Green transition friction in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Green transition friction in the Ecuadorian Amazon


Green transition friction in the Ecuadorian Amazon

This is a talk (or guest lecture) I was invited to give at Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales as part of their MSc Sustainability and Behaviour Change in January 2020.

Drone view of CAT

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)

In the talk I focus on the context of ‘social change’ and share perspectives on deveopment in the Amazon.

Green transition friction in the Ecuadorian Amazon

INTRO and Ecuador background

Let me just brief you very quickly on the political background in Ecuador.

You may have heard of the revolutionary Constitution of 2008, which is framed around the concept of sumak kawsay (Buen Vivir, Good Living) and is the first constitution in the world to codify the rights of nature.

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 Ecuadorian constitution 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.

“Changing the productive matrix” is a key objective of the so-called “Citizens’ Revolution” in Ecuador, which is the post-neoliberal platform of the political party in power since 2007. But the constitution is silent on how to construct a different kind of economy.

…and to cut a long story short, while there is a lot of rhetoric on constructing an alternative economy, the reality remains business as usual with the state taking a strong regulatory role and a somewhat changed geopolitical emphasis, e.g. with finance coming from China and Brazil rather than the US (even though this seems to have changed again more recently).

In any case, to fund the transition to a green economy, oil extraction, large-scale open pit mining, mega-dams and other usual suspects have expanded. The Amazon in particular has become the stage for such mega-projects, and remains, as ever, the stage for a more insidious capital expansion through urbanisation and infrastructure development.

Revenue from the continuation of extractive activities is meant to be re-invested in 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.

Sooo… this presentation is about a university in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the socio-ecological change which surrounds it and the conflicting knowledges which accompany it.

Of canopies, tiles and new life

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: quote “It would be unbearably hot otherwise” end quote. 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.

One of the architects cried when they realised that the site chosen for construction of the university was in the middle of the forest, quote “where a new pole of development is least needed” end quote (Wilson, Bayón & Diez, 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.

Financed with Chinese capital in return for oil futures1, IKIAM University has been explicitly conceived as a 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 thereby a key component of the government’s overall ‘post-neoliberal’ development strategy promising widespread socio-economic change, an overcoming of the extractive paradigm centred on oil, and a new relationship with nature as expressed in the Plan for Good Living (Plan del Buen Vivir) (SENPLADES, 2009; see also Becker, 2011; Ellner, 2011; Burbach, Fox & Fuentes, 2013).

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’.

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 specially created 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’.

What it means to be “for the Amazon” is severely contested, even amongst those who can agree that it is worth to halt its destruction.

IKIAM muffles or even silences alternative understandings of what the Amazon needs.

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.

IKIAM University is meant to play a key role in the ‘development of green wealth’ through research addressing questions of conservation and sustainable use of the natural resources in one of the few remaining megadiverse places on earth.

While their research portfolio is in many ways still under construction, and as of yet underfunded, the objective is to build an internationally relevant portfolio which will underwrite the ‘post-neoliberal’ ambitions of biodiversity-based economic growth, focusing on conservation, the harnessing of ecosystems and their so-called “services”, new biomaterials (like better string from spiderwebs), bioremediation of industrial pollution.

Student numbers have risen consistently – from 150 in the first semester in 2014 to about 850 last year – 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.

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 through colonial domination, 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.

Changing forest relations

(Now, remember, Ikiam means nature or forest in the Amazonian language Shuar.)

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, the indigenous Kichwa people from the Upper Napo River with whom I work, 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 Amazonian anthropology and 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.

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.

Changing livelihoods

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 Buen Vivir with a concomitant de-radicalisation and dilution of what such self-determination would look like in practice.

Such dilution goes hand in hand with the continuous erosion of subsistence opportunities and transformation of indigenous socio-ecological relations through market inclusion via, above all, business creation.

Now, this transformation is not spawned by IKIAM. There is a 500-year history of violent socio-ecological change in the Amazon which 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. EP Thompson and Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch). It is captured in concepts such as ‘primitive accumulation’, ‘accumulation by dispossession’, ‘capital free-riding on social reproduction and the fertility of nature’.

But although this erosion predates IKIAM, the majority of work done at or through IKIAM facilitates and advances it – unsurprisingly under the banner of community development and empowerment.

But exactly because it is running under this banner, there are opportunities for subversion here and for a reclaiming of ends and means.

Knitting for conservation [covered in more detail here]

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.

A crochet club was started and soon promoted by the University community outreach division. The club developed into a “knitting for conservation” workshop series which taught a particular 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 underlying this project is 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 (well-known?) 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.

Moreover, 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.

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.

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 In 2008, Ecuador defaulted on USD 3.2 billion of bonds, which Rafael Correa (president at the time) considered ‘illegitimate’ and ‘illegal’ foreign debt. From 2010 onwards, Ecuador has received Chinese loans-for-oil and oil-backed credits for infrastructure. China’s oil-for-loans program is a means to secure energy supplies and win contracts for Chinese state-owned infrastructure companies (Sanderson & Forsythe 2012), and the bulk of Chinese finance to Ecuador and other Latin American countries is for oil exploration and extraction (Bräutigam & Gallagher 2014). IKIAM University’s campus is currently being built by a Chinese company. Ecuador has committed, via loan agreements and export deals, a significant amount of its future oil production to China, but relies on oil for about 41 percent of government revenue (Sanderson & Forsythe 2012). To date Ecuador’s shipments to China have not matched its commitments (Ibid.).