama. ‘Pacha’ means Earth; there is also a sense in which ‘Pacha’ means ‘space-time’ or even the cosmos, the Greater Pacha. ‘Mama’ is an honorific for female beings, like ‘Madam’, or ‘Lady’, or ‘Dame’, or the Spanish ‘Señora’ or ‘Doña’. It nearly coincides with ‘Mamá’, or ‘Mother’, in Spanish and other languages. Can this be just a coincidence? So ‘Pachamama’ is pretty much ‘Mother Earth’ in Quechua and Aymara.

Pachamama has loved the potato-growers of the Andes for thousands of years, and they have loved Her back, constantly delighting in Her fertility, Her gifts, humbled by Her generosity, in awe of Her powers, worshipping Her with intensity.

But agriculture involved piercing the skin of the Pachamama, a living, sentient being. Old quechua work songs compare the ploughman not just to a lover, bent on seduction and persuasion, but also to a warrior, bent on subduing an enemy. Which of the two images more closely describes the first beginnings of agriculture? How to gain the Pachamama’s consent to this violation? Ensure Her continued co-operation? Compensate Her?

The month of August is the end of the Andean winter — as of course it is here, for we are talking about fellow Southern Hemisphereans. August is the month of the Pachamama and the first of August is the very day of the Pachamama. The first of August is also my birthday; can this just be a coincidence?

In August Pachamama is ravenously hungry and it is up to humans to feed Her. The offerings to Pachamama at this time are elaborate, and involve the sacrifice of llamas, which is fairly shocking from a western point of view, I find it so.

But the Pachamama is fed at other times as well, to thank Her, or to ask Her for things, or simply to keep the channels of communication open.

If we were Bolivians, performing a ritual for the Pachamama, we would begin by sitting around, as we are now. The bag of coca leaves would be passed around, as would the horn containing the ash of burnt quinoa stalks, which you mix with the coca to bring out the effects. We would chew convivially together.

Coca will be important in this story. Coca is another plant that was domesticated in the Andes thousands of years ago. She is a goddess in Her own right: the Cocamama. She stimulates the metabolism: helps mitigate the sensation of hunger, offers energy during long days of labour and helps counter altitude sickness. She is not addictive — that is, you don’t suffer withdrawal symptoms if you go without. Her effect is not psychoactive or hallucinogenic. In fact, I believe chewing coca has an effect rather similar to drinking a cup of tea. I wasn’t able to experience it myself when I was in Bolivia — the reason why would be another story.

In modern times, through the addition of kerosene and sulphuric acid, the drug cocaine is made out of coca. But it is a trope in Bolivia to say that coca is not cocaine, any more than grapes are wine. Coca does not produce the high (euphoria, megalomania) people experience with cocaine.

Coca is also a (fairly mild) anaesthetic and analgesic, used to alleviate the pain of childbirth, headaches, rheumatism etc. In pre-Columbian times, coca was used as an anaesthetic when surgery was performed.

And coca leaves contain messages from the invisible powers, the sources of things. Reading them is a way of telling the future, learning what the best thing to do would be.

As well, chewing coca together is a social activity, a normal prelude or accompaniment to any communal endeavour — tilling a field, harvesting a crop, building a house, cooking a meal. The Cocamama is vital to the culture of the Andes.

So, if we were Bolivians performing a ritual to the Pachamama, there we would be, chewing our coca, and meanwhile, the yatiri would spread a woven cloth, and place a white paper on top. She or he — let’s make it a she — would sprinkle sugar on the paper. She would then arrange flower petals — red for Pachamama, white for the achachilas, the mountain peaks — in a pattern, rectangular if quechua, spiral if aymara.

The achachilas, the mountain peaks, are male, incidentally. The achachilas are closely associated with the Pachamama; they are the source of the water for agriculture. Very important, especially as the altiplano is prone to drought. There will be more about drought, and water, later in this tale; but for the moment let’s return to the offerings to the Pachamama.

Each of us would prepare, with intent, a set of three coca leaves, a kintu. We would align them with each of our three centres of interaction with the world: yachay, munay and yankay. The yachay is located in the head, the intellect. The munay is located in the thorax, and is often equated to the heart, but is possibly better related to the whole of the thorax, and the lungs in particular. As an adaptation to the high altitude, Bolivians have larger hearts and lungs than us sea-level people. So a stronger munay! The lungs are a major centre of interaction with the achachilas, who are present in the air and feed on the smoke of incense and copal.

Lungs are important for Bolivian music, the Andean pan pipes. And for blowing the pututu, the very voice of the Pachamama.

The third centre, the yankay, the source of work or action, is located in the belly, just below the navel. Where food is digested. High-carbohydrate foods like potatoes and maize, which you can get a rapid energy input from by the metabolising effect of chewing coca.

So, you each prepare your set of coca leaves, give them to the yatiri, and she places each of them within the pattern on the white paper. Coca leaves are an essential part of any offering to the Pachamama. The Pachamama, likes to chew too!

The yatiri would then add more things, with words said, and intent breathed, into each one. Seeds, raisins, grains, nuts — the fruits of the Earth. Llama fat. Condor feathers. Wrapped lollies. (The Pachamama has a sweet tooth.) Miniature tin figures. Confetti.

A dried llama foetus is usually an ingredient of these offerings too — again, a fairly confronting thing for those outside the culture. The Pachamama, for all Her generosity and loving kindness, can’t be ‘made nice’, no way!

At some point the yatiri would pour or sprinkle maize beer over the offering, in the form of a cross, marking the four directions of the world.

A lot of the items for these offerings (called despachos, or pagos, or ofrendas) can be bought at a famous special market in La Paz, usually called, in English, the witches market or the witchcraft market. The yatiri would make the selection beforehand, very carefully and seriously, based on the overall purpose of the ritual. She knows best the Pachamama’s precise diet, at that particular time, for that particular situation. Reading the coca leaves will tell her. The Cocamama will tell her.

The ofrenda should contain symbols of everything in the world, and be imbued with intent for connection with the earth and the cosmos. It is a gift, a giving back, an act of gratitude. The ceremony seeks to bridge the visible and the deeper realms, the energy dimensions, the source of things. To renew, continue, the conversation with the Mother. It places participants in a relationship of reciprocity with the Pachamama. This creates shifts in the energy of the universe, to ensure, or restore, balance and interconnectedness and define a new situation favourable to the participants.

Such a ritual cannot be performed without a yatiri. But there are simpler rituals which any adult can and does perform, on almost a daily basis: sprinkling the Earth with liquor, burning aromatic herbs in a brazier. Thus the dialogue is kept open.

It is with the development of agriculture, and among potato farmers, that the cult of Pachamama takes hold and resists all later attempts to displace it.

In time — and we’re talking round 600 AD by now — a great urban and ceremonial centre was built, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the womb of the world. This was Tiwanaku, which Erich von Däniken thinks was the work of extra-terrestrials, and others have thought to be the city that originated the legend of Atlantis. But that would be a whole other story.

This is the chakana, a powerful Andean symbol first used at Tiwanaku.chakana tiw

In this story, it shows the three levels of the pacha, the Earth: the upper realm (Hanan Pacha) associated with the condor; the middle realm (Kay Pacha) associated with the puma, which lives in altiplano open habitats and in the cloud forests of the cordilleras; and the lower region, Uqhu Pacha, represented by the snake.

A certain constellation, familiar to us as well as to the people of Tiwanaku, shows the chakana in the night sky. I am talking about the constellation we call the Southern Cross.

With the rise of Tiwanaku came a hierarchically-stratified society, and struggles for domination. In about 1200 AD in our calendar, exiles belonging to the Tiwanaku elite founded Cuzco, some 500 kilometres to the north-west, in what is now Peru. About 200 years later, this clan began the enterprise of building the Inca Empire.

In the late 15th century the Inca Empire expanded in all directions. In the north, it reached as far as what are now Ecuador and Colombia, and had a second capital at Quito. Southwards, the Incas took over Tiwanaku and defeated the Aymara kingdoms. The Incas sought to make the worship of Inti, the sun, the state religion of all. This was resisted by the coastal peoples to the north-west of Cuzco, who passionately explained that, while it was logical for a mountain people to worship the sun, they worshipped Cochamama, the Pacific Ocean, who supplied all their needs.

And in the Bolivian altiplano, the cult of Pachamama continued too, for the same reasons. She represented a level of religious understanding so basic, so pervasive and protean that the later specialised cults, more friendly to priestly manipulation, gave no reason for change. Pachamama never altered; She stayed down among the lowly potato-growing peasants. The elite did not, could not, deny Her; She was the very substance of existence.

The Inca Empire, as such, was only a bit over 100 years old when the Spaniards conquered it. That is such a shameful tale that I will not say more, except that for the indigenous peoples this was a major shock, a trauma, a loss of soul, and invasion of the strange. In Aymara, this loss of soul is called ‘ajay sarqata’, and is a major cause of illness as the strange spirits, called ‘yahqa’, invade. In real, not metaphorical, terms, the people became ill, and the illness was colonialism.

The next 300 years were ones of ruthless sack and pillage for the Andes and its peoples. The potato-growers became serfs in the Spaniards’ haciendas, a situation that endured until the middle of the 20th century. And the Pachamama? The Spaniards persecuted yatiris, but knew they could not eradicate from among the people their devotion to the Pachamama. The Spaniards enlisted the Blessed Virgin to subsume Her, as you might already have guessed. But let us remember who the Blessed Virgin is, herself. She is the old Earth Goddess in Christian guise: Tanit, worshipped in what is now Spain before the Romans came Can we not see the same triangular shape, the crescent moon.


In 1780-81 a major indigenous uprising took place in the Andes that has echoed down to the present day. In Cuzco, it was led by José Gabriel Túpac Amaru. Or rather — and this is important — it was led by Túpac Amaru and his wife, Micaela Bastidas Puyucahua. They constituted a single leadership under a subset of the Andean concept of complementarity: chachawarmi, literally man-woman.

In what is now Bolivia, the rebellion was led by another couple, Julián Apasa (who took the name Túpac Katari) and Bartolina Sisa.

The creoles of South America had by that stage their own causes of discontent with the Spanish government; but they did not support these uprisings. The reason was clearly that the rebels were indigenous, and sought to restore the old religion and the old values that went with it. The uprisings failed; the leaders were executed in gruesome fashion — the women as well as the men — with Tupac Katari’s last words famously being, ‘I will return, and I will be millions’.

An independence movement erupted amongst the creoles in South America a generation later, when Spain had been seriously weakened by the Napoleonic Wars. In this movement, the indigenous peoples were non-players. Indeed, the creoles’ action was a pre-emptive strike to prevent a repeat of the 1780 indigenous uprisings. A classic case of things having to change, so that things could remain the same.

Bolivia did not fare well in the 19th century. Simon Bolivar’s vision of a single grand South American nation did not come about. Bolivia, though named for him, wanted to be independent. It fought with its neighbours over territory, and usually lost. The bitterest loss was the exit to the sea, the Pacific Ocean, in 1883, which left it a land-locked country.

Internally the government was weak and prone to military coup. And the indigenous peoples — the majority of the population — remained excluded from power. As they put it, colonialism continued. And though they were vaguely aware that at the highest level, the Spanish had been replaced by the British and later the Americans, the main face of colonialism for them was the local creole minority.

There was — and is, for that matter — a lot of racism in Bolivia, almost an apartheid situation, with only whites running the country, and indigenous people marginalised, and subject to ridicule for their language, cultural and religious practices and physical appearance.

(And I should mention here that in Bolivia, there’s a single word for creoles and mestizos, q’ara. In Bolivia, being indigenous isn’t a matter of genetics alone. It’s a matter of language and above all the Andean cosmovision, the sense of everything being alive, and able to be communicated with.) Bolivia has a population of nine million people. Of these 60-67% are indigenous: about 2.5 million Quechua, 1.5 million Aymara, and one million people belonging to other groups, including the peoples of the Amazon. Bolivia is the only South American country where indigenous people are a majority.

In the 20th century, one section of the indigenous peoples, the miners, began organising. Communism influenced them, but so did anarchism: the appealing slogans of ‘Nobody master, nobody slave’,  ‘No God, no master’ and ‘Whoever you vote for, a politician gets in’. They were in a position to take power on several occasions, but relinquished it in favour of a creole politician, confining themselves to their own sectorial demands, what’s called in Spanish la lucha reivindicativa.

There were progressive governments in Bolivia in the 20th century, usually got rid of by military coups, until the progressives wrested power once again. Bolivia became the poorest country in Latin America. Which is saying something.

We arrive at the 1980s. The tin market has collapsed; miners are sacked, they need to find another source of income. At the same time, the altiplano is drying out. The delicate high-altitude environment of Bolivia is one of the first to feel the effects of global warming. The Pachamama is sending messages that She is in trouble: too much has been done to Her for even Her great powers of regeneration to bear. Aymara and Quechua people move east, to the coca-growing areas on the eastern slopes of the Andes, the Yungas in the north and the Chapare River Basin further south, near Cochabamba. They clear more forest for crop cultivation — another serious disturbance to the web, and one resented by the local indigenous people. (This is not a simple story!)

And, in the USA, President Ronald Reagan activates the War on Drugs. For Bolivia, the aim of the War on Drugs was to eradicate the production of coca. There were major enforcement campaigns, using the Bolivian army, a special police force called the UMOPAR and US troops and pilots.

I hope I’ve said enough about coca for you to understand what an assault this represented upon Andean indigenous social and ritual life. What an assault upon the Pachamama.

Bolivians resisted.

The peasant coca growers, the cocaleros and cocaleras, formed a union and took action. Their main actions were marches, road blockades and hunger strikes. (Helped by the Cocamama: chewing coca a great help if you’re marching or fasting.)

There were many clashes, many deaths, arrests, imprisonments. Many stories, both large and small, of collective triumph and tragedy, of personal sacrifice, anguish and heroism. And meanwhile the cocalero union grew in strength, and inspired other indigenous and peasant organisations around the country.

1992 was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. In that year, the coca growers, indigenous and campesino organisations joined together in a campaign entitled ‘500 years of resistance of the indigenous peoples’, culminating in a march on La Paz in October. Immediately afterwards, the organisations met and agreed to set up what they called not a political party, but a ‘political instrument‘ of the social movements — a ‘political instrument for the sovereignty of the peoples’. The aim: to gain government for the social movements, to reach beyond the lucha reivindicativa, the demand-based struggle, and take on power.

Thus they moved beyond the fastidious anarchist objection to getting one’s hands dirty in grubby politicking. And thus, too, they confronted and overcame the fear of losing one’s soul (ajay sarqata) and being invaded by the strange (yahqa) spirits saturating the buildings, rooms and corridors of colonial power.

In late 1992 the organisations also discussed creating a military instrument as well as a political instrument, a guerrilla army; but decided against it. No, this would be a struggle waged within the system. But once in power the system would change: from then on, a demand for a new constitution became a central demand of the movement.

Word spread: Tupac Katari’s dying prophecy was being fulfilled: ‘I will return, and I will be millions’. A pachakuti was happening, a turning-upside-down of the world. (Pachakuti. The same word is used for what happens to soil when it is turned over under the plough.) The Andean indigenous flag, the wiphala, broke out everywhere.


It was to be more of a pachakuti than some men had bargained for. Women began organising, beginning with the cocaleras. The women’s confederation took on the name of the leader of the 1781 uprising, Bartolina Sisa. The women themselves became known as the bartolinas. The women’s organisations, the bartolinas insisted, weren’t — and aren’t — feminist organisations. They had — and have — the same aims as the general organisations (or, as the bartolinas call them, the men’s organisations) but were set up to develop women’s leadership and get more women involved. The social movement leadership encouraged the growth of women’s organisations, so that the movement could be enriched by adherence to the traditional principle of chachawarmi, man-woman.

The bartolinas compared themselves to Mother Earth: as She had given life to all Her children, so they had given life as well. This was the basis of their decision, and their right, to participate in the great growing social movement.

Inevitably, as the bartolinas gained confidence and experience, they became aware of discrimination against them within the organisations and the double duties expected of them at home. Woman-specific aims started creeping into their language, into their aims: they wanted to see, they said, ‘a change, a better world, without imperialisms or injustices in the country, in the organisation, in our lives, or in our homes.’

The 1990s saw the first electoral victories for the ‘political instrument’, now known as MAS (Movement Towards Socialism), a name adopted accidentally, because the Electoral Commission wouldn’t let them register as a ‘political instrument’, so a small near-moribund party let them use theirs instead. But the word ‘socialism’ hardly features in MAS discourse, then or now. Instead, the words that chime through their speeches, their documents, their interviews, are sovereignty, dignity, complementarity, solidarity, reciprocity, harmony and what they refer to as living well — vivir bien, suma qamaña.

The idea of this particular principle is that it’s a rejection of the idea of endless and unlimited economic growth — living better and better. For MAS:

 Living better is to exploit human beings. It’s plundering natural resources. It’s selfishness and individualism. Therefore, in those promises of capitalism, there is no solidarity or complementarity. There’s no reciprocity. So that’s why we’re trying to think about other ways of living lives and living well, not living better.

Reciprocity has a high value. The word is ‘ayni’ in Aymara and ‘minka’ in Quechua. It is a traditional way of doing communal work, getting things done — we help you, then you help us. The very basis of social and economic life at the community level.

The first MAS victories were at the municipal level. MAS policy was — and is — to have a 50-50 split between men and women in its candidates. Chachawarmi in action, again. The policy brought an unprecedented number of women, many of them newly literate, into local government in the late 1990s.

And MAS, I should make clear at this point, is not an exclusively indigenous organisation, though securely based in the indigenous population. It is open to all who share the values and aims.

Then, in the year 2000, came the Cochabamba Water War, waged against a law which granted a private company — a foreign company, to boot — a monopoly over all the water resources in the Cochabamba area.

The most infamous aspect of the arrangement was that it required people to obtain (and be charged for) a licence to collect rainwater from their own roofs. So even the rain had been handed over into private hands.

The protests against this law grew into an enormous movement which spread to other cities. Peasant farmers who needed water for irrigation joined forces with the urban poor. There was a four-day general strike and two days of clashes with government troops. Most major highways in the country were barricaded and the country brought to a standstill. In April the government backed down and reversed the privatisation. This was a famous victory against the policies we know as ‘economic rationalism’ here in Australia, and are more generally known as neo-liberalism, which basically means privatise everything and have everything run for profit. People had successfully resisted privatisation before, but this was the first time people had successfully reversed a privatisation that had already taken place.

The Cochabamba Water Wars made Bolivia the darling of the world-wide anti-globalisation movement, then in its infancy. It also inspired the plot of the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

Then there was the Gas War of 2003. Bolivia has large gas reserves and this mass movement was against government plans to have them exploited by foreign companies.

Both of these struggles, like the cocalero struggle, were consciously carried out in the name of Pachamama. ‘Water’, the protestors said, ‘has life; for us it is sacred’. In seeking to express that these things were part of a living being, some of the protestors’ imagery around the body of the Pachamama could be inelegant: Water was sometimes the milk, sometimes the blood, of Pachamama — neither formulation very satisfactory. Or the descriptions could be unintentionally comic, as with one protest leader’s description of Bolivia’s gas reserves as being in Pachamama’s belly. Or marvellously over-the-top lyrical, as in this description by the yatiri Carlos Yujra:

 All the lands of the world are our Mother, the Pachamama. Mother Earth is the flesh of the Pachamama. Hills are the head of the Pachamama. Wakas (places of power) are the ears of the Pachamama. Plants are the attire of the Pachamama. Mountains are the hair of the Pachamama. The winds are the breath of the Pachamama. Running waters are the blood of the Pachamama.

Works, thoughts and wisdoms are the hands of the Pachamama. Years are the feet of the Pachamama. Foodstuffs are the breasts of the Pachamama. Life is the belly of the Pachamama. Illnesses are the excrement of the Pachamama. Seed production is the fertile womb of the Pachamama. The dead are the fingernails of the Pachamama. Weeks are the fingers of the Pachamama. Months are the toes of the Pachamama.

Rivers are the mouth of the Pachamama. Snow-capped peaks are the teeth of the Pachamama. Stones and rocks are the bones of the Pachamama. Clouds are the hat of the Pachamama. Coca is the eye of the Pachamama. The rainbow is the wiphala of the Pachamama. Wild animals are the beloved animals of the Pachamama. Worms are the lice of the Pachamama. Birds are the messengers of the Pachamama. Human beings are the beloved children of the Pachamama.

The water and gas struggles involved millions of people in Bolivia, a profound re-empowering of indigenous consciousness. The gas war was so large, and so radical, that it brought down the government. In the ensuing 2005 elections, MAS’s presidential candidate, Evo Morales, won outright.

MAS also won convincingly in the Chamber of Deputies. (Though not in the Senate, something I’ll tell you more about soon.)

Evo Morales’s victory astounded the world. Evo Morales is an Aymara man. His family were subsistence farmers and llama herders on the altiplano; he was one of seven children, of whom only three survived past childhood. His family moved east to the Chapare region in the 1970s and took up coca growing. He soon emerged as a leader in the cocalero struggles, and is a veteran of all the struggles that have formed part of this story.

On the eve of his formal swearing-in, Evo Morales attended a ceremony presided over by a yatiri at Tiwanacu. He described this ceremony as ‘complementary’ to the formal swearing-in. I don’t know a lot about this ceremony, but I do know more about the ceremony that preceded his second-term swearing-in in 2010. In that ceremony, a very elderly (woman) yatiri (over 90 years old, perhaps over 100), led him to the four cardinal points of the Akapana pyramid at Tiwanacu: in the west, to give thanks to the Pachamama for Her gifts; in the south, he asked to be able to achieve an economy based on reciprocity (ayni); in the east, he asked for the unity of all peoples; and in the north he asked the achachilas for knowledge and wisdom. (We Southern Hemisphereans might note that he moved counter-clockwise, starting in the west.) Eight indigenous dignitaries, four men and four women, took part as well.

And just while we’re on the subject of complementarity, and chachawarmi, man-woman in particular, I’ll say that in his second term of office beginning 2010, the Morales regime achieved gender equity in his ministry team. Morales described this as ‘my great dream coming true’. Among the 10 women in his cabinet at least three are indigenous: the Minister for Justice, Nilda Copa;


the Minister for Rural Development and Lands, Nemesia Achacollo;

Nemesia Achacollo

and Antonia Rodriguez, Minister for Productive Development and Plural Economy.

Antonia Rodriguez

Seeing these photos was something of a surprise and thrill for me. As a 1970s backpacker, I’d expect to see women who look like this sitting at market stalls, or riding in the back of trucks, not running a country! I think for many Bolivian whites, this was just as startling as it was for me.

Another feature of the Morales regime that must be confronting for some is the presence of yatiris at official events and occasions. Yatiris have also performed more intimate rituals, to expel the strange spirits — the yahqa — from the government administration buildings and thereby restore them to health.

In late 2006, Morales’s land reform bill had passed the Chamber of Deputies but been knocked back in the Senate, which MAS did not control. The bill was presented again in the Senate at a night session. Right-wing senators, the majority, weren’t present; they had said they would boycott the session. So there was no quorum. Morales’s senior people asked a yatiri to ‘perform a bit of work’ to get the bill passed. In a room next the Senate Chamber, the yatiri burnt incense and copal and called on the achachilas to support the bill and get the opposition to change their vote. Unexpectedly, two opposition Senators then turned up, crossed the floor, and the bill was passed. The yatiri later commented: ‘The achachilas heard us and brought those two Senators in’.

Land reform was just one of the initiatives of the Morales government in its first term. Morales immediately set about a series of initiatives in education, social welfare, health etc. He nationalised Bolivia’s oil and gas and (just incidentally) cut his own presidential salary by 57%. And — again, just incidentally — he has been more successful at interdicting coca leaf destined for cocaine production than the Americans ever were.

But a major initiative was the new constitution. A constituent assembly was set up, headed by Silvia Lazarte, a Quechua woman, a bartolina, a cocalera and like Evo Morales a veteran of many struggles.

Silvia Lazarte

The new Constitution, put to referendum in 2009 after a three-year drafting process, mentioned Pachamama in the preamble:

With the strength of our Pachamama and thanks to God, we will re-found Bolivia.

It didn’t go unnoticed that Pachamama came first. Fundamentalist Christians were up in arms (literally), accusing the government of idolatry and blasphemy. This placard, being carried in the lead-up to the referendum, reads: ‘Who will you vote for?’

constitutionOn the left is President Morales, in the ceremonial robes he wore at the Tiwanaku ceremony.

The constitution was, nevertheless, approved at the 2009 referendum with 61% in favour.

By that time, Ecuador also had a new Constitution, with a whole chapter in it called ‘Rights for Nature’, mentioning Pachamama by name in Article 1:

Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and manifested, has the right to holistic respect for Her existence and to the maintenance and regeneration of Her life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.

Obviously, there is an equally fascinating story to tell about Ecuador. But let’s stick with Bolivia, okay?

Two other things happened in 2009 that led to the Rights of Mother Earth Act. The first of them was the complete disappearance of the Chacaltaya Glacier. Many Bolivians in the altiplano, including two of Bolivia’s main cities, La Paz and El Alto, depend on glacier melt for their water supply during the dry season. And for hydro-electric power, including mini-hydro schemes in small communities.

For thousands of years, glaciers have melted at their lower ends, but been replenished in the wet season. Since the 1980s, however, with global warming, the Bolivian glaciers are not regenerating and are disappearing fast. The Chacaltaya Glacier was 18,000 years old. It used to be the highest ski run in the world. Bolivian scientists, led by Edson Ramirez, had been keeping an eye on Chacaltaya since the 1990s. They thought it might survive until 2015, but it disappeared faster than they had expected. Edson Ramirez and his team held a ceremony to honour the loss of Chacaltaya. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘as if someone had died’.

This was a diplomatic, and secular, way of putting it. Someone had in fact died, an achachila. In fact, an achachila had been murdered. Bolivians are tremendously conscious that it is the pollution produced by the industrialised world, now and in the past, that is largely responsible for climate change.

The death, the killing, of the Chacaltaya Glacier focused the minds of Bolivians in the lead-up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009.

Hopes were high, before Copenhagen, that this meeting would produce a genuine treaty on anthropogenic climate change. The Bolivian delegation took a raft of strong proposals to Copenhagen.

Among them: the Rights of Nature. In a packed side event, Pablo Solon, of the Bolivian delegation, spoke with the South African lawyer Cormac Cullinan about the emerging field of earth jurisprudence. The session showed how devotion to Pachamama was now linking up with cutting-edge international law. Mother Earth rights, the Bolivians argued, could cause a revolution in the field of rights in the 21st century in the way that human rights did in the 20th century. It could also mean that a new player — the legal system — could be enlisted in the desperate fight to defend our Mother, our Great Goddess, against abuse and indeed destruction.

But the hopes for Copenhagen were dashed by the way the conference developed. Rich countries basically stitched up an accord in private, designed to let them wriggle out of their responsibilities. Commotion broke out on the floor of the conference when this ‘accord’ was eventually presented, and Bolivia led the opposition, denouncing it as a betrayal of years of negotiations and calling for much more radical action.

Bolivia was either praised for its brave stand or condemned for wrecking the conference, depending on where the speaker was coming from. Afterwards, Evo Morales, who’d attended the conference along with many other heads of government, proposed that the way forward would have to be through peoples mobilising, and to that end he convoked an international peoples conference on climate change, to be held in Bolivia in April 2010.

This was the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held at Tiquipaya, near Cochabamba, attended by some 30,000 people from over 100 countries. Nobody from Australia that I could see, though notice that the conference logo puts the last Gondwanaland continents centre stage!


The agreement that emerged from the Tiquipaya conference begins:

 Today, our Mother Earth is wounded and the future of humanity is in danger.

The conference proposed — amongst other things — a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. Article 1 of the proposed Declaration is:

(1) Mother Earth is a living being.

And it goes on:

(2)  Mother Earth is a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings.

(3)  Each being is defined by its relationships as an integral part of Mother Earth.

(4)  The inherent rights of Mother Earth are inalienable in that they arise from the same source as existence.

(5)  Mother Earth and all beings are entitled to all the inherent rights recognized in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as may be made between organic and inorganic beings, species, origin, use to human beings, or any other status.

(6)  Just as human beings have human rights, all other beings also have rights which are specific to their species or kind and appropriate for their role and function within the communities within which they exist.

(7)  The rights of each being are limited by the rights of other beings and any conflict between their rights must be resolved in a way that maintains the integrity, balance and health of Mother Earth.

Eight months later, Bolivia’s Legislative Assembly passed the Rights of Mother Earth Act.

The Act defines Mother Earth as ‘the dynamic living system made up of the indivisible community of all life systems and living beings, interrelated, interdependent and complementary, which share a common destiny’.

The rights of Mother Earth that are recognised in the Act are:

  • a right to life;
  • a right to diversity of life;
  • a right to water;
  • a right to clean air;
  • a right to balance;
  • a right to restoration; and
  • a right to live free of pollution.

The Act includes a list of obligations of the State, and duties of individuals, in relation to the rights of Mother Earth, and the final article sets up a Mother Earth Defender’s Office.

The Act is called a ‘short’ Act — it was rushed through so that it could be presented at the Cancun UN Climate Change Conference later in December 2010. Cancun was another disaster, where Bolivia found itself isolated as other countries signed up to an accord that, as Bolivian negotiator Pablo Solon put it, will mean that ‘millions of people will die’. Wikileaked cables revealed that poor countries had been bullied into signing the accord. That’s why they love Julian Assange in the Andes!

And so, girls and boys, I have told you how the Rights of Mother Earth Act came to be. And now, what has come of it?

Well, let’s look at Bolivia first.

On 15 October 2012 — just five days ago! — the ‘long’ Rights of Mother Earth Act was promulgated. It is one big, ambitious document, covering just about everything, as you would expect: agricultural and livestock production, consumption, wealth distribution, forestry, mining, water, air, energy, wastes, climate change, incorporation of indigenous knowledge and values and climate justice. The Act elaborates in tremendous detail on the concept of suma qamaña, vivir bien, ‘live well’. It is clear from the Bill that this is conceived of as the key for achieving harmony with Mother Earth and respect for Her Rights. And also that Mother Earth is the axis around which other rights revolve.

Bolivians are also looking forward to a big event at the end of this year. As many of you will know, in December this year a long-count cycle in the Mayan calendar, a baktun comes to an end, and a new one begins. The Mayas, of course, are not an Andean people, but the Andeans, too, look forward to this time, so close upon us now.

For the Bolivian government, it signals the end of hatred, the end of capitalism, the end of selfishness, and the beginning of communitarianism. To welcome the new era, the government is organising a ceremony at Lake Titicaca, to be attended by 50,000 people, including international guests. The positive energy of the world is shifting, they say, from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, from the Himalayas to Lake Titicaca, from male to female, and the energy sign for the new age is female: Pachamama.

As some of you may know, though, the Morales government’s indigenous and environmental credentials have been damaged by a continuing dispute over the proposed construction of a highway in the Amazon basin. The highway, as originally planned, would have cut through the TIPNIS, an area recognised by the Morales government in 2009 as an indigenous territory of the Yuki, Yuracaré and Moxeño peoples. The project is strongly, not to say aggressively, supported by small farmers that would be served by the highway, as it would help them market their produce. Many of these farmers are Aymara and Quechua settlers in the region — the same background as Evo Morales himself, and MAS stalwarts from way back.

But the local indigenous opposition to the plan is organised and considerable — though it is not unanimous, and there is truth to the accusation that the opposition is backed by the white Bolivian bourgeoisie and ‘environmental’ non-government organisations funded by the USA — both of which are bent on bringing down the Morales government, as you might imagine.

Shockingly, the Morales government last year used violence to repress a march on the highway issue. The government has, for the time being, suspended the plan for the highway; but some damage to the government’s reputation has undoubtedly been done.

And the Morales government continues to encourage mining, on the grounds that it needs the revenue to fund its ambitious social program. There’s a mining boom on at the moment — tell us about it! — which holds the promise of unprecedented prosperity for Bolivia, which remains one of the poorest countries in South America (though it is no longer the poorest). An indigenous opposition, the Pachakuti Indigenous Movement, says this is wrong: there should be no more digging into the body of Pachamama. MAS says Pachamama is willing to provide for the legitimate needs of Her children. MAS also says that developed countries, which have been responsible for the damage to the Earth, should pay poor countries such as Bolivia an ‘environmental debt’ or ‘climate debt’, to compensate them for foregone development opportunities and assist them to repair damage and finance new environment-friendly technologies.

MAS officials can be very scathing about first-world, or first-world influenced, environmentalists who criticise Bolivia. For example, the vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera had this to say last year:

Environmentalists who’ve got Blackberrys, who travel by plane, who’ve got electricity and hot water, have hot showers at 7am and get to work at 10am, who’ve got everything they need and are financed by USAID: They aren’t fighting for Mother Earth, they’re fighting for an idea that comes from foreigners, that because they’ve used up their own forests it’s up to us to be the guardians of the forests.

In striving for suma qamaña (living well, not living better), ecology and economics still clash, even for the Bolivians. And perhaps they always will! The Morales regime optimistically refers to this as a ‘creative’ tension, one that doesn’t paralyse, but puts everything in motion: a contradiction that must be experienced, must be ridden.

More than optimism, this is a deep trust — a trust that a great change, a pachakuti, a turning of the world upside-down, is in progress.

Now let’s look beyond Bolivia. Spinning out from the 2010 Tiquipaya conference there are now quite a few international organisations taking up the cause, and the language, of the rights of Mother Earth. Among them: the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, the Centre for Earth Jurisprudence, and Earth Rights International.

In August this year, New Zealand recognised the legal personhood of the Whanaganui River. This made the river a legal person in — as the government spokesman put it — ‘the same way a company is, which will give it rights and interests’. This is the first time a river has had its rights recognised, and is an exciting landmark for the Earth Rights movement.

We on this side of the Pacific are linked to Bolivia through the great convections of the Earth’s atmosphere, the world-mothering air that wraps the whole world round. And in particular, the Southern Oscillation affecting the Pacific trade winds that flow from east to west. The El Niño phase of the Southern Oscillation brings drought to the Bolivian altiplano just as it does to us here on the east coast of Australia, and the cold La Niña phase brings heavy rainfall.

Now the tale is done, let us ride these winds home and find ourselves once more here, in this place, in this particular delicate ecosystem, interconnected to all the rest.

If we were Bolivians, and if there were an ofrenda before us, the yatiri would, once all the elements were placed, fold the bundle into a rectangle, and tie it up, with the ties forming a cross, the four directions.

So, to wrap up, we have gone through today the transformations that the land and people of Bolivia have created and continue to create through Pachamama and for Her. We have thus expanded our own awareness, performed an exercise to move beyond the known to conceive what might seem inconceivable — a world made whole again, in which the aliveness of all beings, and the interconnectedness of all beings, is acknowledged.

The yatiri, at the conclusion of the ritual, takes the wrapped-up bundle, burns it, and buries the ashes within the Earth. The participants then await the Pachamama’s response — the shift of energy that will bring about the change they seek, the new equilibrium that will favour their valid aspirations and yearnings.

We may each like to think of ways in which we might make, out of our work this afternoon, an offering to Pachamama/Australia/Gondwanaland/Gaia to nourish Her and give Her strength, and produce in us in turn the energy that will sustain us.

Some ways emerge from what we have done today. Article 9 of the Rights of Mother Earth Act sets out the Duties of persons. These are simple, and we can all do them.

 1. Defend and respect the rights of Mother Earth.

2. Promote harmony with Mother Earth in all areas of their relationship with other human communities and the rest of nature in life systems.

3. Actively participate, individually or collectively, in generating proposals directed towards respecting and defending the rights of Mother Earth.

 4. Adopt production practices and consumption habits in harmony with the rights of Mother Earth.

5. Ensure the sustainable use of Mother Earth’s components.

6. Report and condemn any action that threatens the rights of Mother Earth, her life systems and/or her components.

7. Respond to calls from relevant authorities or civil society organisations to perform actions aimed at conserving and/or protecting Mother Earth.

And absolutely non-coincidentally, there is a very appropriate ‘call’ being issued right now, which is to sign the petition calling for worldwide acceptance and implementation of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Over a hundred and twenty thousand people have already done so, and the aim is to get a million signatures:

Let us conclude by offering small silent thanks.

That’s it.

Thank you all so much for being here.


  1. […] Pachamama – Mother Earth […]

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Naturalistic Paganism

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