Latin America in a post-development era: an interview with Arturo Escobar

Colombian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar is one of Latin America's leading voices on post-development theory and political ecology. In this interview, he outlines development paths for the continent to follow, somewhere between modernisation, decolonisation and economic growth.

Arturo Escobar Claudia Ciobanu
6 November 2012

During an indigenous peasants' protest in La Paz, Bolivia. Demotix/Lara W. Vargas. All rights reserved.

This September, Escobar participated in The Third International Degrowth Conference in Venice, Italy, which brought together intellectuals and activists to discuss the concept of degrowth, a vision of global change according to which a democratic collective decision to consume and produce less in the global North is the most appropriate solution for the multiple crises facing the world today.

In your work, you speak about two contemporary "change" projects in Latin America: "alternative modernisations" and "decolonial projects". Could you briefly explain what they each mean and give some examples?

I started to think about these different social, cultural and political concepts when what is called "the turn to the left" began in Latin America, with the first election, in 1999, of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela. After that came a wave of progressive democratically elected left-wing regimes – the most significant being of course that of Evo Morales in Bolivia, the first indigenous leader in a country where at least 65 per cent of the population is indigenous, but which has been ruled brutally by a white minority so far.

If we look at Latin America today, we can see three kinds of "change" projects, three kinds of politics. The first ones, which we can call "conventional modernisation", tend to be projects promoted by the political right, the most clear examples of which are Mexico and Colombia. These go along with neo-liberal globalisation, and it is no coincidence that they are the closest allies of the US and that they have the highest degree of violence, social inequality and political instability in the region. Despite this, they continue to be touted as models to follow: for example, Colombia is now in fashion for foreign investors because of its mining projects.

The second project is what I call "alternative modernisations" and these are the projects implemented by neo-progressive regimes, especially in South America, by Ecuador and Bolivia, but also by Brazil, Argentina, Chile under Bachelet, Paraguay under Lula, Uruguay, and Venezuela. These represent a more enlightened kind of development model, characterised by efforts towards wider income distribution. These regimes can also be called "neo-extractivist". Why? They are anti-neo-liberal in that they renationalised some industries, especially in the natural resources sector, they are trying to impose a high degree of control over the corporate world, and they try to counteract the influence of the US through regional alliances (though these are open to criticisms as well). But on the other hand they are neo-extractivist because they still rely on the extraction of natural resources, natural gas, oil, agrofuels, sugar cane, etc. The difference is that where before the oil revenues were controlled by elites, now they are redirected towards social welfare, redistribution, reduction of poverty and, indeed, if you look at indicators, you see there has been some degree of reduction of poverty and in some cases – although this is less clear – even reduction in inequality. The clearest expression of this model is offered by Bolivian vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linares who says that the goal of a progressive state is to bring about a satisfactory modernity, by which he means a modernity that works not just for the rich, but for all, indigenous, peasants, women. Nevertheless, he still thinks that all want modernity, even the indigenous.

And here we turn to the third type of model which can be called "de-colonial", "post-liberal", or "transitional", represented most clearly by indigenous movements originating from the south of Mexico, the south of Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, picking up also in Peru because of anti-mining protests. They are social movements in which the indigenous component is very clear, but there is also a black, Afro-Latin American component in several countries, and also a peasant one represented by those connected to Via Campesina, a federation of peasant movements who are now opposing free trade and the privatisation of seeds. I'm now focussing mostly on the Andes, but the south of Mexico is very interesting as well from this perspective. Many analyses of Latin America stay at the level of the state, looking at policies made by the Marxist left, assessing them as great, counter-hegemonic. This is true, we must support these regimes because the alternative is worse. But the support has to come from a position of critique as well - and this is precisely what social movements - environmentalist, indigenous, peasant - are doing, especially in the case of Ecuador and Bolivia, and when it comes to extraction of resources and the construction of very big infrastructures.

What is actually most interesting now is precisely the nexus, the intersection between the state and social movements, this is where the most interesting ideas are appearing. You can see it in the debate between people like Linares, who are very articulate, and some of the indigenous leaders, especially Aymara, who are saying to him: your way is not good for us any more, you are following the European modernisation project and we are interested in de-colonisation. Some of these indigenous intellectuals participated in the Morales administration at first, but almost none of them are still there, and a few have become very critical. The space of dialogue between the critical indigenous movements and the state has grown smaller over time.

Do you consider degrowth as close to any of these projects, perhaps to the decolonisation one?

Degrowth is not a concept that has been produced from the global South with the global South in mind, nor should it have been, it’s from the North, but it is important and fascinating.

I wonder if we could make a distinction that Joan Martinez Alier - a Catalan ecological economist, author of the book Varieties of Environmentalism (with Ramachandra Guha) - made between the environmentalism of affluence, linked to post-materialist values and lifestyles and anti-nuclear positions, and the environmentalism of the poor in the global South, represented by social struggles in which poor people worldwide are engaged in the defence of their livelihoods and of ecosystems for their social value; these are not necessarily environmentalist battles, but they pit rich against poor in battles over territory.

So, a little bit like that, degrowth comes in societies with a particular set of preoccupations which are different from those in the global South. But there are connections between degrowth and global South struggles and these should constitute the point of departure in working together.

An important thing to always keep in mind is not to equate growth and development: development is much more than growth; even in the conventional sense of development, understood as a modernising project, it always involved more than growth – development is a project for the whole society. Secondly, some people now say that the South needs some growth, in health, education, employment, some growth has to happen but it has to be subordinated not to the principles of growth per se or of conventional development but to the principles of buen vivir, as it is called in South America now.

So it is desirable to have growth in the global South in some areas of life, as long as this takes place under a different vision of development? 

Exactly. And there is a third point to keep in mind: we shouldn’t debunk growth in the North and keep saying that the South needs development, because it doesn’t, the South doesn’t need development in the conventional sense, not even sustainable development, not development with a human face. Rather, it needs alternatives to development, a completely different way of thinking about society, economy, life, and this is where buen vivir comes in. Rio+20 revealed sustainable development to be a travesty, even of the first Rio conference which was not so great in the first place.

Various visions of (a) post-capitalist world(s) exist around the world, both in the global North and in the global South. Is there a need for a unified global post-capitalist vision?

Indeed, there is a tendency to say we need a roadmap. When the Occupy movement emerged, the main question asked by the press was "what is your programme". Even though this is not something you can pull out of your pocket and say there it is, there are very many good ideas, for example in Latin America on post-extractivism. But we cannot come up with a general programme, and this has been one of the main traps into which the left has fallen in the past, looking for the straightforward application of historical materialism.

But in fact, there are two formulations that constitute good answers. One is the Zapatista’s "one no and many yes’es", with the no being to neo-liberal globalisation and to the European modernity model underlying it, and the many yes’es being region-specific, movement-specific. And then, from a position of autonomy, there have to be conversations. The second is from Boaventura de Sousa Santos who says that the only general theory you can have today is the general theory that says why we cannot have a general theory. There has to be a panorama of perspectives very specific to the context.

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