A New Approach to Solving Climate Change, Part 3: Bolivia

Here is the third installment of my series for Next Gen Journal on a new approach to global climate conferences. I hope you enjoy!

Bolivia has 10 million people, and 2.8 million live in the city of La Paz. Yet the country is the size of California. The Andes mountain range looms overhead, and the geography includes everything from glaciers to jungle. Bolivians have a close relationship to their natural surroundings. The land sustains them. The Andean religion arises from this relationship. It is centered on Pachamama, which is the Quechua word for Mother Earth. The people believe that nature is a living entity and that humans should live in a symbiotic relationship with Pachamama. For example, we harvest potatoes and, in turn, sacrifice a guinea pig: we take something, and then we give something. There is reciprocity, equality, and respect.

The awareness of the balance between humans and nature extends to global environmental problems. When it comes to climate change, Bolivians believe that melting glaciers and warming temperatures are Pachamama’s punishment for humans cutting down too many trees and mining the mountains. How has humanity compensated for taking these natural gifts? We haven’t, and Pachamama is angry.

For a country that wants to coexist with Pachamama, Bolivia still has many environmental dangers. Melting glaciers threaten water sources, unsafe mining practices pollute the land, and destructive agricultural practices are rampant. These human-made disasters arrive not because Bolivians have lost their connection to nature but because they must have some way to make money and sustain the economy. Bolivia is a resource-rich nation, and uninformed governments have created an economy based on exploiting natural resources. Yet these are people that are connected to nature; thus solutions have been crafted around this cultural outlook

I spent three months in Bolivia in 2010, during which time I interviewed Shamans, teenagers, and farmers. I wanted to understand how they thought about nature and current environmental problems. One 17-year-old said that the environment “is the air. If we contaminate it, we are hurting ourselves. We need to orient ourselves more with Pachamama.” Calixto, a Shaman, said “climate change is humanity’s fault. We angered our earth. We didn’t ask permission to take…We have to coexist with Pachamama and restore equality.”  David, a local farmer, had practical and spiritual insights. “I grew up in the countryside, and now we can’t grow lettuce because the soil is dry. Some plants are disappearing, and new plants and insects are appearing….If mountain snow goes, then water sources…dry up. I am an animal, too. The environment needs to be good for me to be good. My life depends on nature. Nature connects generations.”

These perspectives are drastically different from anything that I’ve heard in the United States. I have not heard many American youth talk about the environment in such a spiritual way. The 17-year-old was simply talking about what is important in his life. Calixto is not an intellectual or a politician, yet his theory about climate change is somewhat true. Humans have treated Mother Nature unfairly, and now we are paying the price. David can feel the effect of climate change on his livelihood, and he understands his connection with nature. Many Americans have not put these two pieces together.

Bolivia hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in 2010, a meeting of NGOs, international governments, scientists, and activists to discuss solutions to climate change. The goal was to include the voices of poor and developing countries in international climate change agreements. One of the main outcomes of the conference was a People’s Agreement that proposed alternative solutions to mitigating global warming and illustrated a different cultural perspective.

The focus of the text emphasizes the need to restore equilibrium with Mother Nature. Humans have dominated the planet, taking too much and not giving back. The earth is imbalanced, and our current path will only lead to destruction. We must recognize Mother Earth as the source of all life and ensure a healthy planet for ourselves and future generations. We must change the way we interact with nature and find ways to develop society and maintain Pachamama’s health. It is an essential human right.

This language is in stark contrast to a speech that President Obama gave at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference. Obama talked about how climate change posed a risk to national security and the economy. He stressed the need to change the way that we produce energy–to make it more sustainable for our economy and human life. The solution to climate change is “mitigation, transparency, financing.” Obama did not mention anthropogenic environmental degradation, nor did he mention the inextricable relationship between humans and their environment.

Bolivians need national policies that impose stringent environmental regulations. This is especially urgent in the mining and forestry sectors, where damage threatens the country’s ability to adapt to climate change. Solutions are also needed to maintain water supplies as glacial waters diminish. Green technologies will be needed to improve irrigation, harvest rain water, and purify glacial runoff.

The differences between the Cochabamba text and Obama’s speech and different mitigation strategies highlight how each country must approach climate change policy in their own way. Obama’s approach would not resonate with Bolivians, just as the spiritual perspective of Bolivians would not affect most Americans. This point further suggests the difficulties of bridging distinct cultural worldviews that international conferences face. Individualized and coordinated responses are needed from each government.


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