Church, Cosmovision and the Environment

Religion and Social Conflict in Contemporary Latin America

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Evan Berry, Robert Albro
  • New York, NY: 
    , June
     254 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the US the relationship between environmental activism and religion is often seen as antagonistic; but, as the contributors to this volume show, the view from Latin America can be quite different. This volume’s editors argue that Latin America’s distinct religious ecology, political economy, and forms of social mobilization have created a context in which religious actors and concepts have been efficacious in responding to issues of environmental justice. Moreover, the conceptual and policy innovations developed in Latin America have much to show the rest of the world about how we might confront the causes and consequences of climate change.

The volume’s editors, Robert Albro and Evan Berry, lay out this overarching argument in their introduction. For the past five centuries Latin America’s economy has largely been based on the extraction of natural resources, which only rarely produces wealth for local populations and engenders massive social inequalities. This has meant that conflicts regularly arise over resources, and there is a strong tradition of grass-roots mobilization around social justice. Religious actors (most notably, but not exclusively, liberationist Catholics) have been at the vanguard of several of these movements, lending them moral authority as well as robust institutional support. In recent decades this has also meant incorporating the discourse of environmental justice into their larger work on social justice. Finally, the religious pluralism of the region has made it fertile ground for the crosspollination of religious thinking about the environment. As one might expect, Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home” plays a significant role in the discussion, but the volume aims to show that it is but one part of a larger trend and is embedded in a wider context of religious actors’ responses to climate change. 

The ten scholars who contribute chapters to the book illustrate the multiple ways that religious thought, grass-roots politics, and conflicts over natural resources intersect in the region. The book is divided into two parts. The first half focuses on how churches and religious NGOs articulate questions of environmental rights and justice, while the second explores how indigenous communities have entered into conflicts over the environment. The chapters in the first section, as one might expect, tend to approach the subject at a macro-scale focusing on how the ideas and discourses of institutional actors have evolved over time and been integrated into national and international policies. The chapters in the second half provide more intimate looks at how individual communities articulate their visions of the environment and put them into practice, quite often in tension with national policies and transnational environmentalist discourses. 

Limitations of space prevent me from giving each author’s contribution to this generally excellent volume the attention it deserves. There is rich material throughout the book, but as an anthropologist of religion I found the chapters focusing on indigenous communities to be the most thought provoking. These chapters highlight the plurality of indigenous views on environment, and the authors are careful to discuss the dynamic ways that indigenous communities’ contemporary cosmovisions are responsive to the political and material realities that the people who hold them face. Cymene Howe argues that Zapotec resistance to wind farming plants (a relatively “green” kind of development project) in Oaxaca can best be understood by how those communities simultaneously experience the wind as a living entity and neoliberal capitalism as inherently extractive and exploitative, raising questions about whose ethics prevail in these conflicts. Similarly, Tod Swanson shows how Amazonian Kichwas’ views of human relationality to the forest are deeply impacted by whether one is talking about a local forest (which one can come to regard as a friend owed reciprocal care), or a distant one (which may instead be a friend to one’s enemies and may therefore be hostile). The fact that forests are socialized this way helps explain why Kichwas who have been displaced to new regions of the Amazon are more likely to engage in extractive economic activities than adopt stances of environmental stewardship. 

As Kristina Tiedje notes in her discussion of Mexico’s Indigenous Pastoral, it is important that we not only consider how indigenous communities resist dominant Western discourses, but also how they engage with and translate them to their own ends. The value of studying indigenous cosmologies is thus not just that they provide critiques of modern capitalist treatment of the environment; rather, they may also provide the basis for creating and enacting more ethical environmental policies. To this end, Robert Albro details the peregrinations of the concept “suma qamaña” (Aymara for “living well”) from Bolivian indigenist activist networks into transnational forums such as the 2015 Paris Agreement and the 2017 UN Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Liza Grandia shows us on a smaller, but no less important, scale how Q’eqchi’-Mayas’ distinctive spirituality facilitates forms of “little conservation” in Guatemala’s tropical lowlands that may be more effective in slowing deforestation (while also enabling people to live sustainably in that environment) than the protectionist forms of “big” conservation typically advocated by governments and international NGOs. 

The volume’s interdisciplinarity has the benefit of showcasing the multiple ways that religious responses to environmental justice take shape in contemporary Latin America, and as a whole it is sure to be foundational for further studies of religion and environment in Latin America. That being said, there are some notable gaps that practically beg to be filled. Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean religions are only discussed tangentially, and so we may ask, what place does environmental justice have in the imaginaries of Umbanda, Obeah, or Santería? How might their practitioners’ narratives and practices constitute responses to climate change? If part of the difficulty of crafting effective policy has to do with the transnational reality of climate change, what unique challenges do religious actors face when environmental conflicts emerge at the borders between nation-states, such as over the proposed wall in the Sonoran Desert where Tohono O’odham live? 

As Eduardo Gudynas notes in his conclusion to the volume, exploring the ontological openings that indigenous cosmologies offer us coupled with a liberationist impulse to ensure a just life for all living beings may offer us clues to how we can live in the world in a less destructive fashion. In this regard the work this volume represents is not only timely, but urgent and necessary.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Hoenes del Pinal is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Evan Berry is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His book, Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism (2015), explores the religious underpinnings of the American environmental movement.

Robert Albro is Research Associate Professor at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. He received his PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of Chicago, and has conducted ethnographic research and published widely on popular and indigenous politics along Bolivia’s urban periphery. Much of this work is summarized in his book, Roosters at Midnight: Indigenous Signs and Stigma in Local Bolivian Politics (2010).


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