The convenient crisis of civilisation

, by AGUITON Christophe

Global recession may offer the indigenous people of the Andes the chance to redefine themselves in a post-colonial environment.

Crises were everywhere the subject of this year’s World Social Forum, whose 100,000 participants are now returning home from Belem on the banks of the Brazilian Amazon. Many seminars were organised on the financial and economic crisis, on the climate crisis and the food crisis. Several concluded with declarations. One that deserves special attention is the “Call from the indigenous peoples on the crisis of civilisation”.

The call came from indigenous peoples’ organisations from the Andean region but was endorsed by dozens of other organisations from across the Americas, as well as India and Africa. It defined the “civilisation crisis” as the conjunction of economic, environmental and democratic crises. It proposed an answer based on the concept of a “good life” rather than a “better life”. While the idea of a “better life” is about the growth of material wealth and the consumption of more goods, the “good life” is about the quality of life, including a harmonious relationship with nature and a human-centred, rather than production-centred, approach to time.

This vision avoids the cul-de-sac of “de-growth” and insists that the point is not to reduce our consumption in a general and abstract manner, which is, of course, unacceptable for the billions of people suffering hunger and a lack of housing and basic services. Using the concept of the good life, it offers a new vision of global transformation, even for those who have stopped believing in radical social change and look instead to “life philosophies” or personal development. It offers a potentially universal perspective based on the defence of the common, which includes not only natural resources but also knowledge and traditions based on solidarity and mutuality.

The institutional dimension of the vision coming from indigenous peoples involves deconstructing the colonial concept of the state and replacing it with a decentralised and multinational state in which each community establishes an equal relationship with the others and has democratic processes whereby the elected are directly accountable to those who have chosen them.

The context of the indigenous peoples of the Andes helps to explain the nature of this vision. In contrast to the Amazonian, and even the Central American peoples, the Andean peoples have two main languages, Quecha and Aymara, making communications easier across the six countries of the Andean mountains. In the three central countries — Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru — the indigenous population represents the majority even though, until very recently, power was always in the hands of the white elites from the time of Francisco Pizzaro, the Spanish conquistador who destroyed the Inca empire and assured Spanish domination of the region.

Against this background, the democratic struggle of the indigenous majority to share in political power has always been embedded in the defence of the specific rights of those communities and the attempt to find a new relationship with the state in the different countries of the region.

Though indigenous identity has roots in pre-Colombian America, it has been nourished by activists and intellectuals and by more recent positive experiences. In Bolivia, the miners’ union, the backbone of the contemporary Bolivian labour movement, played a key role in the 1953 revolution and resistance to the military dictatorship of the 60s and 70s. When the mines shed workers or closed, several unionists returned to the farms becoming organisers and leaders in the farmer’s movement that won Evo Morales the presidency. In Peru, the indigenous movements’ distrust of the state was reinforced when they found themselves attacked by both the sectarian and violent Shining Path (Sensero Luminoso) movement and by government-sponsored counter-insurgency forces. At the intellectual level, the indigenous people took inspirations from the Portuguese sociologist Boaventuro do Santos and the Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano, who explained the inseparable link between colonialism and racism in the “pattern of power” imposed on Latin America from the 16th century on and gave a specific character to European universalism.

The shift in understandings of modernity signalled by this call deserves to be noticed, critically debated, clarified and even improved. The 2009 World Social Forum demonstrated that the reversal of colonial patterns of power is finally opening up new opportunities to learn from and engage with the visions produced by indigenous peoples.

Christophe Aguiton is a French activist researcher and has been a key figure in the development of the World Social Forum and the European Social Forum.