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‘Alternatives to development’: an interview with Arturo Escobar

At the 2012 Degrowth conference in Venice one of the highlights for me was the talk by Arturo Escobar (my notes from which can be found here). He is the author of Encountering Development and Territories of Difference, among others. His talk looked at how Transition might look in the context of the Global South, and held many fascinating insights. Here is the interview I did with him, first as an audio file, and below as a transcript.

So, Arturo, could you tell us a little bit about yourself please?

My name is Arturo Escobar, I was born and grew up in Colombia and I teach in the US, at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I teach anthropology and most of my work as an anthropologist is also in Colombia, especially the rainforest region, the Pacific region of Colombia, with African descendant movements and communities.

So Arturo, you gave a presentation yesterday about what Degrowth would look like in the context of the developed world and the developing world, the Global North, the Global South. Could you set out what you see as the prime motivation in each of those places – what’s distinct between those two?

OK. One of the points that I was trying to make is a parallel between the Degrowth movement as a set of ideas and political projects and social projects for transformation or transition in the Global North, especially in Europe and the US, especially in Europe, the US is still way south as you probably know better than me.

The parallel movement in the US, in Latin America at least, maybe not so much for the Global South as a whole but for Latin America in particular, which is the region of the world that I know the best because I am from there and I’ve been working there for a long time as an anthropologist and ecologist, as an activist, is what I call ‘Alternatives to Development’.

When you talk about Degrowth, I think one of the speakers today referred to that, I think it was Marcelo the theologian who referred to that in our session. When he speaks about Degrowth in Brazil people laugh at him: “why do we need Degrowth with all this poverty and all these problems and all these possibilities for growing? We Brazilians are growing like crazy, Degrowth doesn’t make any sense”.

I think that’s a mistaken perception of what Degrowth is in Latin America, because people who have looked at Degrowth and Transition Town initiatives in South America, including some environmentalists, they find it appealing and they find that it’s not sufficient for tackling issues in South America.

One of the main ones – and he might be a great person for you to also interview – if I wanted to point you to one single source in the South American debates on Transition and alternatives to development and Buen Vivir, would be this Uruguayan ecologist whose name is Eduardo Gudynas. He knows about Transition Towns, he’s read your books, he has a great outfit in Montevideo, but he spends most of his time in the Andean region, specifically Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

Not Chile, not Brazil, not Venezuela, especially the four countries in the Andes. The other person who is really focussing on this is an Ecuadorian whose name is Alberto Acosta, who was the president of the constituent assembly that wrote the new constitution for Ecuador, where there is a huge section on Buen Vivir, and rights of nature, and both of them have been writing about alternatives to development and about the other concept that I didn’t get to explain yesterday which is transitions to post-extractivist model of society and economy.

What they find is that Degrowth – and they have some differences with Degrowth – they say here in Latin America we still have to grow in some ways. People’s livelihoods have to improve, and it’s difficult to do that without some growth. Health, education, housing – there are some sectors where the economy still has to grow.

But the second point they say is that growth has to be subordinated to a different vision of development, which is the Buen Vivir.

Could you tell us a bit more about what that is?

Yes, the Buen Vivir is a concept that has been coming out strongly over the past 10 years, especially in South America, in the context of the emergence of the left-leaning regimes in many South American countries, almost all South American countries with the exception of Colombia and Peru now, well it’s difficult to say what Peru’s current regime is.

In that context, it is the search for a different way of thinking about development and pushed by indigenous peoples and to some extent by peasants, by African descendents, and in collaboration with ecologists, sometimes feminists, sometimes activists from different social movements. They started to say that for this model of development, this is the moment to change our development model, from a growth-oriented and extraction of natural resources oriented model to something that is more holistic, something that really speaks to the indigenous cosmo-visions of the people in which this notion of prosperity based on material well-being only and material consumption does not exist. What has been traditionally cultivated among indigenous communities, is not even a notion of development, that is the key, because people are saying Buen Vivir is the new theory of development.

No, it’s not a theory of development. It’s a theory of something else that is not development. People translate it as ‘the good life’. I prefer to translate it as collective well-being. But it’s a collective well-being of both humans and non-humans. Humans, human communities and the natural world, all living beings.

And what does that look like in practice? What are the elements of it?

That’s the key question, the practice, the implementation of the Buen Vivir. That’s the struggle, especially in Ecuador and Bolivia that have governments that have been put in power mostly by coalitions of social movements, especially indigenous movements, which over the past 6 years since they were elected in 2006, and they were elected with the promise that they were going to carry out this mandate of the Buen Vivir in the constitutions of both Bolivia and Ecuador, with different notions of Buen Vivir in both constitutions.

That said, the goal of state policies should be to promote Buen Vivir which involves social justice, a new notion of rights that includes the rights of nature, ecological sustainability, the elimination of poverty or the reduction of poverty. The reduction of poverty and the protection of nature are the two main dimensions of that.

So there are two sides to the Buen Vivir, which is the social and economic political side, and the rights of nature which is the ecological side. So the aims of the constitutions and development plans, I’ve looked at the development plans of both governments and they are very contradictory, because they say “we have to carry out this mandate”. But they keep falling back to the old ideas about growth and extraction of natural resources and planning as a top-down exercise, and we the experts have decided the plan for the Buen Vivir, but communities feel excluded.

So they clash now in both countries. This is like, so in southern Colombia, southern Mexico, Chiapas and Oaxaca is between indigenous, and peasant, and black movements on the one hand, movements that are for the Buen Vivir, that are for a different vision of development, and the state approach which still is what Gudynas and Acosta in particular call ‘neo-extractivists’.

They are neo-extractivit because they are still based on the extraction of natural resources: oil, natural gas, lithium, soy beans, sugar cane, agro-fuels of all kinds, gold, minerals. They are Left regimes that are transacting with corporations, Canadian, American, European, South African, Chinese, corporations to take out natural resources. They are not traditional extractivism because, like the older Venezuelan regimes for instance, where there was so much oil, but the oil benefited only a small elite.

Now the idea of these Left regimes, which is a very good idea obviously, is they are going to be using the revenues which are far larger than in the previous regimes that basically gave everything to the corporations. They are going to use the revenues for social redistribution, to reduce poverty and to reduce inequality and to some extent they are doing it. But in the process, they have become this neo-developmentalist development models, pretty much the same as in the past but with a better social policy.

It’s interesting that the starting point was the idea of social justice and linked to environmental protection whereas in England at the moment, for example, the British government there are basically saying we have to go for economic growth at all costs, and environmental protection is optional. It’s interesting to see how with Buen Vivir, that’s been there from the beginning.

Exactly, and that is happening in the US as well, with policies like hydro-fracking which has been given carte blanche all over the place.

So in Transition we get asked about what Transition should look like in the Global South, and we say it’s about building resilience in both places, that the process of globalising food production has reduced food resilience in the Global North because we’ve become so dependent on imports and moving stuff around, and in the Global South it’s about the destruction of small farming and so on and so on. What’s your sense of that balance of how we build resilience in both places? Also what Transition groups who are working in the Global North can do through their actions to support what’s happening in the South?

I think the concept of resilience is very good and I know that you emphasise it from the very first book, the concept of resilience. I think it is a concept that could cut across Global North and Global South. I would have to go and look more carefully to see if it is being used now in Latin America, but it is a very fruitful concept, and actually that would be a very good question for Eduardo Gudynas who is a very good friend of mine, so I am going to ask him the question.

There are some parallels that I think could be thought about for both the Global North and the Global South in principle. In practice they would have their own specificities as you yourself said yesterday in your presentation on the first night, because every town basically has its own specificities. Local food, I think is a very important one in the Global North. It is increasingly important in the Global South, under a different umbrella.

The different umbrella is that of food sovereignty, food autonomy. In Colombia for instance, movements prefer to use autonomia alimentaria (food autonomy) which is somewhat different to food sovereignty. Food sovereignty tends to put the emphasis on the national level, so a county might say we basically produce food for the population blah blah blah, that’s not good enough. There has to be food autonomy locally, regionally, nationally.

So peasant movements like Via Campesina that is a very important movement in Latin America and worldwide is focussing on food sovereignty, and food autonomy to a lesser extent. So the question of food is crucial as an entry point to Transition.

Energy? Energy is so important to the Global North, I see it as less important to the Global South, and that doesn’t necessarily mean something good. We should be thinking more about energy, and that’s actually one of Gudynas’s co-workers now that I recall, who has a programme on energy, in particular for South America. He talks about the transformations that have to take place on the level of energy for transitions to take place.

The people in the Global North who say ‘oh, you can’t talk about local food because if you talk about local food you’re condemning farmers in Kenya and Chile to poverty and unemployment. How do you respond to that argument?

I don’t think it makes any sense! If you look carefully, sure, there’s a lot of food being grown in Africa, Asia and South America for the European and American markets, but who’s benefiting from that? Most times it’s not local peasants. It ceased to be local peasants at least two or three decades ago.

Even some of the agro-fuels that are touted as big solutions environmentally and so forth, like African palm which I know very well because it has been planted in Colombia all over the place. It’s being done at the expense of local communities, local ecosystems, by large Colombian capitalists or by large corporations.

I know that in parts of Africa and the Middle East it’s mostly German and European corporations that are planting food in these countries, with local cheap labour, to be exported to European markets. So on the contrary, I think local food in the north is going to be good for local food in the south. It’s going to stop this idea that the south will have to grow luxury crops for the Global North.

So if a Transition initiative in the Global North is actively working to localise its food supply, to reduce its carbon footprint, to put in place renewable energy infrastructure, localise it’s economy, is your sense that by default that that is helping the movement towards alternative development in the Global South or could they be doing something more mindfully, more intentionally to support that struggle at the same time?

I think that the first option that you outlined is the better way to think about it. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it thinking about the Global South as well, and how the Global South is affected. There might be cases in which particular groups in the Global South might be hurt by practices that emerge in the Global North around Transition initiatives, for instance one of the speakers this morning, Antonella Picchio, a feminist economist, who says we should always think from the perspective of women.

In principle that’s very good. How do we ask the question – how might our activities in Transition initiatives in the Global North benefit, or hurt, particular vulnerable groups in the Global South. Women, indigenous peoples, black peoples, ethnic minorities and peasants in particular. I think that’s always a very good question to ask. It’s not such a huge question to answer, you sort of follow the threads of the actions.

But as a whole I would tend to think Transition activities in the Global North would tend to contribute if not immediately, at least at some point, to alternatives to development and local autonomies in the Global South to the extent that they continue to erode corporate power, which is what unites and which is really screwing up everybody, including people in the Global North.

My Finnish and Canadian friends tell me that the same corporations that have been screwing up the Global South for so many decades are now doing the same in northern Canada and Finland. So it’s not even going to be the north that’s going to be spared anymore. In that sense I think the alliances have to be built. The conversations between Transition activists in the north and Transition activists in the south have to be cultivated. They will be somewhat difficult conversations and I think the questions you are asking are the ones we have to start with.

The concept, the practice of Transition that we use for different parts of the world, we have to take into account that they will be inter-cultural conversations, inter-epistemic conversations, different knowledge is going to be involved, and those require translation. Translation across knowledges, across cultures, across histories, across different ways of being negatively affected by globalisation, across levels of privilege and so forth.

Is just applying the concept of localisation, going to generate sufficient employment to create the kind of employment that these countries need?

Probably not. I think it has to be a level, certainly a lot of emphasis on local actions, local solutions, but there has to be also some degree of thinking and policy implementation at the regional level and at the national level. The state has to become more part of the solution than part of the problem that it is now. Now it is much more of the problem.

With some of these progressive regimes it has tried to become part of the solution as well in terms of connecting with social movements, but the give and take between social movements that are pushing more for the local autonomy, the protection of territories, the preservation of cultural and biological diversity on the one hand, and the state, who has the national or transnational level in mind, is going again really tight, and ruptures are beginning to happen, even in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador where there has been more closeness between the state and the movements.

What’s the role of technology here? There are some people who would say if we could do open-source genetic modification then that would have a role. There are all these technologies like nuclear power, these kinds of things. In your take on alternatives to development what constitutes good technology and what constitutes a technology that doesn’t have a place?

I think technology is super important. I think Buen Vivir indigenous communities, Afro-descendant communities, peasant communities, they are not opposed to technology per se. If they can be connected to the internet, if they can have technologies that improve the productivity of the land, if they can have technologies that improve their living standards, that’s all great.

What they are opposed to is having those technologies coming in at the expense of their autonomy, at the expense of their territories, at the expense of their cultural traditions, at the expense of their world-views and ways of living. But when you read – and I think this is a misconception – that the Buen Vivir, because it has been promoted mostly by indigenous movements and intellectuals is something about going back to the past – it’s not at all. It’s not about going back.

Someone said that here today too, that Degrowth is not about going back, it’s about moving forwards. The same with indigenous communities, it’s about moving forwards, but how? The difference is “how?” The way in which we’re moving forwards today on the basis of growth and instructivism and profit and the dominance of one particular model which is capitalism and modernity, for many communities and in the movements, that is the end and that has to stop.

But it’s not anti-technology and it’s not anti-modern. For me the criteria is to weaken or lessen the dominance of the growth model, the hi-tech model, the conventional economic neo-liberal model and the dominance of one particular cultural framework which is the cultural framework of modernity, and to allow for many different world-views and frameworks.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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