Evo Morales, who resigned as president of Bolivia and sought asylum in Mexico amid political turmoil earlier this month, repeatedly proclaimed himself a guardian of “Pachamama,” also known as Mother Earth. But to some indigenous Bolivians, his relationship with the planet is a complicated one.
Indigenous people form a majority in Bolivia. The two biggest groups, Aymara and Quechua, have roots in the Andean highlands, while the remaining 34 are from the lowlands, an area that includes the Amazon rainforest. As Bolivia’s first indigenous leader — his family is Aymara — Morales vowed to fight for Bolivia’s indigenous communities by amplifying their voices and advocating for their cultural values, including the value of protecting land and nature.
María José Bejarano De Oliveira, an 18-year-old member of the Chiquitano nation in the eastern lowlands, was one of many indigenous Bolivians who bought Morales’ promises. “Since we were tired of the traditional politicians who governed our country with false promises of substantial changes in social, economic, and cultural aspects that were not kept, the choice was made to believe in the supposed Aymara indigenous leader,” De Oliveira told Grist in Spanish in an email.
But when it came to the environment —and especially the Amazon — Morales’ actions were at odds with his rhetoric. When raging fires blanketed vast swaths of the Amazon a couple of months ago, much of the world focused on Brazil and its far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro. But in Bolivia, more than 4.2 million acres of land were up in flames. To many frustrated environmentalists and Bolivians, there was only one person to blame: Evo Morales.
Morales, a former coca farmer and llama herder, did have many environmental wins during his presidency. In 2010, he hosted a climate change conference in the city of Cochabamba and passed Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth, the first law in the world to recognize nature’s rights as equal to human rights. He also sponsored a successful U.N. resolution to recognize access to clean water and sanitation as human rights. He even brought forth an ambitious climate pledge for the Paris Agreement.
“In the first stage of his administration, we thought that he would fulfill his campaign promises to defend the indigenous people of Bolivia and Mother Earth,” said De Oliveira. “But it’s clear that in terms of real-life actions, he didn’t fulfill them.”
Morales’ image as a defender of Pachamama took a turn in the months before his ouster. In July, a month before the fires began, Morales signed legislation that weakened restrictions on land-clearing fires in the Bolivian Amazon. The law encouraged slashing and burning to create arable land for cattle ranching and soy farming. He even sent “migrant farmers” from his own tribe to occupy the eastern lowlands.
The move might seem surprising, given his rhetoric on protecting the environment. But Morales had his eye on agribusiness as a means to boost the country’s economy. His government aimed to make Bolivia a global food supplier so that agricultural commodities could join petroleum gas as a key Bolivian export.
In just a few weeks, farmers and ranchers — through the practice of “controlled burning” — burned nearly 2 million acres of forest in protected reserves. When Bolivia’s dry season arrived in August, the flames got less controlled. Burning and drought are something of a vicious cycle in Bolivia: increased burning restricts the climate’s ability to recycle precipitation, which in turn leads to severe droughts and a heightened risk of disastrous wildfires.
In early September, protestors took to the streets of Bolivia demanding that Morales declare a national disaster. Some chants even went as far as calling him a “murderer of nature” for not taking immediate action on the fires. Most of the protestors came from indigenous groups living in and near the Amazon. According to one source, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation for himself and his organization, many of the protestors “felt betrayed” by their country’s first indigenous leader.
Then, in September, when the Amazon was still ablaze, Morales gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in front of world leaders, delegates, and the press, expressing his love for Pachamama. “Our house, Mother Earth is our only home, and it is irreplaceable,” he said. “Increasingly, it is suffering from more fires, more floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, and other disasters.”
Many Bolivians saw hypocrisy. “In practice, his speeches were false and his actions spoke the opposite of his speeches,” said De Oliveira, who was also at the U.N. as a delegate representing the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia.
Soon after the blazes in the Amazon came Bolivia’s contested presidential election, in which Morales declared victory after an unexplained pause in vote-counting. Protests broke out, and Brazil, the United States, and the European Union urged Bolivia to hold a run-off election, which Morales agreed to. But then the Bolivian military pushed Morales to resign due to political unrest.
Now that he’s been ousted, indigenous Bolivians find themselves in a different kind of trouble. Jeanine Añez, the right-wing politician who has named herself interim president, has a history of discriminatory statements about indigenous Bolivians. In a 2013 tweet, which has since been deleted, the then-senator said in Spanish, “I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rites. The city is not for the Indians who should stay in the highlands or the Chaco!!!”
Since installing herself as president, Añez has accused Morales of “terrorism” and allowed the nation’s military to open fire at pro-Morales protesters for any cause, leading to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.
It’s unknown whether the interim administration will fulfill Morales’ climate commitments and environmental policies. Morales always made sure Bolivia was represented at international climate conferences. Bolivia is currently planning to send a delegation to Madrid for the 2019 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP25, in early December. But much is in flux in Bolivia at the moment after Añez signed a bill annulling the earlier vote and allowing for new elections.
All De Oliveira and other indigenous activists know is that they will continue fighting for their rights and for the environment, which they see as intertwined. “We demand that this new transitional government sign commitments” to domestic and international environmental agreements, said De Oliveira. “A solution to the … violations and assaults of our lands should be based on the values and customs of the indigenous people.”
Eve Andrews assisted with translation for this story.