Climates of Anti-Blackness: Religion, Race and Environmental Politics in Bolivia

Mareike Winchell

The sunset in Santa Ana de Chiquitos, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, by Osireg. (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It was sweltering — nearly 90 degrees. The thatched roof of the community building provided limited relief. We pulled up chairs diagonally, maneuvering to miss the sun’s imposing rays. These thatched buildings have emerged as sites of interest in media accounts depicting makeshift shelters as evidence of illicit migrants who had recently settled in the dry Chiquitanos forests in lowland Bolivia. We were there to initiate a community-driven ecological project. After introducing myself, I passed out a one-page handout. I crafted it late the night before, at the behest of Benito Aguilar, then-President of the Centro de Comunidades Chiquitanos Turubó. Benito and his coworkers had gently but firmly rejected my idea of being a mere researcher. To work with them, they insisted, I would have to do something. And so there I was, on a hot day in August 2022, leading a workshop on organic horticulture.

I prepared a presentation and pamphlet focused on how to capture carbon in the soil, thereby increasing soil fertility and counteracting climate change. Carbón, or coal, was also the name used by residents and firefighters to describe the underbrush that burned in the wildfires only yards from the village, part of a torrent of megafires worldwide since 2000. According to conservative media, it was migrants’ lack of awareness of the combustibility of such underbrush that led to the wildfires. Migrants’ failed knowledge of the land, and failed belonging in place, was thereby used to assign blame for the fires. 

But the accounts I encountered in Dolores complicated narratives both of migrant blame and of recent arrival. After my presentation, a man who belonged to the village’s volunteer firefighting group said, “We have been affected by the incendios.” He described the lack of water, low humidity, and how “the climate [change] makes us vulnerable.” It has led to extreme variations in temperature that kill livestock. There were also droughts and the pandemic. At this point, the village cacique or mayor chimed in: “This community has just completed 350 years. This community has fought to live here, and for water. They brought water from 1 to 10 kilometers away to conserve this form of life, to not abandon their community. The people here are fighters who value their Land (su Terreno), who struggle for their animals.”

Massive wildfires erupted across Bolivia only months before the violent ousting of the country’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales Ayma, in 2019. Media critics depicted his mainly-Indigenous followers as ghostly “invaders,” who, having received property through his government, were using fires to clear land for agriculture. While the village of Dolores had existed even before the expansion of Jesuit missions in the 17th century, today its residents (who come from a range of Indigenous groups including Chiquitano, Ayoreo, Guaraní, and highland Quechua) are cast as recent arrivals. Both the Bolivian wildfires and the ways they place blame on so-called Indigenous migrants offer insight into the racialization of climate politics, including the authoritarian tendencies of environmentalisms that preserve nature’s purity and reproduce narratives of racialized guilt and responsibility. 

This is an interactive map from Global Forest Watch. It explores the state of forests worldwide by analyzing tree cover change using satellite data. Their website provides more information about deforestation rates and other land use practices, forest fires, forest communities, biodiversity and much more.

My ongoing research examines the ways that wildfires are swept up in racialized disagreements about Bolivia’s future, about who is to blame for wildfires, and who stands to benefit from their extinguishing. Uncontrolled wildfires ravaged this area in 2017 and 2018, destroying harvests, limiting access to the main road and town, and giving local children severe bronchitis. Dolores residents narrated these fires as continuous with a series of displacing waves, from Jesuit missions to colonial and then neo-colonial agricultural markets in beef and soy. And against a more isolated treatment of nature as outside history, Dolores residents instead described themselves as “personas luchadores” — fighters — against durative human and environmental injuries, or chronicity, to which the 2019 megafires belonged.

Ongoing collaborative ethnography with lowland Indigenous organizers in Chiquitanos has allowed me to learn about ecological projects that respond to such chronicity through forms of organizing that toggle between conservationism and statist projects of land redistribution. These projects strive to overcome the human divisions installed by recent political events in Bolivia, but they also establish new alliances between ancestors, deceased relatives, forest rangers, and Indigenous conservationists. In fact, alongside the ecological project in Dolores, the organization is also involved in efforts to expand potable water and electricity to villages on the edges of protected parklands. Following the cue of Turubó organizers, in what follows, I strive to think of the climate as environmental phenomena and as racialized conditions, what Christina Sharpe calls “the weather” of anti-Blackness. In Bolivia, climate is drawn into entrenched debates about who holds legitimate rights not only to land, but also to the nation’s ecological future. What would answerability to such a climate look like?

Political Theologies of Fire

Bolivian President Evo Morales’ departure, rising disenchantment with his government and its Earth Rights policies, and the emergence of a new anti-Indigenous interim government occurred in the backdrop of massive 2018 and 2019 wildfires. The 2019 coup against his Movement Toward Socialism party government was accompanied by far-right calls to “bring God back” into the corridors of government. Carrying a giant Bible, opponents promised to stamp out the perceived idolatry, and even satanism, of Indigenous rites and the legal protections that Morales’ government had sought to recognize and protect. At the same time that anti-Indigenous critics pushed for techno-scientific solutions to the wildfires, they decried Indigenous ritual practices as “satanic rites,” blamed Quechua migrants’ ignorance for the fires, and pledged to remove the Presidential palace — and the nation — of such demonic forces. In particular, these efforts targeted Pachamamismo, a form of political commitment centered on the Pachamama, a Quechua and Aymara more-than-human being associated with fertility and soil.

To understand these events, I am interested in exploring the role of religion in public conversations about climate change. This can offer scholars a new point of insight both into climate change denialism and, in Bolivia as elsewhere, the unexpected alliances that are being forged out of unwitting convergences of nationalism, religious revivalist movements, emergent ecological nativisms, and other global movements that rest on redefining and reclaiming religion, broadly conceived (Kaunui 2017). This task is especially urgent in places like Bolivia where discourses of racialized climate blame have become tools of anti-Indigenous authoritarianism. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have dismissed climate science as a liberal conspiracy, Bolsonaro going so far as to call Amazonian forest fires a “lie.”. But in Bolivia, politicians on the right and left have been keen to acknowledge the destructive impacts of recent megafires. Rather than denying their force, politicians have used fires and climate change to inflame often-racialized tensions. They have done so in ways that also evoke various kinds of other-than-human force, including theological grammars of divine power as well as the agency of deities or spirits that are housed in stone, water, or soil. As scholars have shown, for some, climate change registers God’s ire at environmental change, including petroleum extraction, or elsewhere it can point to the resistance of earth-beings to arrangements of neo-colonial mining. Pluralizing theology, which I take less as a set of textual bases for religion and more as the popularization and public update of nonhuman agencies, can expand our thinking about climate justice in light of this uneasy proliferation of competing agencies, notions of human deservingness, and moral paradigms of guilt and accountability.

Climate, Decolonization, and Other-than-Human Entanglements

Appreciation for the force of nonhuman actors is not new. For instance, scholars of new materialisms and the ontological turn center non-human forms of agency, recasting fire as an elemental agent. In accordance with this view, fire is symptomatic of the Anthropocene as an era defined both by human populations as “natural” forces that transform planetary cycles, and — in popularizations of this term — to mark a new, perhaps even sublime time in history when human designs explicitly confront their limits (Pyne 2022; Schmitt 2006). Taking up the intersections of climate and religiosity from the ground in Bolivia, I am interested in how climatic occurrences and fire agencies converge with popular religiosities and post-liberal politics. 

To understand this puzzle, we can draw insights from two fields of scholarly debate: first, studies of materialism or post-humanisms that refocus attention on material landscapes, object worlds, and agents in order to remedy an over-emphasis on language and discourse in post-structuralist approaches; and long-run Indigenous studies scholarship that elaborates nonhuman agencies and agents, including of climate and earth (Davis and Todd 2018, Qitsualik 1998, Kuptana 1996). That non-human actors “enact” and thereby produce physical life illuminates forms of action at odds with narratives of human exceptionalism that treat people as uniquely creative and nature as inert and which therefore overlook the relations of reciprocity, touch, and care that come to jointly produce and create entities (Barad 2007: 175: Haraway 2008: 41). 

Indigenous studies scholars have long considered climate (Todd 2016) beyond the scope of liberal and capitalist paradigms. Since the 1970s, Indigenous studies scholarship has focused on illuminating forms of personhood and relations of care toward entities that, to many non-Indigenous persons and states, appear merely as nature. These include, for instance, the Inuit conception of climate or Sila as breath, air, sky and raw life force. Indigenous philosophers such as Vine Deloria Jr., and Vanessa Watts emphasize the importance of posthumanism for a decolonial climate politics (see also Sundberg 2013 and Whyte 2018). Scholarly and activist insistence on climate as a ground of political organizing beyond the frame of human exceptionalism has grown in visibility and scope given highly media-influenced climate mobilizations and policy initiatives worldwide.

As Zoe Todd points out, this work has been largely overshadowed by non-Indigenous scholarship on post-humanism, cosmopolitics and the ontological turn, such as influential work by Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour, and Isabelle Stengers. In South America, anthropologists like Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Philippe Descola describe Amazonian Indigenous practices as evidence of the slippages of nature and culture and ethical entanglements that supersede frameworks of human reason and exceptionalism. Critics charge that these efforts to recuperate a notion of ontological plurality through the figure of radical (Indigenous) alterity uncannily echo secular ideas of the religious as a premodern, animistic residue (Fernando 2017). Fetishizing such alterity as a resource for an alternate future (Bessire and Bond 2014) against the trappings of Western reason risks installing an overly uniform portrait of the modern. This is particularly so in parts of the world where the colonization of land and people was supported by Christian eschatologies (Molina 2017), and hence where Latour’s understanding of the modern division of nature from society and science from religion does not hold. 

In current research, I build on these debates to ask how climate — both as a natural condition and as a problem that various people, gods, saints, and other-than-humans address and confront — can open up new answers to the question of environmental destruction. The collaborative design of this research reflects my commitment to acknowledge “Indigenous epistemologies and locations” as well as academic structures and citational hierarchies. How might centering incompatibilities across competing ontological forces — which tend to be tethered either to Protestant frameworks of the “supernatural” or to forms of nonhuman agency with deeply familiar material corollaries — reveal new fault lines and unlikely alliances across divergent spaces of climate mitigation? Despite the critiques of the ontological turn I described earlier, renewed attention to Indigenous cosmological and ontological systems can teach us about Indigenous refusals to engage with the world in ways that ascribe to modern Western conceptions of property and resources. This is a question that complicates more optimistic accounts of Rights of Nature legislation as introducing an equivalence to existing Indigenous traditions of ecological stewardship (see Johnson 2017 and Tănăsescu 2023). Conversely, this approach can also reveal the concealed racial theologies that undergird global, ostensibly secular orientations to climate change and green futures.

This interest fits with new scholarship that re-assesses the integrity of the “modern” as divorced from notions of animism, sacredness, or spirituality. Along these lines, Vincent Lloyd asks: is the idea of the “native” (as rootedness and attachment to land) resistant to secular modernity, or might it be partly its product or symptom? This question is crucial given how other-than-humans have re-emerged publicly in Peru and Chile, in Bolivian revivalist politics, in Mapuche land struggles, and in global Rights of Nature movements. As of 2021, more than 17 countries had rights of nature legislation. Yet, the question remains: what do such appeals to the sacred do? Are they new, or do they instead signal enduring ontological warfare? After all, across the Americas, monotheism underwrote systems of rule that secured white settlers access to land, labor, and the souls of the colonized. Are they resistant to such formations, or do such Earth Rights revivalisms instead express yet another moment of capture, where notions of radical alterity act to soothe settler anxieties with the (climatic) disasters that Western colonialism has wrought? What contending claims to life and futurity undergird the revival of other-than-human agencies vis-à-vis a rapidly heating planet?

Whose Future? Scientific Entanglements and Settler Complicities 

Rather than see appeals to religiosity and other-than-human care as outside of Western climate science and new green policy initiatives in Bolivia, in ongoing research, I am interested in understanding how religious and ontological frameworks shape climate change mitigation. In Bolivia, as elsewhere, policy initiatives and public conversations about climate change, environmental destruction, and verdant futures frequently tap into older, racialized, narratives about what lives should be protected, on the one hand, and what lives must be consigned under the aegis of uncanny and illicit presences on the other. For instance, in Bolivia, one area of climate change mitigation has focused on shifting the beef industry away from cows that graze on deforested land. Efforts like these secure non-Indigenous landowners continued revenue and profits. They thereby leave existing racial hierarchies of property entirely intact.

Fire often appears as a symptom of the end-times, with megafires sounding alarm bells of waning democracy, global environmental crisis, and self-devouring capitalism. Yet, in grounded landscapes and through collaborative work among Indigenous fire managers, climate scientists, scholars, and ecological activists, wildfires and the histories they compress and extend are being reclaimed. For Bolivians living at the edges of exclusionary national parks, conservation projects, and expanding Mennonite farms, wildfires and community-based climate justice efforts provide occasions to reflect on enduring histories of environmental and propertied dispossession. Such open histories unseat settler fantasies of empty environments that paint present-day suffering as new: a sort of nascent climate apocalypse (see Whyte 2018 and Masco 2017). Unlike settler narratives of climate crisis as new or exceptional, interlocutors in Dolores situate megafires’ destruction in sedimented, deeply racialized patterns of adjudicating worthy and unworthy life. 

In this article, I have described how in Bolivia, urban climate mitigation efforts frequently reproduce visions of racialized blame that then support conservative political calls to expel Indigenous migrants from their land and from protected parks. Here, non-Indigenous experts’ promises to “save” people and ecologies rely on casting aside an undeserving class of persons who must be displaced, assimilated, or cleansed of excessive alterity through exposure to modern (environmental) reason. This narrative subtly revives older paradigms, producing a sort of environmental manifest destiny. But a question remains: is climate captured by this narrative, and if not, then what resources exist for addressing climate not only as environmental phenomena but also as a racialized paradigm for separating deserving from undeserving life? Community-based organizing around megafires in Chiquitos points to environmental efforts that strive to supersede the human and ontological divisions of mainstream climate science, thereby refuting the separation of climate change from enduring experiences of Indigenous land dispossession and racial violence.♦

Mareike Winchell is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on the racialization of property in light of ongoing histories of Indigenous land dispossession, and how such formations find new expression in contemporary engagements with environmental change.

Recommended Citation

Winchell, Mareike. “Climates of Anti-Blackness: Religion, Race and Environmental Politics in Bolivia.” Canopy Forum, June 6, 2023.