Category Archives: Latin America

Conceptual Innovations in Latin American Indigenous Movements

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

What can new political concepts advanced by indigenous movements teach the Western tradition of democratic theory?

As the undeliverable promises of social democracy gave way to the irrational exuberance of the neoliberal consensus, western liberal democracies today are struggling to present a new paradigm of governance capable of facing the challenges of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the BRIC countries continue to grow (in both geo-political and economic influence) thanks to a recipe of state-led capitalism and, in some cases, outright authoritarianism.  In this context, the West finds itself at an apparent impasse: how can it preserve the democratic values and freedoms which it purports to represent while remaining globally competitive?

Unsurprisingly, western democracies have increasingly traded in their cherished democratic values for security and economic growth. The primacy accorded to the War on Terror and to budget-deficit reduction through austerity measures bears testament to this. Of particular concern, however, is how this chronic state of emergency has stifled innovation in democratic thought within the West, impeding new ideas and concepts from presenting interesting alternatives to an unsustainable status quo. With the notable exception of the Occupy movements, there appears to be a dangerous lack of interest in how to re-articulate democracy in the light of twenty-first century challenges.

Not the same can be said for Latin America however. In fact, the indigenous struggles of countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador have expanded democratic thought in innovative and interesting directions. Throughout the past decade, these struggles have radically changed the political panorama of the region, forcing governments to listen to the demands of some of the most neglected and excluded people in the world.

Although the demands of indigenous movements have not yet crystallized into tangible social change for their countries, within the field of political theory they have brought notable conceptual innovation. Three important ideas have been produced by indigenous political thought which simultaneously demand a break with -and imply an expansion of- the Western tradition of democratic theory.

The first concept is called “El Buen Vivir”, or “Good Living”. This idea, which in Quechua language is referred to as Sumak Kawsay, is understood as an alternative paradigm of development. For indigenous movements, both the Marxist and neoliberal governments of the past have depended on the callous exploitation of natural resources to fuel their projects of modernization. Large-scale mining in the high Andes and oil drilling in the Amazon are but two examples of how “modernization” and “development” have degraded the ancestral homelands  and destroyed the livelihoods of communities which previously lived in relative harmony with their natural surroundings.

The Sumak Kawsay therefore presents an idea of development founded on the harmonious relationship between society, the economy and the environment. It is informed by a principle of economic sustainability opposed to a regime dependent on short term profits. As such, it demands that nature be not conceived solely as capital or private property but as a patrimony: we inherit our natural resources and have a duty as citizens to nourish, use and protect them so as to pass them on to future generations. There is thus a principle of intergenerational justice involved[1].

Central to the concept of Sumak Kawsay, therefore, is the rupture from the western model of development based on the emancipatory promise of societies guided by the invisible hand of rational markets. Contrarily, it draws inspiration from the solidarity and communitarian economies of indigenous communities which stress cooperation and associativism over competition and rugged individualism[2].

The second conceptual innovation presented by indigenous movements is the idea of environmental rights. Although not a new concept, they were the first in the world to enshrine them within national legal orders, both in Bolivia and Ecuador.  The idea of giving rights to nature implies another radical break from the juridical tradition informing western democratic thought. In fact, it demands that we cease giving value to nature based on its instrumental use to us as humans (i.e. the uses we can put it to for production purposes in a market economy) and recognize its intrinsic value in virtue of its existence.

Recognizing environmental rights forces us to reconsider our anthropocentric stance vis-à-vis nature. Protecting the collective rights of ecosystems to exist and regenerate provides an innovative juridical framework with which to reverse the ecological damage caused by an extractivist paradigm of development[3].

The third conceptual innovation is referred to as plurinationality. Both Ecuador and Bolivia are countries with very diverse societies consisting of a plethora of ethnic groups. This diversity was never truly represented, but rather excluded by the practices of a western architecture of the state which assumed the homogeneity of the nation. Traditionally, the liberal state tends to remain neutral with respects to social plurality and conceives of its citizens solely as rights bearing individuals. Not recognizing the diverse ethnic groups and their respective demands allowed for the wholesale exclusion of the indigent and the different from policy making and political participation.

The concept of plurinationality seeks to reverse this process by changing the architecture of the liberal state. What it demands is not the homogenization of social plurality within a universal liberal understanding of citizenship, but rather the recognition of difference as the basis for a new configuration of citizenship. The plurinational state explicitly recognizes the diversity of its citizens; it actively promotes an intercultural dialogue, and provides platforms of mediation amongst them[4].

These three ideas radically question the Western understandings of development, the legal standing of nature, and what constitutes citizenship, respectively. They are, however, also expanding democratic theory by exposing the Eurocentric, anthropocentric and liberal bias that Western thought projects onto its alleged universal understanding of democracy. Precisely through a rupture with fundamental concepts of the Western model was indigenous political thought able to imagine new legal instruments and a new democratic ethic founded on the principles of environmental sustainability and collective rights.

The examples presented here allow us to see that Western democratic thought, once capable of shedding its particular liberal biases, is indeed free to expand in new and different directions. Such an expansion is critical in this historical moment as basic democratic tenets are being increasingly sacrificed in the name of a perpetual state of exception. Democratic theory should not give in to the false choices presented by the logics of crisis; rather, like indigenous movements, it should begin to reinvent itself by overcoming its liberal ideological limitations.


  • Galeano, E. 2009, “La Naturaleza no es Muda” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Derechos de la Naturaleza: el futuro es ahora. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Gudynas, E. 2009 “Seis puntos clave en ambiente y desarrollo” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. El Buen Vivir: una vía para el desarollo. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Ramírez, R., Navarrete R. Seeds of “Good Living” in Ecuador? New Left Project. Available @
  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa 2009, “Las Paradojas de Nuestro Tiempo y la Plurinacionalidad” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Plurinacionalidad: democracia en la diversidad. Abya Yala: Quito

[1] Gudynas 2009

[2] Ramirez & Navarrete

[3] Galeano 2009

[4] Santos 2009


Filed under Democratic Theory, Development, Environmental Rights, Environmentalism, Indigenous, Latin America, liberalism, political economy

Redefining Environmental Conflicts in Latin America


There does not seem to be an official definition for the term environmental conflict in ecological and environmental literature. What is an environmental conflict (EC from now on)? Under what circumstances does it occur? Who does it actually involve? The vagueness of the term allows for its constant redefinition. Certain ecologists assert that ECs constitute a deliberate assault on mother nature, indigenous groups state that they entail a destruction of their ancestral livelihood, and politicians view them as an unfortunate consequence of economic structural adjustment.

Perhaps the most authoritative definition of an EC is given by the United Nations Environmental Program. According to the UNEP’s 2009 publication “From Conflict to Peacebuilding: the role of natural resources and the environment” ECs occur because of the contention of natural resources between interest groups. Thus unequal redistribution of wealth from high value extractive resources coupled with contention over the direct use of scarce natural resources are the primary causes of international and intra-national ECs. In this way, ECs are simply economically determined. The UNEP’s solution to ECs is thus to promote a sustainable form of development which addresses equal wealth redistribution and fair and correct natural resource management.

“Sustainable Development”

Throughout the 1990s the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund implemented neoliberal economic policies in many countries of Latina America. This entailed the complete liberalization of the market, deregulation and privatization among other things. Economic growth was thus seen as the basis for social development.

Not only would economic growth promote social development, but it would lead to environmental improvement as well. The 1992 World Bank Development Report popularized the theory of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. The theory states that “in the early stages of economic growth, degradation and pollution increase, but beyond some level of income per capita…the trend reverses, so that at high income levels economic growth leads to environmental improvement.” Basically, the richer a country gets, the better it improves its environment.

These strategies implied that the structural adjustments as proposed by the WB would bring economic growth, social development, and environmental improvement at the same time. In other words neoliberal economics would promote sustainable development.

It is not the aim of this paper to discuss the disastrous results of neoliberal sustainable development in Latin America. Nor to debate the fallacy of the Environmental Kuznets curve theory. Needless to say, environmental and social conflicts increased exponentially in the past two decades, often pitting campesiño and indigenous communities against giant trans-national corporations. For example, in Peru, 68% of socio-environmental conflicts are caused by mining operations entirely owned by trans-national corporations. The Chevron-Texaco oil spill in the Oriente department of Ecuador dubbed the “Amazonian Chernobyl” and the displacement of three (three!) millenary glaciers by US-Canadian trans-national mining giant Barrick Gold in Pascua Lama, Argentina are examples of a new reality of environmental conflict: one that, through the extraction of natural resources, firstly degrades the environment and secondly destroys the livelihood of small communities.

Redefining ECs

The point is that the very authoritative definition that the UNEP gives to an environmental conflict allows for the systematic violation of human rights to pass as a small but necessary consequence of an overbearing and all important economic process.

If the assumption that ECs are essentially a conflict over natural resources were true, then conflict could be easily prevented by changing the economic dynamics of natural resource distribution and management; in this way the notion of sustainable development would provide the solution. Yet, we have seen what “sustainable development” in the key of neoliberalism has done to Latin America with all its grand narratives of Environmental Kuznets Curves, trickle down theories, and social development through capital growth.

The redefinition of an environmental conflict must refute this economically determined assumption. It must shift the grounds for the outbreak of environmental conflicts away from that of a simplistic contention of natural resources.

A new proposition must point out that an environmental conflict occurs when the act of natural resource exploitation/extraction systematically violates human rights and destroys livelihoods through the degradation of the environment. Proposing new strategies of sustainable development or corporate social responsibility neglects the crude reality of the violation of human rights. It neglects the displacement of families, the loss of biodiversity, and the magnitude and damage of irreversible environmental disasters. This is not a naïve appeal to an abstract notion of human rights; rather it is a very pragmatic strategy to shift the attention back towards the destruction of the livelihoods of millions of people throughout Latin America.

If human rights are the ultimate, inalienable, and universal set of non-refutable assertions, then no version of “sustainable development”, free-market environmentalism, or revised notion of “capitalism with a human face” can logically and legally legitimize their violation. An environmental conflict is thus, a-priori, a degradation of an ecosystem which, by extension, violates human rights and destroys ancestral livelihoods. Only by linking these notions together can the true extent of socio-environmental damage be acknowledged.

This proposition could draw criticism from proponents of deep ecology. Deep ecology asserts that nature has an intrinsic value; where the environment has the inalienable right to live, evolve, and reproduce. The above mentioned re-definition of an environmental conflict does not account for this, and views nature as having an instrumental value for humans and no transcendental value in itself. Although ethically contestable, this anthropocentric point of view is necessary to shift the attention from the technocrat jargon of macroeconomic stabilization and environmental Kuznets curves to the reality of pain and suffering and towards the universality and non-refutability of human rights.

The New Constitution of Ecuador and Environmental Rights

The adoption of the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador throws this whole discussion into a new light. The Ecuadorian people have decided that the environment possesses inalienable rights. Article 1 of the environmental rights section states that “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” In this way, any citizen can sue on behalf of the ecosystem. In practical and legal terms, this could provide the ultimate form of prevention of environmental conflicts. By extending inalienable human rights to nature, and if the violation can be proven, there could be no possible legal loophole or argument that could justify such violation. Ecuador’s Constitution thus poses nature as having an intrinsic value.

However, the decision of instituting environmental rights, thus delegating intrinsic value to nature, is highly controversial: Could I be sued for picking flowers because I have prevented Pachamama’s life cycle? It is not the aim of this paper to delve into the discussion of intrinsic/instrumental value of nature, nor to debate social ecology vs. deep ecology. However we must take into account the ethical implications of extending human rights to nature.

Ecuador’s Constitution is important because it is the first constitution that recognizes the symbiotic link between indigenous livelihoods and the conservation of the environment. This bond is called the Sumak Kawsay in Quechua, the communitarian ancestral “good lifestyle.”  The modes of production and strategies of natural resource management which have ancestrally been practiced by many communities in Latin America are in fact sustainable. It is solely the callous exploitation of natural resources driven by the exaggerated quest for short-term profit that destroys the sustainable bond between man and nature.

The symbiosis between man and nature must not however be interpreted as a nostalgic return to a golden age of pre-modern agrarianism. Rather, it must embrace its emancipatory potential by providing a sustainable post-industrial alternative within a democratic logic.


If a revision of human rights and the drafting of environmental rights are the only strategies left for developing countries to protect themselves from future environmental conflicts, then such strategies must be seriously considered. They are the only (and ultimate) legal and ethical tools with which Latin America can re-appropriate its ancestral livelihoods and protect its environment. If the focus is not shifted from economic determinism, to human/environmental rights, then environmental conflicts will be continually relegated to a small but necessary side-effect of the fallacious “sustainable development” models proposed by free-market environmentalism.


Filed under Development, Environmental Rights, Human Rights, Latin America