The Wiphala: Andean Symbol

Clearing out a cupboard the other day, I spotted a colourful pamphlet that I picked up when living in Bolivia over a decade ago. Published in 2007 by Ediciones “Amuyawi” in El Alto, it gives a detailed account of the Wiphala’s place in Andean cosmology, its history, and its role as a symbol of resistance against European colonisers and their present day descendants. It’s a prime example of decolonisation in action: research grounded, not in overseas faculties, but in the Andean Ayllus and communities where the true heirs of this knowledge reside.

The brazen attacks on the Wiphala during the 2019-20 Bolivian coup exposed the racist contempt those who carry the torch of colonial domination have for this sacred indigenous symbol. Expanding the audience of this work is clearly essential.

A quick web search took me to a digitised pdf version of the pamphlet on the indigenist website, but I couldn’t find an English translation. So, I dusted off my very rusty Spanish and made one. I haven’t included any of the figures – you can find them here. Copyright is held by Ediciones “Amuyawi” and the translated text is reproduced here for educational purposes only.

  1. Introduction
  2. Andean Symbols
  3. Natural Heritage of the Andean Culture
  4. The Andean People
  5. The Sacred Wiphala of Pusintsuyu/Tawantinsuyu
  6. Existence and use of the Wiphala
  7. Etymology of the Word Wiphala
  8. Forms of Denomination of the Wiphala
  9. The Wiphala in the Activities of the Andean Man
  10. The Wiphala as an Expression of Unity and Equality
  11. The Wiphala as an expression of Andean Philosophy
  12. The Wiphala Expression of the Cosmic Calendar
  13. Origin of the Word ‘Bandera’ (flag)
  14. Differences Between the Wiphala and Western Flags
  15. The Wiphala in the Resistance
  16. The Prohibition of the Wiphala
  17. The ‘Criollo’ State Does Not Solve the Problems of the Communities
  18. Classes of Andean Emblems
  19. Where and Why We Should Use the Wiphala
  20. Sources


This work was, as the fruit of a deep investigation, carried out in the communities and Ayllus of the Andean area. Thanks to the brothers who made it possible with their participation, and who are worthy of admiration for their personal contributions to what is cultural rescue. For what we express for our brothers from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia is our philosophical thought and the essence of the AYMARA-QUISWA man.

We also declare that our people have continued resisting for many centuries. Our aspirations were postponed as a result of the invasion and subjugation by the Spanish. Our people were humiliated and marginalized, our wealth was exploited and looted, the doctrine of PACHA-MAMA was banned and our symbols and emblems were forced underground.

Despite the intention of carrying out genocide and ethnocide against the AYMARAS-QUISWAS with the Christian inquisition imposed by the Spanish, the usurpers, remnants of the colonisers who hold power to this day over our people, were not able to exterminate the bronze race.

Therefore, we proudly declare that the AYMARAS-QUISWAS remain in the land of the Amautas, Inca, Malicus, Kumanis. We are the national majorities, oppressed but not defeated, and that is why in the ancestral homeland of Tawantinsuyu the sleeping giant awakens from his slumber. Today he gets up and begins to walk, brandishing the sacred Andean Wiphala to shake off the oppressive yoke, for a new era of PACHA-KUTI. We proclaim that the Children of the SUN have regained power and territory once more and we raise our voices saying “JALLALLA TAQIATIPIRI QULLANA MARKA!”.

This work has been reproduced for the purpose of awareness and dissemination of the political situation in the country, not for profit, and respecting the authors of this work. The Indian calendar has been updated based on the calendar of Lic. Germán Choquehuanca (Inka Huaskar Chuquiwanka).
Amuyawi Editions is a means of disseminating themes of our ancestral knowledge and is pleased to deliver it into the hands of our brothers and sisters to continue advancing the transformation of our political and ideological objectives.

Andean Symbols

It is necessary to know the historical reality of our people. Therefore, to the descendants of the Andean Civilization and in use of our attributions, we express what was our Aymara-Qhishwa national and cultural identity of the Pusinsuyu/Tawantinstiyu.

Despite more than five centuries of subjugation, humiliation, and exploitation by the Spanish and “Criollos”, we are still standing and the Andean culture remains intact to this day, and this allows us to declare that the collectivist and harmonic system is valid throughout the Andean area. Many national and foreign anthropologists and archaeologists that have written about the Qhishwa-Aymara culture focus their analysis from a Western perspective and each one interprets it at their own discretion according to their ideological and religious conceptions.

Consequently, our history was altered and distorted, the true history of the Andean culture is not written and, for many researchers, the Aymara-Qhishwa civilization is unknown.

For this reason, in the context of universal history, our culture has not been taken into account in its true essence as a civilization. Our ancestors achieved a high degree of organization, with a surprising social, economic and political development, in the society of “QULLANA marka”, later called “Pusintsuyu/Tawantinsuyu” in Aymara-Qhishwa, respectively, can be translated into Spanish (with the 4 organisations of the country).

In more than 600 years, researchers have not been able to clarify with complete transparency the origin of our NATION. Who are we?

Nevertheless, today, we descendants live as the inheritors of the AYMARA-QHISHWA civilization, we continue to practice all the traditions and cultural manifestations that are part of our lives with what we propose to project into the future.


Natural Heritage of the Andean Culture

Before discussing the Whiphala, we would like to mention the symbols that today make up the ritual universe of Andean culture, with the purpose of motivating the study of our culture.

As an example we have the natural heritage identified by our ancestors; the NATIONAL SYMBOLS of the Pusintsuyu/Tawantisuyu, the INTI tata (father sun) and the PAXSI mama (mother moon) that represent the DUAL force of the Andean man: that is the CHACHA-WARMI (man-woman), this is the reflection of all social and cultural manifestations of the Andean peoples.

Likewise, the CHAKANA constellation (southern cross) represents the socio-economic and political organization of the Pusintsuyu/Tawantinsuyu that make up the AYLLU (socio-economic organization) of the JANAN-SAYA (possession from above) and JURIN-SAYA (possession from below) territorial spaces corresponding to men and women, respectively.

The constellation of QUTU (the Pleiades) is the representation of UNITY and EQUALITY that is reflected in society within the collectivist and harmonious system. It is the socio-economic relationship of reciprocity and brotherhood in collective work, such as AYNI (reciprocity), MINK’A (substitution for other), PHAYNA (lightning work) and CHUQU (solidarity work). It is expressed as SUMA QAMAÑA (vivir bien/buen vivir or living well) with well-being and harmony in each family or TAMA (family organization) that is regulated in Andean society.

The constellation of ARA-ARU (Orion’s Belt or Three Kings/Three sisters) represents the TURNU rotation system through the MIT’A (compulsory service) in carrying out organized work as a contribution and public service for the development of the MARKA (people) of the SUYU (Nation or country).

It is the reference image in the ROTATION of the authorities in management of government administration. It is the rotation system of farmland in AYNUQA (plots) in QALLPA (worked land) whose precise observation of these stars (see fig. on the left) allows time to be synchronized on our planet. SUNI QÄNA (evening star) and QUIWA-QÄNA (morning star) represent the Andean ecological layers for the conservation and survival of animal and plant species that are in direct relationship with the earth.

Likewise, the QARWA-NAYRA constellation (llama eye) and the KUNTURI JIPIÑA constellation (condor’s nest) and all the constellations mentioned are indicators of PACHA (time) that is directly related to the production and survival of Andean man.

But it is also necessary to know other SYMBOLS such as the sacred plants and flowers that benefit man in the scientific natural medicine practiced by our people until today.

Birds are also symbols, such as the KUNTURI (condor), the PAKA (eagle), the MAMANI (falcon), the Q’INTI (swallow), LULI (hummingbird) and others. Among the beasts the PUMA (American lion), the TITI (jaguar), also the llama, the vicuña, even the KATARI or AMARU (viper) in Aymara-Qhishwa respectively in other regions.

We also have as national and regional symbols the high mountains of the Andes, such as the Jillimani, the Sajama, the Sawaya, the Surata, the Tunari, the Thunupa, and many others that represent the AJAYU (remote ancestors), the ACHACHILA-JACH’AMALA ancestors (male-female); The veneration of these mountains has the sole purpose of commemorating each period, the memory and the deeds of our HEROES of Andean mythology.

The Andean People

The ancient inhabitants of the Andes organized their territory according to the laws of the stars. One of their most important constellations was the Southern Cross, from which the measurements used to organize their territories were derived.

The water mirrors

When a luminous body is at the centre of the sky, and we can see it over our head, it is said to be at the zenith. 12 o’clock noon, when the sun is at the centre of the sky, is called the zenith hour. With the sun, it is sufficient to observe how the shadow is cast to know that we are exactly under its light.

The same does not happen with the stars at night, and to capture their reflection we need water mirrors. To make a water mirror you need a pot of water. You place it under the star that is at the zenith, whose reflection you want to capture. You know that the mirror of water is reflecting the exact point when a luminous and static ring forms around the vessel, that is, it does not move.

On the other hand, if you have not yet captured its exact place, the reflection projected on the water moves. To capture the exact point, you must slowly move the vessel until the luminous ring appears. This is what the Andean men did to transfer the Southern Cross to earth. This constellation is at its zenith between May 2nd and 3rd at midnight, in the highland populations of Salinas de García Mendoza, the Thunupa volcano and the entire area.

Its measures
In this way, once the Southern Cross was moved to earth, they obtained its measurement standard, called Tupu, which consists of the distance from point to point of its transverse axis or smaller arm. Nowadays this Tupu is equivalent to 20.4 metres and its main or trunk arm coincides with the cross section of the square formed by 4 Tupus, which was later called the sacred proportion.

This square formed by the four Tupus, came to be the surface measure called Ek’a (see fig.).
In addition, turning this square about its midpoint generates a circle, from which they concluded that the transversal of the square enters the perimeter of said generated circle 3.16 times.
5 Ek’as arranged in a cross was the basis for generating the Chacana Cross that you will often see in their fabrics.

The wiphala or flag of the Tawantinsuyu, also has its origin in this generation of squares and consists of 7 x 7 squares of fading colours that end in a row of white, arranged diagonally.

The AYMARA-QISHWA still maintain the most important of the symbols, such as the WAKA (sacred places) that symbolizes the procreation of the HUMAN genus on earth WINJAYA QAMANATAKI (to live eternally). The ILLA (image similar to a domestic animal) in identified sites, represents the multiplication of cattle (animals) that benefits and allows the survival of man.

The QILLAMPU and ISPALLA (sacred names) for any food product, because it represents abundant production in all its varieties and that must be preserved for the benefit of Andean man.

The Sacred Wiphala of Pusintsuyu/Tawantinsuyu

We must emphasize that the ancestral homeland of the Qhishwa-Aymaras counts the sacred WIPHALA among its most important emblems. It is composed of seven colours of the rainbow and represented in four versions of different colours corresponding to the four SUYU. From the Andean Aymara-Qhishwa perspective, the WIPHALA is known historically as the national emblem of the Pusintsuyu/Tawantinsuyu.

That is why the WIPHALA is the symbol of national and cultural identification of the Amazonian Andes. It is the emblem of the collectivist and harmonious nation and the representation of the daily activities of the Andean man in time and space.

One of the many researchers of the Aymara-Qhishwa culture, Carlos Urquizo S., confirms that the WIPHALA was the national emblem of the Andean civilization, before and during the period of the INKAS.

Existence and use of the Wiphala

The existence and use of this emblem is probably from the very creation of TIWANAKU more than 2000 years ago.

According to archaeological investigations and excavations, tissue remains were found in different regions of the Tawantinsuyu (see fig. below), which today includes Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

Hence, it is assumed that the WIPHALA was used for many centuries, in agricultural work, in festivals, in ceremonial and cultural acts, and in all social events of the Andean man.

According to Germán Ch. Wanka, an object similar to a banner was found in an 800-year-old tomb in the Chanqay region, located on the central coast of Peru. A pennant-like object, called Walqanka, before the Inkas, is seen in a graphic by Ph. Waman Puma of A. from the year 1612.

A WIPHALA painted in a rock can be found in the place called Wantirani, in Qppakati Manko Kapajk Province of the Department of La Paz. Two WIPHALAS painted in Qiru or glass, can be found in the Tiwanaku Museum of La Paz. Likewise, a WIPHALA together with fabrics in Koroma, dating from pre-colonial times, is in the Quijarro Province of the Department of Potosí.

In 1534 during the invasion and occupation of the city of Qusqu (today Cuzco) the Spanish met the first resistance of the Qhishwa-Aymaras and saw among the crowd, objects similar to the flag of stripes and squares of seven colours of the rainbow. We believe that with the above investigations, more information about the existence of WIPHALA will become available. Our task is to find out much more than we have yet come to know about the virtues and knowledge that our ancestors the AJAYUS and ACHACHILAS had.

Etymology of the Word Wiphala

The word WIPHALA probably comes from the ancient language “Jhaqi-aru” (language of the human being) later named by the chronicler Polo de Ondegardo in 1554 as AYMARA, which derives from the words jaya-mara (distant years or time immemorial).

Then we decipher in the following way, first “Wiphay” is a voice of triumph, used until today in festivals and in ceremonial acts. Second, the “lapx-lapx” produced by the effect of the wind, which originates from the word (laphaqi), is understood as the movement of a flexible object.

Joining the two sounds (WIPHAY-LAPX) we have the WIPHALA, with the “px” dropped for ease of pronunciation.

Forms of Denomination of the Wiphala

Laphaqay, by the Kallawayas in the department of La Paz.
Laphaqax, in the provinces of the department of Cuzco.
Laphala, in the regions of the department of Potosí.
Wiphayla, in the valleys of the department of Cochabamba.
Wipala, in the regions of Ecuador.
Huipala: for the monolinguals of Castilian in residential neighbourhoods.
Wifala: for bilingual Castilian Aymara from outlying neighbourhoods.
Wipala: for the bilingual Spanish Qhishwa from peripheral areas.
WIPHALA: for the Qhishwa-Aymaras in the communities and Ayllus.

The Wiphala in the Activities of the Andean Man

According to Andean customs and traditions, it is always hoisted in all social and cultural events, for example, in the meetings of community members of the Ayllu, in the marriages of
the community, when a child is born in the community, when a child’s haircut is performed (Andean baptism), at funerals, etc.

The WIPHALA also flies at festivals, at the ceremonial acts of the community, at the civic acts of the MARKA (town), at the games of WALLUNK’A (columbio), at the competitive games ATIPASINA (to win), historical dates, at the K’ILLPA (ceremonial day of the cattle), and at the transmission of command of the authorities in each period.

It is also used at dances, such as the ANATA or PUJLLAY festival (game), in agricultural work (with or without teams), through the ayni, the mink’a, the chuqu and the mit’a. At the end of building works, a house construction and in all community work of the Ayllu and Marka.

The point and place of location of each Tawantinsuyu town is determined according to this generating system of the square and its diagonal in progressive amplifications, placing Tiawanacu within the initial square.

On the corner of its first extension is Oruro, the land of the Urus. In the next expansion is Potosí and further down the Pilcomayu River. Upwards is the Peruvian town of Paracas, in the next square to the north the town of Vitos, then Cuzco and so on until you reach Cajamarca. The diagonal that crosses the entire territory was called “Wiracocha Route”. On this route are its most important religious towns such as Cuzco, Tiawanacu, Copacabana, Isla del Sol, Chiripujio, Huancarani, Culli Culli, etc.

The Wiphala as an Expression of Unity and Equality

The structure and composition of the colors of the WIPHALA as an Andean cultural emblem, constitutes a symmetrical and organic form. The formation of seven colours of the rainbow is the cosmic reflection that represents the organization of the community and harmonious system of the Qhishwa-Aymara.

It is the expression of socio-economic relations within the QAMAÑA (existence) system of brotherhood in reciprocity and human solidarity.

THE WIPHALA: It has four sides and seven colours of equal proportion that means EQUALITY in the diversity of the Andean peoples.

It represents the means of production and distribution of products to each according to their needs and according to their ability. Where hunger and misery are unknown, where there are neither RICH nor POOR, where there is no ambition for GOLD and SILVER, and where illicit enrichment and dispossession of wealth for personal interests are not known.

THE WIPHALA: It has 49 squares and seven united colours, which represent the MARKAS and SUYUS. It means UNITY in the geographic diversity of the Andes, where INDIVIDUALISM and SELFISHNESS are not known, and where man does not live on false ILLUSIONS or FANTASIES of GOD, which does not benefit Andean culture at all. Therefore, the WIPHALA is the symbol of Unity and Equality, of Organization and Harmony of the Andean community system.

The Wiphala as an Expression of Andean Philosophy

The WIPHALA is the dialectical expression of the evolution of Science, Technology, Art and the socio, economic, political, and cultural development of Pusintsuyu/Tawantinsuyu. Also, the WIPHALA contains the representation of the CHAKANA of the four stars of the firmament – the reference that guides the geopolitical organization of the Andes from space.

It also symbolizes the commemoration of the Ayar-kachi, Ayar-uchu, Ayar-laq’a, Ayar-k’allku, the four mythological brothers, precursors of the Pusintsuyu/Tawantinsuyu, that is, in the memory of the creators (of the four organized states) in the Andes, which is the western part of the AWYAYALA today in Latin America.

The WIPHALA also expresses the celebration of the four annual festivals which commemorate the four periods of the year seen in the cosmic calendar of the Aymara-Qhishwa: JUYPHI-PACHA (cold season), LAPAKA-PACHA (hot season), JALLU-PACHA ( rainy season), AWTI-PACHA (dry season).


A diagonal line is reflected through which you can see two spaces that represent the INTI-tata, the PAXSI-mama, the Man and the Woman CHACHA and WARMI, the ARAXA-PACHA (the above), AKA-PACHA (the here), likewise the JANAN-SAYA and the JURIN-SAYA, as well as to our languages: Aymara and Qhishwa, respectively.

The diagonal line of the WIPHALA is the union of two spaces, symbolic of complementary opposition, expressed in the DUAL force and the Harmony of the Andes. Also, this LINE represents the “Qhapaq-ñan” or “Qhapax-thakhi” (rich and powerful path). The line means, therefore, the Union of two beings, like the CHACHA-WARMI, to generate and multiply the population and to build a society of happiness and harmony, which in turn represents the Way to paradise of the Aymara-Qhishwa. This path reflects the transformation of nature and the social transformation of man on the planet.

On the other hand, the representation of the five central squares of the WIPHALA means the expression of the moral principles of the Andean man. It is the sacred PENTALOGY of the AMAWT’A as follows:

  1. Don’t be lazy
  2. Don’t be a liar
  3. Don’t be a thief
  4. Don’t be a murderer
  5. Don’t be a libertine.

These rules have the sole purpose of avoiding and curbing all the defects of the human being. These five central squares also represent the five notes of Andean Pentatonic Music, performed in the rhythms of Jarawi, Wayli, Wayñu and others. It is also the representation of the five powers of the structure of the Community State of the Andes.

  1. The Philosophical Doctrine
  2. The Government
  3. The Economy
  4. Legislation
  5. Justice

Finally, it represents the five periods of the PACHA-KUTI (the cosmic revolution). According to the proverb of the AMAWT’AS, every 500 years there must be a change or a revolution in the social, economic, and political structure of Andean society and in the world.

For all that has been said, the WIPHALA symbolises the philosophical doctrine of the PACHA-KAMA (principle of Universal order) and the PACHA-MAMA (mother, cosmos) that constitutes Space, Time, Energy, and our Planet. That’s why the meaning of the Wiphala is holistic.

The Wiphala Expression of the Cosmic Calendar

According to a publication by Alejandro Quisbert M., the WIPHALA is the representation of an astronomical and mathematical measuring instrument, which our ancestors probably would have used to control the movements of the Earth, in relation to the Sun and the Moon.

Through this, it was possible to appreciate the meteorological phenomena which would allow agricultural technology to be applied in an adequate and systematic way in the Andes.

The WIPHALA, as an instrument, has its rules and fulfils a function that consists of horizontal, vertical and diagonal interpretation in combination with the seven colours.

Alejandro Quisbert M. claims that this instrument is known by the denominative of the Andean AWAKU, therefore the mathematical interpretation of this object can be explained as follows: the combination of colours, with different directions, forms mathematical harmony in each box and to guide us three readings are needed, one vertical, one horizontal, and the third diagonal. This reading in turn separates equal parts of the instrument. Then, the upper part corresponds to the day with the Sun, the lower part to the night with the Moon. Moreover, with the instrument it is possible to interpret, through a mathematical calculation of the solstice, the equinox including the eclipses. For example, the annual moon has thirteen months of 28 days, and the annual sun has 12 months – 8 months of 30 days and 4 of 31 – adding all the days make 364 days – plus a day called the JACH’A -URU (big day) – making 365 days of the calendar year.

That is why Andean peoples celebrate the AYMARA-QHISHWA new year (the MACHAQA-MARA or the MUSUQ-WATA, also known historically as the MARA-T’AQA or separation of the year) every 21st June.

We must consider that after each 21st June of any year that may coincide with the full moon, counting could begin, from the central box of the instrument, of the changes of the moon and the sun in relation to the Earth, which accurately indicates the seasons of the calendar year (see figures).

  1. Year equal to 365 days in the lunisolar calendar. For the moon: 13 months of 28 days. For the sun: 12 months, 8 of 30 days.
  2. The way to count the days of the lunar month together with the days of the solar month making the Lunisolar Calendar.
  3. Adding the product of 1(1)+2(2)+3(3)+4(4)+5(5)+6(6)= 91 on each side (91×4=364) days +1 day of New Aymara Year = 365 days of a year.
  4. The square of the wiphala represents the sun (A) the southern cross is also included (B) and the stepped figure representing the moon (C).
  5. The sum of 91 days + the days in the first square (D-E-A) represents the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, plus 1 day of the Aymara new year (A-B); the sum of 91 days + 91 days in the second square (D-C-D) represents the spring equinox and the summer solstice.
  6. The numerical values given in the boxes diagonally below give sums of 1+4+9+16+25+36=91 (91×4=364). In superior summation, the following figures are obtained: 6+10+12+12+10+6=56 (56×13=728) (728/2=364). With this it is shown that the sum in the Andean abacus gives 364 + 1 day of the new Aymara year, which gives 365 days of a year.

Origin of the Word ‘Bandera’ (flag)

The word comes from the sounds ‘band’, ‘bandoleros’, ‘bandits’ from the time of European feudalism, who dedicated themselves to invading, assaulting, raping and murdering under their flags and pennants. An example is the ‘Bandeirantes’ gang of criminals who enslaved indigenous and Afro peoples from Brazil.

Differences Between the Wiphala and Western Flags

To make a comparison of the emblems of the West and of the Andes, we must differentiate the shape and characteristics of each. For example, the Wiphala as an Andean emblem was always square to express organization and harmony, as well as Unity and Equality. In contrast, the Bolivian flag, like the Spanish one, has a rectangular shape and both have a European origin. For the Qhishwas-Aymaras, it represents the western system and culture, in opposition to the community system and the Andean culture.

Because it is a rectangle, it is the expression of the injustice, inequality, individualism, and selfishness of western society. It represents social and racial discrimination, which is why there is exploitation of man by man, why there are rich and well fed and, on the other hand, poor and hungry, and where human solidarity is unknown.


The Wiphala becomes an emblem of resistance

The invaders like Columbus, Cortéz, Pizarro, Valdivia, and others, brought in their hands, the sword, the cross, the bible their FLAG.

With the sole purpose of appropriating and plundering our riches, they subjugated us under their Christian doctrine. From that time, a regime of terror and bloody is implanted. With the implementation of the Holy Inquisition, the priests apply repression and persecution to our grandparents, legalising genocide and ethnocide against the Qhishwa-Aymaras and other peoples of the continent, causing the death to more than 100 million men, women, elderly and innocent and defenceless children, pouring out rivers of blood.

Since then, as a consequence of colonialism, we have been dispossessed of our best lands and of all our riches. Our natural resources have been looted, particularly gold and silver, later with tin and other minerals, today with oil and wood, tomorrow with lithium.

The subjugation, exploitation and looting that began more than 500 years ago continues to this day in all its dimensions.

Faced with these barbarities and inhumane crimes committed by the Spanish and other Europeans in our territory since 1534, the Qhishwa-Aymaras organized the army with the Inka mallku II, with Santos At’ajalp’a in 1572; with the uprisings of Tupaq Amaru and Tupaq Katari in 1780, with Muiwa in 1811, with Qallisaya in 1816, and many others who fought in the colonial period, against feudalism and the Spanish army.

Consequently, the two SYMBOLS clashed: the Wiphala of Pusintsuyu/Tawantinsuyu and the Flag of Spain.

Since then, the WIPHALA has become a symbol of Cultural RESISTANCE of the original Nation of the Andes, against Spanish domination.

The Wiphala in the Resistance

As a consequence of the Spanish invasion of the continent of AWYAYALA, the native peoples and nations, essentially pacifists, opted for confrontation in defence of self-determination and national sovereignty, brandishing our emblems against the colonial system and Spanish feudalism.

During the usurpation and the arbitrary establishment of the foreign colonial regime, the army of COMUNEROS goes to the frontline with the WIPHALA’S squares of seven colours and white, against the rectangular flag (red, yellow and red) of Spain.

Later the Criollo patriots used a green flag in their fight against the Spanish and, after defeating the Spanish royalists, created their Republic of Bolivia in a part of our homeland. After the territorial separation, the Criollos continue to dominate our people, prolonging the forms of submission and destroying the first Republic of Aymara-Qhishwa of Ayupaya. On August 17, 1825, after the creation of the FEUDAL state, the Criollos create their own Bolivian flag, with the colours “green, red and green” in a rectangular shape.

On July 25, 1826, not satisfied with the composition of the colours they choose to change their flag, for “yellow, red and green”. And on October 31, 1851, they change it once more, opting for the currently used “red, yellow and green”. We affirm that the tricolor and the bicolor flags of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia are symbols of oppression and submission for the Qhishwa-Aymaras, Guarani and the other native peoples of the Andes and the Amazon.

The Prohibition of the Wiphala

The authorities of the Spanish crown, after the defeat of the comunarios, prohibited the use of this sacred emblem.

WIPHALAS were burned everywhere, those who carried it were persecuted, and even those who uttered the word WIPHALA were punished. It is symptomatic that in dictionaries such as Bertonio’s, the word WIPHALA does not appear, like others such as “jallalla”. Hence, the WIPHALA is synonymous with subversion for the dominant minorities, both politically, ideologically, and religiously. These bans further strengthened the WIPHALA as a symbol of resistance and rebellion during the colonial period. The WIPHALA continued to fly underground and in peaceful resistance and democracy. Today more than ever the QHISHWA-AYMARAS raise their WIPHALAS high in their communities, Ayllus and Markas, to build the new SUYU.

The ‘Criollo’ State Does Not Solve the Problems of the Communities

The government and the authorities of the Criollo republic do not solve the socioeconomic and cultural problems of the national majorities at all. On the contrary, the situation has worsened. Therefore, the Qhishwa-Aymaras rise again, for the defence of the interests of the native nation of the ANDES, leading with the WIPHALAS of the Qullana Marka: with Luciano Willka in 1847, Pawlu S. Willka in 1895, Rumi Maki in 1914, and many other compatriots facing the tricolor of the Bolivian Criollos.

Today the descendants of the Pusintsuyu=Tawantinsuyu, once again raise our WIPHALAS, in the streets of the cities, in the great concentrations of masses, in the great social and cultural events. Moreover, the new generation of the Quilana marka, all the community brothers must become aware that our purpose is to replace the tricolor and bicolor of the Criollos and recover the National and Cultural Identity of the Qhishwa-Aymaras.

To reestablish the communitarian and harmonious system of Tawantinsuyu, implant a new system of socio-economic and political structure in the Andes. The wiphala is the symbol of liberation of the comunarios of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The wiphala is the expression of thought to put an end to the neocolonial regime of the parasitic bourgeoisie of the Criollos.
The wiphala is the rallying cry to definitively defeat neoliberalism and eradicate the exploitation of man by man, halt the looting of our wealth, and the illicit accumulation of fortunes by the Criollo social class.

For what our Emblem also expresses is the recovery of territorial sovereignty and self-determination of the Qhishwa-Aymaras, Guaraníes and other native peoples, overcoming the current individualistic and selfish western system.

Classes of Andean Emblems

There are four kinds of Andean emblems: the continental, the national, the regional and the local.

The continental: solid white, it represents the continent of AWYAYALA (what is called ‘Latin America’ today).

The national: from Tawantinsuyu=Pusintsuyu, composed of seven colours of the rainbow with horizontal stripes in harmonic order (called SULLPU), it is the cosmic reflection that represents the collective social organization and the harmonious life of the Aymara-Qhishwa in the Andes.

Similarly, there is another emblem, with which it forms its pair according to Andean logic, composed of four squares and four colours, red, yellow, green and white in equal parts. It represents the four state organizations of the country o del Tawantinsuyu (called TARU) and symbolizes the unity and equality of the four organized Punsintsuyu territories.

The regional: has seven colours and 49 equal squares (called ACHANK’ARA) differentiated by the colour of the diagonal line and that it separates into two equal parts. Its composition is symmetrical and harmonic, representing the organic structure of the minor nations corresponding to the four SUYUS and shows an image of Unity and Equality.

Likewise, the regional corresponding to its pair is of a solid colour and each one is characterized by the colour allocated according to regions.

The local: of any single colour and represents the AYLLUS and MARKAS around its jurisdiction, with an image or identification sign of its own in the middle to differentiate from one to the other.

Finally, there is the wiphala with a figure called the CHAKANA. In the centre it has a circle called P’uytu, divided in two. The upper part represents the day and the lower part the night. Always at the tip or the upper part of the mast of the large wiphalas is the head of a sacred animal from Andean mythology. Similarly, a flower is put on the mast-tip of the small wiphalas – particularly the emblems of solid colour.

Where and Why We Should Use the Wiphala

The wiphala is the property of the original nation, that is, the Qhishwa-Aymaras, Guarani and all indigenous peoples. It is the symbol of the exploited, oppressed, humiliated, and marginalized classes. It is the representation of the national majorities.

For the Aymara-Qhishwa, the wiphala is the expression of Andean philosophical thought. It manifests in its content the development of science, technology and art. It is also the dialectical expression of Pacha-kama and Pacha-mama. It is the image of organization and harmony of brotherhood and reciprocity in the Andes.

That is why the wiphala is sacred, and it is up to us to spread and defend the image and the meaning of our emblem throughout the Andean area – in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – and to show the peoples of the world our territorial, national and cultural identity.

Its management and use must be permanent and consistent, as in the glorious past of our grandparents and our culture.

We must use it in ceremonial acts, at festivals, marches, games and competitions, in acts of commemoration, meetings of ayllus and markas communities, and in agricultural work. The wiphala must be present in all social and cultural events, particularly on the memorable dates of QULLANA MARKA and Tawantinsuyu. As comunarios we live identified with our cultural essence. Therefore, the wiphala must fly in every place and at every event of the daily life of the Andean man.

When hoisting the wiphala, everyone must remain silent, and at the end someone must give the voice of triumph and of victory of the JALLALLA QULLANA marka! JALLALLA Pusintsuyu/TAWANTINSUYU!


Chronicle of good government, Edition 1612 by ph. Waman Puma de A.,

History of Bolivia, Ed. 1920 by Froilán Giebel.

Wiphala exhibition, 1945 La Paz.

Wiphala, research work by Germán Ch. Wanka, 1985.

Cultural seminar held in Oruro, community members, leaders participated, 1986.

Andean symbols research contributions, V. Hugo Cárdenas, 1987.

Seminar Workshop in Oruro, Cultural Identity, 1989.

Chasqui Magazine, Ed. June 1990 Edit. Firefly.

CULTURAL Research by Carlos Urquiso S.

La wiphala Ed. Presencia by Alejandro Guisber, July 14, 1991.

Felix Lopez M.
Froilan Cano
Félix Cárdenas A.
Filemon Chogue

The children… They return along the paths of:


What Indigenous cosmovisions teach us about climate apathy

The world is burning, and humanity is asleep. Why won’t people just wake up??!!

It’s planting season. Last Tuesday, along with a friendly bunch of fellow farm volunteers, I spent the afternoon introducing hundreds of young tomato plants to their new poly-tunnel home. The farm’s head grower had wanted to plant them the previous week, but the nights were still too cold. Tomato plants, like all crops, must be kept within a critical range of temperatures, above or below which they could fail.

While farming in the UK certainly has its challenges, we’re still insulated from the most severe weather extremes experienced in other parts of the world. Take the hellish spring heatwave in India and Pakistan, for example, where April temperatures hit a staggering 49°C. The impact on crops has been devastating, with yields falling by 50% in the worst hit areas. For some, the end of the world is already here.

This is the grim reality of climate change – the high-carbon lifestyles of us Global Northerners inflicting mass suffering on the Global South. But it gets worse. A month ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their latest report. Their assessment couldn’t have been clearer: we must act now or face climate catastrophe. The UK government responded by announcing plans to drill for more oil, a policy cheered on by the COP26 president, Alok Sharma.

Neither the latest IPCC code red warning, the South-East Asian heatwave, nor the literal pouring of petrol on an already out of control blaze by characteristically reckless Tory politicians – two slaps in the face and a kick in the crotch – registered with the dormant British public. We carry on as normal, as if these reports relate to a totally different planet altogether.

Dormant citizens don’t hold climate-wrecking politicians accountable, nor do they change their climate-wrecking lifestyles. If we’re to avoid extinction, both must change. That’s why understanding climate apathy in advanced industrialised economies is so crucial. Given what’s at stake, it’s arguably one of the most important questions ever posed in human history. And yet, as I’ve written previously, the Western science paradigm gives us false answers, claiming that humans are innately predisposed to ignore climate change.

The consequences of this bogus narrative are dire. With climate apathy wired in the brain, we can only conclude that human nature is irrevocably flawed, leaving us permanently comatose to the perils of climate breakdown. Almost by design, this pessimism of the human condition inspires optimism in capitalism and technology. “Trust progress!”, “Trust technology!”, “Trust the profit motive!”, scream the tech masters of the Universe. If all else fails, they tell us, we can black out the sun[1].

Belief that the economic system which has pushed us to the brink of mass extinction will eventually save us is motivated reasoning so perverse that it would make ISIS blush. But this is exactly where we are. The Prophets of profit are the most fundamentalist psychos on the planet.

Moving beyond this fatalistic, insular, and superficial account of climate apathy is crucial. Totally absent is an appreciation of the structural social, economic, and cultural factors that shape people’s climate apathy in the first place. To get to the root of the issue, we must dig deeper. Focusing on why we won’t wake up isn’t enough, we need to ask the more basic question what kind of people are we – that is, what kind of human does late-capitalist society produce? Without this understanding, how do we even know what the baseline expectation should be for our ecological and environmental concern?

In my previous post, I laid out how cultural blindness or ‘ethnocentrism’, a by-product of socialisation processes, prevents us from seeing the strangeness of our society. It’s why the Enlightenment was forced to wait until Europeans encountered Native Americans, who kindly pointed out to them the absurdity of their cherished institutions and beliefs, such as the divine right of Kings. Likewise, to move beyond the superficial and bland auto-introspection of the late-capitalist condition (we’re individualistic, selfish, consumerist, short-sighted etc. etc.), we must, once again, turn to Indigenous writers and activists for inspiration.

The poetic words of Guarini activist Eunice Kerexu, shared during a session at COP26, are good starting point.

“We invite you to join the struggle to reforest the Amazon, and to reforest our hearts and minds, because more than the forest, what has been deforested has been us as human beings.”

The observation that industrialised society has felled core pillars of our humanity is a common thread in Indigenous thought. Perhaps, then, we should be focusing less on what we are and more on what we are not.

One thing we’re certainly not, the Indigenous writer Ailton Krenak reminds us, are the kind of people who talk to rocks. Nor do we contemplate the mood of mountains, sing to the forest, appreciate the sacredness of a river or, indeed, commune inter-subjectively with any other-than-human natural entity. In his book ‘Ideas to Postpone the End of the World’, he contrasts his connection to the natural world with that of industrialised peoples.

“My communion with what we call nature is an experience long scoffed at by city folk. Rather than see any value in it, they poke fun at it: “He talks to trees, he’s a tree-hugger; he talks to rivers, he contemplates the mountains.” But that’s my experience of life. I don’t see anything out there that is not nature. Everything is nature. The cosmos is nature. Everything I can think of is nature.”

In a recent webinar run by the Indigenous rights group Cultural Survival, Archana Soreng, an environmental activist from the Kharia Tribe in India, expanded on this sentiment:

“The entire worldview of Indigenous people and local communities, for us nature is a source of identity, culture, tradition and language. We believe that we are not a mere part of nature, but that we are nature. Nature has been a source of our livelihood, a source of our protection, a source of our centre. We are in a relationship where we respect her, and we take care of her. The world has seen land, forest, and nature as commercial commodities, unlike Indigenous communities. For us, talking care of nature is our way of living. Often Indigenous people are asked “What do you do to protect nature? What’s the traditional knowledge and practices?” but for me, it’s not what we do, but who we are.”   

The above statements all illustrate the profound interdependence that Indigenous and local communities feel for nature and that this is experienced on a deep psychological level. It is a function of both their proximity to natural processes and their direct dependence on nature for survival. From birth, they are socialised into a cosmovision, or worldview, which reinforces these connections, providing them with the traditional knowledge, beliefs, and ritual practices to live in commune with the natural world around them.

These cosmovisions promote an ‘ecological realism’[2] – an accurate ecological representation of humans as just one element of a natural living system comprised of innumerable others, whose harmonious balance must be preserved so that all lifeforms can benefit from its abundance. Culturally, this ecological relationality is often expressed by extending kinship relations beyond humans to ‘other-than-human’ beings.

The cosmic importance of ecological balance for Indigenous peoples means that they’re extremely sensitive to climatic disturbances. More than three decades ago, the Kogi, an Amerindian tribe located in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, abandoned 500 years of isolation to broadcast this urgent message to the world:

“We look after nature. We Mamas [Kogi spiritual leaders] see that you are killing it by what you do. We can no longer repair the world – you must. You are uprooting the Earth and we are divining how to teach you to stop.”

In more recent years, Indigenous peoples and local communities across the globe have been visible as the most vocal and vociferous campaigners against planetary destruction and climate change. Thousands of land and water defenders have been murdered on the frontlines.

I hope it’s now abundantly clear that climate apathy doesn’t reside in the brain, but in the environment and the culture emerging from it. Western science gets things so wrong because it fails to grant personhood to people living beyond industrialised society. If you’re only studying subjects in one environment, you will only get one answer. We can imagine a different science, one that only studies Indigenous peoples, concluding that humans are wired to passionately care about climate change.

‘Environmentalism’ is an odd term for the advocacy of the natural world as the environments humans navigate take many forms, most of which are not natural in any meaningful sense. The Amazon and Las Vegas are both environments, but the influence each exerts on their populations will obviously vary immensely – as will the environmentalism that each inspires. It follows that those living in the industrialised world can care for their environment with a similar reverence as Indigenous and local communities – it’s just that their conception of ‘the environment’ is one that’s totally detached from nature.

Ask any local council candidate about the issues raised on the doorstep in the latest round of elections and they’ll tell you about the rage induced by potholes, fly-tipping, and “bins” – all factors of environmental imperfection. And think about the immense amount of time and money invested in our most treasured environment – our homes – doing DIY, extensions, refurbishments, home décor, pruning and landscaping gardens. This is also environmentalism, but of the kind in service of artificiality.

My flat overlooks a primary school playground. The scene of boisterous children playing between classes is familiar to all. So familiar, perhaps, that it’s just taken for granted that this is what kids should be doing. Play is, after all, vitally important for a child’s social development. As someone interested in human behaviour, the social dynamics of these developing young people have been fascinating (and often hilarious) to observe.

But lately, I’ve begun to appreciate this scene’s profound strangeness. Absolutely everything in this play environment is artificial. The two surfaces are asphalt and Astroturf. The objects the kids are playing with – balls, hoops, and tyres (!) etc. – are all plastic or rubber. The handful of trees lining the playground’s periphery receive no attention. While there are a few schools that have a greater access to natural surroundings, what I’ve described is very much the norm across the country.

Play is one of the most important motors of a child’s socialisation and the school playground is arguably where they play most (and if they’re not at school they’re in parks playing on slides or at home playing with toys). If children are socialised in entirely artificial environments, interacting with wholly artificial objects, then we shouldn’t be at all surprised that as adults they are utterly detached from natural processes and disinterested in ecological matters like climate change. A recent encounter I had through my work in social research sums this up perfectly. Whilst interviewing a woman on the doorstep, a fly flew into her house. In a genuinely panicked tone, she exclaimed “My daughter is scared of flies!”, before disappearing to deal with it (her daughter was a toddler).

So, to summarise my argument: it’s not that we’re “wired to ignore climate change”, it’s that socialisation in environments devoid of substantial natural connection wires us for artificiality, robbing us of the ecological realism that we see so clearly in the cosmovisions of Indigenous peoples and local communities. Of course, none of this should be in anyway surprising given that the globe’s dominant cosmovision, capitalism, operates on logic abstracted away from ecological reality – profit, shareholder value, commodification, private property, monetary policy, growth etc. – all ruthlessly reinforcing our separation from nature. Even our education system is geared towards the needs of the private sector – corporates sponsor and run some of our schools, ensuring the conveyor belt of docile workers and ravenous consumers never ends.

Given that we’re operating in a culture which actively disconnects us from the biosphere, the baseline expectation for general concern for ecological processes will naturally be very low, and mass climate apathy entirely unsurprising. In fact, we should probably be grateful that there’s any concern at all (although it doesn’t typically encompass the radical changes to our lifestyles needed to stave off extinction). While it’s important to remain positive, we mustn’t shy away from the immensity of the challenge in front of us. How we nurture ecological realism against the tidal wave of capitalist influence feels like an unsolvable conundrum. Fundamentally, it’s about finding ways of allowing Indigenous-inspired cosmovisions, like ‘buen vivir’, to take root. And it begins with how we educate and socialise our children.

Looking down from my window at this wasteland of concrete and faux-grass, strewn with tyres, I see great potential for nature connection – a pond, wildflower patches, a mini orchard, and raised beds for growing veg – as well as opportunities to play with nature – tree climbing, building and toy making using natural materials, and picking wildflowers. Importantly, the hegemony of competitive games must be displaced by play (and integrated teaching) which reinforces communality and ecological connection. Tackling climate apathy means first tackling mass ecological illiteracy. Ecology must be granted the same educational importance as English and Maths.

Somehow, we must find a way of awakening the masses to the bizarreness of this Willy Wonka-esque wonderland we call ‘modernity’, which has us hooked on endless artificial treats that we gorge with Creosotic excess. Divine kings are everywhere, hidden in plain sight. In a very real sense, we have become aliens on our own planet, occupying a virtual world disconnected from physical reality. To become Earthlings once more, we must turn to those cultures that never abandoned Mother Earth.

[1]Bill Gates is a proponent of so-called solar geoengineering, which involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect the sun’s light back into space

[2] I probably need to find another term for what I mean here because ‘ecological realism’ is already used in philosophy with a different meaning. Can’t think of a better one for now, so I’m sticking with it!

Seeing the strange: the revolutionary potential of the Indigenous critique

The goal of anthropology, so the saying goes, is to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I first heard this impressively succinct mission statement many years ago but hadn’t given it much thought since. It wasn’t until I started reading Indigenous authors’ critiques of modernity that I recognised the important of these dual processes for shifting social understanding.

The problem is this: socialisation is a powerful constrainer of social change. From the moment we’re born, we begin the long process of absorbing the social logic of our environment. Socialisation’s function is to equip humans with the basic knowledge to adaptively operate within their culture – not to question it or even understand it on a deep level. So much of the superficial workings of society are taken as given, leaving us blind to the often perverse lower-level rationales. To make matters worse, it bestows us with a quasi-moral sense that our ways are right or ‘normal’ (ethnocentrism).

The only way to lift socialisation’s blinders is through exposure to different ways of being. We open our eyes to new possibilities by meaningfully engaging with societies radically different to our own. And we shake our sense of cultural superiority with active contemplation and debate of our ways in relation to those of others. This is how the strangeness of our society is revealed to us and how social change can happen.

Just how profound can this change be? In their recent bestseller, ‘The Dawn of Everything’, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that it was precisely these dynamics that catalysed the 18th century conceptual revolution of Western thinking on social organisation that came to be known as the ‘Enlightenment’.

Why was it, they ask, that while living under the absolute monarchy of Louis XV, French intellectuals were asking questions about the origins of social inequality? Naturalised inequality (e.g. the divine right of kings) was all they knew, so how did it occur to them that social inequality might have emerged from a primordial state of equality?

The first part of the answer was France’s entry into the globalised economy which exposed European intellectuals to “a whole plethora of previously unimagined social, scientific and political ideas”. In other words, increasing familiarisation with the beliefs and knowledge systems of faraway alien cultures allowed these thinkers to formulate new questions which, in turn, opened up new social possibilities for Europe.

But exposure alone would not have been sufficient for Europeans to shake off their sense of cultural superiority – a prerequisite for the abandonment of institutionalised hierarchy and the embrace of principles of freedom and equality. They had to see the strange in their familiar. And they were shown this strangeness, not by fellow Europeans, but by Native Americans. As Graeber and Wengrow put it:

…indigenous Americans – confronted with strange foreigners – gradually developed their own, surprisingly consistent critique of European institutions, […] these critiques came to be taken very seriously in Europe itself.

Just how seriously can hardly be overstated. For European audiences, the indigenous critique would come as a shock to the system, revealing possibilities for human emancipation that, once disclosed, could hardly be ignored”

And they didn’t hold back. French writer, Lahontan, popularised the views of an exceptional Wendat leader and diplomat, Kandiaronk, who had the opportunity to visit France. He wrote:

“[Those Native Americans who have visited France] were continually teasing us with the faults and disorders they observed in our towns, as being occasioned by money. There’s no point in trying to remonstrate with them about how useful the distinction of property is for the support of society: they make a joke of anything you say on that account. In short, they neither quarrel nor fight, nor slander one another; they scoff at arts and sciences, and laugh at the difference of ranks which is observed with us. They brand us for slaves, and call us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having, alleging that we degrade ourselves in subjecting ourselves to one man [the king] who possesses all the power, and is bound by no law but his own will.”

Indigenous critiques extended to the most fundamental and sacred aspects of French society. They recognised the link between wealth accumulation and European servitude. In their society, wealth differences were trivial and had little consequence for individual liberty. But for the French, they saw that wealth was convertible into power and domination over others. Additionally, they eviscerated the logic of Christianity and cast doubt on the moral basis of European-style punitive law. Kandiaronk explicitly called for the abandonment of self-interest in French society and a re-founding based on Wendat principles:

“Over and over I have set forth the qualities that we Wendat believe ought to define humanity – wisdom, reason, equity, etc. – and demonstrated that the existence of separate material interests knocks all these on the head. A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason.”

These ideas were taken up by Enlightenment philosophers, most famously Rousseau, but subverted by others. Social evolutionists, convinced of their cultural and racial superiority, recast the ‘state of equality’ at the bottom of the ladder of social development. Consequently, the transformative impact of Indigenous ideas on European society, although profound, was subject to limitations. Monarchic power was either abolished with revolutionary fervour or drastically restricted. Church was separated from state and the trajectory towards liberal democracy was set. But European colonialism expanded (justified by social evolutionist racism), eventually morphing into globalised capitalism. Inequality in material wealth, and therefore power, has increased exponentially. Unchecked self-interest continues to be at the root of our malaise.

So, how does this relate to our current dire predicament – the destruction of a liveable climate by modern civilisation? Clearly, the motors of socialisation (school, cultural institutions, mass media, work etc.) continue to reproduce a large majority of agents for whom the current industrialised consumer capitalist model is perfectly normal[i]. At the same time, environmentalists, baffled by the intransigence of people’s behaviour in the face of such a catastrophic threat, wrongly insist that it’s a ‘human’ crisis, rather than a cultural one. Both cases demonstrate an inability to see the strangeness of this society (albeit to differing extents).

The key takeaway is this: it takes an outsiders’ eye to truly show us the most fundamental failings of our own society. Just like the philosophers of 17th and 18th century France, intellectuals and environmentalists preoccupied with solving the current planetary crisis must harness the power of the gaze of those cultures that, unlike ours, respect life. We must, therefore, look to Indigenous writers for inspiration.

Thankfully, there’s no shortage of valuable Indigenous critique of modernity, showing us the strangeness of our ways and making visible far deeper societal fractures than the superficial analysis coming from within the Western framework. It’s not hyperbole to say that these Indigenous thinkers are trying to give birth to a new Enlightenment (or, perhaps, complete the previous one!) by helping us rediscover our shared ancestral wisdom. Unfortunately, there’s presently not much sign of the Indigenous critique cutting through in Europe, even amongst the environmental left.

It’s this blog’s goal to try to correct this. In my next post, I’ll begin to delve into the perspective-shifting power of this new Indigenous critique.


[i] Of course, those most indoctrinated in this system are those who have materially benefitted most from it i.e. the over-50s, ‘Baby boomers’. Tragically, they continue to wield the most political and economic power, using their considerable influence to ensure the persistence of this culture of death.

Don’t let partial views of human nature obscure our innate capacity to address the environmental crisis

During the vortex of climate debate around Glasgow’s COP26, I was struck by a depressing consensus reached by some of the UK’s most prominent environmentalists: humans are innately destructive and psychologically inept when it comes to tackling the climate emergency.

In his keynote address to world leaders, Sir David Attenborough solemnly asked, “Is the smartest species doomed by that all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals?”. His hope lay, not with our capacity to live within planetary boundaries, but with the combination of our “smartness” and the ever-increasing immediacy of climate change impacts jolting us into action.

And shortly before the start of COP26, environmental campaigner George Monbiot painted an even grimmer picture of our special deficiencies:

“There is a myth about human beings that withstands all evidence. It’s that we always put our survival first. This is true of other species. When confronted by an impending threat, such as winter, they invest great resources into avoiding or withstanding it: migrating or hibernating, for example. Humans are a different matter.

When faced with an impending or chronic threat, such as climate or ecological breakdown, we seem to go out of our way to compromise our survival. We convince ourselves that it’s not so serious, or even that it isn’t happening. We double down on destruction, swapping our ordinary cars for SUVs, jetting to Oblivia on a long-haul flight, burning it all up in a final frenzy.”

For anthropologists, whose field of study is the diversity of human societies on the planet, sweeping statements about what humans are or are not leave us feeling queasy. That’s not to say that generalisations can’t be made, just that when making them we must consider “humanity” in its fullest sense. And when we use this principle to scrutinise the claims made by our esteemed green campaigners, they simply don’t hold up. Missing from their conceptions of “the human” is a huge chunk of humanity – the 2.5 billion people of Indigenous and local origin – recognised by the United Nations-Indigenous Peoples and Intergovernmental Panel on the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for their harmonious connections to land and the natural world.

Occupying nearly every ecosystem on the planet in ecologically sustainable ways, Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) provide us with a model of humanity that is neither destructive nor short-termist. Using mainly communal modes of organisation, IPLCs manage 50% of the global landmass. Indigenous peoples alone, a population of approximately 370 million, manage about 38 million km2 of land covering savannas, forests, tropical forests, shrublands and rangelands1.

So, what’s going on? Why have these intelligent and well-meaning environmentalists latched on to an unnecessarily partial and bleak view of human nature?

Before getting into this, let’s decode their statements. When Attenborough laments humans’ overriding pursuit of short-term goals, he’s referring to the malign social influence of the profit motive found in industrialised capitalist economies. And when Monbiot bemoans humans’ penchant for SUVs and long-haul flights, he’s describing the status-signalling behavioural consequences of hyper-consumerist culture from the same societies. The effect of both declarations is the shrinking of the category of “human” from people of every society to those belonging only to the industrialised world.

These assertions are consistent with the broader homogenising and ethnocentric tendencies of Western thought, most evident, perhaps, in the sciences. An obvious example is the popularisation of the term ‘the Anthropocene’ for our current geological epoch, which erases human diversity and reinforces the erroneous notion that humanity-as-a-whole is responsible for the planetary-scale climatic disruption we’re witnessing.

With respect to narratives of human nature, psychological science has casually erased IPLCs from the “human”. Recognised as the “WEIRD” problem2, psychological knowledge is dominated by studies involving a very specific kind of human: the university student in rich industrialised nations. In what can only be described as a form of colonisation of the mind3, generalised claims about “humans” are unashamedly made by Western psychologists from this exceptionally limited population sample.

Inevitably, these fallacious generalisations seep into Western environmental discourse. In his influential book “Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change”, environmentalist George Marshall consulted eminent psychologists on the question of why “we” don’t seem to care about the climate crisis. Their conclusion was that human brains are riddled with biases that prevent meaningful collective climate action. Evolution, he’s told, failed to furnish us with instincts to respond to such an abstract and distant threat4.

As soon as you properly expand the “human” category, the absurdity of the notion that our brains are wired to ignore climate change becomes apparent. For many decades now, the full diversity of Indigenous peoples of the planet have been the most vocal and vociferous campaigners against global environmental destruction and climate change5. Their lifeways, and those of their ancestors, unambiguously demonstrate a human capacity to live rich lives with care and respect for the world’s biodiversity. And these ways of being long pre-date the appearance of so-called civilisation and are, therefore, far more representative of our evolutionary past than industrialised society.

There’s no doubt that the environmental discourse arising from colonial conceptions of humanity has been harmful. Not only does it unfairly tar the hundreds of millions of humans living sustainable lives beyond industrialised civilisation with our ecocidal brush, often with devastating consequences for their livelihoods6, but it also gives us an overly pessimistic view of human nature, one that obscures the important truth that humans have lived harmoniously with nature for thousands of generations, and that within us all is the potential to do so again. Without this understanding, we’re stuck with the false belief that we’re fighting innate tendencies, and gloomy narratives, like those at the top of this article, will inevitably prevail.

My message to Sir David and George is this: ditch the despair and use your platforms to amplify the inspirational model of humanity provided to us by IPLCs. Fight against the political, social and economic forces in industrialised societies that move us away from their example, things like private ownership, individualism, alienation from nature and food, inequality, and greed. Fight for the promotion of their cultural values and ways of being in our society such as the importance of sacred land, gender egalitarianism, communal living, decolonisation, ecological relationality, other-than-human agency and indigenous knowledge systems. Most importantly, fight for the recognition, demarcation, protection, and expansion of their territories. Wherever there is indigenous-led conservation, we find thriving ecosystems.

Yes, us “moderns” are acculturated into a sociopathic and destructive socioeconomic system which generates all manner of environmentally dysfunctional behaviour. But we must never lose sight of the fact that these harmful actions are not a consequence of our humanity but of the theft of its full expression, as represented by our Indigenous brothers and sisters and their radical embeddedness in the web of life. In the words of Casey Camp Horinek, environmental ambassador of the Ponca Nation and land defender: “We are not defending nature – we are nature defending itself!”.

What might Sir David have said to world leaders had he heeded this advice? Perhaps something along these lines: “Modern civilisation has erased our indigeneity – that part of our humanity that binds us to land, to our relationships with non-human lifeforms and to natural processes. But we are lucky. There are still millions of indigenous peoples on the planet whose wisdom and knowledge holds the key to restoring this lost part of us. Bring them to the negotiating table and listen to what they have to say. They are the solution to this crisis.

Also posted on the UCL Centre for the Anthropology Of Sustainability (CAOS) blog


  1. Sangha, K. K. (2020). Global Importance of Indigenous and Local Communities’ Managed Lands: Building a Case for Stewardship Schemes. Sustainability12(19), 7839.
  2. Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature466(7302), 29-29. WEIRD stands for “Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich & Democratic”.
  3. In recent years, Indigenous psychologists have begun to shine a light on the colonial nature of Western psychology. This article by Indigenous psychologist Darcia Narveaz explains how fundamentally different indigenous psychology is compared to psychology’s standard model
  4. The similarity of Attenborough’s view of human nature to that espoused in this book is worth noting. An important Indigenous critique of colonial psychology is that it is culture blind. This culture blindness is particularly evident here. The psychologists offering their opinions about “human” brains being wired to ignore climate change completely ignore the effect of the culture in which these behaviours arise – industrialised capitalist societies.
  5. There are many examples. One of the most well known is the case of the Kogi who, in 1990, abandoned 5 centuries of relative isolation to make a plea to the modern world to stop destroying the planet. The full documentary can be found here. It’s also worth mentioning the academic effort pushing forward IPLC cosmovisions under the banner of the “Pluriverse”. Arturo Escobar’s book, “Pluriversal Politics” is a great introduction to this idea.
  6. The erroneous idea that humans can’t be trusted to care for nature has created an “anti-people” mindset in conservation that seeks to exclude Indigenous and local populations from designated conservation zones. Not only does this approach dramatically worsen the lives of Indigenous and local peoples, who are excluded from their traditional hunting territories, but it fails in its stated conservation goals. See here and here