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A Spiritual Journey through Mining Contamination and Destruction to a Sustainable Future in Bolivia

Man bowing

Carrying out an Andean ritual, giving thanks to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) on Lake Titicaca with Calixto, a unique Aymaran spiritual guide and Catholic priest. Photo Credit: Chenoa Stock.

By Rev. Don Shaw, Joining Hands Partnership Presbytery of Cascades

Chenoa Stock, our Joining Hands facilitator in Bolivia, met us at the world’s highest international airport, located up 13,325 feet on the altiplano in El Alto, Bolivia.  El Alto is the nation’s second largest city, claiming more than 1,000,000 people, although just 20 years ago there were less than 500,000.

There were six of us in all arriving over several days to meet with our Bolivian partners and catch up with what’s been going on in their part of the world, with their communities and organizations, and local and national governments.  That was the official, rational part of our visit.  The other part was the spiritual, physical, and emotional journey we took over the next ten days.

It all began appropriately enough at a meeting with members of the Board of UMAVIDA, the Joining Hands umbrella organization of ten different community and church groups in Bolivia.  We were seasoned delegates. Three of us were from the Presbytery of San Francisco with two more from Cascades Presbytery in Oregon.   We joyfully greeted old friends and then settled in to hear reports and testimonies, share common concerns, ask questions, discover commonalities and joint problems, clarify actions and goals, and renew our trust and relationships with one another.

Under the carefully typed schedule of day-to-day activities, visits and meetings lurked an underlying spiritual journey of encountering demons, angels, warriors, visions and nightmares, hopes and fears; and in the midst of it all, the Holy Spirit.

We took a two day trip to Oruro, a mining city, since mining contamination is one of our key issues.  An hour’s bus ride from Oruro brought us to the rural village of Machacamarca.  There we were welcomed royally with kisses, hugs, and handshakes, by a dozen or so people who invited us into the CEPA (Center for Ecology and Andean People) office.   The room in which we met was severely water damaged with warped board flooring.  Benches were lined up in the dimly lit interior.  There were no bathrooms available.

Inside we heard horror stories of the personal and communal experience of mining contamination.  What had once been pasture land for sheep and llamas was now a wasteland.  Fish were dying in the contaminated river.  Healthy crops could no longer grow.  Grown children were leaving, so that, as one official said, “There are only old women left.”  After hearing these terrifying stories we boarded the bus to take a look for ourselves, and we entered Hell.

It took our breath away.  We were in a most desolate, violated landscape.  Bleak barrenness—two meters deep toxic sludge mixed with filthy trash, complete with sloshy water running through it – as far as one could see.  This used to be pastureland, nurturing animals and crops.  Now it was a lifeless void; and I wept right along with Jesus.  I had a nightmarish vision that this was how our precious Earth ended—bleak, barren, bitter land incapable of supporting life of any kind— nothing left of all the goodness that God had made – the final end of creation and life.


US delegation from San Francisco and Cascades Presbyteries with UMAVIDA partners on the Lake Titicaca. Photo Credit: Chenoa Stock.

But not yet!  We all felt the presence of the Holy Spirit walking with us even in this place of hell which local people want to be declared an international zone of contamination.  Even here, God was with us as we recognized strangers as brothers and sisters in Christ, and our bleeding hearts were touched with the boundless love of God as our sagging spirits were lifted by a shared meal back in the dark office.

Having seen the urgency, we met with all kinds of people working in a variety of ways to regulate the mining industry, to urge governmental control of corporate activity, and to protect the land, air, water, animals and people from contamination and destruction.  We visited one office after another listening to various plans, actions, dreams, and visions.  At one stop, we visited with remarkably articulate, informed, and committed young adults, preparing to travel to an environmental youth gathering in Peru.  They are the hope and voice of the future, and we were so impressed.  Yes, yes, they shall lead us into a sustainable future!

Clotilde Loza, the Coordinator of UMAVIDA, said, “We are in a partnership that asks us to take new steps to continue building justice for these communities that are affected by mining contamination. We are called to see the ways that can help build a new way of living together – a relationship of care and justice within God’s creation. We have the challenge to continue to knit our networks to resist the adversities that are presented throughout this walk together.”

And then, at the end of our journey we had dinner at La Peña back in La Paz, and enjoyed a stage show of traditional music, and dances.  The dancers dressed in elaborate, magnificent costumes, dazzling our senses.  We were invited to dance with them and some of us did, dancing in ecstasy, in delight, and in the vast cosmic sense of oneness as God leads us onwards.

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