Latin American political ecology: roots, inheritances, dialogues

Latin American political ecology: roots, inheritances, dialogues

By Héctor Alimonda *

In recent times, we have seen political ecology breaking vertically and horizontally in the international intellectual field, revealing networks of action and production / accumulation of knowledge of a more than significant amplitude, a profusion of academic training nuclei that have already trained cohorts of young researchers and activists, an endless number of events and publications that, marking this process, begin to include reflections on theoretical and methodological dimensions, presentations and balances on their regional and sectoral configurations, information accumulation projects and planetary mapping such as the EJOLT / EJAtlas, [1] and shortly there will be commented systematizations on the work of its main referents. In other words, the field of political ecology appears to have made great and determined strides toward maturity.

Well, it is in this context that different commentators, when analyzing the international panorama of this field of knowledge, coincide in identifying the political ecology produced in Latin America as a specific political-intellectual tradition, with dynamics and enunciation devices that They are not equivalent to the elaborations coming from other geopolitical areas of knowledge (which, of course, is not an obstacle to international dialogue, quite the contrary) (Kim et al., 2012; Delgado Ramos, 2013; Martínez-Alier, 2014; Martin and Larsimont, 2014; Leff, 2015).

Let's take as an example the opinion of Professor Joan Martínez-Alier: “Political ecology studies socio-environmental conflicts. At the same time, the term designates a broad social and political movement for environmental justice that is stronger in Latin America than in other continents. This movement fights against environmental injustices at local, national, regional and global levels […]. In Latin America, political ecology is not so much a university specialization within the departments of human geography or social anthropology (in the style of Michael Watts, Raymond Bryant, Paul Robbins) as a field of thought of its own of international relevance, with authors very attached environmental activism in their own countries or on the continent as a whole ”(Martínez-Alier, 2014: 2).

But it is Martin and Larsimont who in their commentary establish the relationship between the political ecology carried out in Latin America (EPLat) with the critical thinking matrix characteristic of the region: “Although in the EPLat influences and traits of origin can be identified more or less disciplinary and academic, without a doubt its defining characteristics have to do with an encounter between the tradition of Latin American critical thought and the vast experiences and strategies of the peoples in the face of looting and the "economy of prey." We mention the recognized and early contributions of José Carlos Mariátegui, Josué de Castro, Eduardo Galeano, among others. […] Probably what makes this perspective different is its claim to be a Latin American place of enunciation. This implies recognizing theoretical and territorial spheres alien to the great consolidated traditions of the geopolitics of Western thought. […] The central argument is that the mark of origin of the Latin American is based on the catastrophic trauma of the conquest and on the subordinate and colonial integration in the international system. In this sense, then, the EPLat gives a relevant place to the historical experience that European colonization implied as a rupture of origin of the particular heterogeneity and ambiguity of Latin American societies. This, in turn, supposes the construction of an environmental history of the region. […] Thus, the EPLat is a collective construction in which, not without tensions and debates, various authors from Latin America have converged, emphasizing the study of power relations, historically configured as mediators of society / nature relations. Likewise, there is a certain consensus that political ecology, more than a new disciplinary field, would be a perspective of critical analysis and a space of confluence of questions and feedback between different fields of knowledge, which implies a reflection on power and the social relations of connection with nature (a political epistemology) ”(Martin and Larsimont, 2014: 5).

The EPLat, then, has its own characteristics, dynamics and density, differentiated in relation to its congeners from other regions. It shares this pattern, then, with great Latin American aesthetic and cultural movements, in tune with the European trends of the time, but with particularized enunciation. There was a properly American Baroque (Echeverría, 2011), as well as a Romanticism (Pratt, 2011) and a Modernism (Rama, 1985). And, at the same time, the EPLat is a new addition to the traditions of Latin American critical thought systematized in the field of social sciences, such as the economic structuralism of ECLAC [2] (with names such as Raúl Prebisch, Celso Furtado and Aldo Ferrer ), the theory of dependency, [3] the elaborations of Latin American Marxism from José Carlos Mariátegui [4], the Theology of Liberation [5] (with echoes reconverted in the papal encyclical) and the Modernity / Coloniality Program, [6] among others.

We will try to make a quick characterization of critical thinking. One clue is Biro's (2011: 3) definition of “critical theory”: “knowledge that aspires to reduce domination. In contrast to social science that pursues an objective, value-free point of view, critical theory starts from the normative proposition that oppression must be reduced or eliminated ”. For Carlos Altamirano (2009: 14), the expression “critical thinking” indicates “a discourse that calls into question an established order or a central institution of that order, in the name of certain values, generally those of truth and justice. ”. For Carmen Miró (2009: 24), “Latin American critical thinking finds its roots in various aspects of Latin American social and political thought and practice, among which the following stand out: a) the democratic tradition stemming from Latin American radical liberalism at the end of the XIX and early XX centuries, with a marked anti-oligarchic character; b) the Latin American socialist tradition that goes from José Carlos Mariátegui to Ernesto Guevara; c) Liberation Theology; d) the rebirth of indigenous knowledge in the field of sociocultural and political matters, and e) the various variants of North Atlantic alter-worldist thought ”.

There are those who, in a procedure that seems reductionist to us, identify Latin American critical thought with Marxism. In part, this is because the expression was adopted by the Cuban Revolution, in the name of a memorable magazine, published between 1967 and 1972 (Martínez Heredia, 2008). But others tend to trace the origins of that tradition to the thought of independence. To go to an example: a text such as the Jamaica Letter of 1815, where Simón Bolívar analyzes with a keen critical sense the political perspectives that, in his opinion, the future independent republics would have ahead, rightly deserves to be part of the references (or even from protohistory) of Latin American critical thought. [7] There are even those who argue that the validity of critical thinking in Latin America comes from the particular irreducibility of the region to be framed and organized by modern reason, with a Eurocentric matrix. What in the literary tradition is known as the marvelous real (Alejo Carpentier) or magical realism (Gabriel García Márquez) would correspond to a baroque, variegated and heterogeneous reality, with the coexistence of different times and projects, in a social matrix that generates inequality, oppression and underdevelopment, which would give rise to the permanent re-generation of the discourse of critical thought and its conditions of enunciation (Cortés, 2011).

The situation of subordination in the international context, the structural heterogeneity of our societies, with its cultural implications, the anguish of having to choose between different heritages and paths, the anxiety for a modern destiny that seems unattainable, the urgency to organize nationality through of authoritarian means, the hostile difficulty of the natural environment to be incorporated as the effective territory of the nation, all these elements were present from the moment of independence, and constituted an unavoidable reference in the history of the ideas of the continent. And, of course, they were the raw material from which critical thinking would develop.

From his Marxism in a Latin American key, José Aricó [8] reflected: “When we talk about Latin America we evoke a preconstituted reality that is not such, which in fact is a« black hole », an open problem, an unfinished construction or, Mariátegui would point out for his nation, but which is extensible to the continent: a project to be carried out ”(1988: 42). A project whose foundation and its greatest difficulty lie in the complexity of the continent's historical heritage. But, when recognizing this relevance, where the difficulty of the words refers to the vicissitudes of a conflictive structure, as Freud would like, the whole unfolds in new directions and senses. We are in the presence of nations that have existed as such for two hundred years in the international order (they cannot, therefore, be assimilated to the colonial world constituted at the end of the 19th century), [9] but that at the same time continue in a protean process. training. [10] Aricó also reflected on this issue: “Latin American societies are, essentially, national-popular, that is, they still live with vigor the problem of their national destiny, of whether or not they are nations […] They wonder about their identity, so that they are […] still going through a stage of Sturm und Drang —as Gramsci pointed out sharply referring to our America—, […] of romantic access to nationality [1986] ”(cited in Cortés, 2015).

I believe that the place of plural and collective enunciation that Latin American political ecology has been constituting has homologies with the tradition of critical thought in the region, and that both can be thought from the characterization that the Brazilian intellectual Alfredo Bosi (1992) made in relation to José Carlos Mariátegui and his generation companions, Peruvians of the 1920s: “the rooted avant-garde”. It is a vanguard, in the sense that it connects with the tremendous challenges of the time, in which the Latin American region is being reterritorialized for the large-scale exploitation of its natural resources, with total disregard for the needs and urgencies of its populations. . This involves a critique of the conventional civilizational assumptions of modernity and development, which leads to the paradigmatic task of updating its repertoires of action and thought at the same time that it must try to recover the plurality of popular and critical heritages that preceded it: there a deep-rooted vanguard. [11] Vanguard in the sense of proceeding to the incorporation of advanced perspectives of contemporary social and political thought, on which a re-significant translation operation will be carried out, to allow their application in the analysis of national realities.

We are interested, at this moment, in referring to two cases of re-signified incorporation of distinguished traditions of Western society by Latin American critical thought: Marxism and the social doctrine of the Church. In the case of Marxism, the odd figure of José Carlos Mariátegui proceeded to a reconstruction of the postulates of that tradition, in the conditions of the twenties of the last century, from its recovery in a perspective of interpretation and consequent political articulation for the Peruvian society of the time. The recognition of the national question and its incomplete nature, the indigenous problem as a central issue of that Peruvian nationality, relying especially on the issue of access to land and enabling the constitution of the indigenous peasantry as a revolutionary subject, the verification of the unequal character and combination of economic evolution, based on a convergence between the traditional forces of backwardness and modernity, which made him doubt the viability of modernity and development, already in very early times of the 20th century, the strategic importance of politico-cultural tasks, all these elements appear in his Marxist interpretation of Peruvian society, largely divergent from the central lines of contemporary canonical Marxism of the Third International. That Latin American Marxism that Mariátegui put into action continued to inspire Latin American thought for decades, and is undoubtedly present in much of the critical production after his time.

Another re-significant incorporation of the greatest importance was that which was processed in relation to the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, and by extension in relation to Christian social thought, through Liberation Theology (Boff, 1992) and the Philosophy of Liberation (Dussel, 2008). Making a true investment in its evangelizing procedures, a significant part of the Latin American Church embraced the commitment to the popular sectors as the center of its pastoral activity. At the same time, theologians and philosophers proposed profound reconversions of doctrinal orientations, in new translations and elaborations that were now based on the roots of the Church with the poor and Latin American soil.

In 2015, the encyclical Laudatio si ', by Pope Francis I, recovering the inspiration of fraternity with the nature of Saint Francis of Assisi, and incorporating, at the same time, the Latin American reflection on political ecology, constituted a document of special transcendence, linked with a long and effective tradition of Latin American critical thought (Francisco, 2015). Antonio Elizalde (2015: 145-146) says in this regard: “A detailed reading of the analyzed documents allows me to affirm that: a) in the Encyclical Laudato si 'of Pope Francis, a large part, if not all, of the reflection that from Latin America has been developing around the problems of sustainability and social justice; b) his proposal is a call for a profound change in the civilizational axes; c) its apparently catastrophic tone, nevertheless expresses a deep hope that it is possible to turn the tide and outlines the main ways to do so; d) recovers the figure of Francis of Assisi and thereby marks the path that should be followed by the greatest institution on the planet: the Catholic Church; e) with unambiguous language, it criticizes the factual powers (economic and political) that today govern the world and the behaviors, beliefs and attitudes of those who exercise them; f) proposes an ecological conversion towards sobriety, humility, fraternity, a new universal solidarity and a culture of care; and g) calls for the dissemination of a new paradigm about the human being, life, society and the relationship with nature. "

Despite the affinities that we are highlighting between the current Latin American political ecology and the traditions of critical thought, we believe that the inheritances and possible dialogues are not generalizable to their full extent. A large part of Latin American critical thought has as reference a conventional vision of development and modernity, and its reading of social reality tends to privilege political actors linked to these projects, belittling or making other actors invisible, precisely those whose perspective political ecology tends to recover (indigenous peoples and traditional populations, women, etc.). While in general political ecologists approach the Good Living positions, critical thinking still largely maintains its veneration for the conventional version of development as a normative socio-political model of reference.

Critical thinking tends to be monocultural. Boaventura de Souza Santos observes: “The wealth of popular, peasant and indigenous thought has been totally wasted. The greatest challenge to critical thinking is the least visible: the challenge of a profound epistemological transformation that makes it an agent of cognitive justice. It is not just a new critical thinking, but a different way of producing critical thinking ”(2009: 17). Equivalent proposals have been supported by ecopolitical (Leff, 2006) or decolonial (Grosfoguel, 2007) reflection. And it is also true that the conventional political-organizational reference of Latin American critical thought is centralized, vertical and tendingly refractory to popular autonomism.

Thus, it would seem that the mariateguian-inspired peasant-indigenous socialism, the critique oriented by the problem of decoloniality and an updated perspective of Liberation Theology, which actively incorporates the ecopolitical orientation, perhaps constitute the spaces for privileged interlocution of the Latin American political ecology with the heritage of critical thinking in the region.

A refreshing and stimulating vision was proposed by the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar (2016). According to his point of view, Latin American critical thought is not in crisis, but in full expansion and effervescence. In reality, Arturo maintains the need for a transformation of the very conception of this critical thought, leading it to transcend the classical perspective of the conventional political left, and properly incorporating two new aspects: the "autonomic", which includes the vast plurality of popular movements that, throughout the continent, are activated by the search for their demands for differentiated identities, autonomy and cultural reconstruction, expansion or installation of rights (based on a logic of difference, self-organization and complexity) , and what he calls “the thought of the land”, movements that are based on the unique and constitutive relationship that communities have with localized nature and their territories, and that lead to the formulation of “place policies”. For Escobar, current Latin American critical thinking exists and is being rebuilt in the interrelation between these two components, the autonomic movements and the thought of the land, with a renewed culture of the political and social left.

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[2] ECLAC, the Economic Commission for Latin America, created by the United Nations in 1950, constituted a nucleus of elaboration on the particularities of the region and of discussion of strategies for its development.
[3] Dependency theory, developed during the 1960s and 1970s, placed its analytical emphasis on the primary characterization of the dependent character of Latin American societies.
[4] José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930) was a notable self-taught Peruvian thinker and activist, who made a particular appropriation of Marxism from the Latin American reality. He produced an outstanding intellectual work, which included his Seven Essays on the Interpretation of Peruvian Reality, and an intense critical journalistic activity, which was expressed in his Amauta magazine, dedicated to connecting Latin American critical intellectuals with each other, in tune with the most current trends. vanguard of the international scene. Skeptical in relation to the "progress" induced by imperialist capital and the national bourgeoisies, he preferred to think of a socialism built from indigenous community traditions.
[5] Liberation Theology, in force since the 1960s, emphasizes the commitment of Christians to the struggle for social justice, their "commitment to the poor."
[6] The Modernity / Coloniality Program is an intellectual project developed by a wide network of Latin American intellectuals starting in 2000. It puts the condition of coloniality as a constituent of regional reality since the 16th century, as a hidden and denied reverse of European modernity.
[7] How to characterize, but as a critical thought, based on the torn recognition of a problematic identity, this reflection by Simón Bolívar ?: “We are not Europeans, we are not Indians, we are a middle species between the aborigines and the Spanish. Americans by birth and Europeans by right, we find ourselves in the conflict of contesting the titles of possession from the natives, and of remaining in the country that gave us birth against the opposition of the invaders: thus, our case is the most extraordinary and complicated ”(Cited in Roig, 2004). And how can we not acknowledge repeated and still current urgencies in this convocation of the Argentine Generation of 1837 ?: “Let us try, like Descartes,” Esteban Echeverría said, “to forget everything we have learned, to enter with all the energy of our forces in the investigation of the truth. But not from the abstract truth, but from the truth that results from the events of our history, and from the full recognition of the customs and spirit of the nation ”(cited in Roig, 2004).
[8] José Aricó (1931/1991) was a self-taught intellectual and Argentine Marxist activist. In the 1950s, he made the first translations into Spanish of works by Antonio Gramsci, and in the 1960s and 1970s he directed the Cuadernos de Pasado y Presente collection, which incorporated new aspects over ninety-nine titles of international left thought. His thought was organized from a heterodox reading of the classical Marxist tradition and an appreciation of the Latin American experience, of which his book Marx y América Latina (1982) is an example.
[9] Which, incidentally, excludes us from the postcolonial discussion in the terms placed within the former British Empire (Coronil, 2008; Pratt, 2008; among many others).
[10] Of course, it is also pertinent to ask to what extent the "central countries", or whatever you want to call them, are not also in the process of formation, in which case the South shows the future of the North, as proposed by Comaroff and Comaroff ( 2013).
[11] Of course, we coincide with Ramón Grosfoguel when, taking the Zapatista movement as a reference, he defends intellectual work that is thought of as a “rearguard movement”, the walk asking (2007: 76-77).
* Professor at the CPDA, Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Visiting researcher at the Gino Germani Institute, University of Buenos Aires

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