Tag Archives: Andes

The Original Sin of Church and State

I’ve been interested in First People, Native American, indigenous issues ever since I spent two weeks on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. I was working at a Lutheran camp based near Ft. Collins, CO and worked with High School youth groups on week-long service trips. We were invited by the local Arapahoe chief to participate in a sweat lodge. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m not so interested in adopting their spirituality or somehow trying to “go native” by putting a dream catcher in my car and wearing lots of topaz. I want to avoid appropriating and co-opting their culture, because it can be easily become another form of colonization, domination and oppression. However, I do believe indigenous people have a lot to teach and remind us about our own traditions and things we’ve lost.

I probably stole this from someone, but I believe that the original sin of the United States (as well as the majority of nation-states in existence today, particularly in the western hemisphere) is what we did to the people that first inhabited the places we now call home. Do we even need to go over the list? Genocide, cultural oppression and extinction, theft of land, desecration of sacred places, broken treaties. The list goes on and continues today. What we in the church often leave out of our theological equations and history of Christianity is the complicity of the church with the state in perpetrating such acts on indigenous people around the globe. I believe strongly that this is a (perhaps THE) most fundamental sin with which we, both church and state, must reckon. Our current economic, political, social arrangement is based on the historical and continuing exploitation of these people, their land and their resources.

Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous people in South America (maybe more than Guatemala which has the highest percent in Central America). Three groups make up most of that indigenous population; Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. There are some other groups mainly from the eastern lowlands that I don’t know much about. In Charagua, where I live, we are on the northern edge of the Chaco region, which is the historic home of the Guarani people extending through northern Paraguay and parts of Peru, Argentina and maybe Uruguay and Chile. Needless to say it’s a large region and crosses many of the arbitrary borders that were created by the Spanish. The Chaco War was basically a conflict between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, none of whose employees participated in the fighting over the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.

This fundamental sin has obviously done damage to indigenous communities everywhere, but some of the effects are more subtle than the more obvious. In working with a couple Guarani communities here, I’ve noticed that they have adopted a lot of industrial agriculture’s methods of production. While they continue to produce a lot of food for their own consumption, they primarily produce commodity crops like sorghum, sesame, corn and soy for sale to large agribusinesses. They use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to manage their crops. These are people who have lived on this land and handed down knowledge about the local flora and fauna for probably thousands of years. They survived in the harsh Chaco climate for millenia without growing these crops or using chemicals. Now this knowledge is all but lost. There are still lots of people with knowledge about local plants that are edible and good for medicinal purposes. MCC’s head of rural and agricultural programs in Bolivia, Patrocinio, showed me four different weeds that could be used to either make tea or a medicinal salve in my own backyard.

This is the effect of our civilization’s original sin. It harms the people with the knowledge we most need to survive on this planet. How many North Americans could name ten native plants that they could eat in their area? Not many. This is our basic relationship between people across the globe. All of our injustices and inequality come back historically to the exploitation of indigenous people and their land. We cannot simply wish that it remain in the past and somehow move on, forgiving and forgetting. This sin is continuing and we continue to participate in it.

If this is our original sin, for both church and state, how can we, as individuals and churches (I have little hope for the state), find redemption, reconciliation and salvation for our complicity? I would like to suggest that the first thing we can do is learn about the people that used to live on the land that now belongs to our house or are church. We must expand our imaginations past the lifetimes of ourselves and our family to the people that first encountered the white man in our area. How did those people live? How long did they live there? How did they survive? Are any of them still alive? What knowledge still remains from the thousands of years of experience living without oil and coal?

Then we must also expand our imaginations forward into the future. What will the world look like in seven generations if we continue down this path? If there is knowledge left from these people left, what can we learn from it? If there is no knowledge left, what can we do to begin learning about the places where we live? How can we partner with indigenous people to begin to steer this boat the right way and if it turns out to be the Titanic to help get people safely off?

I believe strongly that the salvation of our world (including the church) lies in our relationship to indigenous people around the world. What might this mean for Christian theology? If salvation, in some sense, lies beyond the church (perhaps in order for the church to reclaim her own tradition), what does that mean for how we understand what Jesus did and who the church is? I believe that Jesus birth, life, work, death and resurrection is good news for people that are marginalized and oppressed. Indigenous people are marginalized in a way that seems fundamentally different than others. They have been an obstacle in the way of progress and civilization. Now that we are reaching some of the limits of this project, indigenous people provide an alternative possibility for how to live in the world with each other and with nature.


The Leaf that Shakes the Tree

The Price of Fire by Benjamin Dangl is an excellent introduction to Bolivia’s recent history of resource wars and social movements. It is helpful that Dangl sets the events of recent years in the context of Bolivia’s longer history of exploitation, oppression and marginalization. He also sets many of the issues in a broader Latin American and global context. While Dangl explores the role of the United States, International Financial Institutions(IFIs) and multinational corporations in Bolivia and Latin America, I though it would be pertinent to focus on his chapters on the conflict over coca and the privatization of water. If you’re interested in more information on how the IFIs and United States manipulate the politics and economics of Latin American countries to their own benefit, you should read the rest of the book.

This is not a war against narco-traffickers, it’s a war against those who are working to survive. -Leonilda Zurita (cocalera union leader)

Coca has been a part of the religious and cultural practice of Andean indigenous peoples forever, certainly long before someone discovered it contained the key ingredient for a highly addictive drug known as cocaine. Coca leaf is not cocaine. In order to make cocaine it must be first turned into a paste through a chemical process. This paste is what gets exported from most developing countries. Like many other natural resources, the countries that produce the raw materials do not benefit from the processing of that material, even in the case of illegal drugs. Then the coca paste must be further processed before it becomes the white powder that Hollywood actors and supermodels snort for breakfast (with apologies to the glitterati).

Prior to 1952 the coca leaf was used in wine and medicines all over the world. Then the United Nations labeled it “an addictive substance detrimental to health” giving it the same status as cocaine. Bolivian president, Evo Morales, has been campaigning recently to get this status changed citing the WHO, who lists its numerous health benefits. I can personally attest that coca tea was very helpful with the altitude sickness we experienced in Cochabamaba when we first moved to Bolivia. I’ve also chewed the leaf on a number of occasions and have not experienced any deleterious effects. Just to make sure we’re clear… Coca leaf is NOT cocaine. They are related the same way that potatoes are related to vodka. There are essential differences between raw crops and the alcoholic or illegal substances that can be produced using them.

In contrast to its use in developed countries, in Bolivia coca is used “to relieve hunger, fatigue, sickness, to increase oxygen flow to the brain at high altitudes, and as a religious and cultural symbol” (37). It is an integral part of the fabric of Bolivian and Andean society. Coca is used in religious rituals by indigenous Quechua and Aymara people. In the Chapare region, where much of Bolivia’s coca crop is grown, cocaleros (coca farmers) depend on coca for survival. There have been many attempts to supplant the crop with others to reduce production, but they have all failed for various reasons, including poor growing conditions, lack of technical knowledge or infrastructure, difficulties in transportation or storage, and lack of a market. Coca continues to be the most economic crop to grow in this region.

So, why does the United States focus its efforts in the “War on Drugs” on small producers who have a legitimate market and no alternatives for survival? Why not focus on the middle men producing coca paste, trafficking cocaine through Latin America and the United States? God forbid that we focus attention on the demand coming from “developed” countries which has not decreased one bit during the decades of the War on Drugs! Here are Dangl’s thoughts on why Washington uses this strategy,

Washington’s construction of the War on Drugs in Latin America coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the subsequent “threat” of communism in Latin America. The War on Drugs conveniently replaced the US-backed war on communism as a reason for US military intervention in Latin American countries.

Obviously this is part of a broader perspective on US intervention and role in global affairs, but I have yet to hear any better explanation for this misguided and ineffective policy. The reality on the ground of the eradication policy has been brutal and bloody. Many of the military leading the eradication programs were trained at the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, GA (which has since changed its name to something harder to remember). Graduates from this US-sponsored military school have gone on to high offices in Latin American dictatorships and are responsible for numerous human rights violations. Notorious Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer was inducted into the SOA’s Hall of Fame. Bolivia sent an average of 155 soldiers annually to the SOA between1967 and 1979. (46) Militarization of the Chapare region has resulted in 60 deaths of cocaleros since implementation in the 1980s, and few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice (45). Leonilda Zurita a union organizer has been “jailed and harassed by police and military forces in anti-narcotic efforts.” (40) Another coca farmer, Isaura, said, “If you sit in the middle of the coca field while they come to eradicate it, they will kill you. You have to just sit and watch silently.” (45-46) Dangl ironically points out the difference between US policy and the reality on the ground.

[M]any security forces chew coca during long days of eradication. A commanding officer at an eradication camp [said], “You can’t really expect these guys to have the stamina to continue eradicating without the coca leaf.” Police and military forces also chew coca during street confrontations with protestors. (44)

Current President Evo Morales rose through the ranks of the coca unions in the Chapare, experiencing first hand the violence of the eradication policies, before becoming elected president. Morales was helped in the previous 2002 elections by US Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha. In response to Morales’ claim that the US Embassy threatened to kill him, Rocha denied the accusation and went on to say, “Evo Morales also said…that he’ll stop the US anti-coca program. I want to remind Bolivians, California will only buy your natural gas if Bolivia is not involved in cocaine. Citizens of Bolivia, open your eyes. The future of your children and families is in your hands” (51). This is not an isolated threat either. USAID has refused to work with cocalero unions further undermining their own programs to implement alternative development strategies.

While policies have changed drastically in recent years under the Morales administration, the legacy of militarization and eradication continues. There is a cooperative eradication effort in the Chapare region now between growers and security forces to adhere to previous president Carlos Mesa’s policy of one cato (1,600 square meters) of coca per family. One cato brings in $70-110 per month. Not much for a family of any size to live on. While conditions have improved in the Chapare, the Yungas growing region continues to experience tension under the eradication program, because of resistance to the one cato policy. Morales also approved actions on September 29, 2006 against coca growers in the Yungas where two growers were killed.

Coca continues as a symbol of resistance to US imperialism, as well as of indigenous, religious and cultural heritage. It seems misguided and wrong-headed to punish people who have a legitimate economic and cultural claim to the coca plant for the actions of others who have turned it into a highly addictive drug. As I said before, this is what happens in the global economy raw materials are extracted from developing countries in order to benefit developed countries whether the products are legal or illegal.

The Law of Mother Earth

Perhaps the title sounds more like a metaphor, but Evo Morales and the social movements in Bolivia are trying to make it a reality. According to an article from Yes! Magazine,

The law would give nature legal rights, specifically the rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration. Bolivia’s law mandates a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature. It calls for public policy to be guided by Sumaj Kawsay (an indigenous concept meaning “living well,” or living in harmony with nature and people), rather than the current focus on producing more goods and stimulating consumption.

In practical terms, the law requires the government to transition from non-renewable to renewable energy; to develop new economic indicators that will assess the ecological impact of all economic activity; to carry out ecological audits of all private and state companies; to regulate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to develop policies of food and renewable energy sovereignty; to research and invest resources in energy efficiency, ecological practices, and organic agriculture; and to require all companies and individuals to be accountable for environmental contamination with a duty to restore damaged environments.

We’ve given rights to individuals and corporations, rights concerning private property, and organized our societies and economies based on these rights. Why should these be the only rights that guide is in how we decide our economic life should be? Yes, this is an imaginative leap on the part of Bolivia, but one that people here recognize is more and more a necessity and an emergency. How this works out practically will have to be seen. Again from the article,

A major obstacle is the fact that Bolivia is structurally dependent on extractive industries. Since the discovery of silver by the Spanish in the 16th Century, Bolivia’s history has been tied to ruthless exploitation of its people and its environment in order to transfer wealth to the richest countries; poet and historian Eduardo Galeano’s famous book Open Veins draws largely on the brutal story of how Bolivia’s exploitation fuelled the industrial expansion of Europe. In 2010, 70 percent of Bolivia’s exports were still in the form of minerals, gas, and oil. This structural dependence will be very difficult to unravel.

This is the world we have created. Having the imagination and lack of fear to dream of another world is the first step, but making it a reality and working out the practical steps necessary is quite another. A comment on the article by Marcelo Arze caught my attention, since it was from a Bolivian conservationist. He points out (without any editing and I dare you to do better in Spanish),

Based on day to day news you can see that the bolivian vicepresident is anouncing the oppening of the agricultural frontier in areas with forestry vocation in the amazon basin, known to have poor soil for agriculture, destroying in the process rich biodiversity areas.

Or hearing the environmental vice-ministry aproving the oppening of roads disecting protected areas such as Isiboro Sécure Nat. Park or aproving oil exploration in Madidi National Park, the most biodiverse Park in the world, or allowing to become the country to have more deforestation per capita or the most polluting country per capita due to the common practice of slash and burn, destroying forest to increasse the agricultural frontier.

The law is only addresedd to the international oppinion, but bolivian environmental problems, are lot worst than they seem and sometimes i feel that the environmentalists are lossing the battle.

This is the conundrum of attempting to create another world, particularly from within the halls of power. This is also the conundrum of a country like Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America partly because of continued exploitation by other countries whether Spain in the 16th century or Bechtel in the 21st century. Bolivia is also experiencing the effects of climate change more than some other countries. This puts it in a position at the very bottom where it is strangled by the problems of both development and climate change. This presents both an enormous hurdle and a huge opportunity. Bolivia’s survival seems to depend on coming up with new ways of organizing economic life that don’t depend on the exploitive global system of extraction of non-renewables.

So, Bolivia must solve two problems at once. This is very difficult to do from government palaces, even for the MAS and Evo Morales who have some nice sounding ideals. The reality of running the country involves money. There have been strikes all over the country by many sectors over the last month demanding higher wages. Morales’ response at one point was simply, “No hay plata” (There is no money). While my more cynical and conservative friends remark that he’s probably just lining his pockets (a distinct possibility given the history of recent administrations), I tend to think he’s telling the truth, or some respectable version of it. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Bolivia needs development of some sort to improve the lives of its people, but the opportunities for development in agriculture and industry run counter to the stated goals of the administration to protect Pachamama (Mother Earth) and move in a more sustainable direction.

I don’t think I could put it better than Raul Prada of Pacto de Unidad did in a quote from the article,

It is going to be difficult to transit from an extractive economy. We clearly can’t close mines straight away, but we can develop a model where this economy has less and less weight. It will need policies developed in participation with movements, particularly in areas such as food sovereignty. It will need redirection of investment and policies towards different ecological models of development. It will need the cooperation of the international community to develop regional economies that complement each other…Our ecological and social crisis is not just a problem for Bolivia or Ecuador; it is a problem for all of us. We need to pull together peoples, researchers, and communities to develop real concrete alternatives so that the dominant systems of exploitation don’t just continue by default. This is not an easy task, but I believe with international solidarity, we can and must succeed.

Respect Your Pachamama

Leonardo Boff mentioned the concept of Pachamama in an interview I blogged about recently. This comes from the Andean worldview of indigenous people in South America including many in Bolivia. I’m not an expert on Andean indigenous religion, but I though I’d try to take a stab at describing what I’ve learned about this idea and how it might be helpful to our view of the earth.

Bolivia has the largest population of indigenous people in Latin America (Guatemala has the most in Central America). Most of these people are Aymara and Quechua and come from the altiplano region, a flat plain between the two ridges of the Andes mountain range. There are other indigenous people in Bolivia who come from the lowlands and do not share the Andean worldview which is a point of contention in Bolivian politics.

Most of what I learned about the Andean worldview and concept of Pachamama comes from an incredible Bolivian woman who works at the Maryknoll Institute for Languages in Cochabamba. She is a very visual and tactile person, because the whole time she was explaining this to us she was cutting construction paper and creating these visual representations of what she described. Here’s what I gleaned from our conversation which keep in mind was in Spanish and I’m not yet fluent. Any gaps in understanding our most certainly my fault.

Kicking the Flows201101171442.jpg

The Andean view of the world could best be illustrated with a vin diagram. Some people use three vertical linear levels representing the sky, earth and underworld, but according to this teacher that is probably not an accurate illustration. It is better to use a vin diagram with three circles overlapping. The circles represent the three pachas or realms. The realm of the sky is where birds, clouds and things having to do with the sky live. This realm represents spiritual things like god or ancestors. The pachamama is the realm of the earth. This is the realm that gives us life. It includes animals, plants, humans and the earth. The realm under the earth is considered the underworld. It represents death and the unknown.

These realms are not separate from each other as a vertical linear diagram might indicate. Instead they overlap. Birds live in trees and often get their food from the realm of pachamama, even though they belong to the pacha of the sky. The plants and animals belonging to pachamama need air, sun and rain to live. The underworld is connected to pachamama through the world under our feet. Death is part of the flows that keep balance and the unknown is part of our existence. Honestly, I don’t completely understand the underworld and its relationship to pachamama or the realm of the sky. I tend to put it into categories and boxes that are more familiar to me, mainly agriculture and the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Between each of these realms there is a two-way flow. They overlap, but there is also an exchange between them as described above in the ways they overlap. The ideal is for everything to be in balance between these realms. The center of the vin diagram represents the convergence of these three realms. So, when one of these realms is out of balance it affects the other two. Everything is interconnected.

Even though I feel I don’t understand the underworld realm very well, one example might shed light on how it is perceived. In Bolivia when miners go into mines they will often make an offering to “Tíe” (not sure about spelling). This is like the god or ruler of the underworld and is depicted as a goat-like figure which resembles our caricatures of Satan. When the Spanish Catholics conquered this area of South America and began mining for silver and later tin, it naturally appeared to them that these pagan people were making an offering to the devil. This is not the case.

In the Andean worldview opening a huge hole in the ground and taking things from the realm of the underworld is a pretty scary venture. Not only is this the realm of death and the unknown, but such action interrupts the natural and healthy flows between the three pachas. The offering given to “Tíe” is an effort to correct the imbalance that the miners are participating in, not an offering to the devil.

Worshipping the Earth?

Many of the Christians here in Bolivia and elsewhere quickly become nervous around indigenous religions, because of the way they understand our relationship to the earth. You can see in the above example how foreign this understanding is to Christians. The concern usually revolves around the idea that these religious beliefs and worldview amounts to worshipping the earth. If this means simply giving something the reverence it is due then I agree that the Andean worldview worships the earth. However, the meaning usually implies some sort of pantheism, that they actually believe that the earth is god. This does not seem to be the case in my limited understanding. In fact, I think this mistake is often made when trying to interpret indigenous religions and/or worldviews around the world. Our hermeneutic, or way of interpreting, these beliefs is only in terms of our own Christian doctrines. This causes a lot of confusion. You cannot simply equate cultural and religious symbols on a one-to-one basis. They must first be understood on their own terms as much as possible. Much harm has been done in Christian missions through the centuries, because of this kind of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

What this view of our relationship to the earth reminds us (because I believe it is inherent in our own tradition) that all of creation is interdependent and interconnected. The Western scientific worldview posits a disconnected and independent existence for human beings. Science can (though not necessarily) result in a reductionistic and atomistic view of the world in which everything is broken down into its component parts and interrelationships are often ignored or called anomalies. I’ve talked to an agricultural scientist at the Texas A&M research station in Stephenville who has found this to be true even in his own field which studies animals, plants, crops, etc., but ignores and often does not fund research that studies the relationships between these fields.

I continue to believe that God is the God of the whole world and truth is found in the diversity of human expressions of belief throughout the world. I don’t believe in some sort of universal religion which ultimately does violence to the diversity of human expression, but marvel that truth is revealed also beyond the borders of the church.