“After years of having been victims of misnamed ‘development,’ today our people have to be the actors in finding solutions for the grave problems of health, education, employment, unequal distribution of resources, discrimination, migration, exercising of democracy, preservation of the environment and respect for cultural diversity.”

With those words, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, called for a social summit that that would be held at the end of 2006. From the start, the Morales government described itself as having emerged from the struggle of social movements—Indigenous people, trade unions, farmers, women, urban residents, students—and sought to advance their goals. By questioning past development practices, he put the emphasis on social and ecological goals ahead of more narrowly-defined economic goals.

Around the world today we might discern two approaches to development. One is that which seems to facilitate the advance of globalized capitalism, with a strong focus on infrastructure, industrialization and export-oriented market economies. This approach (sometimes called neo-liberalism) has lead to the gradual destruction of local and subsistence economies, which were replaced with export-oriented market economies and industrialization.

Social and ecological goals

The other approach to development is that advocated by Morales, the social movements that brought him to power, and many others among the “pink tide” progressive governments that have transformed politics in Latin America over the past 15 years. There is wide agreement that social and ecological goals are the priority ahead of narrow economic ones. But there are a number of hot debates. The most contentious seem to have in common fundamentally different views of development.

The Brazilian government is castigated for its alliance with the U.S. government over food fuels, particularly ethanol produced from cane sugar.

Indigenous people and ecologists denounce plans for continent-wide oil and gas pipelines, including one proposed to carry natural gas from Bolivia to Venezuela through the Amazon basin.

Nowhere is the debate over resource extraction more intense than in Ecuador. The government and social movements—including the large and diverse Indigenous peoples organizations—say they are working towards more sustainable ways of living, but the government seems unwilling or unable to say no to resource extraction companies.

The debate is tied to sharp awareness in the “global South” that the Earth itself cannot sustain the patterns of production and consumption in the industrialized world, the principle causes of the poor environmental health of the planet.

How do we human beings re-invent ourselves to meet these challenges? This is where the new Latin American governments, however pragmatic they may be about resource extraction, offer space for reflection and proposals for doing things differently.


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