Standing with Atahualpa

Addressing the Roots of the Climate Crisis

By Jed Koball | Joining Hands Catalyst for Extractive industries, Human Rights, and the Environment

Painting Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru, by John Everett Millais, showing Pizarro in the act of capturing the king of the Inca Atahualpa.

Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all costs get gold!

– King Ferdinand of Spain, 1511

First, they came for the gold. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, stood face to face with Atahualpa, the Incan emperor of Cajamarca in the northern highlands of what is today Peru. It was their first encounter, and as legend goes, after exchanging greetings Pizarro had Atahualpa captured. The Incas offered as ransom a room full of gold. Pizarro happily took the gold, and then he had Atahualpa executed. Thus began three hundred years of Spanish occupation.

Of course, Pizarro was not alone that fateful day. Standing by his side was a priest, with a Bible in his hand. This was a Church-sanctified and biblically rationalized conquest, execution, theft and colonization. Indeed, in many ways it was the Church who instigated all of this.

Beginning eighty years prior in 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the first of several papal bulls and other documents that would be published over the following decades that would not simply justify but effectively mandate the expansion of European domination over non-Christian peoples. Together these papal bulls would become known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which would ultimately shape European and US law that gave land rights and political power to colonizers over the peoples and lands of Africa, the Americas and beyond.

Only recently, over the past decade, have approximately twenty Christian denominations (including the PC(USA)) repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, yet it continues to live within the laws of the United States and shape international accords. Indeed, the global economy as we know it is the manifestation of the land theft, resource extraction, and inhumane exploitation, slavery, and genocide of non-Christian (namely non-white) peoples that began five hundred years ago and continues to this day.

Aerial view of Yanacocha Mine, owned by U.S. based Newmont Corporation, in Cajamarca, Peru. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Today, in the very region where Pizarro executed Atahualpa and stole the Incan´s gold, there is an ongoing dispute between the indigenous Quechua speaking peoples whose spirituality guides them to live in harmony with the natural world around them and a US mining company that works in collaboration with the Peruvian state to violently and destructively extract the gold from the land that the people have occupied for millennia. This is but one of nearly 200 ongoing social conflicts in Peru, over half of which are related to the extractive industries.

One might ask if anything has really changed over the past 500 years. While Peru won its independence from Spain in 1821, it remains captive to an extractive economic model that sustains white supremacy, namely the oppression of indigenous peoples and the lands they occupy.  Political power may rest in the hands of Peruvian authorities, but the flow of resources and capital to rich nations continues. And, standing on the front lines of the continued assault on the earth that is rationalized and justified in the interest of prosperity and development are the original peoples of the land. What will it take for us to change the paradigm?

Today the entire human race faces an existential crisis – a crisis brought on by this unrelenting assault on the earth and those who seek to live in harmony with it. That crisis is climate change. Much of the Church has awoken to this reality and earnestly wants to change how we choose to live in relation to the Earth in order to protect the one common home we share. And yet, it is proving to be difficult for us to imagine a new way forward beyond the destructive and oppressive extractive economic model our ecclesial ancestors instigated five hundred years ago and that we have become dependent on to sustain our way of living. To combat climate change, we have rightfully rejected the fossil fuel industry, yet to sustain our way of living we are embracing a new path of domination and earth-destruction that rivals the initial onslaught of Pizarro and the conquistadores.

Lithium mine in Chile. Photo from people’s dispatch.

To transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies will require the mass accumulation of critical minerals to build the infrastructure, batteries, and other technologies necessary for our way of life to continue to develop. This mass accumulation calls for approximately 300 major mining projects on a global scale over the next ten years. Yet, the story that is not being told is that over fifty percent of those mining projects are proposed to take place on indigenous lands in the same places where the colonizers once mined for gold. And so today, the cry from places of political power is, ¨Get Lithium, get Cobalt, get Nickle, get Copper…humanely if possible…but at all costs, get them! ¨

Thus, the question is before us – the repudiators of the Doctrine of Discovery – where will we stand? When the surveyors step foot on indigenous territory and lay claim to the minerals underground, where will we stand? When the bulldozers start moving dirt, where will we stand? When indigenous siblings cry out to stop the assault, where will we stand? With Pizarro? With Atahualpa? With a Bible in our hand?

Now is the time to shift the paradigm. I do not pretend to have the precise answers or strategies for dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery and the global extractive economy it has unleashed. But I do know this – none of us can do it alone. We need one another. And so, I invite you, along with my colleagues in the Presbyterian Hunger Program and partners around the world, to join us in forming the Global Solidarity Network – a space for learning, re-orienting, equipping, collaborating, acting, and caring for and encouraging one another as we take a stand in the face of the most daunting problems in the world today. I hope to see you there!

The work of the Presbyterian Hunger Program is possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.


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