Biosocialism for the Amazon?

Biosocialism for the Amazon?


Biosocialism for the Amazon? Ikiam, the state and subsistence struggles in postneoliberal Ecuador


As the largest connected system of rainforests on Earth, the role of the Amazon in stabilising global ecological processes and mitigating climate chaos is widely seen as critical and its protection has taken on new urgency. Yielding crucial commodities, the Amazon region also represents, however, important state income. Governing the region efficiently and effectively is thus paramount to maintaining the income flow, while balancing contradictory environmental and cultural protection imperatives, the complexity of which is compounded by the notoriously difficult socio-ecological realities of the Amazon (remote, forested, resistant to modernisation).

In this context, ‘postneoliberal’ Ecuador envisages a transition from extraction and export of oil and other sub-soil resources towards ‘biosocialism’ – a vision of an egalitarian and sustainable economy based above all on generating wealth from biodiversity. Explicitly conceived as a catalyst for this transition, the Regional Amazonian University Ikiam, a public higher education and scientific research institution founded in 2010, is an important aspect of the ostensibly postneoliberal development strategy of the Ecuadorian state. Yet ‘biosocialism’ has been criticised as an ideology which remains in key respects neoliberal, with many contradictions in both theory and practical implementation.

Based on a critical ethnography approach, with a cultural political economy orientation, this paper explores the role of Ikiam University in Amazonian territorial development in Ecuador. Focusing on both biosocialism and Ikiam as fields of struggle, I highlight openings for alliances and transformative collaborations despite structural constraints. Moreover, by foregrounding the erosion of subsistence as ongoing process, I connect the expansion of the capitalist state in its current Ecuadorian form to the lived experience of indigenous peoples and their continuous struggles of the last five hundred years.

This is a talk I gave at the Political Economy Centre in University of Manchester, December 4, 2018.

It is primarily based on field work done during two fellowships between 2016 and 2019 and draws on my research and collaborations with Amazonian peoples since 2005:

  • Independent Social Research Foundation Fellow, Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford (2016-2017)
    • Title: Between planetary urbanization and thinking forests: a study of socio-ecological change in the Ecuadorian Amazon
  • Marie Curie Research Fellow in the School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester (2017-2019)
    • Title: Transition Friction in the Ecuadorian Amazon: A Green Economy Ethnography

In the talk I focus mainly on questions of capital expansion, indigenous self-determination, knowledge conflicts. It is quite long, has endnotes and (sometimes incomplete) references to published and unpublished work.

Biosocialism for the Amazon? Ikiam, the state and subsistence struggles in postneoliberal Ecuador

In 2014, a new University was opened in the Upper Napo region (the Napo River is one of the main tributaries to the Amazon) where most of my previous fieldwork took place, and this presentation is about that university.

My questions can be summed up as:

What is going on?

What is Ikiam’s role in the development of the Ecuadorian Amazon? What kind of future for the Amazon is being projected and constructed by Ikiam? What alternative understandings of what the Amazon needs are being muffled, which alternative futures and visions of development are being obscured? Who benefits?

Should and could this be different?

Are there opportunities for an engagement with the University which would spawn radically transformative action for the Amazon region?

And how does the choice of theoretical tools influence answers to these questions?

I won’t actually focus much on the theoretical aspects here, but I should maybe say early on that is a kind of response to or development of a paper Japhy Wilson and Manuel Bayon published in 2017 (The Nature of Postneoliberalism) – who has read this paper? anybody? See also: IKIAM: The Nature of Biosocialism; The nature of post-neoliberalism: Building bio-socialism in the Ecuadorian Amazon; and Concrete Jungle: The Planetary Urbanization of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Japhy and Manuel suggest that Ikiam is the embodiment or spatial form of biosocialist ideology (more about biosocialism in due course) and that it replicates the ideology’s contradictions, aiming (though failing) to move from the formal to the real subsumption of nature to capital.

So in some ways, I am here also asking what that means for the people in Napo with whom I have worked and who I consider as friends. And whether conceiving of Ikiam and biosocialism in the way that Japhy and Manuel suggest makes sense in that context. And whether it could help me understand and explain the lived experiences of Ikiam.

The quick answer is – it’s a great starting point, but I need different theoretical tools.

As a critical ethnographer, my questions and concerns regard the interplay of phenomena at different scales: how discourses, economic structures and political processes at the global level articulate with realities and actors at the national and regional level and how they affect and are in turn affected by the lived experiences, daily struggles and sense-making efforts of individuals and social groups locally.

Ikiam, for me, is hence also a lens with which to explore these dynamic relationships of structure, agency, discourse and materiality across scales and the way in which they produce and reproduce social, material, ecological realities.

While I think this is interesting in and of itself, in a sort of detached-observer kind of way simply for the awe of witnessing life unfold, my interest really lies in understanding how relationships of domination are formed and, above all, maintained, perpetuated and reconfigured, so that we can better challenge them, or at least build other kinds of relations despite of them. So there is this ambition here to work towards action and radical transformation, also academically.

As you will see however, my main focus is on the microlevel of embodied relations and everyday practices, and so – just to manage expectations – you will hear quite a bit about things like knitting, growing plants and cleaning toilets today.

Biosocialism: revolution and structural competitiveness

Following a series of popular uprisings, Ecuador’s former president Rafael Correa won his first election in 2006 on a post-neoliberal platform called ‘la Revolución Ciudadana’, which promised widespread socio-economic change and a new relationship with nature (Ellner 2011; Burbach et al. 2013; Becker 2011; 2013). Though usually referred to as ‘Citizens’ Revolution’, it is variably translatable as ‘revolution by citizens’, ‘revolution for citizens’ or ‘revolution of the city’, the semiotic diversity of which is useful in describing the variety of policies it has spawned (Lu et al 2017). Its political discourse centres on the pursuit of development favouring solidarity over competition, and sustainability over economic growth, a vision of ‘21st century socialism’ shared with other Latin American leaders of the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ (Ellner 2014; Veltmeyer & Petras 2014). As part of this ‘democratic revolution’, Ecuador’s constitution was rewritten in 2008 and framed by the concept of Buen Vivir1 (SENPLADES 2009; 2013). Despite the short average lifespan of Ecuadorian constitutions – Ecuador has had twenty constitutions since becoming a republic in 1830 – the current one is widely regarded as revolutionary. It considers nature as a living being and not as an inexhaustible resource; it talks about a pluralistic and plurinational society and an economy based on reciprocity, solidarity; it talks about a participatory model of the state. It is the first constitution in the world to codify rights of nature.2 Notwithstanding these radically transformative pretensions, their implementation has raised many questions regarding the actual orientation of the renewed state (Acosta 2013; Becker 2013).

‘Changing the productive matrix’ is a key objective of the Ecuadorian ‘Citizens’ Revolution’, but because the constitution is silent on how exactly to construct a different kind of economy, a new ‘bio-strategy of accumulation’ has been conceptualised under the banner of ‘biosocialism’ by the National Secretariat of Planning and Development (Ramirez Gallegos 2010; see also Wilson & Bayón 2017). One of the most prolific intellectuals of the ‘Revolution’, Rene Ramírez Gallegos, who headed the Secretariat between 2008 and 2011, articulates the vision of Sumak Kawsay Socialism, or Republican Biosocialism in an influential 2010 essay. In this text, the Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008 is construed as a ‘new pact of co-existence between humans and other species’, which requires the construction of a ‘republican bio-egalitarianism’ with a ‘bio-centric ethic’ and orientation toward socio-economic justice through redistribution and the overhaul of asymmetric social structures to overcome long-standing inequalities. Biosocialism is posited as a ‘post-anthropocentric’ social solidarity economy which ‘subordinates the market to the reproduction of life’, is primarily concerned with the ‘meeting of basic necessities’ and the ‘flourishing of the labourer’ (2010: 61-65), while it seeks, imperatively, ‘intelligent insertion in the world market’ in acknowledgement of the inescapable nature of global interconnectedness (2010: 58).

Ramírez lays out an understanding of Sumak Kawsay as guiding principle for a new, ‘alternative’ model of development, which would unfold over the medium term (‘16-20 years’) in a succession of stages3: Biosocialist strategy envisages moving from (1) resource extraction as an inevitable transitional mechanism, alongside import substitution and the promotion of communitarian ecotourism and agroecological activities, via (2) the production of clean energy, wealth generation through ecotourism, and the investment in research and development through the establishment of a tripartite alliance between universities, industry and public research institutes, towards (3) the maturation of the diversified domestic industry which will then produce a surplus for export to (4) the final stage of post-development where the dependence on extractivism has been overcome by a reliance on ‘bio-services’ and their technological application, from biotechnology to ecotourism (Ramírez Gallegos 2010: 70f).

As across the rest of Latin America, neo-extractivism has intensified in Ecuador since the commodity boom of the early 2000s (Gudynas XXX; Bebbington 2011; Göbel et al 2014). Facilitated by increased rent capture, the government of the Citizen’s Revolution4 has indeed improved poverty statistics in Ecuador by channelling state revenues from oil and mining through social welfare to some of the poorest sectors of the country (e.g. CEPAL 2012; Escribano 2013). But so far, instead of noticeable transition to the post-extractivism posited by biosocialism, the administration continues to promote mega-development projects, including the construction of a multi-modal bi-oceanic transport corridor, expanding oil extraction, as well as starting large-scale open pit mining (copper and gold).

Accelerated extraction and infrastructure development have been met with considerable resistance in the country. In this context, the government has been criticised for its criminalisation of social and environmental struggles as ‘sabotage and terrorism’ (Becker 2013; Basabe-Serrano & Martínez 2014; Pérez Guartambel & Solíz Torres 2014). While the revenue from the continuation of extractive activities is meant to be re-invested in biotechnology and other biodiversity-based services, and construct the possibility for economic transition in the medium- to long term (SENPLADES 2011), the extraction of sub-soil resources is set to remain the primary driver of national income generation in Ecuador for some time to come (de la Barra & Dello Buono 2009). In this way, and ‘[i]n an audacious dialectical gimmick … extractivism becomes a conjunctural necessity whose temporary intensification will facilitate its very undoing’ (de Zaldivar 2017).

Biosocialist strategy statedly aims to undo extractivism by turning Ecuador, over the longer term, into a ‘biopolis: a society of “bioknowledge”’ (Ramírez Gallegos 2010: 69), emphasising an economic focus on community ecotourism services, agroecological products, and, importantly, bio- and nanotechnologies. To this end, the investment in science, technology, research and innovation is seen as pivotal, and a new university ‘in the Amazon, for the Amazon’ is one of the crucial strategic steps in this context.

Of canopies, tiles and new life: a university in the Amazon, for the Amazon

One of the first things most people notice when they enter a tropical rainforest is that it is surprisingly cool and dry. The high forest canopy shelters its visitors from the scorching sun and heavy rain. The thickly thatched palm leaf roofs of traditional dwellings in the Amazon region similarly catch the sun and divert the rain, making such homes agreeably temperate. One of the first things people notice when they enter IKIAM, a new flagship university in the Ecuadorian Amazon, are its white tiles, utterly blinding in the sun, and dangerously slippery in the rain. One member of staff has referred to their effect as ‘grievous bodily harm’, as students and staff have already sustained injuries. Offices and other enclosed spaces on campus are, unsurprisingly, artificially cooled: ‘It would be unbearably hot otherwise’, ‘It is too hot to work without it’ commented students and staff. No-one pondered the environmental consequences of conditioning the indoor air, the cultural and physical dependence created, or the psycho-social implications of purposeful disconnection from one’s immediate surroundings, let alone the ways in which this might influence the knowledge created in such insulated conditions.

Financed with Chinese capital in return for oil futures5, IKIAM University has been explicitly conceived as catalyst for a lasting transition to a ‘green and knowledge-based economy’ in Ecuador, based in particular on the development of ‘Amazonian green wealth’ (Villavicencio 2014; Wilson & Bayón 2017). It is one of four ‘emblematic’ universities founded in 2010 as part of a radical education system reform (Saltos Galarza 2014; Milia 2014; Villavicencio 2014), and focuses on the study of ‘natural resources and biodiversity’. Yet one of the architects cried when they realised that the site chosen for construction of the university was in the middle of the forest, ‘where a new pole of development is least needed’ (cited in Wilson et al 2015). The campus has displaced a small indigenous community and relegated its inhabitants to a string of identical concrete buildings at the end of a road alongside which real estate prices have soared beyond the reach of anyone but relatively rich settlers, such as foreign academics. Mushuk Kawsay, ‘New Life’, this community is called.

‘Ikiam’ means ‘forest’ or ‘nature’ in Shuar, one of the ten indigenous languages spoken in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Proclaiming the value of indigenous knowledge of the forest in its promotional materials, and with exclusive access to a ‘living laboratory’ – a nature reserve of over 93,000 hectares, spanning several ecosystems from the Andes mountain range to the Amazon rainforest – IKIAM is presented as a university ‘in the Amazon, for the Amazon’. Yet this dictum obscures the variety of perspectives on what the Amazon ‘really needs’: by performing a particular version (or several particular versions) of what it means to be ‘for’ the Amazon, IKIAM muffles alternative interpretations.

In 2017, Ikiam still consisted of only a small handful of single-storied buildings, raised above the uneven and often soggy ground by a form of stilts, and connected by wide walkways clad in the aforementioned white tiles.

Two additional multi-storied buildings were finally completed by a Chinese construction company in 2018, eliciting widespread relief and pleasure amongst staff members, who now had access to offices in the upper storeys with views above the surrounding canopy and across wide sweeps of green hills – a perspective rarely available in dense Amazonian forests where only the occasional hillside clearing, river bed or skilful tree climb allows visual contact with the wider landscape.

Staff and Students

Ikiam University is a young organisation – it opened its doors to the first cohort of students in 2014. There has already been a high staff turnover with many dozens of both administrative and academic staff replaced alongside the University’s rector in mid 2016 (by presidential decree). Institutional and decision-making structures have already been reshuffled several times.

Charges of misconduct, both in terms of favouritism and misuse of funds, were levelled at the second rector of Ikiam in the aftermath of a contentious group firing of six scientists in 2017, and a number of people resigned in this context. A series of changes to the institutional structure were then implemented, including the renewal of the Management Commission, which had consisted up to that point of mostly foreign academics, none of whom lived in Napo and several of whom did not speak Spanish.

There are 242 people employed by Ikiam at the moment – roughly 100 academics and 100 management and admin staff, and the rest medics, cleaners, security and drivers.

The 15 cleaners employed by Ikiam are all members of the closest indigenous communities. A group of community members originally formed a cleaners’ association in order to collectively organise their budding relationship with the University, but when the applicable legal framework which requires Ikiam to advertise vacancies publicly started to be enforced, the association quickly lost its monopoly on the desirable employment opportunities. This has led to severe tensions amongst the cleaning staff, with members of the original association now in supervising roles allegedly bullying newcomers distributing workloads unfairly and spreading lies. Supervisors, on the other hand, complain about the new cleaners’ attitude, saying things like ‘they don’t understand what we are meant to do here’ – ‘keeping all this clean means a lot of sweeping and wiping, but people just want this job for the money’. These conflicts sadly reflect a common dynamic in marginalised communities, and elsewhere, where the potential for solidarity is easily undermined by the introduction of economic opportunities for the few.

Overall student numbers have risen consistently – from 150 in the first semester to about 850 today – despite high dropout rates of up to 56%. Most dropouts seem to be due to difficulties in following what is perceived as a demanding workload. In this context, it is important to understand the low skill base with which most students graduate from high school in Ecuador. In the Amazon region, this is particularly pronounced, which is why Ikiam University has actively collaborated with a number of high schools in the region and trains school teachers in basic science education and pedagogy. Since this initiative, more students graduate with the grades and analytical skills required to study science at university – an impact hardly describable as anything else than positive.

But consider this reflection by an ageing midwife:

‘I am glad to hear my grandchildren are receiving a better education now … but the knowledge they have now … is not the knowledge of the forest… I hope it will make them successful in the city, but my heart aches to think that they will forget … all the knowledge that was passed down to our grandparents from their grandparents … this knowledge makes us strong in the forest… they will not survive in the forest’.

To ‘not survive in the forest’ does not only literally refer to death by poison, hunger or predator, but also carries the wider meaning of inability to lead a joyful existence of self-provisioning outside of consumer society.

So this is where I want to make some historical reminders and introduce some thoughts about autonomous subsistence.

The 500-year history of violent socio-ecological change in the Amazon is best understood as a progressive erosion of the viability of subsistence lives – this erosion is a corollary of capital expansion and has, of course, taken place across the world (cf. Thompson 1991; Federici 2004). This reflects an understanding of Marx’s ‘primitive accumulation’ as an ongoing condition (Luxemburg 1951): the continuous character of David Harvey’s ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (2003), the perpetual nature of enclosure (de Angelis 2001; 2007), ‘capital free-riding on social reproduction and the fertility of nature’ (Mies; Salleh), the ceaseless – and racialized – expropriation which undergirds and makes possible capital’s exploitation of labour (Fraser 2016).

Life along the Napo River from the Conquest onwards via the slave-based rubber boom to mass colonisation, oil exploitation and the current neo-extractivist and ‘pocket-conservationist’ paradigm has been characterised by the violence, extraction and shifting allegiances of any frontier region: fluctuating numbers of gold seekers, rubber tappers, timber merchants, adventurers, missionaries and mercenaries worked to make their fortune in the forest, competing with each other over the control of indigenous labour.

Securing gold, rubber, pita and oil required entering deeply into the forest, keeping healthy and out of danger as one did so. Reliance on the efforts of people who knew how to survive in the ‘green hell’ was indispensable.

Violence, and threats thereof, have been used alongside bribery, trade, ideological conviction and later wages in order to extract time, energy and skills from the people of the forest.

While the indigenous inhabitants of the Napo region were by no means passive victims of exploitation, the genocidal and ethnocidal violence perpetrated upon them cannot be diminished simply by a better understanding of their active resistance and creative adaptation.

The violence of the Conquest is hard to overestimate: the lowest estimates suggest a decimation of the population of both Americas by a staggering 80% in the first fifty years of contact.

As elsewhere and throughout the Spanish colonies, dominance over the Indian groups of the area was established through encomiendas, repartos, doctrinas, and reducciones (Muratorio 1991). The encomiendas were allocations of control over territory and Indian labour granted by the Spanish crown to Spaniards as rewards for their services. The repartos was a system of forced apportionment of goods to the Indians, usually cotton cloth, threads and needles, and other superfluous goods, which the Indians were then coerced to repay in gold or pita (a valuable agave fibre) or with their labour. Goods were at times literally dumped near someone’s house, and the debt forcefully collected over time. In order to facilitate both the encomienda and reparto systems of control of labour,6 as well as Christian indoctrination by way of the missionary strategies called doctrinas, Indians were ‘encouraged’ or forced to live in reducciones, small village-like settlements, often around a central square or opening, which became the main vectors for the spread of disease and epidemics. These socio-legal devices were not only used as instruments to extract value from the forested Eastern foothills of the Andes and the people who lived there, but also functioned as measures which began the erosion of autonomous subsistence along the Napo River, a process which has not yet been completed.

Rather than historical phenomena relegated to the past, these devices should be understood as points of origin for conditions and lived experiences which persist to this day in and through the processes of urbanisation, planning and clustered service provision (reducciones), obligatory schooling (doctrinas), the inevitability of commodity consumption (repartos) and governmental control and legal sanction instituting all of these (encomiendas).

While over time particular social, political, economic and ecological relations shifted shape, different resources took on different significance, and new political ideas circulated, the particular functions of these ‘original’ socio-legal devices of oppression and value extraction have survived over almost half a millennia – under different guises – and still serve to enforce continued conscription to and dependence on a system of accumulation and provisioning which benefits only the few.

Ikiam reinforces this trajectory.

The loss expressed by the elderly midwife, and experienced by indigenous peoples in the Napo and many other regions across the world is not just the kind of loss that generational change and old age invariably engender. This loss – of knowledge, language, practice – is based on forced participation in a social system that was violently instituted, and it takes on a particular significance as it represents the loss of entire ways of life, modes of provisioning, and value systems which constitute actually existing alternatives to capitalist modernity and the real grounding of Sumak Kawsay.

Despite IKIAM’s positioning in alliance with indigenous peoples and their knowledges, the University valorises a very particular and uniquely exogenous conception of the forest.

Casting the primary rain- and cloudforests of its vicinity as a “living laboratory” laboratorio vivo and “research territory” territorio de investigacion, IKIAM scientizes the landscape into which it has been inserted.

On this account, human relations to this landscape are primarily investigative, with an emphasis on uncovering the industrial utility of biological resources.

The Napo Runa, however, have complex connections to the forest, which was still not so very long ago the wellspring of everything and anything in their lives – food, medicine, shelter, artefacts, livelihood. They have (had) affective relationships to the non-human inhabitants of the forest (animals, plants, rocks, caves, watercourses and their spirit masters) that resemble relationships people usually have with other people.

For the Napo Runa, at least the older generations, animals and plants are not qualitatively different beings from humans. Plants speak and animals can marry humans and have children with them. They have the same subjectivities: they experience the world from an I-point of view. Human people can, do and need to make important alliances with non-human people (spirits). They can also upset them and put themselves at danger (for example become prey, be abducted by river or underground spirits). Certain cultivated plants are treated as estranged lovers or difficult children whom one must woe to grow well. Wild medicinal plants need to be approached politely before harvest, if they are to heal anyone properly.

Conserving biological and genetic resources for research and development exclusively, the biological reserve of Colonso-Chalupas, Ikiam’s ‘living laboratory’, gives access to vetted scientists only, and prohibits extractive activities such as mining, as well as traditional practices of hunting and gathering, casting them as equally ‘unsustainable’, without an inquiry into the underlying assumptions and values of this enclosure.

However, as archaeological records increasingly reveal, much of what was hitherto considered (by outsiders) virgin forest is actually anthropogenic: the Amazon forest is to quite some extent a horticultural artefact, sculptured for millennia through the creation of “black earths” and the selection and promotion of some species and the containment of others.

For most people, the Amazon rainforest epitomises wilderness, untouched nature, pristine biodiversity. But we now know that this idea is based on almost 500 years of fantasy and denial.

In 1541, shortly after the Conquest of Peru and Ecuador, Francisco de Orellana, leading a violent expedition, was the first European to travel down the Amazon River. His chronicler Carvajal recorded sprawling cities, living in abundance.

Carvajal described the Amazon as a busy waterway which had, on both sides of the river, populous towns with elaborate temples, plazas and fortresses. He recorded cities that extended for miles and described a superabundance of food.

Carvajal wrote that, in one village, they found enough meat and fish and cassava bread “to feed … a thousand men for a year.” Turkeys, ducks, parrots and large turtles were raised in the villages by the thousands. Fish were abundant. Turtle and cayman eggs were eaten. Wild rice and water lily seeds and tubers were harvested. Carvajal added that “what is more amazing is the slight amount of work that all these things require.”

At the time his account was written off as hype– the conquesting powers could not conceive of civilised people other than themselves, especially not if they didn’t have to work much for their happiness! When the second European expedition down the Amazon River was not able to confirm the sightings, Carvajal’s reports were decried as figment of his imagination.

During the past three decades, on the other hand, archaeologists, geographers, soil scientists, geneticists, and ecologists have shown that large parts of the Amazon are not wilderness but in fact a carefully created forest garden. Maybe the most important findings are dark earth and large areas with huge amounts of fruit trees.

Terra preta, is basically a high grade compost made from people’s garbage—burnt wood, leftovers from meals, human wastes. This human-made soil has been found throughout the Amazon, in patches of 1-360 hectares (that’s over 500 football fields!), thought by some to cover up to 10% of the Amazon (that would be twice the size of Britain).

In some places dark earth is more than two thousand years old and still highly active. It can be bought as expensive potting soil in Brazil.

In the early 2000s, archaeologists excavated lost, complex cities laid out with astronomical precision. Some of these cities – forming a network of connected settlements with roads, canals, causeways, dark earth and orchards – are over a thousand years old. At the time of the first European voyage down the Amazon River, there are likely to have existed cities in the region that were bigger than the centre of the Western world at the time, Paris in France.

Evidence suggests that some of these settlements were multicultural, multilingual urban spaces where a multitude of ‘tribes’ lived together.

People managed the forest, removed species, promoted others, burned down parts, left them fallow for several generations, returned to regenerate them and so on – leaving a patchwork of modulated forest that until recently outsiders recognised simply as “virgin forest” or “pristine forest”.

The Napo Runa chakra system is still in some places today an intact network of polycultural forest gardens, at varying distances from the primary home of the household group (some might be several days’ walk away) – all producing food, medicine, fibres for the household of (originally) great biological diversity (about 150 different plant species have been recorded in the past) – and all mimicking the complexity and structure of the ‘natural’ forest that surrounds them.

Or, as the older Napo Runa would have it, the forest, its flora and fauna, has been maintained since time immemorial through powerful, respectful and intimate relations between humans and non-humans. The lived forest relations of Amazonian peoples constitute a biocultural praxis that has historically given shape to the biodiverse image of the forest that conservationists seek to preserve.

We might say that these human-forest relations have enhanced the forest, made it more abundant, more diverse. This is a very different approach and perspective than that of ‘conservation’ or ‘sustainability’ – both words which aim to keep things as they are rather than work together to make things richer.

Yet, increasingly evicted from the forest, or forced to live on ever smaller parcels of it, Napo Runa are condemned to develop what they refer to as “the needs of the city”, a term used to highlight the desires and necessities that mysteriously exude from the consumer culture of urban spaces.

Struggling to integrate into consumer society in a dignified manner, as well as struggling to retain a healthy and joyful existence at its margins or on the outside, many Napo Runa are caught in a double bind and urban poverty looms large.

IKIAM inserts itself into this context in a particularly unimaginative kind of fashion.

IKIAM’s community outreach department aims to create educational and capacity building programmes based on “society’s needs” and strengthen the socioeconomic development of indigenous communities.

It runs a series of projects and initiatives. Here they are:

  • Participatory management of community buffer zones to Colonso-Chalupas
  • Creation of “brand manuals” and support for brand management for small entrepreneurs
  • Revalorisation of traditional foods and culinary practices for health and nutrition
  • Strengthening of community eco-tourism and related services of Sumaco area through creation of a “geopark” with opportunities for caving and geological learning
  • Improving sustainable production of guayusa (caffeine-containing tree-leaf tea)
  • Revitalisation and commercialization of traditional ceramics
  • plus (not on website) Awakkuna – using crochet as a tool for environmental education

These projects of capacity building, market inclusion, and value chain development are in line with national efforts to create a country of entrepreneurship and innovation by 2020. They have to be understood in the context of de-politicisation and criminalisation of indigenous movements in Ecuador, and the subsumption of their struggle for territorial self-determination under the national project of biosocialist Sumak Kawsay with a concomitant de-radicalisation and dilution of what such self-determination would look like in practice.

Knitting for conservation

[This part of the talk was the main focus here: Awakkuna: Knitting for conservation in the Ecuadorian Amazon]

One celebrated community outreach initiative developed from an informal, personal connection between an IKIAM staff member who is also an avid crocheter and her Kichwa neighbours who were eager to learn her technique, having watched her for some time sitting in front of her house in the evenings, working yarn with obvious pleasure. A crochet club was started. Informal to begin with, the club rapidly gained in popularity involving academic staff, students as well as members of nearby indigenous communities, and created a ‘real crochet boom’ with ‘people literally knitting constantly, including at bus stops and in restaurants’. The club was soon promoted by the University community outreach division as a “knitting for conservation” workshop series which taught amigurumi, a Japanese crochet technique to create toy versions of Amazonian endangered animal species, which could then be sold as handicrafts.

The University adopted the club based on the rationale that it could provide a tool for environmental education, particularly about the ecological importance or threatened status of some Amazonian species that are seen to be indiscriminately killed by indigenous community members. An unexamined assumption in this context was the necessity to teach indigenous communities about the scientific significance of Amazonian species, thereby unwittingly denigrating the relevance of these animals in Kichwa lives and cosmology, as well as asserting the superiority of Western science over indigenous know-how and worldview. This premise of the project casts responsibility and blame onto indigenous communities (for example for killing animals) thereby rehearsing the position that traditional practices lie at the root of species extinction without considering the origins of habitat loss in terms of deforestation, urbanisation, industrialisation – or considering these processes inevitable and unchangeable.

The practice of crocheting itself harks back to the local mission schools where such traditionally female European household and handicraft skills were taught to indigenous girls in an attempt to civilize them. Moreover, while yarn is readily available in several shops in Tena, it is without exception imported synthetics (polyester or acrylic). The production of synthetic fibers is heavily polluting and their use a prime vector for microplastic pollution (Browne et al 2011).

Other community engagement initiatives are similarly suffused with colonialism.


However, by understanding IKIAM less as a unified entity and monolithic organisation, but more as a set of processes and forces, more as a field of struggle, more as dynamic configurations of possibilities and constraints, we can become more sensitive to opportunities for change.

This summer, a degree programme in agroecology was approved, emphasising the low-tech and food sovereignty side of biosocialism, which may carry the potential of contributing to a much needed revalorisation of forest cultures and chakra systems.

Moreover, the scientist who initiated the crochet club has, through casual conversations with a variety of people in indigenous communities and beyond, developed a new vision of what this engagement could look like and is actively seeking funding for a workshop series which uses the space for dialogue which knitting together opens up in order to explore the understanding of extinction, inter-species conviviality and the everyday complexities of being a woman in indigenous communities in the borderlands between capital and the forest.



1 Buen Vivir is a Hispanification of the Quichua concept of Sumak Kausay which carries connotations of beauty, ethics and human harmony with the natural world and its rhythms (Acosta 2012). The Plan del Buen Vivir has been prepared by the National Secretary of Planning and Development (SENPLADES 2009).

2 Article 71: ‘‘Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence, and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structures, functions and evolutionary processes”. The Constitution can be found online, for example in the Political Database of the Americas, at

3 This linear, upwardly oriented progression has been argued to replicate Rostow’s stages of growth (de Zaldívar 2017) from the establishment of ‘preconditions for the initial impulse’ in a transitional society, via take off and the drive to maturity, to the final stage of maturity as high mass consumption and generalised comfort.

4 Since 2017, Lenin Moreno is new Head of State.

5 In 2008, Ecuador defaulted on USD 3.2 billion of bonds. From 2010 onwards, Ecuador has received Chinese loans-for-oil and oil-backed credits for infrastructure and has thus committed a significant amount of its future oil production to China (Sanderson & Forsythe 2012; Bräutigam & Gallagher 2014). IKIAM University’s campus is currently being built by China CAMC Engineering Co. Ltd., a Chinese construction company.

6 footnote here on encomiendas giving way to repartimiento/repartos as supposedly less exploitative and general questions on their relationships and fact they also coexisted

7 Interview XXX, a letter of complaint signed by 12 people (staff members and representatives of indigenous organisations), addressed to Augusto Barrera, Secretario Nacional de Educación Superior, Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación, dated 29 Aug 2017, states that, while accurate numbers were not available, up to 90% of all administrative and 40% of all academic staff was let go during the process of transition to the new administration.