Eco-tethered liberation: the Bolivian Indigenous Experience

While much of what I have been describing so far might sound too abstract to be put into practice, the Bolivian peoples offer a more concrete example, I think, of how an eco-tethered liberation might unfold.

The context

Bolivia is a landlocked country in the heart of South America. Much of the country relies on seasonal melt from the glaciers capping its high Andean mountains. Yet, with global temperatures rising due to GHG emissions, Bolivia’s glaciers are melting rapidly, leaving one of the poorest countries in South America without sufficient water to meet its daily needs.

Google Earth image-Huayna Potosi and Zongo Glacier

Take the 2010 declaration by the Bolivian government at the culmination of the arguably disappointing UN Conference of the Parties (COP) in Cancun, Mexico. Highlighting the lack of attention from the world community to a liberation approach in environmental decision-making, the Bolivian government felt it crucial to underline the necessity of its peoples’ participation in deliberations that directly affect their welfare, as well as the welfare of the land, glaciers, and waters they rely upon:

Bolivia has participated in these negotiations in good faith and the hope that we could achieve an effective climate deal. We were prepared to compromise on many things, except the lives of our people. Sadly, that is what the world’s richest nations expect us to do.1

Bolivia Decries Adoption of Copenhagen Accord II without Consensus

True to the liberative framework, the Bolivians were demanding that they participate as agents in their own freedom from oppression. They sought reciprocity in the negotiations. Yet, for the industrialized countries at the UN gathering, global capitalism was taken as a non-negotiable starting point in all deliberations!

Speaking to Democracy Now! at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, Bolivia’s (then) president Evo Morales named this oppression, stating, “Capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity…. It’s plundering natural resources. It’s egoism and individualism. Therefore, in those promises of capitalism, there is no solidarity or complementarity. There’s no reciprocity.”2

Despite having been sidelined by the industrialized nations, Bolivians have proceeded, as much as they could, as architects and engineers of their own future. In 2010, the Bolivian government recognised the rights of Mother Nature as law within its nation, stating among other principles that “human activities, within the framework of plurality and diversity, should achieve a dynamic balance with the cycles and processes inherent in Mother Earth.”3

The majority of Bolivians are of Indigenous ancestry. Accompanying this development is the incorporation of the Indigenous philosophical ideas of the peoples of Bolivia, vivir bien, as it is called in Spanish, properly sumaq kawsay in Quechua. Loosely translated, sumaq kawsay means living well, though with the caution of not living better to the detriment of the many others in community.

Live well, not better

This concept of living well, not better implies that an individual’s welfare is closely tied to those many others not only in the human community but also within the natural world. Here – not unlike in the cosmological perspective described earlier – nature becomes a subject; human beings as the only source of values are therefore displaced. These Bolivian-Indigenous concepts break down society-nature dualisms. Their view is more biocentric where plants, animals, waters have feelings; they too are citizens.

The Bolivian project reflects the central point of how we are to understand an eco-tethered liberation: no one liberation can exist in isolation of the liberation of other subjects. Nature has become part of the social world where the other-than-human community enters into political deliberations. Where conflicts between the liberation of human and other-than-human subjects arise, the key is not to circumvent the liberation of the larger biotic community.

Liberation is inclusive, as “all Bolivians, to join the community of beings comprising Mother Earth, exercise rights under this Act, in a way that is consistent with their individual and collective rights.” Yet, the liberation appears tethered as well: “the exercise of individual rights is limited by the exercise of collective rights in the living systems of Mother Earth.” Negotiation in some form must take place because “any conflict of rights must be resolved in ways that do not irreversibly affect the functionality of living systems.”3

Bolivians have been telling us that the process of someone living well in this era of climate chaos is ineluctably tied to the welfare of those many others not only in the human community but in the natural world as well. A responsibility to the many others in community becomes the starting point in conversations, which occur at the bioregional level. Yet those many others participating in the conversations are primarily those most affected. And care is given to continuously ask the question, one the Bolivians were asking in 2010: Who is being left behind?


1Check out the Bolivian Ministry of External Relations Staff press briefing, “Bolivia DecriesAdoption of Copenhagen Accord II without Consensus,” (December 2018),

2Check out Democracy Now, (17 December, 2009),

3Pluralnational Legislative Assembly of Bolivia Government of Bolivia, #3. 

If you want to learn more about the Bolivian vivir bien experience? See Eduardo Gudynas, “Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow,” Development 54, no. 4 (2011): 441-447

Author: Simon Appolloni

I am a writer, teacher, publisher and lover of the universe

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