Earth Beings

Text by Federico Luisetti
Photographs by Flurina Gradin

On September 18, 2020 a popular assembly concerned with the well-being of the Rhône river – which crosses Switzerland and France, flowing for 813 kilometers through Lausanne, Geneva and Lyon, from a melting glacier in the Alps to its delta in the Mediterranean Sea near Marseille – launched the "Appel du Rhône", a mobilization to recognize the juridical personhood of the river.1 The goal was to promote actions at the scale of the ecosystem of the Rhône, claiming its rights to "dignity, security, preservation, and integrity" across national boundaries.

The "Appel du Rhône" suggests an epistemic urgency: as a distinct subject the Rhône appears as an holobiont of melting ice, water pollution, water withdrawals and biodiversity loss. Industrialized agriculture, toxic discharges of all kinds, diminishing water flows and aquatic life converge in the vulnerable existence of this non-human person.

The disfigured physiology of the river begins at his source︎︎︎, the Rhône glacier in the Swiss canton of Valais: what 20,000 years ago was one of the mightiest ice creatures of the Alps, is now a pathetic mass of grey and dripping ice and stones, retreated by 1,300 meters and covered with 2,000 square meters of UV-resistant white blankets of polyester, desperately attempting to slow down its ceaseless shrinking.

Well, the blanket covers only the privatized portion of the glacier, which is managed by the historic Hotel Belvédère that has done the impossible to protect its money-making Ice-grotto from crumbling apart.2 The glacier loses 10 cm of its thickness per day in the summer and is destined to completely disappear by 2100.

Pathway inside the Ice-grotto of the Rhône glacier.

Personified European rivers and glaciers are not a parody of Bruno Latour's "parliament of things" and techno-scientific fetishes. They emulate the achievements of indigenous politics of nature, the process of recognition of other-than-humans that in 2017 granted the status of legal person to a river in New Zealand, considered by the Māori as an ancestor.3 After eight years of negotiations, New Zealand's national parliament conferred to the Whanganui River (called by the Māori "Te Awa Tupua") the same duties, rights, powers, and liabilities of a legal person, "from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements".4 The non-anthropocentric relation of the Māori Whanganui Iwi with the river is now enshrined in the law, respecting the Māori principle Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au ("I am the River and the River is me").5

Shortly after this historic bill was approved by the parliament of New Zealand, also the High Court of Uttarakhand ruled that the Indian rivers Ganga and Yamuna are living entities endowed with legal personhood. And, in the same year, the Constitutional Court of Colombia recognised the Río Atrato, its tributaries, and the basin as a juridical subject.

These recent corpus of "wild law" has revived a tendency inaugurated by the constitutions of Equador (2008) and Bolivia (2009), which included the Quechua principle of "buen vivir" (Sumac kawsay) and the acknowledgment of the rights of nature as Pachamama.6 Translated into the global language of ecology as "Mother Earth", Pachamama is the cornerstone of the "Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth" issued at the "World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth" in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010. A historic climate justice event attended by 30,000 people from over 100 countries:

"Mother Earth is a unique, indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings that sustains, contains and reproduces all beings."7

Sponsored by Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of a South American state, the unique subjectivity of Andean earth-beings has merged with the universal symbols of transnational environmentalism – Gaia, Mother Earth, the well-being of ecosystems – and nurtured a growing movement of earth jurisprudence and planetary sustainability.8 After Cochabamba, earth-beings have gone mainstream, pushed to the forefront of global environmentalism and celebrated by the United Nations as "harmonious natures".9

View on the Gärstenhörner contrasted with a measuring station from ETH Zurich.

Indigenous and feminist movements are aware that the constitutionalizing of Pachamama took hold in the context of Evo Morales's intensification of mining and concessions of indigenous land to commodities cartels,10 and have objected to the heterosexist and ecosystemic framing of Pachamama as Mother Earth.11

Against the incorporation of nature by extractivist states and neoliberal sustainability, they have affirmed the incommensurability of indigenous natures: "radical differences between nature and Pachamama cannot be undone".12

Earth-beings can be subjects in many ways. Already assimilated by the Inca empire into a complex system of religious state ideology and architectural sites, and then subjected to centuries of Christian inculturation,13 Andean pre-capitalist Tirakuna - mountaintops and hillsides, lakes and trees, ridges and ravines, stones and springs - are still approached by indigenous societies as generative but also bewildering beings. In the rituals, narratives, and political struggles of Andean Runakuna (people),14 these earth-beings give life but also frighten and preannounce, protect and punish, deceive and heal, sharing emotions, feelings and expressions with humans beyond the epistemic threshold of capitalist ecologies.

Despite all recognitions, Tirakuna persist as eccentric subjectivities and odd earthscapes, incommensurable with rights of nature and Mother Earth ecologies. Mined and quarried, enclosed and grabbed, cultivated and detonated, dried up and commodified, these earth-beings are steeped in Aymara and Quechua linguistic rituals, political alliances, coca economies, intimacy with non-life, and precolonial practices.

The deglaciated terrain of the  Rhône glacier.

In the Fifties, the Italian anthropologist Ernesto De Martino introduced the idea of a "crisis of presence" to explain the therapeutic function of magic practices in Lucania, one of the most poverty-stricken rural areas of the Italian South.15  Intricate archaic rituals, magic spells and exorcisms protected individuals against the "power of the negative", the endless chain of misfortunes that afflicted Southern peasants, from chronic illness to storms destructing harvests.16 The peasants of Lucania were constantly exposed to effects of depersonalization and the dislocation of personhood; their existence unfolded in the "horizon of the crisis", in a socio-natural condition marked by the "frailness of presence" and the experience of "being-acted-upon" by uncontrollable forces.17

Climate change's carbon frontier and the transfiguration of capital into nature have provoked another major crisis of presence.18  Individuals are apprehended as knots of geopower, organs of natural capital's metabolism.19 We are socialized by the state of nature of neoliberalism, a horizon of endemic crises that composes and decomposes humans and other-than-humans. World-capitalism is still plundering nature and commons,20 but it has shifted to an ecological phase, its state of society has been fully environmentalized by the demands of sustainability and the energy transition. In the global North, citizens must be decarbonized,21 whereas in the Global South indigenous societies are expelled and starved, or join world markets thanks to the stewardship of Western NGOs, becoming ecological partners and guardians of biodiversity, providing eco-services and eco-products, from carbon sinks and biomass to indigenous knowledge and medicinal plants.

Andean shamans are the keepers of the collective cultural techniques of interaction with Tirakuna. It is up to us to perceive and politicize the odd subjectivity of secular earth-beings – not only glaciers, rivers, and fragile biotopes, but also infrastructural natures22 - that have been plundered and ripped by capitalist extraction.

What alliances can we envision with incommensurable natures? What pedagogies of counter-subjectivization? Earth-beings are "the part of those with no part", a scandal in the commodity frontiers of green capitalism.23 They do not require shamans and lawyers to come into existence, they can disturb the neoliberal state of nature also without the support of indigenous analytics of existence and state incorporations. Their true condition of manifestation is the crisis of presence. They emerge from vectors of disidentification that remove socio-natures from capitalist ecologies and attend to other forms and affects.

1 www.appeldurhone.org/ See also the popular assemblies of the Loire: www.assembleesdeloire.com/

2 www.gletscher.ch/eisgrotte/

3 On European political animism, see S. Gosselin and D. gé Bartoli, “Earth-Gaia: Metamorphosis of the Black Earth”, Alienocene. Journal of the First Outernational, Nov. 4, 2021: https://alienocene.com/2021/11/04/earth-gaia-metamorphosis-of-the-black-earth/

4 https://www.whanganui.govt.nz/About-Whanganui/Our-District/Te-Awa-Tupua-Whanganui-River-Settlement

5  E. O’Donnell, Legal Rights for Rivers. Competition, Collaboration and Water Governance, Routledge 2020, p. 164.

6 C. Walsh, “Afro and Indigenous Life-Visions in/and Politics: (De)colonial Perspectives in Bolivia and Ecuador,” Bolivian Studies Journal, No. 18, 2011.

7 https://pwccc.wordpress.com/  

8 C. La Follette and C. Maser,Sustainability and the Rights of Nature: An Introduction. Routledge 2019.

9 www.harmonywithnatureun.org/.

10 M. Svampa, Neo-extractivism in Latin America. Socio-environmental Conflicts, The Territorial Turn, and New Political Narratives, Cambridge UP 2019.

11 M. Tola, "Between Pachamama and Mother Earth: Gender, Political Ontology and the Rights of Nature in Contemporary Bolivia", Feminist Review 118, 1, 2018, pp. 25–40.

12 M. De la Cadena, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds, Duke University Press 2015, p. 284.

 13 A. Scott, “Sacred Politics: An Examination of Inca Huacas and Their Use for Political and Social Organization”,Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology 17, no. 1, 2011.

14 W. Ari, Earth Politics: Religion, Decolonization, and Bolivia’s Indigenous Intellectuals, Duke University Press 2014.

15 E. De Martino, Magic: A Theory from the South, University of Chicago Press 2015.

16 "The precariousness of life’s elementary goods, the uncertainty of prospects for the future, the pressure exercised on individuals by uncontrollable natural and social forces", De Martino, Magic: A Theory from the South, p. 85.

17 De Martino, Magic: A Theory from the South, p. 97.

18 L. Lohmann, Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power, The Dag Hammarskjöld Centre 2006.

19 F. Luisetti, "Geopower: On the States of Nature of Late Capitalism", European Journal of Social Theory22, 3, 2019.

20 G. Caffentzis, "The Future of 'The Commons': Neoliberalism's 'Plan B' or the Original Disaccumulation of Capital?" New Formations 69, Summer 2010, pp. 23-41.

21 A. Ulloa, "The Geopolitics of Carbonized Nature and the Zero Carbon Citizen", South Atlantic Quarterly 116, 1, 2017, pp. 111-20.

22 A paradigmatic earth-being is the lake ex-SNIA in Rome: https://lagoexsnia.wordpress.com/. On commodity frontiers, see J. W Moore, “Sugar and the Expansion of the Early Modern World-Economy: Commodity Frontiers, Ecological Transformation, and Industrialization.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 23, no. 3 (2000): 409–33.

23 J. Rancière, Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, University of Minnesota Press 2004.


Essential references 


Sign up for regularly updates in your mailbox!