The following reflection, written by Chloe Schwabe, faith-economy-ecology program director, and published in the November-December 2016 issue of NewsNotes, is the last in our year-long series of opening articles in NewsNotes that examines the teachings of Pope Francis in Laudato Si’.
In Bolivia, it is common for people to celebrate a ritual known as Q’oa (“smoke offering”) on the first Friday of each month. Families, businesses, friends, and communities gather together a mixture of seeds, cocoa, animal fur, and other objects and lay them out on a special offering plate to Pachamama (Mother Earth). The offering is then burned over charcoal as a symbol of reciprocity to bring abundance and well-being for the community.
I had the opportunity to walk through the streets of the city of Cochabamba during the Q’oa ritual this past October while visiting the Maryknoll Latin American Mission Center. I saw families and businesses burning the Q’oa plates and I joined in the celebration with a large gathering at a local club.
The Q’oa ritual is a beautiful display of the Andean concept of Buen Vivir or “good life.” Indigenous intellectuals such as Gustavo Soto Santiesteban describe Buen Vivir as a system of reciprocal and interconnected relationships. Buen Vivir promotes cooperativism, community, and a circular, harmonious relationship with all life and nature. It contrasts with the Western paradigm of domination of top-down linear thinking, separation of nature and humanity, competition and divisions.
Pope Francis offers a vision similar to Buen Vivir in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, which also critiques the dominant development paradigm. He promotes “integral ecology,” which he describes as “Taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us.”(225)
The pope speaks about the interrelationship of creation and humanity, “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.” (138) “We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behavior patterns, and the ways it grasps reality … Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (138)
However, Santiesban has described contemporary Bolivians reinterpreting the Buen Vivir tradition and values to fit the dominant paradigm. For instance, sometimes people include requests for more wealth or some other personal petition when burning their offerings during Q’oa rituals.
The reinterpretation of Buen Vivir can be seen in government policies as well.
For example, Cochabamba is experiencing its worst drought in twenty years largely due to the disappearance of Andean glaciers and the recurrent El Niño meteorological phenomenon – both caused by climate change. Maryknoll Missioners and many families in Bolivia have little to no running water. When there is water flowing from the taps, people stockpile it in bathtubs, buckets, and sinks. At various international meetings concerning climate change, the government of Bolivia has advocated for Buen Vivir policies such as language on the rights of nature in the Paris Climate Agreement and more support for developing countries to adapt to impacts of climate change. Yet, domestically, the government’s economic model under President Evo Morales is based largely on the extraction of natural resources such as natural gas, petroleum and hydropower which include fossil fuels that are destructive to Pachamama.
While Bolivia’s extractives policy is not that different from other countries with natural resource wealth, it stands in direct contrast to their Buen Vivir policy. In particular, the government is allowing more and more Chinese companies, propelled by rising demand for energy and minerals in China, to finance extractive projects in Bolivia. Chinese companies have been repeatedly criticized across Latin America and Africa for weak environmental and human rights standards.
Equally egregious is the country’s import of cheap, dirty diesel fuel from Venezuela which pollutes the air and creates a serious threat to public health. Cochabamba lies in a bowl-like crater and the resulting cloud of smog is so thick that it sometimes blocks the view of the surrounding mountains.
The most controversial project in Bolivia right now is a planned road and oil and gas extraction projects in Tipnis National Park, including the indigenous territories of the Moxeño-Trinitario, Yuracaré, and Chimáne peoples. Indigenous peoples and those following the teachings of Laudato Si’ need to continue to seek dialogue and reframe the dominant paradigm to respect the interconnectedness of relationships.