The Rights of Earth-beings: An Environmental Anthropology Perspective

Amazon-CanopyThe field of environmental anthropology is in a unique position to advocate for conservation, research initiatives, and environmental justice causes worldwide. By possessing both professional recognition and insider knowledge, their voices can  be powerful in environmental campaigns and movements. 


Anthropology, most broadly defined, is the study of humans. A common anthropological practice is ethnographic research: The anthropologists immerse themselves in the lifestyle of the people they are studying and carry out fieldwork. They work to form bonds with members of the community. By observing the details of daily life, participating in regular activities and special cultural events, and having conversations and full-length interviews with people, anthropologists form a deep understanding of the research community. The extensive and detailed fieldnotes they compile form the basis for written accounts and lectures of what they have learned. 


Historically, anthropology has revolved around the outsider anthropologist visiting a far-away, unknown land and revealing the secrets and inner workings of societies. The greatest purpose was to purely gain academic knowledge regarding the possibilities of the human condition. In contemporary times, however, anthropologists are more commonly applying their knowledge to solve real-world, practical problems, like the conservation of planet Earth.


The multiplicity of global environmental issues of current concern are entangled with cultural, political, and economic dynamics. Environmental anthropologists can help unravel the actors and voices involved in these complex relationships. A particularly interesting case is Marisol de la Cadena’s research on indigenous cosmology and politics in Peru, focusing on the rights of “Earth-beings”. Her insight into this phenomenon opens up the possibility of a novel conservation tactic, and it’s implication will be discussed below.


Since indigenous politics have begun to play a more important role in Peru, Earth-beings have been introduced to the political arena. Earth-beings are entities in nature such as mountains, trees, and rivers that have characteristics that are often thought of as belonging to only humanity, such as the ability to have relationships with the surrounding landscape and inhabitants that can be strengthened or weakened. This article focuses on mountain Earth-beings, particularly the mountain Ausangate.


The indigenous people mine Ausungate, but they use tunnel mining, which is less destructive and allows for slower removal of resources. Non-indigenous people want to exploit the resources rapidly through open-sky mining, which would destroy the mountain. Indigenous actors protest this proposal on the terms that Ausangate is an Earth-being that has rights and needs to be respected. This protest situation has complicated political ideas and has brought those ideas into a global context.


Politics and economics are intertwined with the stances of the actors; economic activities fuel the political disagreements between opposing groups, and political decisions influence how economic activities are allowed to operate. Politics and economics in Peru are increasingly complicated because indigenous and non-indigenous people have different cultural worldviews and invoke nature into their worlds in different modes. For indigenous people, nature is a part of them and cannot be separated from their sense of identity, but for non-indigenous people, nature and humanity are two different concepts that can be divided using science. The inclusion of nature and humanity in politics is thus defined by the different worldviews. 


The modern constitution is the set of ideas established by science with which most Westerners agree; science produces the ultimate and privileged knowledge. The modern constitution has created the idea that the representation on nature belongs to science and cannot be involved in politics and that representation of humanity belongs to politics and cannot be involved with nature. Indigenous people understand the position of being in between one and two worlds – the worlds between indigenous worldview and the non-indigenous worldview, and they are challenging the modern constitution to incorporate representation of nature into politics. In order for this incorporation to be successful, non-indigenous people must also place themselves in a place in between one and two worlds.


If indigenous efforts to treat the Earth and all her resources with due respect becomes a serious contender in international politics, the resulting environmental benefits could be huge. By granting official rights to the Earth, an infrastructure that promotes sustainability can be put in place, conserving the environment and mitigating global climate changes. Ecuador, a country neighboring Peru, has taken another steps in this movement. Ecuador’s Constitution was revised in 2007 to include Nature, or Pachamama, as an entity having rights. If Peru – and countries worldwide – follow suit, the global perspective on the relationship between humans and nature might change in a way that benefits all life on Earth.


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