Along the Andean cordillera, from Ecuador to northern Argentina, Pachamama is the name for capricious earthly forces embodied in rocks, rivers, and mountains. Relegated to the realms of religion and folklore by Western modernity, this powerful earth being remains an important presence in the everyday life of Andean indigenous communities. In Ecuador and Bolivia, both plurinational states with highly politicized populations, Pachamama has become the subject of legal rights. Indigenous movements, in collaboration with environmentalists, have played a crucial role in jump-starting these reforms. A close look at states’ and activists’ visions of Pachamama, however, reveals remarkable divergences. Even the most progressive Andean governments have embraced an extractivist model of growth and claimed the sovereign right to decide how to use the so-called gifts of Pachamama, including water, gas, oil, and lithium. Social movements, in contrast, oppose state-led extractivism because it threatens the existence of Pachamama and indigenous ways of living. They contend that Pachamama, the vital energy that makes human life possible, should not be reduced to an economic asset. What is at stake in these struggles is not just access to natural resources but the relationship between nature and society. As the tensions over Pachamama concern the possibility of creating alternatives to the capitalist commodification of nature, they matter far beyond the Andes. Usually translated as “Mother Earth” or “Earth Mother,” Pachamama has long been associated to femininity. Because of this, issues of gender and sexuality play a significant role in the political conflicts unfolding in Latin America. As a loanword, Pachamama illuminates linkages between colonial history, extractivism, and gender. By troubling both the notion of the planet as repository of resources and the feminized trope of Mother Earth, it points to ways of inhabiting the earth otherwise.
Traces of Pachamama as a powerful other-than-human being embodied in the landscape emerge from pre-Hispanic archeological records. The Inca interacted with Pachamama through a range of agricultural and architectural techniques that integrated features of the landscape into the built environment. The outcomes of these relational practices were uncertain and could bring prosperity as well as destruction. An unpredictable, even terrifying entity, Pachamama demanded attention, cajoling, ritual practices, and sacrifices. When treated with respect, the earth could respond with abundant harvests. Failure to pay proper attention to Pachamama, however, could lead to arid soils, illness, and even death. Although capable of generating life, the pre-Hispanic Pachamama could hardly be described as a benevolent, all-giving mother.
The writings of Spanish chroniclers provide vivid accounts of early European encounters with Pachamama. These texts describe the Andean earth being in terms that closely resemble Christian notions of proper femininity. Around 1575, Cristóbal de Molina, a Cuzco-based preacher and observer of Inca rituals, published a book detailing offerings and prayers to Pachamama. The Inca, he claimed, celebrated Pachamama as their mother and as the mother of fire, corn, and seeds. The prayers translated by de Molina convey the image of Pachamama as a maternal figure capable of holding her children close to her, in calm and peace. The nurturing Pachamama also appears in the writings of Alonso Ramos Gavilán, a missionary dispatched to Peru in the early seventeenth century. In offering sacrifices to the earth, he argues, the natives ask Pachamama to respond as a good mother nourishing her children. Spanish chroniclers define Pachamama through the reassuring qualities that characterize the Virgin Mary. They assimilate the indigenous entity to the benevolent mother of the Christian tradition, the quintessential figure of sexual purity and domesticity. These European texts lay bare colonial attempts to incorporate indigenous belief systems into the Christian worldview.
The eighteenth-century Bolivian painting Virgen del Cerro, now in the collection of the Museum Casa Nacional de Moneda in Potosí, offers a striking visualization of such process of incorporation. In the anonymously created portrait, the Virgin’s dress has the shape of a mountain: the notorious Cerro Rico of Potosí, which was home to the vast silver veins that fueled the Spanish colonial enterprise for over two centuries. The Holy Trinity holds a crown above Mary’s head. The European powers, the Catholic Church, and the Spanish king appear at the feet of the mountain. They focus their attention on a blank globe, ready for colonization and conquest. The Virgin’s richly decorated gown overlaps with the Andean landscape, as if Mary’s body is mapped onto Pachamama and other Andean earth beings. Several other paintings of the same period show Mary as a mountain, thus indicating that this was an established iconography. Nevertheless, in spite of the identification between the Virgin and Pachamama, divergences remained significant for Andean communities. Although linked to generative powers, the pre-Hispanic Pachamama was not “virginal, chaste, or pure.” To European eyes, this entity and the indigenous women related to it suggested lust, lasciviousness, and moral chaos. By assimilating Pachamama to the Virgin, the Europeans attempted to bring under control a being and a worldview irreducible to Western hierarchical dichotomies of man/woman, generativity/death, and purity/contamination. This history continues today. Echoes of colonial translation reverberate in the contemporary conflation between Pachamama and Mother Earth.
From green consumerism to climate justice movements, Mother Earth has been a ubiquitous presence in current evocations of the planet. In writings and public speeches, Pope Francis has invited Catholics to preserve Mother Earth in the face of planetary crisis. German chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged to protect “our Mother Earth” from Donald Trump’s disastrous environmental agenda. Corporations and other neoliberal actors evoke the nurturing planet to make claims to sustainability even as they engage in environmentally destructive practices. Referring to a supposedly harmonious community of interconnected beings, this trope suggests the possibility of returning to an original unity with nature. Mother Earth is frequently presented as a fragile woman in need of saving, a vulnerable gendered subject that demands protection. Although evoked by anarchist Emma Goldman in the early twentieth century and more recently by environmental justice activist and ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, this metaphor has been widely contested by feminists of various stripes. The trope of the earth as matriarch perpetuates the old habit of feminizing nature and confining women to the realms of reproduction and care. As ecocritic Stacy Alaimo points out, invocations of Mother Earth unwittingly render polluters as “unruly children,” turning a systemic problem into a personal one. Even more, the image of the benevolent earth fails to capture the nonlinear dynamics of socionatural systems in late capitalism. It obfuscates the turbulent complexity of geological, biological, and chemical processes that human action affects and amplifies but is not capable of controlling. Still, the gendered metaphor of Mother Earth has been embraced by environmentalists, both radical and mainstream, and it is widely associated with indigenous modes of living in relation to the land. In Latin America contexts, “she” is often conflated with Pachamama, with paradoxical effects.
In recent years, Pachamama has become increasingly visible in Latin American politics. Particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, its new relevance is linked to the partial state recognition of indigenous worldviews. Ecuador and Bolivia have adopted the indigenous notion of buen vivir (from the Aymara suma qamaña and the Quechua sumaq kawsay) as the organizing principle of new constitutions approved in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Translated in English as “living well,” buen vivir indexes indigenous alternatives to the Western model of development that prioritizes economic growth. In contrast to Western celebrations of individual agency and private property, buen vivir emphasizes the dependence of human communities on the ecologies of specific places on earth. According to Ecuadorian indigenous activist Monica Chuji, buen vivir demands that nature is seen not as a “factor of production” but as “an inherent part of the social being.” Informed by the demands of indigenous and popular movements, the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution builds on buen vivir to declare that Pachamama “has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles.” This relationship with Pachamama undergirds a “new form of citizenship coexistence, in diversity and harmony with nature.” Similarly, in Bolivia, the government of Evo Morales, the first self-identified Aymara president and a former leader of the coca growers’ union, supported the introduction of the 2012 Framework Law of Mother Earth that confers legal rights to ecosystems. Morales bolstered his reputation as champion of the rights of Pachamama in a series of international gatherings. His cry of “Pachamama or death” resonated deeply among the participants of the People’s World Conference on Climate Change, which was held in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba in 2010. The same year, speaking at the general assembly of the United Nations, he boldly claimed that the flourishing of Mother Earth stands in direct opposition to capitalism.
Both in Ecuador and Bolivia, however, the conferral of rights to Pachamama has been fraught with contradictions. Despite political rhetoric to the contrary, the administrations of both plurinational states have prioritized economic development over buen vivir. Operating within the constraints of global capitalism, they rely on the neoextractivist model widely pursued across Latin America as a source of revenue for redistributive policies. Extractive industries, often funded through state–private partnerships, have been expanding; for example, the land areas conceded to gas and oil companies have increased exponentially. In 2011 the Bolivian police violently raided an encampment of indigenous groups protesting the construction of a 182-mile highway cutting across a national park and indigenous territory known as Tipnis. The project, canceled by the Bolivian government after the protests, was revived with a law passed in 2017. In 2013, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa scrapped the Yasuni initiative that promised to keep considerable reserves of oil in the ground of the Yasuni Park, one of the most biodiverse areas of Amazonian Ecuador. In the original plan, Ecuador would abandon extractive plans for the area, reducing carbon emissions in return for donations from carbon-rich countries. Since only a small fraction of the promised compensations were donated to Ecuador, the government opened the area to oil exploration. A wave of protests followed Correa’s announcement. The activists invoked the rights of Pachamama and cited the Ecuadorian government’s decision as unconstitutional. Ongoing protests in Ecuador and Bolivia show a widening rift between extractivist agendas and social movements pushing against the use of land as a mere economic asset. After much initial excitement about the potential of progressive governments, indigenous organizations and intellectuals have been criticizing their hypocritical use of buen vivir and the rights of Pachamama.
In Bolivia, the mobilization of Pachamama in the project of state consolidation has taken a strikingly gendered dimension. In the international scene, Evo Morales presented himself as the guardian of Mother Earth, a feminized planet in need of protection against Western capitalism. At home he celebrates Pachamama for providing the country with cheap gas and other resources. Engaging in colonial translation, the Bolivian government thus participates in the rendering of Pachamama as the all-giving Mother Earth. The state frames the Andean earth being as a gendered subject of rights while at the same time it asserts a sovereign role in managing “her” mineral gifts. Bolivian feminists have exposed the contradictions of the state’s mobilization of Pachamama. Aymara mestiza sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui argues that rather than enabling a radical shift in the relation between humans and nature, the government uses a Pachamama-ist rhetoric to sugarcoat neocolonial forms of appropriation of resources. The feminist decolonial organization Feminismo Comunitario explicitly rejects the association between Pachamama and Mother Earth. According to the group, the insistence on Pachamama as provider of resources available for extraction is problematic in many ways. The state, they contend, has turned the Andean being into an all-giving female body, and by association it has naturalized the reduction of Bolivian women to their reproductive capacities. This is especially troubling given Bolivia’s restrictive abortion regime. Further, Pachamama should not be conflated with Western understandings of nature as economic asset. As the communitarian feminists put it, “While people are part of the Pachamama, the Pachamama does not belong to anyone.” Such perspectives are in line with the indigenous struggles in defense of Tipnis and Yasuni Park. Although the concerns of feminist and indigenous activists are not always the same, in Bolivia, they often coalesce in reclaiming Pachamama as a figure incompatible with the government’s developmentalist agenda.
Pachamama is both ancestral and contemporary. Its temporality defies the Western linear conception of time and the myth of the vanished Indian. Pachamama is ancestral in that it belongs to past indigenous worlds devastated by European weapons, diseases, and trade. It is contemporary because, together with indigenous people, it has survived conquest and participates in struggles against the ongoing neocolonial dispossession that fuels global capitalism. We should not forget that the modern world was built through the plundering of Amerindian landscapes, and that for the indigenous populations of South America, the arrival of the Europeans meant confronting extinction. Those who survived genocide had to invent new modes of living within colonial states that treated them as cheap labor, insignificant minorities, and exotic ornaments packaged for tourist consumption. In this sense, indigenous people are “veritable end-of-the-world experts.” Pachamama’s persistence in reinvented indigenous worlds draws attention to what it is like to live in damaged landscapes.
As a loanword, Pachamama offers a counterpoint to the Anthropocene, which many have embraced as the name for an epoch of human-made planetary change. The term Anthropocene presents the human species as a unified whole, thus effacing the difference between those responsible for the environmental crisis and those at risk of suffering its harsher consequences. Pachamama, in contrast, throws into relief the histories of colonial violence and capitalist dispossession that are deeply implicated in the uneven unfolding of ecological devastation. At the center of these histories there were Europeans, particularly white men, who considered themselves the measure of humanity and devalued indigenous people as less than human. The Anthropocene narrative focuses on the human as the primary agent of planetary change, simultaneously causing and remediating environmental collapse. British journalist Mark Lynas, for example, argues that “we” humans can still use science and technology to identify and solve environmental problems. By drawing attention to unpredictable, even unruly, earth powers, Pachamama challenges the enthusiasm for technological fixes and the fantasies of controlling nature that underpin them. This loanword calls for ways of living in which the notion of “progress,” including technological progress, is no longer central.
Emerging out of Andean histories and struggles, the term Pachamama gestures toward the persistence of indigenous modes of living within and against the Anthropocene. Together with the Latin American feminists and indigenous activists who evoke it, it opens ways to conceive the earth, and its politics, otherwise. Pachamama is not as reassuring as the nurturing Mother Earth. It does not guarantee the return to a balanced planet. Rather, it provides glimpses of radically different modes of engaging gender, nature, and environmental politics.
Another Path: Sila
1. Marisol de la Cadena, Earth-Beings: Ecologies of Practice across the Andean Worlds (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015).
2. Carolyn Dean, A Culture of Stone: Inka Perspectives on Rock (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010).
3. Cristóbal de Molina, Account of the Fables and Rites of the Incas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).
4. Veronica Salles-Reese, From Viracocha to the Virgin of Copacabana: Representation of the Sacred at Lake Titicaca (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 38.
5. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (encyclical), 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
7. Stacy Alaimo, Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000); Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (London: Zed Books, 2005).
8. Alaimo, Undomesticated Ground, 174.
9. Monica Chuji, “Sumak Kawsay versus desarrollo,” in Antología del Pensamiento Indigenista Ecuatoriano sobre Sumak Kawsay, ed. Antonio Luis Hidalgo-Capitán, Alejandro Guillén García, and Nancy Rosario Deleg Guazha (Cuenca, Ecuador: FIUCUHU, 2014), 231–33.
11. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, “Strategic Ethnicity, Nation, and (Neo)colonialism in Latin America,” Alternautas 2, no. 2 (2015): 10–20.
12. Cusicanqui, “Strategic Ethnicity.”
14. Feminismo Comunitario, “Pronunciamiento.”
15. Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017), 108.
16. Anna Tsing Lowenhaupt, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015).