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Alternatives to development: an interview with Arturo Escobar Transition Culture

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28 Sep 2012

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
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arturo_Escobar_(anthropologist)) (my notes from which can be found here
(http://transitionculture.org/2012/09/20/day-two-at-the-degrowth-conference-in-venice-degrowth-or-alternatives-todevelopment/) ). He is the author of Encountering Development (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/5573.html) and



Alternatives to development: an interview with Arturo Escobar Transition Culture

Territories of Difference (http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=17227) , 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.
Transition Culture

Transition Culture - Arturo Escobar2


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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 whats 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 Ive 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 doesnt make any sense.
I think thats 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 its 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 (http://www.gudynas.com/) . He knows
about Transition Towns, hes 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 (http://www.rebelion.org/mostrar.php?
tipo=5&id=Alberto%20Acosta&inicio=0) , who was the president of the constituent assembly that wrote the new



Alternatives to development: an interview with Arturo Escobar Transition Culture

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 didnt 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. Peoples livelihoods have to improve, and
its 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 its difficult to say what Perus
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
No, its not a theory of development. Its 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 its 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?
Thats the key question, the practice, the implementation of the Buen Vivir. Thats 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, Ive looked at the



Alternatives to development: an interview with Arturo Escobar Transition Culture

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.
Its 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. Its interesting to
see how with Buen Vivir, thats 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 its
about building resilience in both places, that the process of globalising food production has reduced
food resilience in the Global North because weve become so dependent on imports and moving stuff
around, and in the Global South its about the destruction of small farming and so on and so on. Whats
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 whats 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, thats not good enough. There has to be food autonomy locally, regionally, nationally.



Alternatives to development: an interview with Arturo Escobar Transition Culture

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 doesnt
necessarily mean
something good. We
should be thinking more
about energy, and thats
actually one of
Gudynass 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 cant talk about local food
because if you talk about local food youre condemning farmers in Kenya
and Chile to poverty and unemployment. How do you respond to that
I dont think it makes any sense! If you look carefully, sure, theres a lot of food
being grown in Africa, Asia and South America for the European and American
markets, but whos benefiting from that? Most times its 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. Its 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 its 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. Its 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 its 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



Alternatives to development: an interview with Arturo Escobar Transition Culture

I think that the first option that you outlined is the better way to think about it. That doesnt mean that we
shouldnt 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 thats 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 thats always a very good question to ask. Its
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 its not even going to be
the north thats 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.
Whats 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 doesnt 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, thats all great.
What they are opposed to is having those technologies coming in at the expense of their autonomy, at the



Alternatives to development: an interview with Arturo Escobar Transition Culture

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
its not at all. Its not about going back.
Someone said that here today too, that Degrowth is not about going back, its about moving forwards. The same
with indigenous communities, its about moving forwards, but how? The difference is how? The way in which
were 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 its not anti-technology and its 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 worldviews and frameworks.

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Blake Poland (http://www.GoLocalOakville.ca)

1 Oct 2:33pm
Great interview. Good to see more attention being paid to the Global South and learning from our colleagues
there. Having previously read a bit about Buen Vivir, presented at our own Canadian degrowth conference this
summer, and participated in a transition initiative in the north of Brazil, I really appreciated a Brazilian perspective
on the relationships between TT, BV, and degrowth. Thank-you!.
6 Dec 2:28am
As a graduate student of International Development, I have been reading this alternative to development model in
my development theory class. It is interesting to hear this as a concept. After reading about the ranges of
development theories which is mostly growth oriented- this alternative to development in fact gives us the sense
of direction. It also helps us practitioners to say that development we see today is a failed legacy, however, we
sill have hope and what we have always hoped of seeing in the world is possible-hence, another world is
possible. The only thing that we need to do is alter the model of top-down approach of the development, and start
to act upon it from more deeper level. However, is it a good idea to give up on all that we have invested for so



Alternatives to development: an interview with Arturo Escobar Transition Culture

many years, and start a new model for development-hoping that this is a sustainable development model, even
when this model is not sure if it can provide enough employment for the people, cannot assure to grow enough
food for the growing population? There are countries which cannot grow anything because it is so dry in there,
other places with full of ice and snow. Does this alternative to development says the resource full country and
the resource less country should cut-off fully on their trade?
If I see any alternative to development- I think it is time for the rich countries to pay back the resource that they
have extracted from the poor countries, invest more on the development in those countries. However, not for
their benefit anymore, but for the good life of the people of those countries.
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