Can social movements democratise democracy?

Lessons from the Yellow Vests movement in France

by Maxime Combes

“Extraordinary events are beyond the scope of ordinary explanations”

Edgard Morin

“Democracy is not about Saturday afternoons”, French president Emmanuel Macron said, speaking about the Yellow Vests movement (YVM) that have been protesting every Saturday afternoon since November 17, 2018. Such a statement aimed to close the door to any new political, economic or social measures in response to the Yellow Vests mobilisation, just a few days before the European elections on May 26th 2019. While two electoral lists claiming to come from the YVM entered the European Union (EU) election race, Macron invited commentators to assess the political weight of the Yellow Vests: “Now everyone must go to the elections, and, when they have ideas, to stand in the elections. It is much more difficult to propose a project than to be against everything else.”

To this respect, the results of the EU elections are pretty clear: these two lists received just over 260,000 votes, or barely 1% of the votes casted, not enough to get any seat in the EU parliament. The YVM had saturated the political and media agenda, and the streets, for six months, highly supported by most of the population. It has seriously worried Macron himself and the parliamentary majority, to which the government responded with heavy police repression. But the content and results of the EU election campaign could be read as if this movement had no political weight and/or no electoral impacts: many commentators then stated that Macron had provided an adequate political response to the political crisis initiated by the YVM. But, there is no evidence that the social and democratic crisis highlighted by the YVM has been resolved.

The YVM is an unprecedented movement, both in terms of its social composition, its methods and practices, its determination and its duration, and its ability to build a partly favourable initial balance of power opposing Macron and the government. The YVM has been described as a spontaneous mobilisation, not taking root in traditional political parties and social organisations. For many participants, demonstrating or occupying a roundabout was one of the very first political actions of their whole lives. Most of them live in peripheral, peri-urban and rural areas, including a high proportion of women.

“Mouvement des gilets jaunes, Argiésans, 09 Dec 2018” by ComputerHotline is licensed under CC BY 2.0

They have made roundabouts, these rather bare and dehumanised traffic junctions, the key places of political socialisation and debate as the number and the dynamism of public spaces have greatly shrunk. Those who we were not used to seeing in social movements, and in the political field, made a double demonstration. Not only did they created their own political space, but they also extended their demands far beyond sectoral concerns, galvanizing their movement around the imperative of systemic economic, social and political transformations. This is one of the major achievements of this movement: from a sectoral demand – being in the streets against the increase in carbon taxes and fuel prices – to fully articulate the economic, social and political issues people are facing.

That is why president Macron and his government tried to shut down these debates reducing the issue to a narrow democratic practice: voting at the EU elections. However, the movement had widely deeply renewed the debate on the future of our (supposedly) democratic political regime: how it should work? How decisions should be taken? How to hold politicians accountable? What should be the role of the elites? How people can take control over policy decision making and over the economy? How to democratise democracy? How to make democracy work better between two elections? Through a short radiography of the YVM, this article aims to see how this movement has profoundly questioned the French democratic regime, but also the social movements and the political left through their modes of action and proposals aimed, in particular, at deeply democratising democracy.

Early days: roundabouts and yellow vests make invisible people politically visible

The YVM began on November 17th, 2018 with an occupation of roundabouts and street demonstrations involving more than 280,000 people over a large part of the country. One year later, the Yellow Vests have been demonstrating in the country for 53 consecutive Saturdays. This is unheard of: never before has a citizens’ movement have sustained weekly demonstrations for an entire year, often decentralised in dozens of cities. According to Ministry of Interior figures, the number of people in the streets has decreased to just over 30,000 by the end of 2018. Many commentators thought that the movement would have packed up and not come back after the winter holidays. In January 2019, everything should have been over. This has not been the case. Nearly 90,000 people were in the streets and some of them never stopped: over the weeks, they were representing between one-tenth and one-twentieth of the inaugural mobilisation, according to ministerial figures.

The roundabouts were at the same time a back base, a decentralised HQ and a meeting place where everyone can find something to do. From the beginning of the movement, they have not only blocked roundabouts, slow traffic flows or prevent access to commercial areas. On or near these roundabouts, on private land made available to them, they settled up huts, tents, fences, barbecues, braziers, and in some cases rudiment installations for cooking, hosting people, organising movie screening, public debates etc. They have transformed roundabouts, those soulless non-places, where cars only pass through, into public squares, allowing people to fraternise and to take decisions and to engage in a collective political process.

The urban planner Eugène Hénard (1849-1923) who made the first roundabout in history, around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, would never have thought that people wearing a yellow vest would have used hundreds of the country’s 30,000 roundabouts – a world record – to transform them into political gatherings for the mass. Nor would the legislator thought that the fluorescent yellow roadside emergency vests, which is mandatory to have in cars, could become the symbol and the colour of the country’s most important popular insurrection in recent years.

“gilets jaunes soir 2018 12-47 lr mr nb hd” by Marc Frant is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Displayed initially on the dashboards of the vehicles, the yellow vest was a sign of rallying and solidarity. On roundabouts and in demonstrations, worn on the shoulders, the yellow vest has become a banner where a slogan, a demand or a political message is written. The vest wasn’t just making people visible on side roads in case of emergency, it was making them politically visible every day and everywhere: the invisibles of daily life were now visible on TV. The yellow vests allow both unity and distinction: people all wear the same clothing, a cheap and easy to find, but everyone can stand out and be original with a specific message written on it.

The roundabouts and yellow vests were surely a material condition for the rapid expansion of the movement: everyone has a yellow vests in the car and on a roundabout near home. In almost a year, more than 50,000 demonstrations and rallies have been counted by state institutions across the country. If the images of the riots in Paris have struck people’s minds, the YVM is before all a deeply decentralised movement rooted in the territories. If the Arc de Triomphe has become the epicentre of a revolt taking place in the bourgeois districts of Paris, the experience of many Yellow Vests was first and foremost the collective and local initiatives on the roundabouts next to their homes.

Looking at the forms of mobilisation in the heart of Paris, and more broadly in French big cities is also a way to take into account how the YVM is changing the way to organise citizens mobilisations. From December 1, 2018, these were the symbols of national power that were targeted: the Elysee, where the president’s office is located, and the ministries in the capital, and the prefectures in the rest of France. Even smaller provinces, like Le Puy (Haute-Loire), demonstration took place around the local prefecture. To take up the sociologist Charles Tilly’s categories of mobilisation, the YVM is a kind of national and autonomous movement, using a repertoire of action typical of the social and political mobilisations of modernity (Tilly, 1986).

The YVM is not a “jacquerie” – peasants revolt in the Medium Age – as some commentators have said to most often undermine their credibility. At the same time, the Yellow Vests modalities of action differed from traditional leftist political or trade union mobilisations. The first demonstrations were not declared in the prefecture and organisers had no legal representatives. Moreover, these demonstrations took unusual forms: people walked without being attached to a clearly identified block, there were no banners or leaflets distributed during the marches, and, there was no group of activists in charge of ensuring collective security. From this point of view, the YVM therefore embodies both continuity (targeting the State and the government) and a break with traditional social mobilisations.

Out of the conventional pathways

In December 2018, more than one in five French people declared themselves to be “yellow jackets”, expressing massive support for a decentralised citizens’ movement: this is not a convergence of existing struggles, but the convergence of invisible people who were not already mobilised. The sociological surveys carried out at that time indicated that the participants are mainly people who have a job but are struggling to make ends meet: they are impoverished salaried workers or self-employed people whose living conditions are deteriorating (insufficient income to cope with constrained expenses, poor quality housing, etc.). They hunt down the lowest prices to buy food, and even more so to get dressed. Seven out of ten yellow jackets even admit to having postponed or given up medical care! Craftsmen and shopkeepers are over-represented, while managers are under-represented. The proportion of women (almost one in two) is significant: all observers noted their very strong presence, especially single women with children.

Most of the people thought that this movement would last only a few days. The media had few journalists on the ground and it is more or less the same for most of leftist organizations. Those ready to mobilise against the increase in carbon taxes on fuels did not belong to the traditional political organisation, trade union or or non-profit organizations. When the invisible and inaudible can no longer cope with their social situation and are preparing to engage in a social movement, they remain politically invisible. It was only when their calls to demonstrate on November 17th brought together hundreds of thousands of “interested” people on social media and, above all, when thousands of them gathered on roundabouts that day, that their became visible. But most of the political and media elites did not have all the intellectual and social tools to understand what was going on.

The YVM is one of the very first social movements of this magnitude in France in recent history, which makes visible and supports the interests of social groups who no longer felt represented in traditional political or trade union organisations. As in many other countries, political and social disintermediation is at its height: traditional mediations such as unions, political parties, and even citizen associations are bypassed by emerging movements. These latter even destabilise them by using social networks and ad hoc platforms to organise themselves outside of traditional frameworks. The YVM clearly reflects the loss of influence of traditional organisations and the weakening of their social roots. Those who are invisible or denied, no longer accept to be organised and mobilised by those who are already (even a bit) visible or who have a social and political status.

The YVM has spread beyond the usual suspects: social networks were key factors to informally structured their movement. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons for its quick and impressive expansion: people were joining a citizen movement, not an organisation. Participants were invited by their friends, their peers, through Facebook pages, not by a union or political leaders through a leaflet and/or the media. People were invited to reach an accessible place, close to home, with a piece of clothing they had already in the car. It was not about joining a political meeting or a union demonstration for which they don’t have the codes. The YVM is iconic in the sense of what sociologist Albert Ogien calls the “autonomous political practices” that develop away from the traditional institutions of representative democracy (Ogien, 2019).

From roundabouts to the challenging collective organisation

The roundabouts become real small agoras where people come to meet, discuss, confront, live and act together, among fellow citizens, isolated workers and lonely individuals looking for some solidarity in action, not just words. Trust is thus built on the basis of shared experience and is not given to distant and uncontrollable media figures, much less to a charismatic personality who would lead the movement. In the YVM, there is no single leader, no decision-making headquarters. Internet and social networks increase the mobilisation capacities of the Yellow Vests tenfold and serve as a technical device to allow the organisation and coordination of the movement. Social networks have broadened their audience before media attention and they were used as a sounding board once the media began to follow the movement. They tend to function as powerful vectors of protest diffusion, allowing people who don’t know each other to connect in a form of immediacy and as a way to aggregate slogans / claims without having to eliminate some of theirs.

The YVM is a hybrid form of a nation-wide movement rejecting any kind of representation and delegation to retain decision-making power on roundabouts. But the Yellow Vests participants also accept that mobilisation calls could be widespread on social networks, without being, for most of them, included in the decision-making process. Since November 17th, 2018, despite several attempts to “coordinate” the YVM, none have been fully successful and no stabilised organisational rules were set up. Following media invitation and/or the increase of influence on social media for some of them, a dozen of Yellow Vests were seen, at some moment, as spokespersons for the movement. But most of them decided not to play this role, distancing themselves from the label of “Yellow Vests leader”. Media, public authorities and social organisations never found spokespersons in capacity to represent the whole movement.

“gilets jaunes soir 2018 12-13 lr mr nb hd” by Marc Frant is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

However, the survey among Yellow Vests participants in the North-West Seine-Maritime region shows that 91% of respondents want to structure themselves into an organised and sustainable movement, and that 80% think that spokespersons are needed to represent them (Dormagen/Pion 2018). But the practical question of how to do this has not been resolved. The most advanced coordination process is precisely based on the rejection of representation and the rejection of hierarchy and delegation. “We don’t want representatives who would inevitably end up speaking for us!” stated[1] the Yellow Vests group of Commercy, calling for popular assemblies all over the country. The first Assembly of Assemblies took place in Commercy in January 2019 and the democratic question of the movement’s representation stayed as a main issue in the movement. This assembly of assemblies will then meet twice (Saint-Nazaire in April, Montceau-les-Mines in June) until the meeting in Montpellier in early November 2019, which brought together nearly 500 delegates chosen by the 200 local groups.

The YVM have come up against the constraint of political representation in the current representative democratic framework. They were successful in imposing their own issues in the public debate, but also their unique and unprecedented rallying points and symbols. At the same time, the YVM showed how traditional action repertoires and traditional political channels are maybe inappropriate. But the movement has not been able to overcome this powerful and rigid framework. The “Roundabout Democracy” has come up against traditional representative democracy. The poor results of the two Yellow Vests lists to the EU elections is only a small part of a much bigger challenge. At a time of individualisation of social despair, the mediation taking place on roundabouts and the Saturday afternoon marches are undoubtedly an incredible political experience but they might still be a little short to revolutionise the French political regime. In the short-term at least.

Behind the carbon tax, a deep sense of injustice and a yearning for a better democracy

For years, social movements have unsuccessfully been trying to put the social issues back at the heart of public debate. The Yellow Vests did. Better still, while they were initially presented as anti-ecological people who don’t care to burn the planet because they were saying “No” to carbon tax increases, they instead turned the question upside down pointing out the necessary link between social justice and ecological justice which necessarily relates to democracy. It wasn’t easy: one of the very first and consensual demand was clearly to urge the government to abandon the planned increase in the carbon tax. Many environmentalists feared that this movement would be nothing more than a mobilisation against ecological policies. In short, the movement was depicted as yearning for the right to pollute in peace without paying any taxes. Some conservatives and libertarian forces supported the very first days of mobilisation for this reason: to strengthen a “no tax” movement in France. But they quickly disillusioned and stopped supporting the movement in contrast to the left-wing social, ecologist, trade union and political organisations which, after much hesitation, tried to support and interact with the YVM.[2] It was never easy, but it probably contributed to this programmatic work that led the YVM to broaden their demands and ultimately focus on democracy..

The government has done everything it could to defend the carbon tax and explain how it was needed regarding the climate crisis. It is in the name of “ecological transition” and the need to “liberate households from dependence on petrol” that French Prime Minister justified the French carbon tax and the increase in its amount over the years. Their discourse is intended to be simple and accessible: by increasing the prices of fuels, consumers can modify their behaviour, reducing their use of vehicles and/or buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. The same applies to boilers that use oil, in which case people are supposed to replace them in favour of wood-burning or gas boilers. The case of tobacco is often used as an example: hasn’t its increase in price, done in the name of public health, reduced its consumption?

But people didn’t believe in this promise. First, the poorest do not have the money and the capacity to change their own behaviour since they carry too many “pre-committed” expenditures. Secondly, they know the richest pollute the most and big corporations can pollute in total impunity, without paying the level of taxes they should (Combes 2018). Thirdly, the carbon tax reinforces social and economic inequalities. And finally, the carbon tax increase was not intended to finance an ecological transition but rather, to pay for the tax cuts (wealth tax, capital tax, dividend tax, corporate tax, etc.) that president Macron granted to the richest and big corporations. Since the carbon tax was not matched with policies to reduce transportation and heating needs, focusing on individual changes, the government policies prevent to address the root causes of the gargantuan dependence on fossil fuels.

Even at the beginning of the YVM, it was not a “no-tax” slogan that was waved, but a deep sense of injustice that was being expressed. How can a policy of raising fuel prices for households be justified when companies are either exempted from these increases – in particular in air and maritime transport – or hardly affected by the very weak increase in the price of carbon in the European carbon market such as the French oil company Total, cement and steel plants?

Dignity for the invisibles …

Looking at the different lists of claims the Yellow Vests have published[3], whether they were established locally or through virtual processes, can lead to very different analysis. It is the very conception of a democratic model and democratic debate that is at stake: which people should decide and on whose principles . There is one that consists in analyzing them under the prism of what is already agreed in social movements or in the left. Leftist activists will focus on the texts and studies showing that a set of demands is almost unanimously supported : increase in the minimum wage, reinstate of a wealth tax, increase in pensions are for example supported by 90% of the respondents of a research (Dormagen / Pion 2018). That’s not wrong, but not enough accurate. These lists include much more claims than social ones. If you widen the scope, you can only see a “magma of heterogeneous demands.”[4] For example, some measures to improve the living conditions of the poorest people go hand in hand with proposals to restrict migrants rights. While demanding an end to the closure of small train lines, post offices, schools and maternity wards, more resources are asked to fund the police and the army, which are not at all what the political and social left agrees on.

“gilets jaunes soir 2018 12-18 lr mr nb hd” by Marc Frant is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Another option is to look at the Yellow Vests demands for what they are and to try to identify which are the remarkable features, if they have. Historian Samuel Hayat tried to carry out this work (Hayat 2018). Hayat stated that these lists of revendications “are deeply coherent, and that what gives coherence is also what has enabled the mobilisation of Yellow Vests to happen and to last: it is anchored in what can be called the moral economy of the working classes.” For him, a Yellow Vests slogan perfectly sums up this coherence: “Let the BIG ones (McDonalds, Google, Amazon, Carrefour…) pay BIG and the small ones (craftsmen, very small SMEs) pay small”. In other words, the most vulnerable must be protected, those who work must be properly paid, public services must work, tax evaders and those who take advantage of their status must be punished.

Hayat borrows the well-known concept of “moral economy” from historian E. P. Thompson to designate widely shared conceptions of what a moral functioning of the economy should be (Thompson 1976). Therefore, claims about foreigners or non-nationals should no longer be seen as “slag that could easily be discarded.” For Hayat, [these demands] “they are at the heart of the movement (…) because it is the logical consequence of the implementation of a moral economy that is first and foremost communitarian.”“The moral economy is the proclamation of a community’s standards,” he continues, and “the logic of equal rights is not extended to foreigners”, nor does such an approach recognise ideological conflict. Hayat explains that “the partisan nature of democracy, the opposition between political projects” is rejected, in favour of seeking a unity of position that indeed excludes those who are not already part of the community. Not because it makes economic sense, but because it is morally right.

By requiring that the economy be based on moral principles, the YVM gains massive support among the population: it sets out as intangible principles demands for dignity that the government, and president Macron in particular, have denied and mocked for months. The government has never ceased to attack explicitly these moral economy principles. To counteract the movement, President Macron has organized his very own National Debates Dialogues, a two-month consultation across the country but the initiative quickly backfired at the executive. A citizen speaking during one of these debates summarized the mood: “I live on 900 euros a month, but that’s not what made me be part of the Yellow Vests… One night, when I was washing dishes, I heard President Macron talking about “people who are nothing”. Such words were so outrageous! When you don’t have much, you still have your dignity. And Macron took away our dignity. Why such a violence!”

… and democracy for all

Setting up a short genealogy of the Yellow Vests evolution of demands might help us to better understand why yearning for a better democracy quickly took up much more space in the movement. This movement was fundamentally not fuelled by the simple rejection of taxes and it was not compartmentalising demands: social demands on the one hand, ecological demands on the other, and, besides them, demands for democratising democracy. Macron’s contempt for “people who are nothing” is undoubtedly one of the real catalyst of the movement. Given that it comes at a time of great mistrust towards politicians, on whatever political side, but also at a time where the feeling of ineffectiveness of trade unions and associations is widely widespread, the YVM is looking for an autonomous strategy that could overcome these challenges all together. The claims the Yellow Vests presented as consistent with each other, seek both to restore dignity and give them back real control and decision-making power over their own lives, politics and the economy.

In a way, the YVM may be seen in the direct continuity of what the Occupy movements have expressed for the last eight years: together, or rather one after the other, “they took note of the bankruptcy of representative politics” and aspire to “self-representation” (Balibar 2019). Self-representation is “the presence of citizens in person in the public square.” “You don’t represent us” shouted the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street (2011 to 2013), or even the French uprising Nuit Debout (2015) to take away any legitimacy from all political representatives. In the case of YVM, this is particularly true: there are no more members of parliament belonging to the worker’s class in the French National Assembly and less than 5% of the deputies were employees.The Yellow Vests are coming from a deep rejection of representative governments and are searching for radical democratic alternatives.

The Yellow Vests demands related to democracy can be divided into three main groups:

  • a better representation (proportionality to elections, etc.);
  • a better control and accountability of elected representatives, their activity, the resources they are given (lower wages, strict control of their expenditures, regulations against lobbying, right to recall elected officials, etc.);
  • a radical transformation of democracy with, among others, referendum on citizens’ initiatives, citizens’ assemblies, etc.)

In a way, these requests are a twofold movement: making sure that those who “benefit” from this system of representation be forcibly brought back into the “collective community” and “live like everyone else.” In other words, that would mean the end of privileges for the 1%, the elites. And on the other hand, to ensure that those who are deprived of access to decision-making spaces can take back control over them. To the deep mistrust towards representation that has led to the fact that the 1% are governing for themselves, the YVM responds with a set of demands that aim to make sure that those at the bottom will have the right to decide their common future.

The mistrust towards the elites and the demands to be heard and to be considered as a citizen are not new. What is new is that they are no longer only carried by the usual suspects: these are the working classes who make this request, and who do so directly, without the mediation of a party or a trade union. During the Nuit Debout movement, the radical demand for participation, which was expressed in the form of direct democracy, was coming from another category of the population, rather the urban and educated middle class. In France, such a massive demand from invisible and marginalized population has probably never been expressed so forcefully since the revolutions of 1789 or 1848. In a sense, we find here Lenin’s famous phrase that pre-revolutionary situations arise when those at the top can no longer govern as before, and those at the bottom no longer want to be governed as before. This is clearly the situation expressed by the YVM. Concluding that a democratic revolution is about to happen would be to take one of the options on the table as the only one possible.

The RIC: a dead end or the beginning of the end of democracy captured by elites?

Having a closer look at the debate around the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC), one of the main Yellow Vests demand, may provide a better understanding of the challenges faced by traditional social and political movements. The RIC is a direct-democratic system that allows citizens to convene a referendum without the consent of the parliament or the head of state being required. Several of these types of referendums are used at the national level in about 40 countries including Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia or Uruguay, as well as at the regional or local level in some countries (United States or Germany). Such a proposal is deeply contradictory to the French political system which is a very presidential and a vertical one. The Yellow Vests proposal generally includes four modalities: voting on a bill (legislative referendum); repealing a law passed by Parliament or a treaty (repeal referendum); amending the Constitution (constitutional referendum); revoking an elected representative (repeal referendum). This demand embodies the deep crisis of representative democracy observed in many countries.

In France, surveys indicate very strong people support for the RIC. The Yellow Vests are promoting the RIC as a way to pass on all their demands directly, without the mediation of political representatives in whom they do not trust anymore. Macron and the French government has understood this well and, without ever taking a frontal stance against this proposal, they have done everything possible to gradually remove it from the public debate: first by saying that they were in favour of improving existing mechanisms, then by multiplying the questions and options on this subject in the “Great Debate” that the executive has organised, to precisely drown out the answers and do everything possible to ensure that the RIC would no longer be perceived as the central element of the Yellow Vests demands.

“Paris, Gilets Jaunes – Acte IX” by O.Ortelpa is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For some left-wing groups and leaders, moving away from social demands towards demands for improving democratic institutions is an illusion and a dead end. The fact that the government did not dismiss this claim from the outset would be proof of this, and the way to avoid a debate on the distribution of wealth. An aggravating circumstance, the RIC is supported by a part of the extreme right and the conservative right. Hijacked, the RIC could indeed very well be used to serve xenophobic impulses or a plebiscite for a “strong man.” The referendum, if it remains in the French tradition of plebiscite, can perfectly serve as a strategy based on the mobilisation of the people around leaders.

For RIC advocates, these fears overlook the fact that this demand reflects the democratic and anti-authoritarian nature of the YVM. For this reason, it should be supported. They add that the RIC, if properly used, could serve as a very valuable emancipatory tool for a policy of redistribution of power and wealth. They insist on the fact that the RIC must be relatively frequent in order to avoid the plebiscitary logic, and therefore that it should be fairly easy to organise with relatively low signature thresholds. In addition to strong regulations on campaigns’ funding, tRIC promoters indicate that the democratic quality of referendums depends first and foremost on the processes that precede them, allowing, possibly via other tools (citizen assemblies, etc.), intense debates and collective deliberation processes.

This is a clash between two conceptions of politics. On the one hand, there is a classic partisan approach that bases political debate on disagreement and proposes to settle it in the ballot box or on the street. In opposition, the second concept defends direct participation by citizens: the objective is to gather their will through a referendum system organised around one or more questions. This approach often consists in relying on the common sense of citizens rather than entrusting decisions to political representatives who are considered as very far from people interests. The latter reproaches the former for refusing to take into account the interests of the highest number of people and to defend particular interests. The former reproaches the latter for believing that people could unite beyond all partisan divisions and ideologies, through a policy of consensus building.

The purpose here is not to settle this debate, but to clearly identify one of the major difficulties raised by the YVM from the point of view of democratic renewal. Moreover, although strongly present in the background, the debate is not so caricatural. Especially when we look at the experiences of participation and/or direct democracy. On the one hand, the aspiration for a more successful democratic life cannot be confined to a few procedural solutions. On the other hand, the most conflictual political forms are often a condition for the success of participation or direct democracy mechanisms. Would not the whole issue be to save what, in partisan politics, is useful for democratic debate, in particular the expression of political antagonisms and disagreements, while ensuring that it is not a caste, even a leftist caste, that defines the rules, questions, and answers of this same democratic game?


One year after the start of the mobilisation, the YVM remains supported by 55% of respondents: 69% on the side of the working classes and 41% on the side of executives. The questions raised by the incredible mobilization of the Yellow Vests are therefore not only questions for historians: trying to find some answers is a key issue for the future of left-wing political parties, trade unions and associations. This is despite surveys showing that 60% of Yellow Vests do not position themselves on the left right axis and 8% say they are neither on the left nor on the right: the level of political de-affiliation is even higher among Yellow Vests than in the population (Guerra / Gonthier / Anexandre / Gougou / Persico 2019).

Whatever its future, the YVM has highlighted one of the major challenges for the left: which kind of mediation could be rebuilt when the discredit of leftist organizations is so huge? In the short term, the Yellow Vests are a booster and have opened the doors and windows on the left that should lead to a redefinition of what an individual and collective emancipation project must look like in a context of systemic social and ecological transformations. In one way, the YVM has paved the way: reuniting with all those who share common interests against the elites and privileged, building a strong agreement around social demands, explaining that the ecological crisis is a systemic crisis that can’t addressed without a social justice perspective, and moving towards radical democratic transformation requirements. As if, from now on, the question of democratization of institutions was the prerequisite for resolving this social crisis.

Each one of these steps raises many difficult questions. But wouldn’t be absurd if the left-wing and ecologist political parties, trade unions and associations did not try to follow this path and try to answer the questions raised? Unless we can imagine rebuilding the left-wing without relying on the most extraordinary citizen revolt of recent decades in France. If in the short term, the come back to traditional politics has undoubtedly regained its rights, there is no doubt that the YVM has generated impacts in terms of politicisation and socialisation that will have medium- and long-term effects. It would be a pity if the social and ecological left missed them.

Maxime Combes : Trained as an economist, Maxime Combes has been involved since the late 1990s in the anti-globalization movement, notably through Attac France. He has worked on trade and investment policies (WTO, Tafta, CETA, etc.) and on major ecological and energy issues (COP climate, shale hydrocarbons, extractivism, energy transition). He is the author of Sortons de l’âge des fossiles! Manifesto for the transition (2015, Seuil) and the co-author of numerous collective books: La nature n’a pas de prix (Attac, Paris, LLL, 2012) – Les naufragés du libre-échange, de l’OMC à Tafta (Attac, Paris, LLL, 2015) – Crime climatique stop! (Seuil, ” Anthropocène “, August 2015). – Climate is our business (Attac, Paris, LLL, 2015). It contributes irregularly to the information site Basta! (bastamag.net) and runs a blog on Médiapart.

[1]    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfLIYpJHir4

[2]    One of the very first collective op-eds released in this sense was the following : Justice sociale, justice climatique : c’est un changement de cap qu’il faut imposer, Libération, 6 décembre 2018, https://www.liberation.fr/debats/2018/12/06/justice-sociale-justice-climatique-c-est-un-changement-de-cap-qu-il-faut-imposer_1696384

[3]    Here’s one list : https://blogs.mediapart.fr/jeremiechayet/blog/021218/liste-des-42-revendications-des-gilets-jaunes

[4]    According to the formula of this article of Liberation : https://www.liberation.fr/france/2018/12/04/les-gilets-jaunes-un-magma-de-revendications-heteroclite_1695802



Tilly, C. (1986). La France conteste, de 1600 à nos jours, Paris, Fayard.


Thompson, E. (1971). The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, in: Past & Present 50, 76-136

Internet sources

Balibar, E. (2018). Gilets jaunes: le sens du face à face, available at: https://blogs.mediapart.fr/ebalibar/blog/131218/gilets-jaunes-le-sens-du-face-face

Combes, M. (2018). Gilets Jaunes vs Macron : la transition écologique dans l’impasse, Available at : https://aoc.media/analyse/2018/11/23/gilets-jaunes-vs-macron-transition-ecologique-limpasse/
Translated into English : Yellow Vests: Macron’s fuel tax was no solution to climate chaos, https://www.rs21.org.uk/2018/12/04/the-yellow-vests-why-macrons-fuel-tax-was-no-solution-to-climate-chaos/

Dormagen J-Y, Pion G (2018), Le mouvement des “gilets jaunes” n’est pas un rassemblement aux revendications hétéroclites, available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2018/12/27/le-mouvement-des-gilets-jaunes-n-est-pas-un-rassemblement-aux-revendications-heteroclites_5402547_3232.html

Hayat, S. (2018). Les Gilets Jaunes, l’économie morale et le pouvoir, available at https://samuelhayat.wordpress.com/2018/12/05/les-gilets-jaunes-leconomie-morale-et-le-pouvoir/

Guerra, T. / Gonthier, F. / Anexandre, C. / Gougou, F. / Persico, S. (2019). Qui sont vraiment les « gilets jaunes » ? Les résultats d’une étude sociologique, Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2019/01/26/qui-sont-vraiment-les-gilets-jaunes-les-resultats-d-une-etude-sociologique_5414831_3232.html

Ogien, A. (2019). La métamorphose de l’ordre politique : de la société civile aux pratiques politiques autonomes, Available at: https://aoc.media/analyse/2019/04/23/metamorphose-de-lordre-politique-de-societe-civile-aux-pratiques-politiques-autonomes/

What mark have the Yellow Vests left on French democracy?

by Ethan Earle

Almost two years after the first protests and shortly after the 2020 Bastille Day: What to make out of the Yellow Vests and the state of French democracy? What to take away from the recently Macron-initiated citizens’ assemblies? Have the Yellow Vests and other protest shaken the French political establishment?

Initially launched as a protest against rising fuel prices, the yellow vests in France quickly turned into a popular form of protest that raises deeper issues at the heart of marginalization: democracy and economic justice. Unprecedented for its longevity and regularity, the Yellow Vests’ activities came to an abrupt end with Macron’s confinement order due to covid19. As they slowly pick up again, listen to Ethan Earle addressing a common misconception about the Yellow Vests and why the ballot box is not where their greatest mark is to be left.

“For the democratic production of democratic societies” – Lessons from the transition from social-movement-driven to state-legislated consultations on extractive projects in Peru

by Raphael Hoetmer

Over the last two decades, various consultation practices regarding extractive activities have emerged and been implemented throughout Latin America. Some practices adopt a completely autonomous and communitarian approach, some are based on alliances between civil society and local government, while others are also increasingly centred around national governments in connection with new legislation as per international standards on indigenous peoples’ rights.

These consultation practices come from two related sources. On the one hand, the long-standing struggle for the recognition of the collective rights of indigenous peoples led to International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples (ILO C169, signed in 1993) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) that established indigenous peoples’ right to prior, free and informed consent (PFIC)[1] concerning the projects and policies affecting their lives.

On the other hand, extractivism has intensified and expanded into new territories (especially those under the control of indigenous and peasant communities), provoking resistance and social conflict. Social movements’ experimentation with new political practices and the emergence of new public policies on governing these disputed territories and populations have also exacerbated the situation.[2]

In response to intense protest over the impact of extractive projects, Peru’s nationalist government, led by Ollanta Humala (2011-2016), approved a law for prior consultation (Ley de Consulta Previa) when it came to power. This law was based on ILO C169, which Peru had signed in 1993 but had never implemented. The legal framework established through discussions on the implementation of the law has served as the cornerstone of government-led consultation on the exploitation of natural resources since 2013; no new grassroots-based consultations have taken place since.

Both the practice of social-movement-driven consultations on the exploitation of natural resources and the transition to state-led consultations offer an excellent opportunity to address one of the most intense debates in the Global Working Group Beyond Development regarding what democratic processes and institutions can allow with regard to the construction of alternatives to development and colonial-patriarchal capitalism, and what role the state can or cannot play in this connection.

Credits: Author’s personal archive

In this document we will examine the following questions: to what extent could social-movement-driven consultations influence decisions on territories and economic projects? How did the state-led institutionalisation of the right to be consulted affect people’s capacity to make decisions about their territories and lives? What lessons can we learn here with regard to i) the dynamics between autonomous institutional processes and state-led processes; and ii) the potential scope of institutional processes concerning the exercise of rights and the transition beyond development?


Experience of consultation on extractive activities indicates that there are two major challenges facing contemporary liberal democracies, namely: how can we juggle cultural diversity, historical discrimination and, in particular, the place of indigenous peoples in our societies? And in what ways can democracy allow decision-making on economic models and processes, more specifically with regard to the exploitation of the commons? These questions are deeply intertwined, as indigenous peoples hold tenure rights over a large part of the world´s land surface, including particularly diverse ecosystems that are crucial to the future of mankind at a time of ecological crisis.

Within this document, I will consider two different theories of the state present in social movements, left-wing politics and the intellectual debate on emancipation in Latin America, as well as within the Working Group. Both perspectives would agree that the modern state in the Americas was built upon the exclusion, exploitation and dominion of the colonial elite over the indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and women while simultaneously seeking to incorporate new territories into the global capitalism movement as providers of “natural resources”. However, the theories differ when it comes to the extent to which the fundamentally colonial and extractivist nature of the modern state can be transformed through the institutional processes of formal democracy.

On the one hand, thinkers like Leonardo Avritzer (2002) and Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2010) have analysed how social movement theories and practices can transform the state from below, leading to new participatory practices like participatory budgeting in Brazil or even the new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia that sought to build a plurinational state. They insist that the state is a heterogeneous network of relations and institutions that both reflects the correlation of forces in wider society and can be transformed and permeated by grassroots practices, becoming an instrument of change.

Others insist that the state is essentially limited when it comes to emancipation, based upon two crucial understandings. Michel Foucault explained that the state is a meditated social practice adopted to govern populations based on pre-existing instruments (like the police or fiscal systems). As such, the state is the result of historical practices of domination while at the same time forming part of a broader, continuously developing “field of practices of domination” (Foucault 2004: 291-339). Consequently, modern states in Latin America are deeply rooted in the “coloniality of power” that negates democratic and institutional practices rooted in other cultures, knowledge and political practices.

Furthermore, the so-called liberal democracies that guide these states are built upon “[…] a solid institutional separation —the technical term is differentiation— of the political system, from the general system of inequality in society” (Rueschemeyer 1992: 41). This separation results in a constitutive contradiction between the desire for self-government that sustains democracy and the logic of the accumulation of power and capital (i.e. capitalism).

In recent decades in particular, this contradiction has been resolved through neoliberal and technocratic reforms in favour of capitalism, which exclude the economic domain from the realm of democratic politics and prioritise transnational institutions and the corporate capture of the state over national political processes. Authors like John Holloway, Raquel Gutiérrez, Aníbal Quijano and Raúl Zibechi therefore assert that fundamental transformation can only happen through the construction of counterpower, autonomy or antipower that dismantles or socialises the power over the people that is institutionalised in the modern state.


The expansion of mining in Peru was facilitated by the neoliberal reforms first implemented by the authoritarian regime of Alberto Fujimori and then consolidated after the return to electoral democracy, during the presidencies of Alejandro Toledo, Alan García Pérez, Ollanta Humala, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and Martín Vizcarra. These governments fostered legal, economic and political conditions that sought to reconstitute and reterritorialise the Peruvian State, economy, geography and society, further entrenching the country into the global economy as a primary exporter of natural resources.

As a result, mining concessions expanded considerably, growing from 2.26 million hectares in 1991 to 26 million by 2013, affecting twenty percent of the country’s territory (without taking into account other extractive activities like oil and gas exploitation or large-scale industrial agriculture) and covering around ninety percent of the territory in some of the country’s provinces. Consequently, large-scale mining projects spread throughout the country, without incorporating any consultation or territorial planning processes.

Due to the expansion of extractivist activities, the so-called socioenvironmental conflicts[3] (and particularly in the mining sector) became the main category of social conflict in the country. A wide array of motivations and demands sparked the mining conflicts, ranging from calls for a greater share in the distribution of profits and compensation for environmental damage to fundamental resistance among those communities potentially affected by such activities. The struggle between the mining companies and the communities over the control and management of the commons and the ways in which these are integrated into the local, national and global economies generally formed the focal point of the conflict.


At the start of the 21st century, opposition to extractive activities (mining in particular) became a subject of national public debate for the first time, after almost a decade of mining expansion (including the implementation of the huge Yanacocha and Antamina mines in the north of the country). In Tambogrande, a small town in the northern Department of Piura, local farmers in a relatively prosperous valley (thanks to an extensive irrigation project financed by the World Bank years before) saw a large-scale copper project as a threat to their economic model (which was based on the production and export of lemons and mangos). At the height of the conflict, protesters burned down the camp built by the mining company and one of the main leaders of the protests, engineer García Vaca, was murdered, presumably due to his opposition to the mining project.

The former president of the local civil-society movement (and later mayor of Tambogrande), Francisco Ojeda, explains how the idea of the consultations emerged in this context: “The conflict turned violent. The government did not want to listen to us anymore, and even talked about militarising the area. Therefore, in a meeting with the Technical Commission [confirmed by ally NGOs], we agreed to ask the government to take our perspective in account. As they told us no specific legislation existed for this, we had to create the consultation ourselves, obliging the local government to convoke it. It was not easy” (Ojeda 2009: 344).

The first consultation was held in Tambogrande on 1 June 2002, involving almost 70% of the local population, close to 99% of whom opposed the mining project. Almost twenty years later, no further headway has been made on the mining project, although the concession is still held by another company[4]. The Tambogrande referendum inspired similar practices in Argentina, Guatemala and, later, Colombia and Ecuador. In Peru, other consultations were held in Ayabaca and Huancabamba (with the support of the same alliance involved in nearby Tambogrande) on the Rio Blanco project in 2007; on the Toquepala project’s expansion and use of water in Candarave in 2008; on the Tia Maria mine in Islay in 2009; and on the Cañariaco mine in the district of Cañaris in 2012.

Although participation has fluctuated (with between 43% and 71% of the local population getting involved at various times), all consultations resulted in over 90% of local voters rejecting the mining projects. Like in Tambogrande, Cañaris, Islay, Ayabaca and Huancabamba, this resulted in the indefinite suspension of the mining projects, although in all cases (especially in Islay) the mining companies continued their campaigns to get their projects off the ground. There have not been any new social-movement-driven consultations since 2012, when the Law on Prior Consultation effectively came into force.


Social-movement-driven consultations on mining thus emerged from local discussions between social organisations, communities, local authorities and their civil society allies, who defined the scope, procedures, methodologies and objectives. The consultations were an effort to transform the logic and the balance of power in mining conflicts by channelling local energies through an institutional process like a referendum, which would constitute a “political event” that could not be denied by anyone (Vittor 2013).

On the one hand, this provided for the de-escalation of conflicts that were progressively becoming more polarised and violent. However, organising referendums also encouraged an intense process of mobilisation, information and political education through meetings, workshops, assemblies and communication campaigns. It forged deeper relations between different civil society actors and, in some cases, local governments, and inspired national and transnational networks that connected local communities with alternative media, environmental and human rights NGOs and international networks. Although there were disputes between various stakeholders regarding leadership and visibility, the referendums and their results subsequently became a shared point of reference for local politics in the respective areas.

It was precisely this diversity of stakeholders that transformed the organisation of the consultations into a process of democratic creativity and institutional experimentation. At the same time, these processes were fundamental to the establishment and expansion of the National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affected by Mining (CONACAMI), the Muqui network (civil society alliance on mining) and international solidarity that would far outlast the practical experiences of the consultations.


The exact form of consultation varied depending on demographics, political leanings and the structure of the local conflict. Cañaris saw a communitarian consultation in the spirit of the ILO C169, with a clear message in favour of the indigenous self-determination of the local Quechua communities. In the coastal areas of Islay and Tambogrande, citizen consultations adopted liberal-democracy-style participation.

Ayabaca and Huancabamba saw intense debate among the peasant communities and with local government and civil society allies on whether a communitarian consultation should be held or if a citizens’ referendum would be more effective. Some community leaders argued that the referendum should affirm the right to self-determination in recognition of their status as descendants of indigenous peoples. Others stated that a “citizen participation” mechanism would have more of an impact on the national debate and government and would shore up alliances with urban populations in the provincial capitals.

The second argument would prevail, but this example makes it crystal clear that decisions on the form of consultation were based on i) what institutions and processes would best fit the local context and culture; and ii) what methods would be most effective in consolidating and communicating existing grassroots decisions to particular audiences (the state, media) and geopolitical scales  (i.e. national and international). The consultations were essentially efforts to translate processes of self-determination through assemblies, social organisation and popular mobilisation into the language of institutions, the state, media and formal democracy.

Much of that achieved was largely possible due to the lack of political frameworks for consultation. Although Peru ratified ILO C169, this was not implemented in any way until the Ollanta Humala government in 2011. The grassroots-led consultations were organised in this legal sphere of ambiguity that made space for experimentation and creation, giving life to flexible and embedded institutions and democratic practices. However, as the legal basis of the referendums was disputed (and in any case would not allow binding decisions), the various stakeholders in favour of and opposed to a given mining project would make great efforts to demonstrate the (il)legality and (il)legitimacy of the referendums respectively, by means of media campaigns, judicial procedures and national and international political advocacy. One of the main strategies adopted by the pro-referendum sector involved carrying out referendums to the letter, complying with most of the conditions and methods of formal elections (e.g. by using the official register of voters in their jurisdictions or by inviting international observers).

As such, social-movement-driven consultations are rooted in a profound understanding by local communities of democracy as the right to identity and self-determination for which the choice over their “development model” (as they would phrase it) and the use of their territory is essential. While the federal government and the company consider land an economic resource, for the local people it is a space that sustains social relations, economic practices and cultural traditions, all of which give meaning to the lives of those in the area and ensure their social reproduction. For Rosa Huaman (2013) from the Cañaris community: “Territory is happiness, as it gives life, gives birth, reproduces”.Community leader Magdiel Carrión (2009) from Ayabaca states: “For us, democracy is much more than only voting in elections. It is about our full participation in decision-making on every level; that is why we implemented the consultation, as an expression of real democracy”.

As such, discussions and decisions about who, how, when and what should be consulted were defined by the stakeholders, who would “exercise their right to be consulted” themselves. This also meant that stakeholders like the peasants from Ayabaca and Huancabamba, farmers from Tambogrande and Islay and indigenous peoples from Cañaris were at the centre of the debate on what democracy should look like, demonstrating the emancipatory nature of the democratic process itself. However, more analysis is needed into women’s participation in the consultations. Although male leaders were the main public protagonists of all consultations, there are signs that the consultations were empowering for women as well, as they opened up new spaces for deliberation and mobilisation where women’s organisations and female leaders and their views on mining played a crucial role (particularly in Tambogrande and Cañaris).[5]


The right to be consulted has been a matter of much dispute throughout its creation and implementation, as it emerged from the negotiations and struggles between different visions of its significance and goals. For the corporate sector, multilateral institutions and most governments, consultations should integrate indigenous peoples more effectively in projects and policies of economic development, whilst indigenous organisations and their allies see consultation as a means of securing indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination.

ILO C169 resolved this issue by entrenching prior, free and informed consultation into economic projects and policies affecting indigenous peoples, whilst the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples went further by insisting that consultations are intended “to obtain consent” from indigenous peoples (Rodríguez 2012). The right to PFIC would be expanded and amplified by national and international legislation (such as the Bolivian and Ecuadorian constitutions) and jurisprudence (by the Colombian constitutional court or the Inter-American Court and Commission on Human Rights).

César Rodríguez states that the emergence of PFIC is a crucial part of a broader set of institutional processes that sought to create better conditions of governance for indigenous territories and dynamics. However, this process seeks to slot indigenous struggles for self-determination within a scheme of “neoliberal multiculturalism” (Hale 2002). Rodríguez states: “as all legal norms, the effects of the PFIC regulations depend on two distinct factors: on the one side, the limitations and opportunities created by the norms themselves, and on the other, the interpretations and strategies of the actors who use the law” (Rodríguez 2012: 52).


In Peru, the conflict around extractivism and the defence of territories reached new heights during the Alan García government. The uprising of indigenous peoples (2009) against a series of decrees that sought to flexibilise the legal protection of their territories marked a turning point. Led by the national organisation Aidesep[6], the uprising lasted for several months and spread throughout Peruvian Amazonia, culminating in violent confrontations provoked by a police attack on a series of roadblocks near the northern town of Bagua that resulted in 31 deaths, including 21 police officers.

In the local and national elections (in 2010 and 2011 respectively), the issue of extractivism and human rights took centre stage like never before, and there were high hopes that the elected nationalist government of Ollanta Humala (who was elected on a progressive platform) would transform existing legal frameworks and state practices. During his first cabinet (which would turn out to be the only one with a reformist agenda), the adoption of the Law for Prior Consultation of Indigenous Peoples was approved and presented in Bagua as a gesture of reconciliation with indigenous peoples by the Peruvian government, which sought to forge a new relationship.

The law would be implemented through a regulation setting out the framework and conditions for official consultations. The Peruvian government, in line with its more general view of politics, opted to elaborate a rather bureaucratic and exclusive set of implementation rules intended to limit the scope and depth of consultations, rather than fostering conditions conducive to innovation and experimentation. Prior experience of grassroots-led consultations was not explicitly considered a basis for the regulation.

Although the indigenous organisations took part in this process by means of regional and national consultation spaces (including some who had participated in social-movement-driven consultations), they felt that their demands were only very partially met. Four out of the six main national indigenous organisations rejected the final regulation through a joint declaration.[7] The National Human Rights Coordinator working group on indigenous peoples’ rights deemed the process a “missed opportunity for genuine intercultural dialogue” and stated that the regulation does not guarantee the right to self-determination for indigenous peoples as recognised by international law. [8]

Some of the main decisions made during the process of legislation and the elaboration of implementation rules include the following[9]:

  • The Peruvian State would essentially decide which issues and projects would be consulted, not the indigenous peoples themselves.
  • Consultations would not include (or even address) the obligation to gain consent for extractive activities per se, and actually focus on relatively less significant administrative decisions (Leyva 2018; Hallazi 2018) instead of touching on major decisions like the approval of Environmental Impact Studies or the concession of mining rights.
  • The new law would not be retroactive, excluding all existing projects and concessions from consultation, even if C169 had been officially in force since it was signed in 1993.
  • The methodology and temporality of the consultations is set by the regulation and limits the time set aside for consultations to two months, suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to very diverse contexts and cases.


However, the most sensitive question may have been: who should be consulted? For many reasons, indigenous identity in Peru is more complex than in neighbouring countries, as many people with the “objective characteristics” of indigenous peoples might not identify as such themselves, and people who do identify as indigenous (particularly in peasant communities in the north of Peru) are often considered non-indigenous as they do not speak an indigenous language due to historical de-indigenisation, mestizaje and migration in their areas. All of this turned the definition of who had to be consulted into an extremely sensitive exercise.

The definition of who exactly would be consulted (in other words: the definition of who is indigenous and who is not) was based on a database of indigenous peoples. Although the database was seen as a “living document” open to adaptation and updates from the outset, it was also a highly contentious process: the Ministry of Energy and Mines Minem (and presumably the extractive lobbies through Minem) in particular tried to influence the process and endeavoured to limit the number of Quechua communities in mining areas included in the process, as the former Vice-Minister of Interculturality Ivan Lanegra later declared.[10]

The publication of the final version of the database took much longer than originally planned, and there is evidence that communities included in initial versions of the database had been excluded from the final version, such as the Fuerabamba community that had to be relocated to allow the construction of the biggest mine in the country, Las Bambas.[11] The database also showed how at least 25 mining projects had moved forward in previous years without adequate consultation of the communities who were now on the list, despite the Peruvian State’s constitutional obligation to consult indigenous peoples.[12] The process was also criticised for the fact that the definition of who is indigenous and who is not was initially handled by Minem itself, through private consultants, without adequate supervision or methodological guidance. Although this has since been rectified, it did reflect a lack of genuine engagement on the part of the Peruvian government (Leyva 2018).


The disempowering nature of the process of the institutionalisation of the Law for Prior Consultation in Peru clearly reflects the general Latin American experience, as analyses from Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico show (Ecuador Debate 2019). Building on Marxist theory, Edwar Vargas identifies, in the case of Ecuador, the “devastation” of the right to consultation. Although the right officially exists, it is essentially destroyed by economic interests and existing power structures that instrumentalise the right for their own gain (Vargas 2019).

César Rodríguez states in summary that the institutionalisation of PFIC shifted the focus of social struggles from extractivism towards legal processes and negotiations on how to implement extractive projects: “with its power to transform substance in form; and its capacity to offer a space of contact between actors that defend radically different or even antagonistic positions (Rodriguez 2012: 57). However, Rodríguez says: “The replacement is only partial and temporal. Because in the diligences of the consultations, in every step, the substantial conflicts return, even if now in the form of procedural arguments(Rodriguez 2012: 23). In the final section, we will explore what results this has had in Peru.


As the institutionalisation of PFIC was far from a genuine intercultural process, there can be no surprise that its implementation has been full of challenges and contradictions. By the end of 2018, five national policies[13], twenty-five mining and oil operations, one hydropower project, one infrastructure project and seven natural reserves had been the subject of consultations in Peru. All but one of these consultations were promoted by the state; only the Hidrovia infrastructure project was imposed by a judicial ruling after indigenous organisations and human rights NGOs took legal action. However, other legal proceedings have started, resulting in the judicial ruling to consult on mining concessions.[14]

The analysis of the implementation of the law carried out by prominent human rights lawyers Ana Leyva (2018), Juan Carlos Ruiz (2019) and Alberto Hallazi (2019) coincide with the problematic logic of the institutionalisation of PFIC for the following reasons:

  • So far, it is the Peruvian State alone that defines which projects and policies are to be the subject of consultation, and through what means, with indigenous peoples. Although the fact that indigenous peoples did help define several policies that affect them is a step forward, in many other cases there has been no consultation, nor is there any body that allows indigenous peoples to define which policies will be the subject of consultation in dialogue with the state.

In the case of extractive projects, there have been consultations on relatively late and unsubstantial administrative measures (like the start of the project), rendering significant participation able to alter the substance of the project impossible (to not even speak of the ability to influence the decision on whether to move the project forward).[15]

However, indigenous organisations and civil society institutions have sought to utilise litigation and, in some cases, mobilisation to i) secure the right to consultation in cases initially neglected by the Peruvian State (successfully in the Hidrovia case); and ii) expand the scope of consultation by demanding consultation on mining concessions[16].

  • In terms of the consultation methodology, Juan Carlos Ruiz shows that the consultations under the law were generally realised in one to two days and lacked information and technical support.[17] In contrast to the grassroots-led processes, it is the state that controls the agenda, time and location, including issues like language and methodology. Again, in the cases where local organisation was stronger, the methodological control of the process was transformed through grassroots demands.
  • Unsurprisingly, none of the consultation processes resulted in an extractive project or a public policy being turned down, although in some cases communities and organisations left the process in protest against its direction or outcome. It is also significant that in the case of mining there were consultations on relatively small and lesser known projects, but not on any major projects, until the recently planned consultation on the Antapakay project, which resulted from the strong and insistent demand by the quite organized communities of Espinar. However, even when consultations resulted in agreements, these did not include tangible arrangements regarding access to the economic benefits generated by the projects, with the exception of Lot 192.[18]

Although it is true that the law provided for the relative generalisation of the right to be consulted, this happened in a disempowering way in which existing power imbalances were ignored, replicated and sometimes exacerbated. There are no indications that the processes sought to assure or promote the participation of indigenous women in the consultations, especially in consultations on national policies in which the two organisations of indigenous women participated directly. In contrast to social-movement-driven consultations, the institutionalised versions seek to limit deliberation, mobilisation and collective decision-making. The consultation on Lot 192 in Loreto shows that even in these circumstances consultation and its significance is under dispute.


Lot 192 is located in the Loreto region and was exploited for around forty years, resulting in widespread environmental, cultural and social damage to the territories of the Quechua, Kichwa, Kukama and Achuar peoples and a history of conflict and social struggle. As Pluspetrol’s contract to exploit its concession ended in 2015, the new auction required a process of consultation, which would involve indigenous federations with ample experience of dialogue with the Peruvian State and transnational companies, in addition to solid national and international alliances. From the outset, they demanded that all consultation and auctions would first have to deal with their historical agenda, as one of their leaders, Aurelio Chino Dahua, explains: “After all of the disasters you´ve done to my home, first you will need to assure my rights, and after you can consult me” (Zúñiga 2018: 10).

The political ability of the indigenous federations to negotiate the logic of the consultation meant that the state first had to satisfy predetermined conditions (more specifically taking into account environmental damage and associated health issues in their territories) and amplify the temporality of the process. This resulted in improved contracts for oil exploitation. Zúñiga and Okamoto, who served as advisors to the indigenous organisations, state: The indigenous peoples used the opportunity of the consultation to teach the Peruvian State to connect the consultation to the territorial memories of its realisation (Zúñiga 2018: 141). The federations also strengthened their alliances and boosted the profile of their struggles.

However, even in this case, consultation encountered considerable difficulty and was unilaterally declared concluded by the state after it had come to an agreement with only one out of the four indigenous federations involved. Once again, thanks to mobilisation this decision was partially reversed, when the government agreed on a new round of consultation before the conclusion of contracts on the Lot.

In other cases, the existence of a Law on Prior Consultation aided those at local level, who would demand their right to be consulted to open up debate on tangible projects, delay their implementation, foster better conditions for negotiation on the projects or deter strategies of repression. This, however, very much confirms that the Law`s ability to guarantee indigenous rights is incredibly contingent on the capacities of indigenous organisations to dispute the associated logic and integrate consultation into their broader fight for justice, instead of an intrinsic emancipatory logic of the institutional process.


The history of the right to be consulted in Peru clearly shows that institutions are never neutral and always under dispute. Their design distributes, reinforces or transforms power, and has to consciously be embedded in particular geographies, histories, rationalities and networks. Democracy therefore depends on these broader elements and the way institutions interact with them. Considering events in Peru, we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. Social-movement-driven consultations on extractive projects emerged in Peru due to the combination of the following factors: i) intense conflict on mining in the country did not find institutional and democratic practices to be channelled and transformed; ii) the local communities in the cases specified were organised within strong local organisations and had already made their decisions through grassroots and autonomous institutions and democratic processes; iii) a strong alliances of civil society actors fostered political creativity and provided the necessary resources for the first two consultations (subsequent ones were mostly sustained by local actors); iv) alliances with local governments more receptive to local communities and civil society allowed the consultations to be entrenched in the local state and provided resources and institutional capacity; v) the design of the consultations could be flexible and dynamic due to the lack of formal policies and conditions, as it responded to rather ambiguous legal frameworks. These grassroots consultation processes took place within a wider landscape of self-determination and democracy, and even strengthened the local social network and created ties with national and international actors.
  • Although the consultations took place in this atmosphere of legal ambiguity and definitely did not have any formal mandate for political decision-making on extractive projects, they did contribute to the consolidation of de facto self-determination and decision-making on the future of territories and local populations that opposed mining projects. The Rio Blanco, Tia Maria, Manhattan and Cañariaco mining projects are among the seven major mining projects that have been paralysed indefinitely due to local organisation and mobilisation. In Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador and, to a lesser extent, Guatemala, these autonomous consultations have managed to thwart extractive projects. The consultations became a powerful tool for these processes of self-determination, as they highlighted local communities’ opposition to extractive projects and helped shore up alliances on different scales. However, these de facto decisions remain in dispute, as mining companies continue with their plans to move ahead with these projects.
  • Intense conflict over extractive projects formed the basis of a series of political innovations within the Peruvian State to find institutional ways to channel conflicts. The implementation rules of the law did not really consider the previous experience of grassroots-led consultations and only involved indigenous organisations in the substance of their design to a limited extent. The law has consequently been regulated and implemented more according to state rationality and practices than through intercultural and grassroots-led participatory processes of design, leading to a legal framework that seriously limits the scope, substance and depth of consultations and indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination.
  • It is true that the institutionalisation of the right to be consulted led to broader application of this right for indigenous peoples. Consultations took place on diverse national policies, and more consultations on extractive projects have taken place than ever before. It is also true that the existence of the law has given organised populations a new tool to defend their rights, particularly by demanding their right to consultation as a way to delay and possibly thwart mining projects. Current consultations could also allow better institutional spaces for negotiation on the benefits of projects, although this has not happened in practice.

However, the implementation of the law has taken place in a context of existing inequities and power structures, instead of through genuine engagement with intercultural transformational dialogue. As such, it has allowed the state to regain control over time, space and agendas by dissuading or channelling social conflicts in processes controlled by its rationality. Only where social mobilisation has been stronger and organisations sufficiently aware of this have the substance and scope of the consultation been deeper, as was the case for Lot 192. However, there is no case under the new law where an extractive project has been rejected due to consultation.

  • The implementation of the law therefore consolidated a series of shifts, which are summarised in the table below. The bottom-up processes embedded in local culture, which inspired flexible and adaptive methodologies for collective deliberation and the factual exercise by local populations of their right to choose their way of life, was transformed into a restrictive institutionality from above through which the state granted the right to participate in the implementation of development and extractive projects to certain populations (namely those who the state identifies as indigenous).
Table: Shifts in the logic of consultation
Social-movement-driven consultations State-led consultations
Political logic Self-determination and participatory democracy Governance, participation and dialogue for development
Scope     Ways of life and/or development, which determine whether extractive projects are approved or rejected Conditions for the implementation of projects and policies  
Subjects   Defined by local communities and populations. Beyond indigenous communities     Indigenous communities identified by the state      
Political-economy embedding Social struggles in defence of territories, identity and ways of life, led by grass-roots organisations and civil society alliances Development programmes promoted by multilateral institutions, government and companies
Control over the process and institution Decisions are made in networks rooted in the local context, which generally involve social organisations, communities, civil society and local government and their allies in national civil society The government, state institutions
Methodology and time Process of political education, deliberation and mobilisation, based on context and embedded in local (political) culture Formal procedure defined by State regulation (in Peru’s case: four months), though disputed by local actors in some cases

Institutionalisation effectively sought to create a channel where the affectations and benefits of the economic model and its projects (but not the model itself) could be discussed. Consequently, the law really does not provide for the transformation of historical relations of domination over and marginalisation of indigenous peoples, as it at least indirectly pretended to do. As such, the process shows how the institutionalisation of the consultation process may have opened up opportunities for those fighting against these projects, but it also severely hampered the potential for self-determination and transformative processes afforded by social-movement-led consultations.

It is also significant that no new grassroots-led consultations have been held now that the law is in place, suggesting that the complementarity between grassroots and state processes poses a challenge. One hypothesis would be that the state centrism present in many organisations and civil society strategies seriously limits interest in autonomous processes of self-organisation. As such, the overall balance of the institutionalisation process resulted in disempowerment.

  • The history of consultation in Peru offers the following insights on democracy and institutions in the contemporary world:
    • Democratic decision-making (in this case, consultation) should be a community-driven, genuine process of self-determination before the start of any project, with sufficient time, information and resources.
    • Genuine democracy is only possible if it includes the economic realm, and allows collective decisions on ways of life, the economic model and the governance of territories.
    • It is the process of collective decision-making that ensures genuine democracy by creating spaces for political education, real deliberation and debate and mobilisation, which purposely transforms relations and patterns of exclusion and inequality (experienced by indigenous and peasant communities and women, for instance). Democracy should be a process of emancipation and empowerment, and not an act of election.
    • Local stakeholders should design democratic processes and institutions, and this process should be embedded in local cultures and practices, transforming the state from below.
    • Other institutional processes are needed to open up these spaces of local decision-making, allow decisions on bigger geographical scales and contest societal challenges and problems (e.g. with regard to territorial planning as well as broader economic and ecological policies).
  • There is still a huge question mark over whether this kind of democracy and institutions are viable in our current societies and political formations. Comparing the case in Peru with the very similar processes in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico suggests that this requires a radical transformation of our current nation states and their role in mediating and protecting the fundamental processes and interests of contemporary capitalism and its interconnection with colonial and patriarchal elements. It would need what Aníbal Quijano called “the democratic production of a democratic society”. This might be easier at local level, as municipalities are entrenched in a web of different power relations and integrated in local culture and political practices, which makes them more permeable for experimentation.

Until we see this radical transformation, the history of this process demonstrates that it is driven by the need to defend and maintain autonomous, social-movement-driven spaces for genuine democracy, whilst at the same time disputing and resisting the disempowering logics of formal “democratic institutions” and making use of its internal contradictions, loopholes and flaws, understanding that both political logics need to be rooted in broader transformative strategies that cannot depend on the state as it is.


Avritzer, L. (2002). Democracy and the Public Space in Latin America.Oxford, Princeton.

Calderón, F. (coordinator) (2012). La protesta social en América Latina.Buenos Aires, Siglo Veintiuno.

Carrión, M. (interview) (2009). La lucha no es solo por Ayabaca, es por el mundo en general, por la conservación de un ecosistema que produce agua y genera vida en todo el norte del país, in: De Echave, J./Hoetmer, R./Panéz, M. (2009). Minería y territorio en el Perú: conflictos, resistencias y propuestas en tiempos de globalización.Lima, 375-389.

Ecuador Debate 106, Consulta Previa, Libre e Informada (2019). Quito.

Foucault, M. (2004). Seguridad, territorio, población. Buenos Aires-Mexico DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Hale, C. (2002). Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala. Journal of Latin American Studies xxxiv, 485-524.

Hallazi, A. (2019). El derecho a la consulta previa y su aplicación en el Perú. 30 años después del Convenio 169 – OIT, in: Ecuador Debate 106, Consulta Previa, Libre e Informada (2019). Quito, 111-127.

Hoetmer, R. (2017). “This is No Longer a Democracy…”: Thoughts on the Local Referendums on Mining on Peru’s Northern Frontier, in: Alvarez, S./Laó-Montes, A./Thayer, M./Rubin, J./Baiocchi, G. (eds) (2017). Beyond Civil Society: Activism, Participation, and Protest in Latin America. Durham, Duke University Press, 226-251. 

Huaman, R. (interview), El territorio es alegria, porque es quien reproduce y da vida, in: Hoetmer, R./Castro, M./Daza, M./De Echave, J./Ruiz, C. (2013). Minería y movimientos sociales en el Perú. Instrumentos y propuestas para la defensa de la vida, el agua y los territorios. Lima, Programa Democracia y Transformación Global, 309-315.

Leyva, A. (2018). Consultame de Verdad. Aproximación a un balance sobre la consulta previa en el Peru en los sectores minero e hidrocarburífero. Lima, CooperAcción and Oxfam.

Ojeda, F. (interview). Una de las debilidades de la empresa y del Gobierno fue que nunca dieron la cara. El pueblo se dio cuenta y se opuso colectivamente a los planes de la empresa, in: De Echave, J./ Hoetmer, R./Panéz, M. (2009). Minería y territorio en el Perú: conflictos, resistencias y propuestas en tiempos de globalización.Lima, 341-347.

Quijano, A. (2003). Colonialidad del Poder, Eurocentrismo y América Latina, in: Lander, E. (ed.) (2003). La colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas latinoamericanas. Buenos Aires and Caracas, 201-246.

Rodríguez Garavito, C. (2012). Etnicidad.gov: Los recursos naturales, los pueblos indígenas y el derecho a la consulta previa en los campos sociales minados.Bogota, Dejusticia.

Rueschemeyer, D./Huber Stephens, E./Stephens, J. (1992). Capitalist Development and Democracy. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Silva Santisteban, R. (2017). Mujeres y conflictos ecoterritoriales. Impactos, estrategias, resistencias. Lima.

de Sousa Santos, B. (2010). Refundación del Estado en América Latina. Perspectivas desde una epistemología del Sur. Lima, Programa Democracia y Transformación Global and Instituto Internacional de Derecho y Sociedad.

Vargas, E. (2019). Conflictos Sociales y Consulta Previa, Libre e Informada, in: Ecuador Debate 106, Consulta Previa, Libre e Informada. Quito, 41-55.

Vittor, L. (2013). Las consultas vecinales sobre la minería: experiencias y desafios, in: Hoetmer, R./Castro, M./Daza, M./De Echave, J./Ruiz, C. (2013). Minería y movimientos sociales en el Perú. Instrumentos y propuestas para la defensa de la vida, el agua y los territorios. Lima, Programa Democracia y Transformación Global, 503-511.

Zúñiga, M./Okamoto, T. (2019). Sinderechos, no hay consulta. Aproximación a las miradas indígenas sobre el proceso de consulta previa en el lote 192 de la Amazonía peruana. Lima, CooperAcción, Puinamudt and Oxfam.

[1] In Spannish a distinction is being made between “consentimiento” (consent) and “consulta” (consultation). Consent is a far bolder term, which refers to the active agreement with indigenous peoples prior to any extractive activities, which implicitly suggests indigenous peoples can also reject these activities. Consultation, on the other hand, refers tot he obligation to consult the opinion of indigenous peoples on any project, to inform decision making by the State. So, although the formal term used in international legislation is “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”, the Peruvian “Ley de Consulta” is far closer to promoting consultation then consent, as we will see in the article. Therefore I will generally use the term consultation, only referring to consent when this is pertinent.

[2] In a study conducted for the United Nations Development Programme, Calderón (2012) highlights that access to territories and natural resources is the main reason for conflict in the contemporary world. He also states that these conflicts are “bearers of democracy” as they pave the way to stronger democratic institutions that can in turn transform conflict.

[3] The Peruvian Ombudsman (Defensoria del Pueblo) uses this term in its monthly reports on social conflict in the country (see https://www.defensoria.gob.pe/documentos/, in Spanish). I prefer to speak of “eco-territorial conflicts” (Hoetmer 2013), as this is a more accurate reflection of the fact that these conflicts actually express clashes of “modes of living” or “ontologies”, not just a lack of social responsibility or environmental governance.

[4] The Buenaventura Mining Group, which is owned by one of the country’s richest and most powerful families.

[5] See Silva (2017) for more information on the role of women in disputes over territories and natural resources and the dual challenge they faced in participating in these disputes while fighting against patriarchal relations in their communities.

[6] Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest

[7] See https://www.servindi.org/actualidad/60457 (in Spanish)

[8] See http://www.servindi.org/pdf/DAR_Consulta_Previa.pdf (in Spanish)

[9] Human rights lawyer Ana Leyva (2018) conducted a comprehensive analysis of both the design and application of the law.

[10] See https://ojo-publico.com/46/como-decide-el-gobierno-quien-es-indigena-y-quien-no (in Spanish)

[11] See https://ojo-publico.com/1149/afirmacion-de-morales-acerca-de-que-mincul-quito-condicion-de-pueblo-quecha-fuerabamba-es (in Spanish)

[12] See https://ojo-publico.com/77/los-secretos-detras-de-la-lista-de-comunidades-indigenas-del-peru (in Spanish)

[13] The policy on intercultural health, the implementation rules for a law on indigenous languages, the national plan for intercultural and bilingual education, the implementation rules for the general law on climate change, and the implementation rules of the forestry law for flora and fauna

[14] See https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/27/06/2018/balance-del-litigio-constitucional-en-defensa-de-pueblos-indigenas (in Spanish)

[15] See http://cooperaccion.org.pe/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Consultame-de-verdad.pdf (in Spanish)

[16] See https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/27/06/2018/balance-del-litigio-constitucional-en-defensa-de-pueblos-indigenas (in Spanish)

[17] See https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/06/11/2018/balance-de-los-procesos-de-consulta-en-mineria-y-petroleo-en-el-peru (in Spanish)

[18] See https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-opinion/28/07/2018/comunidades-no-se-benefician-de-actividades-extractivas-en-sus (in Spanish)

Raphael Hoetmer is a researcher, organizer and popular educator, based in Lima, specialized in social movement and democratic theory, political ecology, interculturality and indigenous rights, and in participatory and intercultural processes of (strategic) planning, learning, evaluation and research. Collaborated closely with the National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining, and local communitarian organizations in Piura, Celendin, and Cotabambas in Peru.

Overcoming crises of representation? Arts in anti-coal struggles in Colombia and California

by Beatriz Rodríguez Labajos

Raw material extraction, transportation and waste disposal are triggering environmental conflicts worldwide. All types of material throughput in the global economy bear consequences for social justice and sustainability. Yet very few materials better represent the economic, social and moral tensions intertwined in societal metabolism, i.e. material and energy use of human societies, than coal.

Data collection on environmental conflicts – including coal conflicts (Roy 2018) – has emphasised the role of communities in environmental defence and in promoting sustainable, just transformations. The ubiquitous use of artworks (e.g. paintings, music, films) in environmental conflicts plays a role, triggering cognitive processes as well as value and behavioural changes (Steyerl 2010). Existing literature about artistic activism ranges from topics dealing with ideological controversies, with artists defying neoliberalism and/or authoritarian powers, to embodied representations of unfairness, emphasising victims’ perspective. However, the literature on environmental conflicts, which has not systematically mapped and analysed these materials, neither attempts to theorise conflicts in which media and politics interact (Hutchins/Lester 2015, Veneti 2017), nor critically examines popular culture (Cultural Politics 2018).

Our case studies show how socio-environmental claims and/or transformative or restorative initiatives in anti-coal struggles are voiced and promoted through arts and cultural expressions. We emphasise the democratic aspect of collective self-determination and representation in two emblematic cases of coal-related conflicts, in Colombia and the United States.

Voicing discontent in Macondo – arts vs coal in Caribbean Colombia

Large-scale extraction of coal through open-pit mines in the Caribbean region of Colombia started in around 1975. Since then, coal mining has led to land grabbing, hydro-morphological alterations, air and water pollution and has transformed regional economic practices and livelihoods. Coal mining has threatened the food sovereignty of peasants and fisherfolk, and also impacted health to the extent of necessitating the relocation of several indigenous and Afro-descendent communities. The coal extracted in Colombia (around 80 million tons per year) is exported to North American and European markets, resulting in major impacts of coal transportation as well, both by train from extraction sites to seaports and by ship for deliveries overseas. The private companies in charge of these coal-mining operations, which are backed by the Colombian government, include large corporations such as Anglo American, Glencore International, and BHP Billiton and Drummond (Cardoso 2015).

In a geographical context largely shaped by the violent repression of civilians, and attacks on human rights, especially against activists and community leaders (The Guardian/Global Witness 2018), open expressions of social and political discontent are uncommon in the Caribbean region of Colombia. “Yet here people do not complain” is a frequent way of ending conversations about examples of injustice or impunity in the area. However, a closer look reveals that the vibrant cultural and artistic repertoire of that highly creative land makes plenty of references to such injustices. First and foremost, actors opposed to the impact of coal mining have harnessed films, paintings and music to bolster their attempts to bring about change.

For instance, the photo reportage Forgotten in the dust of northern Colombia highlights the malnutrition and deaths of women and children in particular among the indigenous Wayuu people in la Guajira, Colombia. The photographer sees coal mining as the cause of their extreme marginalisation and creates a visual narrative that denounces issues of corruption and neglect that would otherwise be spoken about, but rarely seen (Filippo Rosso, N. et al. 2017).

Similarly, the documentary film El carbón de Colombia, quien gana y quien pierde (Colombia’s coal: who wins and who loses?) links the processes associated with international coal mining and use to local impacts suffered by communities where coal is extracted and transported. Social justice organisation Tierra Digna produced this documentary by involving affected communities in the various stages of the film’s production and distribution, giving them a chance to directly voice their concerns and demands for a better environment (Tierra Digna et al. 2015). Another outstanding case of community engagement in artistic production is the painting of a mural summarising the forced resettlement of the inhabitants of a small village called El Hatillo, owing to a health emergency caused by coal dust. The mural covers the walls of the local school. By contributing to its creation, children from the village were able to participate in a critical community discussion from which they otherwise felt excluded. This avenue of empowerment subsequently continued through music, theatre and painting activities that the children used to depict their own concerns about the resettlement plan. The creation of this piece is also the topic of another documentary film called El mural en el Hatillo (The mural and El Hatillo) produced by Fundación Chasquis, a media collective that focuses on social projects and helped to boost awareness about the resettlement.

A final example of a sophisticated use of cultural restoration is the construction of a collective memory for La Guijara in a document entitled Memoria y transformaciones territoriales en la comunidad de Las Casitas (Memory and territorial transformations in the community of Las Casitas), which covers the history and ethnoecology of the place and the sociocultural traditions of the Afro-descendent communities damaged by coal-mining activities and that were also forced to resettle. The social cartography embedded in the document created a vision of rurality that served as a counter-narrative to the technical document on how the resettlement should be carried out according to the mining company (Cuenca Casteblanco et al. 2017) .

The arts as a space of encounter – No Coal in Oakland

Oakland is a major West Coast port city in California, and the fifth largest container port in the United States in terms of cargo volume. In June 2016, after a massive campaign entitled No Coal in Oakland, the Oakland City Council voted to ban the handling and storage of coal and coke at the city’s terminals, effectively blocking shipments of coal from the Port of Oakland(Rossof 2016). This ban was imposed in response to plans initiated in 2013 to expand the port infrastructure to facilitate exports from coal-mining operations based in the USA, especially in Utah. Activists, council members and residents opposed the project based on arguments invoking environmental justice, public health, labour and religious principles, centred around the harmful consequences of coal dust in an already over-polluted city. Later, the developer sued the City of Oakland in an attempt to overturn the ordinance banning the handling and storage of coal. The legal case is still ongoing (Veklerov 2018).

Oakland, CA in the San Francisco Bay Area 

Artistic activism was a key component of the anti-coal campaign in Oakland. A design by Jon Paul Bail united supporters of the No Coal in Oakland campaign, being printed on t-shirts, posters and banners displayed on houses around the city and projected onto emblematic buildings. That image bolstered a collective identity in a movement characterised by a wide range of demographics and political leanings. Cultural workers from a supporting group called Occupella rewrote popular songs, such as the Everly Brothers’ single Bye Bye Love, turned into Bye Bye Coal, which everyone could learn and sing at public events and demonstrations.

These and other artistic practices reinforced a sense of collective achievement that ended up in a historical ban on coal exports from the Port of Oakland. Young people and children of colour played a critical role in keeping the movement alive, particularly after the case went to court. Incidentally, actions by youngsters were always accompanied by or consisted of the artistic expression of their views and ideas, either in street performances, chants or various forms of painting. Demographic inclusiveness was a direct outcome of the use of artistic expression in this case (Sanz/Rodriguez-Labajos 2019).

Unleashing art against the coal commodity chain

Clashes over coal go through a number of different stages, including the pre- and post-conflict situations. The identities, landscapes and politics associated with such conflicts are represented in artistic and audiovisual creations in many different ways, to educate people, seek out and present the truth, bring critical attention to the reasons underlying a conflict, promote a physical transformation, politicise local community spaces by engaging people and organising events, preserve memories, foster remembrance and heal.

The port of Oakland is the main port of container ships in the West Coast of the United States

In the cases presented here, artistic creation turns out to be critical in situations of extreme power imbalance. From the democratic standpoint, artworks twice played a major role in rethinking democracy.

The first, more ethical case, questioned the democracy of material transformations pushed through by corporate interests, a point emphasised by Lee and Han (2019) and Malone (2018) in an urban gentrification context. Even when the operations involved are within the law, material transformations entail structural changes to people’s livelihoods (affecting health, infrastructure and productive capacities) that communities can end up perceiving and highlighting when it is already too late. Community action groups in both Colombia and Oakland felt marginalised by mainstream discourse concerning the coal commodity chain, due to fears, economic circumstances or demographics. Yet via the arts these groups found a way to express their ideas effectively to the affected communities, lifting a veil on their exclusion and suffering.

The second case also involved the use of arts to expand democratic possibilities in the face of dominant structures (Fusco 2018), revealing three crucial contributions by the arts in anti-coal struggles: educating people about democracy, organising the community and portraying underrepresented groups’ experience of power. For instance, an early use of creative activism in Oakland involved educating residents about the risks of the planned coal terminal as well as the opportunities for officially opposing the project. Artworks and performances in public settings engaged the community engagement and organisation, mustering support from diverse demographic groups and communities of justice. The arts play a particularly important role in politicising subjects that are often neglected in such conflicts, e.g. the impact on children. This point was also apparent in the Colombian case study. For the youngest participants, expressing their views though art gave them their first ever experience of power relating to a matter of public interest. But not only children were initiated into the languages of action and empowerment. The Colombian case study clearly showed how voices silenced by fear of direct violence or an extreme power imbalance when using other forms of advocacy, such as public demonstrations, can be heard via artistic or cultural expressions.

Block party in Oakland, CA, organised by young climate justice activists

Of course, these are just some of many more examples of artistic expression and case studies that could help us understand the role by cultural practices, the arts and multimedia in transforming environmental conflicts. Further research is definitely required. Currently, the CLAMOR project (Environmental conflicts through the lens of artwork and multimedia in waterscape transformations, MSCA-GF-797444) is helping to review these types of material in water-related conflicts around the world.


Cardoso, A. (2015). Behind the life cycle of coal: Socio-environmental liabilities of coal mining, in: Cesar, Colombia. Ecol. Econ. 120, 71–82.

Centro de Estudios para la Justicia Social Tierra Digna/Torres, A./Rocha, J./Melo, D./Peña, R. (2015). El Carbón de Colombia: ¿Quién gana? ¿Quién pierde? Minería, comercio global y cambio climático. Bogotá, Colombia.

Cuenca Casteblanco/T., Giraldo Salazar, F./Vargas Ramírez, N. (2017). Memoria y transformaciones territoriales en la comunidad de Las Casitas : un recorrido por los impactos de la minería de carbón en el sur de La Guajira. Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular/Programa por la Paz, Bogotá.

Cultural Politics (2018). Resources for critical analysis. Available at: http://culturalpolitics.net (29 October  2018).

Fusco, C. (2018). On being sick of humans in a post-human world: Toward a queer vegan methodology, in: Gallagher, K. (ed.), The Methodological Dilemma Revisited. Creative, Critical and Collaborative Approaches to Qualitative Research for a New Era. Routledge, 129–152.

Hutchins, B./Lester, L. (2015). Theorizing the enactment of mediatized environmental conflict, in: Int. Commun. Gaz. 77, 337–358.

Lee, S. Y./Han, Y. (2019). When art meets monsters: Mapping art activism and anti-gentrification movements in Seoul, in: City, Cult. Soc. 100292: doi:10.1016/J.CCS.2019.100292.

Malone, N. (2018). Culture as contradiction in urban regeneration. Sanitization, commodification and critical resistance in Liverpool One, in: Krit. Kult. 30/31, 228–245.

Filippo Rosso, N./Miroff, N./Kirkpatrick, N. (2017). Forgotten in the dust of northern Colombia, in: Washington Post (7 August 2017).

Rossof, M. (2016). No coal in Oakland. A report on the campaign. Available at https://nocoalinoakland.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/NCIO-coal-campaign-report_v2016-08-30.pdf.

Roy, B. (2018). An overview of the anti-coal movement in India, in: 12th Conference of the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE 2017): doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.28526.25925

Sanz, T./Rodriguez-Labajos, B. (2019). Does artistic activism change everything? Strategic and transformative effects of arts in anti-coal struggles in Oakland, CA. Manuscript.

Steyerl, H. (2010). Politics of art: Contemporary art and the transition to post-democracy, in: E-Flux J. 01–06.

The Guardian/Global Witness (2018). 197 environmental defenders have been killed in 2017 while protecting their community’s land or natural resources, in: The Defenders, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/series/the-defenders (27 March 2018).

Veklerov, K. (2018). Federal judge strikes down Oakland’s ban of coal facility operations. San Fr. Chron., available at https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Federal-judge-overturns-Port-of-Oakland-coal-ban-12916650.php (15 May 2018).

Veneti, A. (2017). Aesthetics of protest: an examination of the photojournalistic approach to protest imagery, in: Vis. Commun. 16, 279–298.

Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos is an ecological economist and researcher at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB). She is also a Marie Sklodowska Curie Researcher at the Energy and Resources group of the University of California Berkeley (ERG-UC Berkeley) and member of the GWG Beyond Development.

Guendalizaá: The reconstruction of the “We”

by Arturo Guerrero Osorio

The Zapotec word Guendalizá or Guelaguetza means “familiarity”, “friendship” or “neighborhood”; It is mutual help and is expressed when an person is with the others in the crucial moments of life, the happy and the sad. It is a cultural pattern that comes from the deepest roots from the towns of Oaxaca, Mexico (let’s think about 11 thousand years ago). Today, in the Oaxaca Isthmus and other places of the region (under other names, such as “communality” or “kazuuaro luu yetzi keriu”) it is the daily flag – not ideological but concrete– of reasoning and acting collectively to wake up from the democratic, economic and patriarchal nightmare that the West imposed on us and also to build a path of our own. Guendalizá is the aesthetic principle – if we understand this term in its etymology: to have a common experience, as Michel Maffesoli pointed out– of communal life, implies an reciprocity ethic and shared joy. Guendalizá is the Oaxacan way of creating a “We”.

Liberal thought contaminated us and stripped us in the most vulgar and brazen way. We have become “individuals” for more than 500 years, atoms that dream themeselves as equals, free and in competition. But now we claim our quality of “binni”, that is, of “people”, in the strict sense of the term. Here democracy has no reason to be, for us this illusion means the imposition of a minority on the majority, as long as it has a slave base (and this is proven from ancient Greece to the current United States of America). Autonomy is neither a conceptual nor a political option because it is equally phantasmagoric (who is autonomous from oxygen or the other?).

This video speaks of the communal-determination that is reborn at a limit time, when the earth shakes and leaves thousands of families in the most horrible misery in the rain and the burning sun. From people who saw their house collapse while running to save their lives and their loved ones, during one of the largest earthquakes that have occurred in Mexico. And their decision was to come together and appeal to his tradition: the assembly and the joint work, the loving listening, the disappearance of the “I” for the “we” emerged. The communal-determination that occurs when the bet is the guendalizá. From a town that knows that the guendalizá is not perfect or total, but that it is true that it found a path that is its path in itself.”

Arturo Guerrero Osorio (México City, 1971). Since 1995 he collaborates with grassroots organizations, intellectuals and activists from Oaxaca, Mexico, in the reflection and action from the communal life. Coordinator of the Academy of Comunalidad. He has accompanied community radio processes in southeastern Mexico and in Colombia. He collaborated with the University of the Earth of Oaxaca. Teacher in communication and pedagogy. Candidate for a PhD in Rural Development by the Autonomous Metropolitan University-Xochimilco (México City).

Challenges to intercultural democracy in the Plurinational State of Bolivia: case study of the Monkoxɨ peoples of Lomerío

by Iokiñe Rodriguez and Mirna Inturias


The adoption of Bolivia’s new political Constitution in 2009 marked the birth of a new plurinational state. One of the most important constitutional changes was a new state system of territorial division that recognises departmental, municipal, regional and indigenous autonomies as new plural forms of political organisation seeking to decentralise decision-making power and the management of public funds, wresting them away from central government. Whereas departmental, municipal and regional autonomy can apply within the pre-2009 territorial division of the state, simply being juxtaposed over former departments, municipalities or regions, indigenous autonomies pose a greater challenge, as they often overlap with more than one municipality or department and therefore necessitate greater institutional and legal changes.

The indigenous autonomy model acknowledges the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination, self-government, the perpetuation of their culture and the consolidation of their lands within the framework of the unified state. It also opens the way for the recognition of Original Indigenous Peasant Autonomies (AIOCs). To date, only three out of more than 30 claims that have initiated proceedings to establish new AIOCs have been granted rights from the state to form Autonomous Indigenous Peasant Governments (GAIOCs). These new forms of government require further institutional and legal changes to ensure a genuine transition from a modern, liberal state model to a plural, diverse one.

Among other things, this process involves expanding the liberal conception of democracy to an intercultural one, which under the new electoral law entails interaction between three forms of democracy: representative, direct/participatory and ‘communal’. The latter referres to democratic processes taking place at the local community level through consensual, deliberative decision-making and respecting traditional decision-making structures such as community assemblies, councils of elders and the customary rules and regulations of indigenous justice systems. This new democratic concept creates leeway for the emergence of new forms of knowledge, epistemologies and indigenous practices, hitherto absent from Bolivia’s democratic model and the construction of new intercultural forms and structures of governance. However, the way forward to true ‘demo-diversity’ (Santos/Exeni 2012), i.e. an environment in which different concepts, knowledge and democratic practices can come together, is still far from clear.

We will discuss the current challenges in constructing an intercultural democracy in Bolivia in the light of the struggle of the Monkoxɨ, an indigenous people from Lomerío, to gain political autonomy. The Monkoxɨ formally petitioned the state for political autonomy in 2009, and major recent headway in their claim suggests that the national authorities could soon recognise their autonomous government.

If their claim proves successful, the Monkoxɨ will face the serious challenge of progressing in their construction of a model of intercultural democracy that is at odds with a range of political, economic and cultural factors. This case study examines these tensions and the ways in which the Monkoxɨ are deploying various cultural and political strategies in an attempt to consolidate a truly community-based, plural model of democracy in Lomerío. The information we present summarises the results of a participatory assessment we carried out with the Monkoxɨ in 2018 to evaluate the strategies they had employed over the past four decades to consolidate their territorial control and political autonomy in Lomerío (see Inturias et al. 2019 for more details). For this purpose, we used a Conflict Transformation Framework developed by Grupo Confluencias to map the changes brought about by the Monkoxɨ over time, focusing on the parameters of cultural revitalisation, political agency, local governance, control of the means of production and environmental integrity (Rodriguez et al. 2019, Rodriguez/Inturias 2018). This assessment was part of an international project called ACKnowl-EJ (Academic and Activist Co-Produced Knowledge for Environmental Justice), which examined how resistance movements across the world are helping to bring about just transformations to sustainability from the bottom up (http://acknowlej.org).

The Monkoxɨ dream of Nuxiaká Uxia Nosibóriki (their own form of government)

The communal indigenous territory (TCO) of Lomerío covers 256,000 hectares of land dominated by Chiquitano dry forests in the administrative department of Santa Cruz in lowland Bolivia. Lomerío is home to around 7,000 indigenous Monkoxɨ living in 29 communities ranging in size from 100 to 1,500 inhabitants.

The Monkoxɨ define Lomerío as a refuge, an area to which their ancestors escaped in colonial times to flee from Jesuit missions. Yet, much to their detriment, shortly after the missionaries were expelled in 1776, Bolivian mixed-race mestizo and white landowners took their land for agriculture and animal husbandry, forcing the Monkoxɨ to work as slaves on rubber plantations. They were cruelly exploited well into the late 20th century, so their refuge became their prison for more than a century.

Despite this oppressive past, or perhaps because of it, the Monkoxɨ are one of the most emblematic indigenous peoples in Bolivia’s lowlands in terms of their political strength and organisation. They have a long history of resistance to the colonial state and land tenure system. Their organised resistance started in 1964 when they formed the Agrarian Peasant Union, before going on to play an instrumental role in establishing the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB) in 1982 and then the Indigenous Organisation of Native Communities of Lomerío (CICOL) in 1983. In the late 1980s, the Monkoxɨ were the first indigenous nation in Bolivia to develop community forestry as a form of territorial control, and in 2006, after a long struggle, they successfully won the legal rights over their communal indigenous territory, which CICOL is legally mandated to safeguard.

As is clear from the statement below, the final component to free themselves from oppression would be the right to self-govern their territory:

“Our grandmothers and grandfathers gave their lives to give us a territory where we can be free, where we can make the dream of having our own form of government real, and thus turn our refuge into our road to freedom and our desire to live well. This is what we call: Nuxiaká Uxia Nosibóriki” (Masay, Elmar/Chore, Maria, 2018:14).

Thus, in 2008, the Monkoxɨ were the first indigenous nation in Bolivia to use the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to legally underpin their public proclamation of the first autonomous indigenous territory in Bolivia. In 2009, at a General Assembly attended by their 29 communities, they drafted and approved their autonomy statutes and launched their legal claim to rights to autonomy. In parallel, Monkoxɨ leaders actively participated in the 2008 constitutional reforms to ensure that indigenous rights to autonomy were adequately accounted for in the new framework of the Plurinational State of Bolivia.

The key elements of the Monkoxɨ nation’s autonomy statutes are as follows: 

  • Definition of the ancestral territory of Lomerío as the geographical limit of their government.
  • Defence of communal democracy as the main form of collective decision-making.
  • Emphasis on the principles, values and norms of communal and territorial life, such as freedom, sharing (minga or bobikix), equity, reciprocity, redistribution, and solidarity.
  • Establishment of besiro as the official language and Spanish as the second language.
  • Designation of a General Assembly including representatives of the 29 communities, as the top decision-making authority.
  • Importance attributed to customs, rules, norms and indigenous justice when regulating day-to-day communal life. 
  • The definition of communal economy as the desired form of development, aimed at enabling the Monkoxɨ nation to live well, i.e. achieve what they call Uxia Nosiboriki/Buen Vivir), respecting Mother Earth, the spirits of the forest (Jichis) and living in harmony with nature (CICOL 2015).

In May 2018, the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (TCP) ruled in favour of the Monkoxɨ statutes, yet the Monkoxɨ model of self-government still faces a number of internal and external challenges before it can effectively be applied.

Challenges to self-government in Lomerío

External factors

The external tensions concern the fact that despite the transition to a new plurinational state, state structures and institutions, economic frameworks and dominant cultural values are still essentially modernist and colonial.

This is certainly the case regarding the national developmental model, which continues to impose a narrowly defined economic rationality on the use of natural resources. The state is a long way off from turning the Living Well (Buen Vivir) narrative into a reality (despite such an approach being enshrined in the new Constitution). One way this is reflected in Lomerío is in the strong hold retained by market forces and Forestry Department bureaucrats, which dictate the rules governing community forestry, limiting the Monkoxɨ nation’s effective control over this activity. On top of this, although the Monkoxɨ have legal ownership of their territory, the subsoil remains the property of the state, and all the mineral resources in Lomerío have been designated for mining concessions, without heeding prior informed consent procedures.

In addition, the national executive has given indigenous nations very little help in advancing their autonomy claims. Far from it, in fact, so progress has been very slow. To keep their autonomy claims on track, indigenous nations have had to adapt their autonomy statutes and structures to new regulatory frameworks, such as the 2010 Autonomy and Decentralisation Law (No. 031/10), which makes the whole procedure very complex and cumbersome. The National Executive, the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal (TCP), the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal each impose a different set of requirements. In addition, many of the public servants involved in granting autonomy rights continue to think and act in accordance with monocultural regulatory frameworks, which in practice has meant placing obstacles in the way of indigenous forms of autonomy by pressuring them to opt for the short route to self-government, namely conversion to municipal or departmental autonomy (Avila 2018).  All these factors explain why it took the TCP 10 years to grant the Monkoxɨ nation its autonomous status. So, although that is a great accomplishment for the Monkoxɨ people, the process is far from over.  

Internal factors:

Internally, the biggest challenge for the Monkoxɨ nation’s bid for autonomy will be to ensure that its communal democracy system succeeds in directing its indigenous government, avoiding divisive party politics and giving precedence to customary norms and regulations. Currently, there is strong internal resistance to the model of indigenous autonomy on the part of the hegemonic Monkoxɨ families currently running the municipal government, which question a communal democracy model. This group favours maintaining a representative democracy model and regards indigenous custom-based decision-making procedures and justice systems as backward and primitive. Consequently, it has been pushing for municipal autonomy as an alternative form of local government. Underlying this tension between different models of democracy are conflicting values and world views about what it means to be indigenous, this being yet another expression of coloniality and modernity in Lomerío.

This tension between modern and more traditional indigenous values poses challenges for the indigenous autonomy process at other levels. Firstly, the Monkoxɨ principles, values and norms of communal and territorial life, such as sharing, equity, reciprocity, redistribution and solidarity, are not necessarily the principles that guide community life. On the contrary, in many communities individual interests and benefits connected to the use of many resources in their territory, such as forests, prevail, which not only creates strong inter and intracommunity conflicts, but is also threatening the integral use of the environment and territory. Secondly, in terms of cultural vitality, central aspects of Monkoxɨ identity, like its besiro language, are struggling to survive.  Thirdly, and linked to the above, the younger Monkoxɨ generations are growing up with little awareness of their own history and cultural ties to the land, lack the leadership qualities to manage and safeguard their territory in the future and are attracted to ‘modern’, urban lifestyles.

Moving forward

Despite these challenges, this complex economic, political and cultural context has not deterred CICOL, as the legal custodian of Lomerío, from taking forward the mandate from the 2009 General Assembly to consolidate an autonomous Monkoxɨ government. However, it has taken perseverance and inventiveness to develop a variety of strategies aimed at addressing as many of these challenges as possible. Some of these strategies have aimed to make progress in securing autonomy, others have been set out to tackle the internal factors that might threaten the viability of the autonomy process in the long run.

One key element in advancing the autonomy claim has been the formation of sustained partnerships with various support organisations that can help to strengthen the technical and financial aspects of the demand. The recent creation of strategic links with key players in the central government, such as the minister and vice-minister of autonomy, to jointly evaluate the challenges and opportunities associated with Monkoxɨ indigenous autonomy has boosted the profile of their claim both nationally and internationally and accelerated some of the procedures involved (Inturias et al. 2016). Likewise, creating opportunities to share experiences with other indigenous nations also in the process of claiming autonomy has been instrumental in devising joint strategies that can put pressure on the government to overcome the administrative hurdles standing in the way of the final approval of their demands (Inturias et al., 2019). One example of this is a recent change to the autonomy application procedure that eliminates the need to hold a second local referendum in territories with a majority indigenous population to validate the autonomy statutes after the National Executive has approved them. This change is crucial in cases like that of Lomerío, where a group opposing the indigenous autonomy model could use a second referendum to sabotage and invalidate the Monkoxɨ nation’s claim.

With regard to dealing with internal threats to the autonomy process, CICOL has been particularly concerned about the processes of cultural change and shifting identities among the younger generation. Activities carried out to tackle this problem have involved developing participatory processes to reconstruct local history (Pena et al. 2016) and capacity building based on indigenous leadership values and new projects, in a bid to revitalise the besiro language. That said, CICOL and the Monkoxɨ still need to address a number of pending issues to ensure an effective transition to an intercultural democracy in their territory. These issues include:

a) deciding the type of public communal administration that the indigenous government will implement to avoid replicating the municipal approach or colonial-style public policy framing;

b) considering the future model of development for Lomerío and how to effectively create a just, environmentally sustainable communal economy; and 

c) working out, once an indigenous government has been established, how to ensure a mode of effective coordination with other regional and national government authorities that is sensitive to cultural differences and diverse forms of knowledge.


Avila, H. (2018), Foreword in Flores, E. (2018). Sueños de Libertad. Proceso autonómico de la Nacional Monkoxɨ de Lomerío. CICOL-CEJIS, Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

CICOL (2015). Estatuto Autonómico de la Nación Monkixi de Lomerío. CICOL/CEJIS, May 2015. 

De Sousa Santos, B./Exeni, J. L. (eds) (2012). Justicia indígena, plurinacionalidad e interculturalidad en Bolivia. Ecuador: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

Inturias, M./Rodriguez, I./Valderomar, H./Peña, A. (eds) (2016). Justicia Ambiental y Autonomía Indígena de Base Territorial en Bolivia. Un dialogo político desde el Pueblo Monkox de Lomerío. University of East Anglia, Nur University, Grupo Confluencias and the Ministry of Autonomy, Bolivia.

Inturias, M./Rodriguez, I./Aragon, M./Masay, E./Peña, A. (2019). Lomerío: autonomía indígena de base territorial como fuerza de transformación de conflictos socioambientales, in Inturias, M./von Stosch, K./  Balderomar, H./Rodriguez, I. (eds) (2019). Bolivia. Desafios socioambientales en las tierras bajas. Department of Investigative Social Science at Nur University, Bolivia. Available at: http://www.iics.nur.edu/publicaciones/editorial-nur/287-bolivia-desafios-socioambientales-en-las-tierras-bajas.

Inturias, M./Vargas, G./Rodríguez, I./García, A./von Stosch, K./Masay, E. (eds) (2019). Territorios, Autonomías, Justicias. Un dialogo desde los gobiernos autónomos de Bolivia. Department of Investigative Social Science at Nur University, the Vice Ministry of Autonomy, University of East Anglia, Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Masay. E./Chore, M. (2018). Presentation in: Flores E. (2018. Sueños de Libertad. Proceso autonómico de la Nacional Monkoxɨ de Lomerío. CICOL-CEJIS, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, 2018.

Peña, A./Tubari, P./Chuve, L./Chore, M./Ipi, C. (2016). Historia de Lomerío. El camino hacia la libertad, in Inturias, M., Rodriguez, I./Valderomar, H./Peña, A. (eds) (2016). Justicia Ambiental y Autonomía Indígena de Base Territorial en Bolivia. Un dialogo político desde el Pueblo Monkox de Lomerío.  University of East Anglia, Nur University, Grupo Confluencias and the Ministry of Autonomy, Bolivia.

Rodriguez, I./Inturias, M./Robledo, J./Sarti, C./Borel, R. (2019) La transformación de conflictos socio-ambientales. Un marco conceptual para la acción, in: Inturias, M./von Stosch, K./Balderomar, H./Rodriguez, I. (eds) (2019). Bolivia. Desafios socioambientales en las tierras bajas. Department of Investigative Social Science at Nur University, Bolivia. Available at: http://www.iics.nur.edu/publicaciones/editorial-nur/287-bolivia-desafios-socioambientales-en-las-tierras-bajas.

Rodríguez, I./Inturias, M. (2018). Conflict transformation in indigenous peoples’ territories: doing environmental justice with a ‘decolonial turn’, in: Development Studies Research, 5:1, 90-105, doi: 10.1080/21665095.2018.1486220.

Iokiñe and Mirna are activist-researchers, working since 2005 on transformative approaches for just and sustainable futures in indigenous peoples’ territories in Latina America. They  have been working together since 2013 in Lomerio, Bolivia, helping to strengthen indigenous autonomy and the self-government of the Monkoxi indigenous peoples. Iokiñe works as a researchers and lecturer at the School of International Development (DEV) in the University of East Anglia, UK and Mirna as a researcher at Universidad NUR, Bolivia.

On the Cusp: Reframing Democracy and Well-Being in Korchi, India

by Neema Pathak Broome, Shrishtee Bajpai and Mukesh Shende


Mainstream governance and development models – characterised by seemingly democratic but inherently centralised and top-down governance systems and extractive, commercially motivated, capitalist economic policies – have failed to achieve minimum levels of well-being for a very large part of humanity. They have in fact caused large-scale human and environmental injustice. However, there are also countertrends either resisting current models or developing and defending alternative forms of governance and well-being (Singh/Kulkarni/Pathak Broome 2018). In this paper, we explore and discuss the emergence of one such process towards direct democracy and well-being in Korchi taluka in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra state in India. We use Zografos’ definition of direct democracy as a “form of popular self-rule where citizens participate directly, continuously, and without mediation in the tasks of government” (Zografos 2019).

India has a federal democratic system that is decentralised in form but retains strong political and administrative centralisation in its spirit and functioning. The adivasi (tribal) and other traditional forest dwellers across much of India are dependent on forests for their subsistence, livelihoods, cultural and spiritual needs, yet historically have had little control over surrounding forests. These communities have resisted their systemic alienation from use, access, governance and management of their surrounding forests by colonial and post-colonial governments. A strong grassroots movement led to the enactment of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or the FRA, in 2006.This Act, along with another radical law for the tribal areas, the 1996 Panchayat (Extension) to the Scheduled Areas (PESA), has paved the way for transformative democratic processes to take shape for adivasi and other forest-dwelling communities in India. 

This discussion paper attempts to understand and analyse how these laws were used by an already mobilised community in Korchi taluka to move towards direct democracy and greater economic, social, ecological and political well-being. We discuss the model of democracy adopted by the Indian state and official processes of decentralisation; the emergence of alternative democratic processes in Korchi and what they hope to achieve; and factors that lead to the emergence of such processes and constraints and the hurdles that they face. An analysis of the process in Korchi helps foster a greater understanding of the interface between forms of representative democratic governance and direct democratic systems. 

Background and context

History and context of the Panchayati Raj System – for decentralised democracy in India

In 1947, at the time of India’s independence, there was an intense debate in the country about the form of democratic governance to be adopted: Gandhi’s gram swaraj or village self-rule (Gandhi 1962) or the Nehruvian envisioning of the British Parliamentary system. Gandhi suggested a system of governance based on village self-rule where the basic unit of decision-making would lie at the level of each village. This institution, a panchayat, would consist of five people, to be elected annually by the adult villagers, and would be subject to strong oversight or checks and balances by all residents. The panchayat was to be the legislative, judiciary and executive combined. They would also adopt local systems of economic benefit and livelihoods, education and health. The panchayats would cover the entire country and their representatives would ultimately govern the country. This model was heavily criticised by the likes of Dr B.R. Ambedkar on the grounds that traditional village systems are cesspools of caste, class and gender oppression and this model would continue and perpetuate the social, cultural, economic and political alienation and oppression of the mistreated castes and genders (Jodhka 2002).

Independent India opted for a federal system of governance based on electoral political democracy modelled after the British Parliamentary system (Ahmad 2017). Responsibilities for governance were divided between the central government and the state governments. Representatives to the central Parliament and state Legislature are elected once every five years by the people of India. In 1957, based on the recommendations of a government committee (the Balwant Rai Mehta Committee), democratic decentralisation in the form of a three-tier Panchayati Raj System (PRS) was envisioned, which was adopted by all states by the 1960s (Brahmanandam 2018). This meant that within the state the first level of decision-making would be a gram panchayat (village executive). A group of panchayats would form a panchayat samiti at the taluka level and zila parishad at the district level (see figure below).

Political and administrative structure in India

The PRS adopted by the federal states differed from that envisioned by Gandhi in his concept of gram swaraj but both were designed based on the local systems of governance customarily prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. The word panchayat literally means an “assembly of five wise and respected elders” chosen and accepted by the community. The traditional panchayats are also called the Jat Panchayatsor the Khap Panchayats (a panchayat of a specific caste or tribe or any other self-defined group of people). Traditional panchayats are largely known to exclude women and young people and discriminate against other castes. The PRS received constitutional backing in 1992 with the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India. Some powers and responsibilities were devolved to the panchayats, including the preparation of economic development plans and social justice. The PRS, however, has been heavily criticised in recent years for its failure to secure meaningful democracy. Some of the reasons that lead to its decline include (Banerjee 2013):

  1. The most important reason for its decline is attributed to the otherwise centralised tendencies of operation in the country’s political and administrative system, meaning that the remaining financial and legal powers are largely centred in the state/central state institutions.
  2. Panchayats themselves were not seen as institutions of direct democracy, as the power of decision-making is in the hands of the elected representatives. Panchayats were often constituted at the level of a cluster of widely dispersed hamlets or villages, making it difficult for members of all constituent villages to participate in its general body meetings, which are held at least eight times a year.
  3. The PRS has seats set aside for women and members of disprivileged castes as office bearers, but in practice the participation of women (except in a few cases) has been symbolic, with their husbands assuming the actual power. The environment of panchayat general body meetings has been difficult and unsupportive of women’s participation, consequently limiting their involvement.
  4. Unaccountability, lack of transparency, inefficiency, corruption, nepotism, favouritism, uncertainty and irregularity have been intricately linked with the functioning of the panchayats across the country. 
  5. Panchayat elections have not been held in many states, and where they are held they are increasingly influenced by the national and regional political parties. It has become common practice for these parties to establish roots in a village through candidates standing for panchayat elections. This has created political divisions and factions within the villages and panchayats, often leading to murky politics of power rather than elections for this basic unit being based on issues of local significance.
  6. Panchayats are financially weak and dependent on the administration to implement village development programmes, functioning merely as agencies to implement predetermined and pre-financed government schemes.
  7. Continued colonial distrust of local institutions in independent India meant that there was limited devolution of power and responsibility to the panchayats. These were subsequently further curtailed due to the decline in the performance of the panchayats. Most of the development programmes are administered directly by the parallel administrative bodies. 

Intended as a means to achieve direct democracy, panchayats have been reduced to an extension of political parties, fuelled by nepotism and patriarchy in society and further fuelling it to enhance their own power and control. 

Extension of the Panchayati Raj System to the Scheduled V Areas and PESA

In 1992, the PRS was not extended immediately to areas that were tribal-dominated and enjoyed special constitutional protection. There are over 705 Scheduled Tribes in India (tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as mentioned in Article 342 of the Constitution of India), occupying about 15% of India’s landmass and accounting for roughly 8.6% of the country’s population (MoTA 2013). Tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within such tribes or tribal communities as mentioned in Article 342 of the Constitution of IndiaRecognition of their unique socio-cultural practices, worldviews and self-governing social and political organisation (Von Fürer-Haimendorf 1982; Elwin 1964) led the colonial government to formulate policies of isolation and the enactment of special laws for their protection. Post-Independence, the policy of isolation was replaced with policies intended to integrate the tribal population into the rest of the population while continuing to afford them special status and protection. Article 244 of the Constitution provides for the creation of Scheduled V and VI areas in regions with higher tribal populations, called them Scheduled Tribes (STs) and granted certain privileges, benefits and protections.

Forests in India were taken over by the Colonial British government in 1865 by enacting the draconian Indian Forest Act and creating an elaborate and centralised forest bureaucracy. As it paved the way for the takeover of forests and other common property resources by the colonial government, recognised no use, access, management or governance rights of the local people, imposed heavy penalties for any customary or other use and access, which was criminalised under the law. Colonial interests in these forests were commercial in nature, and customary governance and use were considered an obstacle to maximising benefits for the colonial state (Guha 1994). The centralised political and administration system did not allow for local, traditional self-governing structures, which in turn were increasingly affected by internal rifts, patriarchy and social discrimination and injustice.

Despite enjoying constitutional protection since colonial times, post-Independence as well as now, adivasis face oppression and land and resource alienation through the forest policies, centralised governance and corporate land grabbing. The adivasi, however, has consistently resisted such intrusions. In 1996, in the wake of strong grassroots movements, the government extended the 73rd Constitutional Amendment and the PRS to adivasi areas by enacting the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act (Bijoy 2012; Bhuria 2004). The PESA sought to enable the village gram sabhas (assembly of all adult members) to implement a system of self-governance. The Act empowered the gram sabhas to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and customary mode of dispute resolution, to, for instance, regulate the ownership of minor forest produce and control government plans and resources for such plans. Gram sabhasare to be consulted on the use of land for development and their recommendations are mandatory for any issue of prospecting licences or mining leases. Federal states were to make rules under the PESA to grant gram sabhas enough powers and authority to work towards self-governance. Soon after the enactment of the PESA, however, the Supreme Court of India passed a brave judgment using it. The Samatha case (Samatha 1997), as it was called, against the state of Andhra Pradesh challenged the state’s right to allow private mining companies in Scheduled V areas. The judgment upheld the contention, revealing the power that the PESA could yield in Scheduled V areas. This led to covert attempts by many state governments as well as central ministries to dilute, scuttle and underplay the implementation of the PESA. Most states didn’t draft the Rules and those that did ensure that the Rules removed or diluted the empowering provisions of the PESA. The immensely powerful potential of the PESA for self-rule and direct democracy in adivasi areas remained largely unused and ineffective.

English: Village assembly in Mendha(Lekha), Block Dhanora, Dist, Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, Indi मराठी: ग्रामसभा मेंढा (लेखा), तालुका धानोरा, जिल्हा गडचिरोली, महाराष्ट्र, भारत @Subodhkiran

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Rights) Act 2006 – Forest Rights Act (FRA)

In this context, there was another radical change in the legal environment in 2006. After a long-standing grassroots struggle waged by the forest-dependent adivasi communities across India, the Parliament of India enacted landmark legislation – the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (hereinafter referred to as the Forest Rights Act or FRA). The FRA, for the first time in the history of Independent India, acknowledged the historic injustice committed against adivasi and forest-dwelling communities in India and granted them forest rights over their traditional forests, which the Act emphasised as “already vested”. The FRA recognises14 pre-existing forest rights, including the right to gram sabhas of the tribal and other traditional forest dwellers to use, manage, and conserve their traditional forests (hereafter referred to as Community Forest Resources or CFRs) and protect them from internal and external threats. The Act also provides for the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the gram sabhas before their traditional forests are diverted for development projects.  

Context of resource extraction and political alienation through democratic deficit in India’s Gadchiroli district

Severely affected by the centralised, top-down and oppressive forest policies and practices, the Gadchiroli district has seen a number of resistance movements demanding village self-rule. It has also seen strong movement among women both as part of their communities against external imperial and colonial forces but also against the systems of social discrimination within their own patriarchal societies, the most significant of the former movements being the “save people and save forests movement” of the mid-1980s, which demanded greater tribal autonomy, control over decision-making and rights related to forests and their resources. Slogans like Mawa Mate Mawa Sarkar (We are the government in our village) and “our representatives govern from Delhi and Mumbai but we are the government in our village” emerged from Gadchiroli, intensifying the self-rule movement in the district. Villages such as Mendha-Lekha declared de facto village self-rule, inspiring many others to follow suit (Pathak Broome 2018). Despite these resistance movements, control over forests has remained in the hands of the forest department and forest leases continue to be issued for commercial extraction (Pinjarkar 2013; Ali 2016), including for mining (Pathak Broome, N./Raut, N. 2017; Newsclick 2018) ina clear violation of the country’s legal provisions related to FPIC provided under the FRA 2006 and PESA 1996.

Zendepar villagers gathered to discuss and resist mining in their sacred forests in Gadchiroli District, Maharashtra. @Neema Pathak Broome

Moving towards direct democracy in Korchi

The FRA was enacted in 2006 and PESA Rules for the state of Maharashtra were finally drafted in 2014. Considering the potential of these two to secure self-governance and establishing gram sabhas’ rights and FPIC over forests (Padel 2014), they have faced stiff opposition from existing power centres including the forest department. Consequently, by 2016 (over a decade after its enactment) only about 3% of the FRA’s minimum potential had been unlocked throughout the country (CFR-LA 2016). Due to a range of factors, mainly the people’s movement, Gadchiroli has fared much better, having achieved over 60% of the FRA’s potential and bringing around 38% of forests in the district under the control of local gram sabhas (CFR-LA M 2017).

In the Gadchiroli district, the village of Mendha-Lekha was the first to file a CFR claim over the forests of which it had de facto taken charge. It became one of the first villages to receive a legal title over it and started to sustainably manage, conserve and earn revenue from forest produce (Das 2011). Many villages both within and outside the district went to Mendha-Lekha to learn from them, including the local leaders from Korchi taluka. By 2012, 87 of the 133 village gram sabhas in Korchi had claimed and received CFR Right titles over their traditional forests.  

The 2014 PESA Rules meant that village gram sabhas, rather than panchayats, became the first level of decision-making. The local social leaders in Korchi used this opportunity to initiate village and taluka level discussions on the concept of gram sabha and the implications of their empowerment, the role of the FRA and PESA in strengthening gram sabhas, mining as a means of development and the idea of development itself, among other things. The discussions on development were triggered by multiple proposals to begin mining operations within the customary forest boundaries of some of the villages, which they are collectively resisting. Over a period of time, multiple open and transparent public debates and discussions, including during cultural ceremonies and gatherings, influenced villages in Korchi to create gram sabhas, draw up rules and regulations and open bank accounts to allow the gram sabhas to become effective and empowered institutions of self-governance.

In 2016, after an intense taluka-level debate and discussion, it was felt that individual gram sabhas by themselves were not strong enough to prevent exploitation by the market forces as they ventured into the collection and trade of forest produce. A decision was made to establish a federation of all 90 gram sabhas, the Mahasabha Gramsabha (MGS), which would be more inclusive, fair and transparent than any of the existing traditional taluka-level bodies. By 2017, gram sabhas at village level and MGS at taluka level had emerged as institutions of self-governance. Individual gram sabhas began organising regular village-level meetings while the MGS started meeting once a month in Korchi town. Member gram sabhas formally wanting to join the MGS would pass a resolution to this effect after a detailed discussion within their village, before selecting two women and two men to represent them in the MGS general body and agreeing to pay an annual membership fee of Rs 5000 to cover the MGS’ operating costs (earned from the sale of non-timber forest products (NTFPs)). To facilitate greater interaction between neighbouring gram sabhas, 10-12 villages would meet in clusters. The MGS executive body comprises 15 members, including one woman and one man from each of the seven clusters and one person with disabilities. The 14 members represent all social groups (caste, class and gender) in accordance with their demographic structure in Korchi taluka. The MSG has since evolved into a taluka-level pressure group for oversight on all issues related to local well-being.

Addressing the limitations of the existing structures of decentralised governance

This socio-political three-tier structure of self-organisation in Korchi is helping foster greater direct democracy and local well-being in four major ways:

  1. Securing greater political autonomy by facilitating gram sabhas’ empowerment towards exercising direct democracy through self-rule, rather than decisions being made by elected representatives (as in panchayats), and organising higher levels of delegated democracy at cluster and taluka level.
  2. Strengthening autonomy by holding state and non-state agencies and actors accountable to the decisions of the gram sabhas.
  3. Gaining control over means of production (the forests in this case), strengthening the forest-based economy, and granting greater financial autonomy to the local gram sabhas, while ensuring ecological sustainability.
  4. Addressing inherent social caste, class and patriarchy based injustices.

Empowering grams sabhas to ensure direct democracy and self-rule at village level and the MGS for delegated democracy at higher levels

Panchayats still perform all government administrative and political functions at their level. The gram sabhas are empowered by the FRA and PESA to use, access, manage and govern forests within the traditional village boundaries. They are responsible for the conservation and protection of biodiversity and their natural and cultural heritage. An empowered and aware gram sabha provides for the right, ability and opportunity for everyone to take part in decision-making, including women. The community leaders have therefore placed great importance on ensuring that gram sabhas are empowered and well-informed. Such empowerment is attempted through discussions in the MGS and through regular training programmes. An important component of this is also the continuation of traditional peer-to-peer learning. Consequently, MGS and gram sabha members also visit other talukas where similar processes are unfolding. They stay connected with each other through social media and also use local media to spread awareness. Traditional religious and cultural ceremonies are also used for self-empowerment and knowledge-sharing. Empowered gram sabhas and their MGS take up issues of well-being discussed in the monthly meetings for further action including in the areas of health, education, culture, ecological sustainability, livelihoods and others.  

Ensuring transparent and open functioning 

Openness and transparency within the MGS was guaranteed from the outset by ensuring that monthly meetings are held regularly and that issues, concerns and updates are shared by the gram sabha representatives. Delegates present all MGS proposals and discussions to their own gram sabhas, while delegates inform the MGS about their respective gram sabha’s discussions of and decisions on new proposals. The financial details are also shared and discussed in monthly meetings at the gram sabha and during MGS meetings. Past expenses are shared and future budgets are prepared during these meetings. Any changes proposed at the MGS are passed on to the gram sabhas for discussion.

Addressing social discrimination and retaining adaptability

The processes in Korchi, though embedded in local socio-cultural values and principles, have also incorporated many modern and contemporary ideas of political economy, human ecology, equity and social justice. For example, while the principle of consensus-based, inclusive decision-making and collective community action are integral to adivasi culture, greater emphasis on gender participation in decision-making, women being equal or primary beneficiaries of local economic activities, inclusion of non-adivasis (particularly scheduled castes) in decision-making bodies, are new aspects. The MGS executive body provides for equal representation regarding scheduled tribes, scheduled castes and other disprivileged classes, women and persons with disabilities. During the evolution of the processes towards gram sabha empowerment and the constitution of the MGS, the local leaders demonstrated maturity and adaptability by transforming a potentially damaging conflict situation between different ethnic groups (adivasis and non-adivasis) into an opportunity for creating dialogue towards a more open and inclusive institutional arrangement. They did this by taking into account the concerns of the minority non-tribal groups while also addressing the fears of falling into insignificance expressed by the traditional leaders of majority tribal groups. The minority groups were economically and politically more powerful than the majority adivasis. Ensuring a balance in power and privilege was important. The wisdom lay in doing away with the limitations of both the traditional and non-traditional existing institutions, without fostering fears and ill will. It was therefore ensured that traditional adivasi leaders would be granted the traditional respect and be included in various capacities, like advisory elders, but without remaining the only voice of or for their community. At the same time, the traditional jat panchayats also continue to exist. They have not remained unscathed by the ongoing debates and discussions. Many of the local social leaders are also members of the jat panchayats. Jat panchayats have therefore made some significant changes in the oppressive, discriminatory socio-cultural practices. For example, women are now part of the decision-making process even here. Similarly, it was important to continue involving the leaders of the official panchayats as their skills and resourcefulness would be useful for the process, while their antagonism could destabilise it. This was a delicate balance between challenging traditional or conventional hierarchies and power relations within and between the communities while minimising isolation, exclusion and antagonism of those who have been in power. The MSG has been successful in achieving this balance thus far, acknowledging that this is a continuous process and challenges will need to be addressed as they arise.    

Gender-inclusive decision-making 

Women Parishad’s meeting, January 2018. @Neema Pathak Broome

The inclusion of women and their concerns in the processes has likewise been a unique feature of the democratic process in Korchi. This has been possible because of a fairly long history of women’s mobilisation in Gadchiroli through empowering women’s self-help groups (SHGs) and their federations, in which Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi (AAA) played a crucial and catalytic role. Small committees of 10-20 women and men initially set up in rural India for the financial support and empowerment of women which have in many cases evolved to become agents for change through the general empowerment of women. The federation works constantly to ensure that women do find space in all decision-making processes, including gram sabhas and the MSG, and receive equitable benefits. Since the gram sabhas now serve as the decision-making bodies, not the panchayats (far away from the village), there are many more opportunities for women’s participation. Some gram sabhas have also made special efforts to ensure that meetings are held at times when women are able to attend them. Few gram sabhas, if any, have female office-bearers; women are continuing their efforts to change this. The women’s SHG federation leaders have played an important role in training gram sabhas in bookkeeping and accounting procedures thanks to the leaders’ extensive experience in SHG accounting. Korchi gram sabhas are currently handling millions of rupees and maintaining the most transparent accounts (as also acknowledged by the local government agencies). In fact, one of the leaders, Kumari bai, has also been appointed an advisor and financial consultant to the MGS. This is in addition to other SHG members holding executive positions within the MGS. 

Youth-inclusive decision-making

With party politics exerting ever greater influence, many panchayats in India are increasingly drawing in young people to engage in divisive party politics, which focuses on individuals and their amassing of power. In Korchi, however, the gram sabha processes have inspired many youths, who are engaging in the harvesting of forest produce, forest management and conservation, resistance against mining, and in the administrative activities of the gram sabhas (which require skills in account keeping, record maintenance, networking and alliance building, among others). There are many others who are caught in a tussle between these unfolding local processes and the adivasi way of being on the one hand and the lure of the market, the glamour of the dominant outside society, and the pull of right-wing religious elements on the other. The more right-wing Hindutva outfits have long striven to have adivasis considered Hindus. With the right-leaning party in power in the country, such efforts have increased in recent times. This is more common particularly among those who have been through higher education outside the villages. The MGS is constantly thinking of ways to include such youths in local processes, by engaging in cultural activities, monitoring education institutions and establishing a library, among others.

Strengthening local livelihoods and financial stability for gram sabhas

The process of direct democracy in Korchi is closely linked to the local forest-based economic processes and gaining control over means of production. In many ways, the success of the processes in Korchi is dependent on the ability of the gram sabhas and the MGS to help sustain forest-based livelihoods and economy. The gram sabhas began collecting and selling tendu patta (leaves of diospyros melanoxylon used to wrap tobacco) and bamboo, two important forms of commercial forest produce in the region, in 2017 (this had previously been exclusively controlled by the forest department). By 2019, the gram sabhas collectively received about Rs 160 million (USD 2 million)from these forest products in addition to the daily wages paid to the collecting families. Different gram sabhas have retained differing shares of this total (ranging from 5% to 20%) to cover their administrative overheads while sharing the remaining amounts equally with all families who participated in the collection, including women. 

Taking over the sustainable harvest and sale of these forest products has brought about a 70-80% increase in income at the family level and, for the first time, income for gram sabhas (which up till then had no income or funds), empowering them financially to undertake activities for village well-being. In some villages, women are their family’s breadwinner, traditionally the role of the male head of the family. Directly participating in activities related to trading, marketing, record maintenance and other associated activities also meant increased awareness and skill enhancement among the gram sabha members (including women). The overall revival and localisation have reduced outmigration, which was rampant just a few years ago. Although outmigration continues, it is rarely as much of compulsion as it was before.

Greater control over the forest-based economy has also helped the MGS demystify the job and development promises being made by the mining companies. With generally declining employment rates in the country, the local leaders’ calculations have indicated that the current combination of options open to villagers best protects local livelihoods and well-being. Agriculture and the forests provide food, while the trade of forest produce and other associated activities provide cash, leaving villagers with ample time to participate in community and collective cultural and political activities. They claim that standing forests provide more for longer and without the destruction that mining would cause. Mining companies would employ a handful of local people, mainly men and largely in unskilled work, while destroying the forests and forest-based income, affecting agriculture, causing water and air pollution, and cultivating an insecure and unsafe environment for women and children and taking away their income.

Engaging with and addressing party politics 

In 2017, the MGS discussed and felt that elected panchayat representatives had failed them in their struggles and were instead representing the corporate-politician interests in the region’s political economy. The local gram sabhas, therefore, decided to participate in Panchayat Samiti and Zila Pachayat elections to help them gain political control over the three tiers of the PRS. The gram sabhas fielded candidates under an oath to follow ethical principles accepted by the gram sabhas but lost the elections. The results of the election and events during the election period were discussed, analysed and found to be divisive, corrupting and taking a heavy toll on the unity of the collective. They felt that it may be better to work as a pressure group from outside rather than trying to engage with electoral politics. An assessment of the historical events in the district also showed that the local leaders who engaged with electoral politics were co-opted and unable to achieve the objectives for which they engaged with this system.  

Towards ecological wisdom, integrity and resilience

The recognition of rights has revived a sense of belonging over the forests that had eroded over generations because of alienating colonial policies. Since forest-based livelihoods are now locally controlled, ensuring the ecological sustainability of the forests is also seen as a local responsibility. These once-rich forests, which have deteriorated over the years because of unregulated overuse and is divided up into individual plots of land, are now being viewed differently. After receiving rights under the FRA, many gram sabhas have started making rules and regulations regarding the management and protection of forests, including a system of regular forest patrols. Such protection and conservation systems are encouraged by the MGS. Controlling forest fires has resulted in greater regeneration and richness in forest biodiversity. The FRA requires all gram sabhas to formulate management plans and strategies, including for sustainable harvesting and sale of the commercially important NTFPs. Using funds from the Tribal Development Department, some gram sabhas have begun drafting formal management plans. With or without management plans, however, many villages have successfully planted diverse local species. In almost all cases, extraction of NTFPs is carried out on rotation (ensuring that not all parts of the forest are extracted in one go). Using the FRA’s FPIC clause, villagers have already registered their rejection of the mining proposals. The threat posed by mining is not over, however.

Enablers of Resistance and Transformative Processes 

The mere enactment of radical laws such as the FRA and PESA is not enough to bring about transformative alternatives. Multiple enabling factors ensure that such laws are used to create transformation. In Korchi these include the following.

Members of 70 village gram sabhas (village councils) gathered to discuss and resist mining in their sacred forests of Surjagad, Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra. @Neema Pathak Broome.

Social capital embedded in adivasi culture – collective actions and celebrations 

Setting aside time for common and collective action including community celebrations, festivities and community welfare activities is integral to tribal cultures. This community focus and culture of seeing the benefit of others intricately liked with your own leads to people coming together for collective causes. As such, even though mining proposals would only directly affect a few villages, all 90 villages resist mining collectively. Regular community gatherings and celebrations (yatrasor annual community celebrations) have been crucial forums to discuss and develop collective strategies. Needless to say, the leaders of the transformative movement built upon existing traditions and systems to transform them into forums of socio-political discourse on conventional notions of centralised governance and politics, patriarchal systems, social discrimination, mining and resistance to it. These gatherings were also key to fostering awareness about laws like the FRA and PESA, among others. The culture of respect for elders combined with the presence of unique social leaders has played a critical role in this movement. Such leaders and elders have guided the processes and movements but often stayed away from formal positions of power, material gain and party politics. These social mobilisers invest their personal time and resources into the process without expecting a personal gain.

Continuous frictional confluence and dialectics of different socio-political ideologies – Resistance and state repression 

The continuous presence of different ideologies and strong proponents thereof has led to an uncomfortable co-existence between the socialist, Gandhian, leftist, Maoist and, more recently, Hindu right-wing ideologies. There has been a constant interplay, covert struggle for dominance and resultant dialectics among these ideologies. The upside of this has been greater political awareness, providing space for debate and allowing resistance and transformation to emerge. However, this does have a downside, namely the state repression of those who have dissenting views and are opposed to mining, with the state labelling them anti-state and anti-nation and imprisoning or harassing them. This political awareness has historically led to many resistance movements in the region.  

District-level study circle and peer-learning and support processes

One of the key factors of the effective and successful implementation of the FRA in the district as a whole has been the district-level study circle initiated by some civil society actors historically involved in processes intended to strengthen gram sabhas. Study circles provide a forum to understand local contexts, learn from each other and deliberate upon issues. They helped create a district-wide campaign calling for the implementation of the FRA as soon as it was introduced and led to Gadchiroli becoming the only district in the country where over 60% of the potential of the FRA had been realised by 2016. In addition to the district study circle, gram sabhas have also created means of exchange and learning among themselves across the district, as mentioned above. 

Role of Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi (AAA) 

Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi (AAA), a local NGO, has been active in Korchi for several decades and has worked towards improving health, forest management and women’s empowerment. The AAA has also supported local social leaders, including women as karyakarta (village activists), in a range of projects and has provided them with opportunities to interact with actors at district, state and national level and be part of various discussions and debates. This has helped enhance their existing levels of awareness, information and leadership skills and gain respect and acceptance within the larger community. The AAA has also provided timely help in accessing information and building capacity through various training programmes. This NGO has played a unique supportive role by implementing projects but not imposing and taking control of the local processes.

Jeevanshalas: a school with a difference

One such significant project was a unique education programme called the jeevanshalas (school of life), which was implemented for three years in the aforementioned villages. The concept of jeevanshalas was based on the Nai Talim (Gandhi1962) system of education, which was particularly important for the tribal children, who tuned into their forests, often found the classroom- and alphabet-based education system of regular government schools constraining and uninspiring, resulting in huge numbers dropping out. As two of the local leaders said: “We were able to be what we are because we didn’t go to the formal school after an initial few years. The school was oppressive, difficult to understand and nothing much to learn. On the contrary, when we roamed the forests we learnt so much more. We also had time to be part of the collective community activities”. Jeevanshalas envisioned education differently, where learning from the local surroundings and ecosystem was key. Those influenced by its philosophy are among the main leaders of both resistance against mining as well as the movement in support of transformation processes. 


The gram sabhas in Korchi are at different stages of empowerment. While some gram sabhas have established systems of equitable, transparent and inclusive decision-making and benefit-sharing, others are striving to reach that stage. The MGS is also continuously evolving in its structure and operation. Gram sabhas and the MGS face numerous internal and external challenges, the most significant among them being existence within the nation-state and its adopted exploitative capitalist model of economy and representative electoral democracy. Party politics, having entered all other levels of governance, now strives to control the gram sabhas. The PRS institutions at all levels are beginning to feel threatened by the emerging power of the gram sabhas, creating friction with the MGS. Religious right-wing (Hindu in this case) and cultural right-wing tribal outfits are using identity politics for political gain, some of these are supported by the mining companies and often create hurdles for the MGS and gram sabhas opposed to mining. Many local activists, including one of the core team members of this study, have been imprisoned under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which gives the state draconian powers to arrest without a warrant or evidence and keep people in police custody without bail for a certain period of time. While the state accused said team member of having connections with the armed Maoist movement in the district, it is widely understood that he was arrested for his support for the local anti-mining resistance movement and for exposing the corporate and political nexus leading to land and resource grabbing and the disempowerment of the local people.

Despite these challenges, focusing on strengthening the smallest unit of direct decision-making and ensuring that these are inclusive, transparent, financially strong and fair structures has influenced nearly all spheres of social organisation, including economic, political, ecological, cultural and social elements in Korchi. The government’s decentralisation efforts are different from the people’s movement towards self-rule and direct democracy in that the former remains fixated on the external structure rulebooks at the cost of the spirit of decentralisation, while the latter focuses on the spirit by constantly adapting and evolving strategies, structures, rules and operations to address the opportunities and challenges encountered while ensuring that the core principles of transparent dialogue, consensus-based decision-making and equity are not compromised. As a Gondi proverb says, Changla Jeevan Jage Mayan Saathi Sapalorukoon Apu Apuna Jababdarita Jaaniv Ata Pahe (“to achieve well-being, everyone needs to know what their responsibility is”). The MGS members believe that to be more effective politically, different taluka-level collectives need to come together to form a district-level federation and must also have their delegates in the state legislature, which is yet to be achieved. They hope to slowly move in that direction. 


CFR: Community Forest Resource Rights or the Right to use, conserve and sustainably manage forests over which rights were granted under the FRA 2006

FPIC: Free, Prior and Informed Consent

FRA: Forest Rights Act, also called the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006

GS: Gram sabhas or village assemblies

MGS: Maha Gramsabha or federation of gram sabhas in Korchi

NTFP: Non-Timber Forest Product

PESA: Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996

PRS: Panchayati Raj System

SHG: Self-Help Group


Gram panchayat: The elected village executive committee forming the smallest unit of decision-making within India’s PRS. A panchayat could cover one or more villages.

Gram swaraj: Village self-rule (or village republic)

Panchayat samiti/Mandal parishad/Panchayat samiti: The PRS has three levels, gram panchayat at village level, with Panchayat samiti/Mandal parishad/Block samiti at the higher level called the Mandal/Taluka/Block, which constitutes a cluster of villages.

Panchayati Raj System: System of governance adopted by India in which the gram panchayats are the basic unit of local administration and governance.

Sarpanch: Elected head of a panchayat

Taluka: An administrative unit at the level of multiple villages

Zila parishad: This is the third tier of the PRS. This tier covers a district, which constitutes multiple Talukas/Blocks. Multiple districts constitute the state.


This discussion paper builds upon a report of a study carried out by Kalpavriksh, with Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi (AAA) and members of the Korchi Maha Gramsabha (federation of village assemblies) as part of an ACKnowl-EJ (Academic-Activist Co-Produced Knowledge for Environmental Justice) project. ACKnowl-EJ is a network of scholars and activists engaged in action and collaborative research that aims to analyse the transformative potential of community responses to extractivism and alternatives emerging from resistance (http://acknowlej.org/

The authors would like to thank all gram sabha, Maha Gramsabha and Mahila Parisar Sangh members from Korchi, in particular G. Kumaribai Jamkatan, Ijamsai Katenge, Zhaduram Salame, Siyaram Halami, Govind Hodi, Sheetal Netam, Nandkishore Varagade, Hirabhau Raut, Bharitola, Lalita Katenge, Suresh Madavi, Dashrath Madavi, Sundar bai, Indirabai, Kamala bai, Manbai, Dev Sai, Deepak Madavi, Sumaro Kallo, Sunul Hodi, Narobai Hodi, Amita Madavi, Ramdas Kallo, Makau Hodi, Rameshwari Bai and Babita Bai. Zendepar, Salhe, Bodena, Phulgondi, Padyal Job, Kodgul and Tipagarh village gram sabhas for their kind hospitality and conversations. Subhadha Deshmukh and Satish Gogulwar from Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi for support and guidance during the study. Ashish Kothari, Mariana Walter, Iokiñe Rodriguez, Jérôme Pelenc, Madhu Ramnath and Suraj Jacob for their valuable comments on the original report. Special thanks to Mahesh Raut, who is one of the co-authors of the original report but could not contribute to this paper because of extraneous circumstances.


Ahmad, T. (February 2017). National Parliaments: India. [email protected]; http://www.law.gov: The Law Library of Congress, Global Legal Research Center.

Ali, M. (2 June 2016). Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nagpur/Chanda-villagers-refuse-to-withdraw-Chipko-movement/articleshow/52544294.cms. Retrieved 14 December 2019

Banerjee, R. (2013). What Ails Panchayati Raj? Economic and Political Weekly 48 (30).

Bhuria, D. (2004). Report of the Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission Vol -1. Government of India, Scheduled Tribes Commission. Government of India.

Bijoy, C. (2012). Panchayat Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 2006- Policy Brief. UNDP.

Brahmanandam, T. (2018, February 15). Review of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment: Issues and Challenges. Indian Journal of Public Administration.

Census (2011). Gadchiroli population, Maharashtra. Gadchiroli: Government of India.

CFR-LA M (2017). Promise and Performance: Ten Years of the Forest Rights Act in Maharashtra. Citizens’ Report on Promise and Performance of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. India: Community Forest Resource Rights Learning and Advocacy Process Maharashtra.

CFR-LA (2016). Promise and Performance: Ten Years of the Forest Rights Act in India. Citizens’ Report on Promise and Performance of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, after 10 years of its Enactment. India: Community Forest Resource Rights Learning and Advocacy Process (CFR-LA).

Das, D. (24 April 2011). Mendha Lekha is first village to exercise right to harvest bamboo. Times of India. New Delhi, India: Times of India.

Elwin, V. (1964). The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: An Autobiography. India: Oxford University Press.

Gandhi, M. (1962). Village Swaraj. Ahmedabad 380014: Navjivan Mudralaya.

Guha, R. (1994). Colonialism and Conflict in the Himalayan Forest, in: Guha, R.(1994) (ed.), Social Ecology. Delhi, Oxford University Press, 275-302.

Jodhka, S. (2002). Nation and Village: Images of Rural India in Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar. Economic and Political Weekly37 (32), 11.

Mining Operations in Gadchiroli Face Stiff Resistance from Villagers (28 August 2018). Available at:https://www.newsclick.in/mining-operations-gadchiroli-face-stiff-resistance-villagers. Retrieved 14 December 2019.

MoTA (2013). Statistical Profile of Scheduled Tribes in India. Government of India, Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Government of India.

Padel, F. (24 July 2014). The Niyamgiri Movement As a Landmark of Democratic Process. Available at:http://vikalpsangam.org/article/the-niyamgiri-movement-as-a-landmark-of-democratic-process/. Retrieved 14 December 2019. 

Pathak Broome, N. (2018). Mendha-Lekha- Forest Rights and Self-Empowerment, in: Lang, M./ Konig, C./Regelmann, A. (eds.) (2018). Alternatives in a World of Crisis. Brussels and Ecuador: Global Working Group Beyond Development. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Brussels Office and Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, Ecuador.

Pathak Broome, N./Raut, M. (17 June 2017). Mining in Gadchiroli – Building a castle of injustices. Available at: http://www.countercurrents.org/2017/06/17/mining-in-gadchiroli-building-a-castle-of-injustices/. Retrieved 14 December 2019.

Pinjarkar, V. (21 August 2013). Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra seeks 630 sq km new forest area for operations. Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nagpur/Forest-Development-Corporation-of-Maharashtra-seeks-630-sq-km-new-forest-area-for-operations/articleshow/21945126.cms. Retrieved 14 December 2019.

Samatha (11 July 1997). Samatha vs State Of A.P. And Ors. Available at: informea.org/en/court-decision/. Retrieved 14 December 2019 from InforMEA – Access information on Multilateral Environmental Agreements

Singh, N./Kulkarni, S./Pathak Broome, N. (eds) (2018). Ecologies of Hope and Transformation: Post-development alternatives from India. Pune, India: Kalpavriksh and SOPECOM.

von Fürer-Haimendorf, C. (1982). Tribes of India: The Struggle for Survival. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Zografos, C. (2019). Direct Democracy, in: Kothari, A./Salleh, A./Escobar, A./Demaria, F./Acosta, A. (eds.) (2019). Pluriverse – A Post-Development Dictionary. Delhi, India: Tulika Books, 154-157.

Neema Pathak Broome is a member of KALPAVRIKSH, based in Pune, India.

Shrishtee Bajpai is a member of KALPAVRIKSH, based in Pune, India.

Mukesh Shende is a member of Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi,based in Nagpur, India.

Introduction to the Democracy debate

Which democracy for systemic transformation, or how to cope democratically with a dying civilization?

A critical global dialogue on democracy

by Miriam Lang

We are currently experiencing the most serious crisis today’s dominant civilization has brought about. A civilization that is modern and colonial simultaneously, deeply marked by patriarchy, built on the invention of race, caste and a specific form of state, and capitalist class relations, as well as on the destruction of nature. COVID-19 has not only killed hundreds of thousands and brought a frenetic, it has halted the globalized capitalist economy in what economists call as the most severe recession since capitalism exists. If we want to go on living together on this planet, as human societies sharing one habitat with all other species, we simply cannot pursue the same path.

One of the biggest challenges the Corona-crisis highlights is around democracy. Democracy not understood as a set of institutions or procedures, but as the means we create for ourselves to make collective decisions about our lives and the lives of those generations who follow. The pandemic has boosted and legitimized top-down solutions, highlighting the role of national governments and international institutions as the World Health Organizations, but at the same time, it has shown the advantages that organized communities at the grassroots have if they practice self-rule (variously called autonomy, self-determination, etc.) and food/water/energy/health sovereignty.

Before the COVID-outbreak, the Global Working Group Beyond Development had already decided to dedicate a longer period of work and reflection on the topic of democracy. Or to the question of how, under the current conditions in different parts of the world, different dimensions of democracy could be deepened, in order to regain control over our own lives that seemed increasingly appropriated by the 1%. The coronavirus has added urgency to this collective challenge in a world ruled by 21st century capitalism. Thus, we invited thinkers and activists from around the world to contribute to a critical global dialogue around democracy. 

Here are some of the questions which motivated this initiative: Is democracy a stronghold of social struggles, or is it rather an institutional framework imposed by neo-colonial statism and capitalism? Why are fascism and different kinds of authoritarianism coming back through elections? How can the scandalous inequality that characterizes contemporary capitalism and severely limits democratic decision-making, be strongly dealt with? What do we understand by democracy and what not, in our respective contexts? How can we strengthen processes of collective self-determination, including different languages of dignity and self-rule (swaraj, buen vivir, ubuntu, etc) that exist in different cultural/socio-historical/civilizational contexts of the pluriverse, which might differ from the dominant language of liberal democracy?

To nourish our collective reflection, a theoretical contributions from Gustavo Esteva (Mexico) brings to the fore Ivan Illich’s intellectual heritage, while Soumitra Gosh (India) asks about the role of social movements in democratic radical transformation.

We also wanted to shed light on ongoing struggles in different parts of the world and ask about the role of different scales in systemic transformation. For instance, how can local struggles irradiate toward regional or national changes? What examples do we have for this? Neema Pathak Broome, Shrishtee Bajpai, Mukesh Shende and Mahesh Raut from India look into a fascinating case of scaling out transformation instead of “scaling it up”, as is so often proposed. Raphael Hoetmer from Peru explores the experience and impact of local consultations against mining that have proliferated in Latin America. Maxime Combes analyses the challenges of the Yellow Vests movement in France. These articles will be released progressively.

We have invited comments from other parts of the world to these contributions, which you will find in the sidebar on the right.

Our series includes short case studies, in text and video, which highlight concrete experiences of democratic transformation in different aspects or realms of life. For example, Ibrahima Thiam shows the resistance to a power plant in Senegal, Kitti Baracsi shares her insights about transforming European school education. Iokine Rodriguez and Mirna Inturias describe the kind of democracy practiced autonomous indigenous territories in Bolivia, and Arturo Guerrero Osorio shows how a reconstruction process after an earthquake in Mexico was transformed in a democratic manner. Beatriz Rodriguez-Labajos will finally analyse how artistic activities can power anti-mining struggles in different contexts.

We warmly invite you to read and share these pieces, which were produced to contribute to collective learning processes around systemic transformation.

Miriam Lang teaches at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Ecuador. She uses decolonial and feminist perspectives to study political ecology.

Democracy and transformation in the time of pandemic politics

by Mary Ann Manahan and Miriam Lang

As the world reels from historically unprecedented socio-economic and political impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19), many governments are rolling out emergency measures and guidelines for physical distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines, closing of borders, and restrictions of people’s movements in an effort to flatten the curve. Of great concern among social and labor movements, civil society, and people at large is how this global health emergency reshapes democratic institutions and democratization processes, for better or worse. This also affects the possibilities of social and systemic transformation. The current moment seems to contain very contradictory dynamics: Intense social protests that marked the second half of 2019 in many parts of the world have come to an abrupt halt and people are being stripped of their most common means of collective expression; at the same time, deep structural reforms toward more equality and, hopefully, a more reciprocal relation with nature are being put on the agenda by rather unlikely actors. The potential of territorial grassroots self-government is being deployed in places where public infrastructure fails to adequately respond to the multidimensional crisis COVID-19 has provoked.

New threats to democracy and civil rights

To collectively discuss the implications of the crisis on our daily and future lives as well as on the fate of the planet and humanity, the Global Working Group Beyond Development organized a virtual meeting. Invited activists and scholars tackled how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting democracy in different parts of the globe. Democracy here is taken as a contested and evolving praxis that spans public liberal institutions but also instituent power from below. It has local/communitarian/territorial dimensions; covers cultural, political, and economic spheres, and spans political units vis-à-vis ecological boundaries. The meeting gathered experiences and analyses from Latin America, Asia, Africa, North America, and Europe. Besides sharing our radical uncertainties, our discussion revolved around the question: how the ‘new normal’, a term which has been used multiple times to signify dramatic changes as normal fixtures of life (e.g. climate change) expose embedded structural inequalities and fissures within the dominant global capitalist model and cause devastating consequences, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable communities. But while impacts differ across countries, neighborhoods and communities along gender, ethnicity, class, race, place, geopolitics and intergenerational lines, we are witnessing common occurrences that connect us.

Many governments exploit the crisis to roll out measures to repress citizens and control public spaces, ramp up state propaganda, deploy security forces and expand digital surveillance through tracker apps and facial recognition technologies. The United Nations, for instance, has called out a dozen countries for a ‘toxic lockdown culture’ against the pandemic marked by heavy militarization and repressive measures such as arrests of 120,000 people and 26,800 people for violating curfew and stay-at-home guidelines in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, respectively. In several parts of the world like Chile, Colombia and Algeria, governments are using COVID-19 to curtail on-going social movements’ activities. Parliaments in countries like Tunisia grant their chief executives special emergency powers, which many fear result in de facto dictatorship. Countries already in turmoil such as Venezuela continue to see increased military control, resulting in stark polarization that makes it impossible for the government and opposition to work together to address the crisis. In India, the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been using the lockdown as an opportunity to further marginalize the Muslim minority and aggravate inter-religious animosity. New surveillance tools deployed by Norway, China and Israel, among others, monitor the population’s smartphones and use millions of face-recognizing cameras that not only check body temperature and medical conditions, but also track people’s movements and identify anyone they come into contact with. In some countries, constitutional rights are suspended, human rights are pitted against ‘public health’ and ‘national security’, and a culture of impunity is reinforced in the name of solving the pandemic.

The crisis has also increased the precarity of migrants, peasants, urban poor, workers, and refugees. Millions of workers are estimated to have been affected as various countries enforced lockdowns, and some of the hardest hit are stranded migrants who are forced to walk hundreds of miles to their hometowns, many starved to death and got beaten along the way by police forces for alleged violations of the quarantines. Most laborers cannot switch to ‘work from home’, instead they rely on ‘no work, no pay’ regimes, and do not have social protection. The rural poor, too, are severely affected where governments have prioritized the survival of global value chains over local ones. Many countries have favored big food retailers while shutting down small peasant or neighborhood markets, generating further concentration in the food sector.  However, there are a few hopeful spots. Initial successes of South Korea’s and Taiwan’s responses to curtail the spread of the virus provide lessons and stress the centrality of universal healthcare,  public health emergency services, and improved working conditions and training of health workers. In Europe, Greece has kept death rates exceptionally low, partially owing to a working public healthcare system.

The return of the nation-state?

This pandemic appears to have brought back the nation-state and the importance of public institutions and services to the forefront. In former discussions, we already tried to tackle the ambiguous character of the state and its role in social transformation. Some of us are advancing that bottom-up democracy, and the building of confederationalist alliances between spaces of self-governance, might have the biggest democratic potential. This entails constructing new spaces of decision-making, which are not centered on the structure of the nation-state. At the same time, others insist that the struggle for democracy must also be fought within existing national and global structures, as urgent issues like the ecological crisis – or COVID-19 – need to be dealt with on these higher levels.

The importance of quality public infrastructure, free of profitability imperatives, has been brought to fore by huge disparities in the capacity of different public health systems to respond to the pandemic.  Global inequalities also seriously undermine the potential of nation-states to provide quality public health infrastructure. On average, a vaccine reaches the global South seven years later after reaching the global North. Low capacities of public health systems like that of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s result in hundreds of unattended deaths. Here, foreign debt burdens matter, as they minimize the fiscal space for governments to respond. Public calls for debt cancellation get louder like the recent call of peoples, organizations, movements and networks in North Africa and the Middle East for the cancellation of debts and free trade agreements.

The civilizational crises exacerbated by COVID-19 seems to have opened paths for other deep structural changes around the economy that involve important dimensions of democratization. Global trade unions call for the introduction of a universal basic income coupled with social policies to guarantee decent work conditions, quality labor employment, adequate and comprehensive social protection, and wealth redistribution, a stark difference with habitual trickle-down policies. Unlikely actors like the IMF have called governments to introduce a  progressive tax reforms to tackle inequality.  Even ideas of nationalizing certain strategic industries have been put into circulation. All this points to the nation-state recovering a more Keynesian role in regulation and redistribution, which had been demonized by neoliberal ideology.

The potential of the state for transformation, however, remains contested as other dynamics suggest opposing trends. With world leaders vocally fearing the inevitability of a global recession and financial markets crash, the state— ‘big government’— is now expected to roll out stimulus packages, pump huge sums of public monies to restart the economy, and rescue corporations deemed important and sectors at risk. In the US, COVID-19 is used to shore up and strengthen Capital through massive injection of money from the Federal Reserve Board. The ‘Coronavirus Capitalism’ as noted by Naomi Klein has led to the rise of the stock market by 12%, while almost 20% of the population has plunged into unemployment. Across the Atlantic, German trade unions, critical scientists, and social movements emphasize that the bailout of aviation, automotive, and other dirty industries should be linked to socio-ecological criteria, particularly the conversion of these industries as part of efforts to decarbonize society. Democratizing society-nature relations is one of the big challenges we face today, as both carbon emissions, and more generally pollution, are highly unequally distributed in the world. In many countries of the global South, the lockdown is used by national and transnational elites to further deepen extractivism. In Ecuador, for example, environmental regulations are weakened to attract new mining projects, and mining and oil companies are given tax breaks, while the burden of austerity remains on the people’s shoulders.

Even in countries with relative successful responses, like Taiwan or South Korea, public discourse takes a ‘technocratic and/or scientific’ approach— ‘let us leave the decision making to the experts, the medical community, and scientists because they know what’s best’. This presents dangers— political leaders can conveniently hide discriminatory, unethical, and unsound policy decisions behind the science and technical evidence. Such approach also undermines a democratization of knowledge beyond western/scientific knowledge. Equally disconcerting is the lack of mechanisms for greater transparency and participation to facilitate public scrutiny, avoid blind spots, and recognize the limits of evidence-based policy. In a crisis or under a state of emergency, it is much harder to deliberate about our common future, gather a critical mass of public opinion or make protest count especially under physical distancing measures.

Transformative action at different scales

While some political actors, especially from the global North, push for a Global Green New Deal, the coronavirus has also forced a relocalization.  This opens paths for a different understanding of the economy, one that puts the reproduction of day-to-day life, instead of capital accumulation, at the center. Strategic and systemic transformative processes and people’s solidarity initiatives for genuine democracy, people’s sovereignty over their material conditions, collective self-determination, and self-rule (swaraj in Sanskrit) are proceeding amid the direst conditions. In many places of the Andes, for example, communities democratically exercise self-governance quarantining themselves collectively and strengthening bonds of reciprocity, as a prevention strategy beyond individualization and confinement to the household. They enforce prevention measures by applying community justice. Black-led cooperative movements in the US such as Cooperation Jackson that have created their own means of production – as described in the upcoming Global Working Group’s book “Cities of Dignity”- have been better prepared to cope with the lack of protective personal equipment (PPE) by providing mutual aid for production of 3D printed PPE masks for the community.

Food sovereignty has also become a crucial issue for many rural and semi-urban communities. Revival of local food systems and open localization to strive for local self-reliance are being practiced by many communities. Indigenous peoples in the upland town of Sadanga, Philippines rely on built-in and indigenous social structures, values, and practice of taking care of neighbors and kin in distress (kailyan) during crisis, where richer community members are socially and culturally expected to provide support and share their wealth to needy relatives. In India, thousands of Dalit women farmers, extremely marginalized by the caste-patriarchal system, have organized themselves to realize food sovereignty and community health by employing organic farming methods, saving traditional seeds, local knowledge and solidarity. They have also donated their seeds for COVID-19 relief. Local solidarity initiatives in the face of hunger due to the forced discontinuation of informal economic activities have proliferated throughout the world, increasing people’s relations and rootedness in their neighborhoods and villages.

Global solidarity is also being redefined by new North-South relations based on decolonized perspectives and mutual trust with various social movement-led solidarity fundraising and relief operations. Multiple advocacy initiatives call for public accountability, feminist degrowth to democratize the caring economy and all dimensions of life, and the revitalization of income guarantees, equivalent to minimum wage for all workers, to name a few. At the heart of these demands is the articulation of progressive alternatives that seek to end inequality, ecological devastation, exploitation, and conflicts produced by global capitalism, patriarchy, and statism.

As the crisis continues to unfold, if we collectively fail to make the right choices now or to push for them to be realized, the immediate and long-term consequences could be devastating. Will we succumb to a future which historian Yuval Noah Harari predicts as between totalitarian surveillance or citizen empowerment, or nationalist isolation or global solidarity? Or do we heed the counsel of Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy and use the pandemic as a gateway to a better, new world, one that breaks from the past and embraces a world in harmony with nature’s generative power and free from all forms of domination? 

This civilizational crisis challenges us to rethink our economy which ultimately will shape new societal institutions in a way that allows us to live together with all other species on this planet. As African sociologist Alpha Amadou Bano Barry points out about Africa, “to be radical is to grasp things at the root, but the root, for humankind, is humankind itself […] (we) must take advantage of this pandemic to simply recover all sovereignty, which begins with thinking about ourselves and (our) own development.”

Our collective and on-going debates point to the necessity of forging a post-pandemic future marked by new pathways and social relationships built on compassion, equity, justice, and radical democracy.

Mary Ann Manahan is a feminist activist researcher from the Philippines who works with social movements to demand equity, social and environmental justice and redistributive reforms.

Miriam Lang teaches at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Ecuador. She uses decolonial and feminist perspectives to study political ecology.

New Political Horizons: Beyond The “Democratic” Nation-State

by Gustavo Esteva

these pages, I explain why it is not
possible to eliminate the despotic nature of the “democratic” nation-state. Recognizing its limits opens up the exploration of many options
for the people to rule themselves.


Small groups of people have ruled themselves, freely formulating the norms of their ways of living and dying in their localized settings. This democratic idea has been in fact used as a principle of social organization from time immemorial in human history, in the most diverse cultures and circumstances. However, when any group begins to operate at a scale that is no longer proportionate to its political capacities, such a democratic idea transmogrifies into its opposite: despotic imposition.

institutions are counterproductive to their stated aims, because they operate
at a scale that leads inevitably to the betrayal of its raison d’etre, as Ivan
Illich warned half a century ago. What he anticipated is entirely evident today.
However, every betrayal is misconstrued: as mere defects of these institutions
or their operators that can be corrected with techno-fixes or marginal reforms.
The evidence that the health system produces illness and death, for example, is
attributed to errors or to the need for reforms or improvements, not to the
system itself.

illustrates well such counterproductivity. Today, corporations and politicians
at their service, not the people, make primarily all social and political decisions
everywhere. Corporations are in fact ruling the world. For Illich, political
majorities are fictitious groups of people with very different interests,
unable to reasonably express the common good. He explained why democracy will
not be able to survive the use that corporations can give to law and democratic
procedures to establish their empires. According to him, the modern
nation-state has become the holding corporation for a multiplicity of groups,
each of which serves its own interests; periodically, political parties gather
shareholders to appoint a board of directors. In the face of disaster, institutions
lose respectability, legitimacy and the reputation of serving the public

are now the order of the day. The world we knew is falling apart around us
every moment. Increasingly we are immersed in sociopolitical and environmental chaos,
taking us beyond naked horror. Until recently, most people believed that the
electoral procedure expressed—with honesty, transparency and effectiveness– peoples’
collective will. They also believed that representatives elected through the
dominant procedures of the day were at the service of the people: their
interests and well-being. The fact –almost always evident – is that things do
not work that way. That fact was commonly attributed to circumstantial
failures. Just as with every ritual, failures increase faith in the myth,
rather than weakening it. If it does not rain, those who participate in the
rain dance will dance with more intensity and fervor, without doubting the
validity of the ritual. The ritual generates faith, not vice versa. Such has
been the case, until recently, with “democracy”. Although some people still
trust electoral procedures and their outcome, no longer do the majority. As
Illich warned, most institutions have lost legitimacy, respectability and
reputation of serving the public interest.

centuries ago, particularly in Europe, to substitute unbearable monarchies for a
softer and more disguised despotism won out as more attractive. Out of a tacit
acceptance of a lesser evil, however, a certain fascination gradually emerged
in many places; the belief that the modern nation-state was truly democratic
grew among a great number of people. They also believed that certain
adjustments would remove its despotic expressions. Today, no one would
seriously argue that in any democratic nation-state people rule their own
lives. Today, the idea that this kind of sociopolitical organization is truly
democratic appears as a gigantic hoax, a foolish illusion and an instrument of
domination. It produces the opposite of what it promises.

original sin and its consequences

kind of “democracy” born in the West was openly contradictory with the
democratic idea. “Democratic” Greek men fiercely discriminated
against women and had slaves; they considered barbarians all people who neither
spoke a Greek tongue nor had “moral qualities” similar to their own. For
Aristotle, democracy, like tyranny or oligarchy, could never seek for the
common good. He offered several arguments against any government by the

political regime that became the universal model for the modern nation-state
was not conceived as democratic. The Federalists explained that it would be irresponsible
to put the government of the American Union in the hands of “the people:” even
if this category alluded only to white men. If “the multitude” had the power, the
country would be controlled by demagogues who would, for their own interest,
produce fragmentation: a group of small states instead of a Union would likely
arise. Sharing Aristotle’s preoccupations, the American Founders conceived a
regime, a republic, which kept power in the hands of a small elite group, with
only certain limited functions granted to some sectors of “the people.”
This republic began to be called democracy half a century later, when slavery
was formally abolished. But neither the change of name nor the amendments to
the original U.S. constitution eliminated the racist, sexist, classist character
or the despotic nature of the regime.

colonial seal of Western tradition was added to these traits to shape the
nation-state. Particularly after the Enlightenment, Westerners assumed they had
a “civility” of which certain classes and peoples lacked. They should
thus be “civilized” for their own good, even through violent, brutal means.

the democratic nation-state, the power of the people is usually transferred to a
small minority of the electorate, whose votes decide the party that will
exercise the government. (No more than 25% of the electorate appoints the
president of USA). A tiny group promulgates laws and makes all major decisions.
“Political alternation” or “democratic checks and balances”
cannot remedy such despotic operations.   

The undemocratic elements of all versions of “indirect” democracy constructed after the American model inspired in the 20th-century initiatives to make it less despotic. What has been called “participatory” or “direct” democracy, and many consider “populism”, include the initiative (that citizens directly submit bills), the referendum (the direct approval, by popular vote, of laws, policies or public decisions), the recall, consultations and other dispositives[1]. In certain cases, such as in Switzerland or California, USA, the number of issues on which they must vote, often without sufficient information or knowledge, annoys citizens. In other cases, as in Hungary, those dispositives are openly dictatorial instruments of “illiberal democracy”.

 The experience demonstrates the limits of this political regime. In no “democratic” nation-state are people actually ruling their lives, regardless of which “democratic” dispositives are introduced. The rule of a few prevails in all of them.

despotism inherent to every form of “representative democracy” has
thus become undeniable.

[1] I am using the Foucauldian notion
of dispositive, a heterogeneous set
of elements with a strategic function. For Agamben, it is “anything that has in some way the capacity to
capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures,
behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.” See
the note in the Appendix.

extinction of the nation-state and the exhaustion of capitalism

modern nation-state took shape in 1648, with the Treaty of Westphalia. The concept
acquired its conceptual and political force during the French Revolution by
combining it with nationalism, displacing or disqualifying previous concepts of
state and nation. The nation-state, moreover, was soon perceived as the fullest
embodiment of the industrial mode of production, which in turn was presented as
the natural culmination of humanity: the zenith of progress.

the nineteenth century, the modern nation-state, the political form of
capitalism, both the idea and its practical implications, were strongly criticized.
However, no critique broke its hegemony over academics, intellectuals and large
sections of the society.

the course of its evolution, capitalism operated in all sorts of dictatorial
regimes, but the democratic nation-state was preferred for the operation of the
“free market”. In spite of the worldwide vocation of capitalism,
expressed in all forms of colonialism, the nation-state always was the main
arena for its expansion.

the latter part of the 20th century, however, national borders increasingly
became an obstacle for capitalist expansion. Macro-national structures,
designed for the free movement of capital and commodities, did not solve the
problem. As a consequence, the substance of the nation-state began to dissolve.
The main function of its governments, the administration of the national
economy, became impossible: all economies are exposed to transnational
movements that are beyond the control of each nation. While national rituals
and the nation states themselves still persist as a general referent, their
raison d’être along with the material substance giving them reality have disappeared.

progressive dissolution of the democratic nation-state is also a consequence of
the fact that capitalism has come up against its own internal limits. The
political dispositives launched since the 1970s, as well as the technological “revolution”
accelerated since the 1980s, dismantled social conquests accumulated over 200
years of workers’ struggle, affecting jobs, salaries, benefits and public
services as well as economic growth. The highly concentrated and unprecedented
accumulation of “wealth” in the last 40 years killed the goose laying the
golden egg. The majority of what is produced today in the world still has a
capitalist character, but capital can no longer resort to the mechanism that defines
it: to invest profits in the expansion of production through purchasing labor
and to compensate every increase in productivity that reduces labor through an
equivalent increase in production. For these and other factors, the world reproduction
of the capitalist system is no longer feasible.

the last decade of the 20th century, economic and political leaders
began to talk about a 20/80 world: once the technological revolution is
completed, only 20% of the population would be necessary for production. This
is a highly controversial statement. But what seems to be a reality is that a
new social class has been created: disposable human beings. In the past, the
unemployed fulfilled functions for capital: its industrial reserve army. Now
and forever, the new class has no use for capital. Political and economic leaders
are continually redefining the “surplus population”, accommodating in it
new social categories. They continue asking themselves, time and again: “what
can be done with the disposable 80%?” In increasing numbers, for the time
being, they are exterminating many of them.

system has slipped into barbarism. Speculation, dispossession and compulsive
destruction are replacing production as a source of accumulation of wealth and
power. The democratic façade no longer remains useful. From the old design of
the nation-state, only the dispositives for direct or indirect control of the
population remain. New technologies give to them previously unimaginable shapes.

rule of law in democratic nation-states was the condensation of 200 years of
struggle for civil rights and democratic freedoms. It is today being replaced
by a declared or undeclared state of exception (emergency). Everywhere, new
laws are used to establish illegality as a general norm and to guarantee national
and international impunity for crimes that multiply. Instead of the rule OF
law –common norms properly enforced- we are increasingly under the rule BY

dominant irresponsible forms of production and consumption have brought
environmental destruction to extreme abuses of the most basic common sense. “Global
warming” or “climate change” become mere euphemisms. The planet
is on fire, not only the Amazon. The climate we had has been destroyed. We know
nothing of the compatibility between human life and the emerging climate.

New forms of political domination are emerging. Fascism was a phenomenon bounded in time and space. It is no longer a “problem” of our time; labeling as fascist new authoritarian regimes like Orbán (Hungary) or Bolsonaro (Brazil), only creates confusion. We can now, however, derive relevant lessons from the fascist experience – as many of its features reappear in a different historical context. The appeal to patriotic emotions as a “raison d’Etat” has been reborn, across Europe and the United States. New nationalist discourses are no longer linked to authentic national projects; “Hungarian sovereignty”, Brexit or “Make America great again” are good examples of the new political use of patriotic emotions. The formation of a survivor consciousness is encouraged, with an implicit acceptance that there will be groups of people hopelessly doomed to disappear; everywhere, that role of the “to-be-disappeared” is being assigned mainly to migrants. People now cling onto leaders to whom messianic abilities are attributed—those singularly equipped to steady the ship—within a storm now dooming all. Trump, Orbán, Bolsonaro, Modi or Johnson illustrate this process. People cling desperately to fundamentalisms—spiritual, religious, or political—as the ideas and institutions in which they trusted dissolve before their disbelieving eyes.

leaders with an open anti-democratic vocation and even fascist propensities are
currently elected or re-elected, or at least ascendant. They pretend to embody the
general discontent, promising to dismantle “the system”…  They fulfill their promise, once in power, by
dismantling whatever “democratic” elements remained. They count upon a broad
social base, especially among those most affected by the state of affairs, after
convincing them that the authoritarian option is the best hope for remedying
all their ills and discontent.

everywhere, democracy is being “democratically” dismantled.


The 21st century is now characterized by the proliferation of discontent, appearing in the most unexpected places. No space of social reality is immune. Even those who have concentrated an obscene proportion of wealth recognize the instability and dangers of the current state of affairs.

rebel “spirit of the 1960s” appeared in many mobilizations of the 1970s and
1980s, particularly in Europe. The Alternative Forum in Berlin (1988), the Campaign
of 500 years of Resistance (1992), the Counter-summit of the Earth (Rio, 1992),
and the creation of Via Campesina (1993) illustrate reactions against the
globalization of neoliberal capitalism and the New World Order. Most anti – systemic
movements celebrate today the Zapatista rebellion (Chiapas, Mexico, 1994) for their
awakening. The European marches of the 1990s, the creation of the People Global
Action Against Free Trade and the WTO (Geneva, 1998), and popular movements
like Reclaim the Streets, in England, illustrate the political climate of the

The 1999 “Battle of Seattle”, when nearly 40 000 protesters converged against the Millennium Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO), is often used as a reference point for the anti-globalization movement. Thereafter, all meetings of the WTO and many other international organizations face “counter-summits” strongly challenging them.

the wake of the Battle of Seattle, new waves of popular demonstrations articulately
expressed a diversity of discontents with the dominant system; particularly
with representative democracy. “Let them all go!” said the Argentines in 2001.
Ten years later, the Indignados, in Spain, pointed out sharply: “My dreams do
not fit into your ballot box,” while the Greeks announced that they would not leave
the squares they occupied until “they” were out. Occupy Wall Street stood
strong in New York: “You have demands when you trust that governments can
meet them. That’s why we don’t have them.” Since October 2018, the “yellow
vests”, in France, radically reject all systems of representation.


sheer survival or in the name of old ideals, common women and men at the
grassroots, the salt of the Earth, are adopting new political horizons beyond
the dominant political mentality. They are diverse expressions of societies in
movement. The term that can better express what people are weaving at the
grassroots is “radical democracy”. Going to the root of the
democratic idea, “radical democracy” rejects equally the great paternal
Leviathan and the great maternal society. The root of all legitimate democratic
power can only be the people themselves. No dispositive that transfers or concentrates
such power in any form of representation can be truly democratic.

it remains impossible to characterize and classify effectively all initiatives
being birthed, most of them share a common rejection of patriarchal, statist,
capitalist, racist, sexist, caste-ist and anthropocentric roots of the dominant
regime. Its common “NO!” opens to a plurality of “YESs!”, to radically diverse
paths and life choices.

initiatives usually start in areas or aspects of everyday life in which the
people can no longer get what they were getting before and where they can do
something by themselves to deal with the new challenges. Those areas are conventionally
associated with names that generate dependence and allude to contemporary “needs”:
food, education, health… Common women and men are now recovering verbs that
refer to personal and collective agency. Eating, learning, healing, dwelling…allude
to autonomous ways of living, juxtaposing old traditions with contemporary
innovations. Their attitude implicitly acknowledges that modern “needs” have
been created by the dominant systems, in the tradition of the enclosure of the
commons that gave birth to capitalism: the commoners, deprived of their commons
to create private property, immediately need food, dwellings, jobs… They have
become models of  modern “needy man”.


In these times of global fear, wrote the Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano, “Whoever doesn’t fear hunger is afraid of eating.”[2] Hunger is again amongst us as almost one billion people are currently going to bed with an empty stomach. Famines forgotten since the middle ages are reappearing. More and more people are currently afraid of the toxic foods offered to everyone.

solutions can be counted upon from the market or the State, the main
perpetrators of both mass hunger and food toxicity. People need to do something
to avoid starvation or to eat without fear… and they are doing it. People are
taking back their kitchens and intestines from the control of corporations. Since
1996, Via Campesina, the largest people’s organization in human history,
redefined food sovereignty: to define by ourselves what we eat … and to produce
it. They defend these ideas in relevant fora, influencing public policy, while advancing
autonomous food production and self-sufficiency. Small producers, mainly women,
feed 70% of the world’s population today. Agribusiness, which controls more
than half of the planet’s food resources, feeds only 30%.

is an impressive multiplication of community gardens. Community spaces producing
and distributing food for free proliferate. Havana illustrates well the
potential of urban farming: 60% of the food consumed in Havana is produced
right there. Arrangements between urban consumers and farmers, which apparently
started in Japan and Germany, are now everywhere.

examples are just the proverbial tip of the food iceberg. Grassroots initiatives with very modest beginnings
are coming together and begin to have collective expressions that reflect an
increasingly relevant conceptual and political shift. Old agrarian claims are
retaken, next to a renovated relationship with Mother Earth, no longer
transmogrified into a marketable commodity or “resource,” currently desecrated by
public and private developers.

[2] Global fear. Available at: https://reader-list.sarai.narkive.com/4pTXfJtw/global-fear-by-eduardo-galeano


of children currently entering schools will not reach the level that their
countries define as compulsory education; consequently suffering permanent
discrimination. Those who manage to accumulate certificates after great effort
and debt will face high unemployment rates. The market, moreover, doles out
jobs with little or no relation to what has been studied. Dispersed and chaotic
forms of education, through new technologies, severely affect the formation of
children and youth.

are resisting everywhere the dismantling of the education system that the
governments call “education reform”. Countries that started their reforms long
before the current wave –such as Finland- show interesting advances, while alternatives
IN education also proliferate. Yet, alternatives TO education–autonomous forms
of learning in freedom–are advancing even further. Millions of people, even
billions, participating in such efforts, are not part of a movement in the
conventional sense of the term. They are just courageously enjoying learning
opportunities they create beyond the school system and the media, while generating
new knowledge in non-conventional ways and participating in the generalized
insurrection of disqualified knowledge.


obvious failures of the health system and its iatrogenic effects are already supported
with statistical evidence: doctors, medicines and hospitals produce more
diseases than those they cure; prescription drugs are the third leading cause
of death in the US and Europe. Every family has suffered cases of iatrogenesis.
Such facts have intensified the efforts to reform the system, but fail to get
very far. Even the “pursuit of health,” for many, has a pathogenic character.

most interesting and effective initiatives are breaking from the dominant
notions of health and disease and even body and mind, while nurturing
autonomous healing practices and recovering familial and communal therapeutic
traditions — avoiding any rigid fundamentalisms. Gradually they are shaping
new institutional arrangements …while healing from “health.”


and private developments, producing urban and environmental disasters continue
unabated; gentrification grows; homeless people multiply.

self-construction practices are consolidated and strengthened; “cities in
transition” proliferate; squatter movements are extended and new struggles
bring to the city the spirit of those enacted in the countryside. Very diverse movements
and initiatives resist the inertia of urban life and change dominant patterns. By
reorganizing daily life, people recover self-mobility: on foot or by bicycle,
restablish family life, strengthen communal spirit…and live again their own lives.

all spheres of everyday life, people
are manifesting new attitudes, well rooted within
their physical and cultural contexts. An increasing number of people are
adopting new political horizons as they change their habits and attitudes of exchanging,
and loving. Practices such as the “social and solidarity
economy”, still embedded in the dominant dispositives, contain
organizational and conceptual elements with potential to generate radical
change. These are efforts that gradually break with the dominant regime,
although they remain exposed to continuous harassment; are still forced to use
legal procedures and practices of the democratic nation-state; and depend on it
in various contextual and practical aspects, like taxes, public services,
traffic regulations…

of these grassroots initiatives go beyond “ecological conscientiousness”.
They express an experience of relationship with Mother Earth associated with principles
of respect and reciprocity. A new sense of responsibility is continually transforming
producing and consuming habits, catalyzing the recovery of moral principles
that have long been abandoned.

are being re-claimed, as their political nature becomes evident in the
formation of new cells of social organization. Cariño becomes a political category, with a central place within
new social relations that reject both the patriarchal and economic frames of society.

Global Tapestry of Alternatives, an initiative that was made public in May
2019, aims to identify and link initiatives that challenge the dominant system
at local, regional and national levels, encouraging mutual learning, solidarity,
and political articulation. It intends to contribute to the formation of a
critical mass of initiatives that are rebuilding everywhere collective life
under new principles.

democratic ideals

initiatives all over the world are already a form of social existence that
radically reformulates the dominant democratic ideal.


There is an increasing awareness that the very root of all dominant systems is to be found in thousands of years of patriarchy. Our patriarchal ways of being and thinking, expressed in our behavior patterns, have been “normalized”. It is necessary to challenge them in all their manifestations.

has always implied a hierarchical order, established by men, in which their
control and domination operate under their assumption that their artificial
constructions are better than living expressions; the latter must thus be destroyed
and replaced. Ongoing initiatives recover a different narrative. They put the
care of life at the center of social life and insist on the elimination of
every hierarchy, every system of command, control and subordination,
dismantling democratic despotism from its base.

development and the economic society

Many initiatives were born as forms of resistance or response to specific development projects since the 1950s. Today they are already beyond development itself — in all of its meanings. There is a rejection of the universal definition of the good life and the paradigmatic American way of life that defined the development enterprise since its birth. Since the 1980s, when international institutions declared a decade lost for development in Latin America, many people got the point. Based on the official figures of the World Bank in 1988, it was possible to estimate that the “poor” countries will catch-up with the rich in 497 years; that is, never. Alternative ways of thinking, like those associated in South America with the notion of buen vivir, lead to fully recovering your own ways; while challenging commodification and homogenization endemic within economic societies and the industrial mode of production. Initiatives beyond development leave behind the conventional notion of “needs” and “consumption”, aware of its modern, patriarchal and developmentalist root; reformulating in contemporary terms the spirit of the commonsin community entanglements in very different configurations. They establish a respectful and loving relationship with Mother Earth at the center of social life.

societies are a quintessential expression of the patriarchal world. They have
been organized on the logical premise of scarcity, assuming that the desires/needs/ends
of humans are unlimited while their means/resources are limited. Therefore, a
dispositive is required to allocate those limited means/resources to unlimited
ends, to choose between butter or weapons…. The function of allocating
resources is entrusted to the market in capitalism and to the plan (government,
bureaucracy) in socialism; in reality, in all societies there is a combination
of “market” and “plan” to allocate resources. Such functions
define economic societies. Leaving their framework comes with adopting and
embracing the premise of sufficiency; while trusting the gifts of natural
abundance and abandoning the very notion of “resources”. As people are doing
everywhere at the grassroots.

counterproductive arrogance

In the 1950s, Leopold Kohr warned that ongoing economic fluctuations had ceased to be business cycles; they had become size cycles. Economic activities, Kohr argued, had reached a scale beyond the possibility of human control. In response to every crisis, however, institutional efforts usually increase the scale of control, thus aggravating the very problems they intended to resolve. Instead of more centralization and unification, what is needed is to “cantonize” economic activities, insisted Kohr. Instead of waves of masses of water in the open sea, we need to act at the scale of ponds, because their ripples, no matter how agitated, can not achieve the destructive force of oceanic waves.

the size of an elephant will collapse; a case of disproportionality. Likewise, elephants
the size of mice will also collapse because of disproportionality. Proportionality
is a central feature for both natural and social beings. Size and
proportionality go hand in hand, but not mechanically. For the people to rule
themselves, the group should have the political capability of looking together
for the common good through consensus. This can be achieved by a group
relatively big in Indigenous communities, used to the tradition of “we-ing”, but
only pretty small groups of individualized urbanites can have such political
capabilities, at least for some time.

at the grassroots seem to know all this by experience and common sense. Instead
of trying to construct dispositives or organizations of national or
international scope, autonomous initiatives take care of what is within their
reach. They construct collective and communal agreements that recover a sense
of limits and proportionality. They are increasingly certain that global
thinking is impossible. Only destruction can occur on a global scale.

classic proposal of breaking up nations to get them back to the human scale makes
more sense than ever before. Studied in some think tanksand dissident groups, the idea still lacks enough
popularity and feasibility. However, something equivalent is happening at the
grassroots. Many people are no longer adopting national horizons to define
their actions and initiatives. They are still forced to deal with national and
international state apparatuses, but they are no longer relying on the nation-state
as a legitimate or practical interlocutor.

rooted in their physical and cultural contexts are conceived as alternatives to
both localism and globalization. They are localized, but they are not locked into
their contexts. While fully committed to those local contexts, they are open to
other similar nuclei for bonding with each other. They act with a clear sense
of proportion, taking serious account of forces and phenomena of global and
national character that affect them, without adopting global perspectives to
guide their actions.

diverse initiatives collide and conjoin, it becomes necessary to construct stable
forms for harmonious interaction at various scales. Options that avoid
bureaucratic and centralized structures of power are being creatively
considered and practiced for that purpose. The National Indigenous Congress of
Mexico, for example, articulating thousands of disperse communities belonging
to different peoples and cultures, with different languages, adopted the
principle: “We are an assembly when we are together; we are a web when we are
separated”. The Congress has been in operation for 25 years, without any
central office, leaders or bureaucratic structures.

critical point seems to be to reduce the need for coordination at a national or
international scale.  At the grassroots,
most people think that there is no need to define in advance a specific political
embodiment, a certain doctrine or design, to orient collective efforts. Bridges
are built when the time comes to cross them.

September 6th-11th, 2019, a gathering took place in Iceland
to reflect on different forms of radical democracy, with examples from
different parts of the world. The participants discussed new political strategies
of grassroots groups; particularly the diverse ways in which communities and
movements can organize their collective defense in the present circumstances
and interact harmoniously and convivially beyond local, regional and even
national spaces. Members of very diverse networks and movements reflected
intensely on democratic confederalism, libertarian municipalism and other
political tools to interact, without abandoning the horizontality and
democratic elements constructed at the grassroots.

Global Tapestry of Alternatives and the Iceland meeting illustrate well the
current efforts to find ways to link people’s initiatives, without building
bureaucratic or representative structures, while avoiding doctrinarian dogmas
or utopic promised lands.

New pathways

efforts of an increasing number of people challenging dominant regimes,
constitutes the opening to radically diverse new ways of living. They imply political
attitudes that break with the conventional past but are supported in tradition
and experience.

“society as a whole” is always the product of a multitude of factors,
phenomena and forces. It cannot be programmed, and strictly speaking, it is not
even possible to think of it with any real meaning. The ongoing initiatives are
not conceived with a general or global change in their horizon, but keep a
sense of scale and proportion. They are also conceived with the conviction that
what they are constructing will be, as the Zapatistas suggested, a world in
which many worlds can be embraced. They leave behind all Leninist eagerness to
be the avant-garde, leading the masses to some promised land. They
intuit that the future has no future and that only institutions –obsessed with
progress and development– have “a future”. They pack into the present as much past
and future as they can, convinced that the survival of the human species
depends on recovering hope as a social force.

initiatives under way are shaped beyond reform and revolution. They use,
instead, new stories that firmly sweep away the old myths and integrate past
and present into a coherent set that may shed light on the steps to follow.
They change their ways to change, transgressing cultural boundaries. They are
creating new opportunities for emancipation and tracing the shape and limits of
new ways of living.

represent a renaissance of the democratic idea –people really and actually governing
themselves- leaving behind its corruption incarnated in all modern and
contemporary shapes of illusory “democracies” / “democratic” nation states.

time has come, perhaps, to abandon the loaded word “democracy” and use another
to identify and celebrate people’s direct, unmediated self-governance.

San Pablo Etla, September 2019

Gustavo Esteva is a grassroots activist and an author of more than 40 books on economics, cultural anthropology, philosophy and education.


(I am listing only the references I
used directly in the essay)


Zapatistas. The
Zapatistaexperience is both a
theoretical and practical source of inspiration for this essay. Most of the
Zapatista writing is available, in various languages, at: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx

Ivan Illich. In my view, he is more pertinent than
ever. Reading his ‘classic’ pamphlets of the 1970s is particularly useful.
(Deschooling Society, Medical Nemesis, Energy and Equity). For the themes of
this essay, see particularly the last section (V. Political Inversion) of (1973)
Tools for Conviviality.New
York, Harper & Row. (I am using almost literally ideas expressed in pp.
102-109). The whole essay is inspired in some of his more important
contributions, like the notion of counterproductivity,
the political nature and role of friendship
in social reconstruction, the critique of the industrial mode of production, going beyond reform and revolution, the sense of proportion and particularly interculturality.

Leopold Kohr. The
theory of social morphology of Leopold Kohr is central for the approach of this
essay.His classic The Breakdown of
Nations is still very pertinent. See also (1979) Development Without Aid. The
Translucent Society. New York, Schoken Books. I used for the essay specific
formulations in an article published in El Mundo de San Juan in 1958,
reproduced in Fourth World Review, 1992, 54, 10-11, as Size Cycles. See Ivan
Illich, The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr. Available at: https://centerforneweconomics.org/publications/the-wisdom-of-leopold-kohr/

Michel Foucault. I
am following some of his main lines of thinking.The notion of the ‘dispositive’,
central in his thinking, is also central in the essay. For him, it is “a
thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble, consisting of discourses, institutions,
architectural planning, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures,
scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic proportions – in
short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the
dispositive. The dispositive itself is the network that can be established
between these elements.” (Foucault blog, April 1, 1977. (1977), 299: (1980) Dits
et écrits
. Paris, Gallimard, 194; (1980) The Confession of the Flesh, in
Colin Gordon, Ed., Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings
1972-1977. New York, Pantheon Books). 
See Agamben G. (2009) “What is an Apparatus?” and Other Essays. Stanford,
Stanford University Press. (The quote in the footnote is in p.14). See Gilles Deleuze, (1992) What is a dispositif ?, Armstrong, Timothy J., Michel Foucault
Philosopher. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo, Singapore:
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 159-169. See also Raffnsøe, S./
Gudmand-Høyer, M. and Thaning, M.S. What is a dispositive?
Foucault’s historical mappings of the networks of social reality. Available at:
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/326518528_What_is_a_dispositive_Foucault%27s_historical_mappings_of_the_networks_of_social_reality. (09/28/2019) On the insurrection of subyugated knowledge see particularly (1980) Two
lectures, 78-108, Colin Gordon Ed., quoted above.

Giorgio Agamben. I
am using some of his approaches, particularly about the state of exception, the
Foucauldian dispositive and the social conditions under capitalism. See in
particular Agamben, G. / Attell, K. (2005). State of Exception. United
States: Illinois, University of Chicago Press, and Agamben, G. (2019) Creation
and Anarchy: The Work of Art and the Religion of Capitalism. Palo Alto,
California, Stanford University Press. See also: Agamben, G. / Badiou, A. /
Bennsaid, D. / Brown, W. / Nancy, Jean-Luc / Ranciëre, J / Ross, K. / Zizek, S.
(2011) Democracy in What State. New York and Chichester: Columbia University
Press; (2015) Agamben, G. From the State of Law to the Security State.
Available at: https://autonomies.org/2015/12/from-the-state-of-law-to-the-security-state-giorgio-agamben-on-the-state-of-emergency-in-france/
(09/28/2019). For the idea that future has no future, see (2012)
“God didn’t die; he was transformed into money”, an
interview with Giorgio Agamben –Pepe Savà. Available at: https://libcom.org/library/god-didnt-die-he-was-transformed-money-interview-giorgio-agamben-peppe-savà

Anselm Jappe. I
am adopting the approach of Anselm Jappe and the Krisis Group about the current
situation of capitalism, but I could not elaborate more on this theme and I
don’t do proper justice to that approach. See, in particular, (2017) The
Autophagic Society. Paris: La Découverte; (2005) Adventures of the Commodity:
For a New Criticism of Value. Available at: http://thesecrethistoryoftheworld.com/new-south-wales/anselm-jappe-adventures-of-the-commodity-pdf.php
(09/28/2019); Jappe, A / Latouche, S. (2015). Pour en Finir avec l’économie: Décroissance et critique
de la valeur. Paris, Libre & Solidaire; Kurz, R. (1999).
Schwarzbuch Kapitalismus. Frankfurt, Eichborn Verlag; Krisis-Group. (1999).
Manifesto against Labour. Available at: http://www.krisis.org/1999/manifesto-against-labour/
(09/24/2019), Kurz, R. (2000) Against Labour, Against Capital: Marx 2000.
Available at: https://autonomies.org/2016/11/against-labour-against-capital-marx-2000-by-robert-kurz/

Gustavo Esteva. I did publish many of the main ideas of this essay,
in English, in (1993)
A new source of hope: the margins. Montreal, Interculture; (1995) “From ‘Global
Thinking” to ‘Local Thinking’; Reasons to Go beyond Globalization towards
Localization”, with Prakash, M.S. Osterreichische Zeitschirift fur
Politikwissenschaft. 2, 221-232; (1996) “Beyond Global Neoliberalism to Local
Regeneration: The International of Hope”, with Prakash, M.S. Interculture.
XXIX, 2, Summer/Fall, 131, 3-52; (1998) Grassroots postmodernism: remaking the
soil of cultures, with Prakash, M.S. London and New York: Zed Books; (1998) The
Revolution of the New Commons, in: C. Cook and J.D.Lindau (Eds.), Aboriginal
Rights and Self-government. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press; (2001) The
Meaning and Scope of the Struggle for Autonomy. Latin American Perspectives.
28, 2, 117, 120-148, March; (2001) Mexico: Creating Your Own Path at the
Grassroots, in (2003) Benntholdt-Thomsen,V., Faraclas, N. and Von Werlhof, C. eds.,
There Is an Alternative: Subsistence and Worldwide Resistance to Corporate
Globalization, Victoria: Spinifiex 
Press/London and New York: Zed Books; (2007) Oaxaca: The Path to Radical
Democracy. Socialism and Democracy, 21, July, 74-96; (2009) Another
Perspective, Another Democracy, Socialism and Democracy, 23, 3, 45-60; (2010) The
Oaxaca Commune and Mexico’s Coming Insurrection, Antipode, 42, 4: 978-993; (2010) From the Bottom-up: New Institutional
Arrangements in Latin America, Development, 53, 1, March, 64-69.

references in alphabetical order by themes.


Harvey, D. (2014). Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Boston, Profile Books.

Holloway, J. (2002). Changing the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today. New York, Pluto Press.

J. (2010). Crack Capitalism. New York, Pluto Press.

J. (2016). In, Against and Beyond Capitalism: The San Francisco Lectures. Oakland,
PM Press.

The 20/80 world and Tittytainment are associated with the first State of the World Forum, in the Fairmont Hotel, in San Francisco, 1995. Gorbachov, Bush, Thatcher, Havel, Gates, Turner, and many other leaders considered unavoidable the world 20/80. Zbigniew Brzezinski coined the word: tits and entertainment. A note on tittytainment available at: https://www.facebook.com/notes/stop-the-war/tittytainment-the-word-tittytainment-was-coined-for-the-first-time-in-1995-by-th/380342564403/ (09/38/2019)


McGibben, B. (1989) The End of Nature. New York, Random House. and (2019) Falter. Has de Human Game Played Itself Out. New York, Henry Holt and Co.

Democracy and social movements

S. / Escobar, A. (1992) The Making of Social Movements in Latin America:
Identity, Strategy and Democracy. Boulder, Co., Westview Press.

Spanish journal published a brilliant piece on democracy in 1992. I am using a
few of its ideas. La illusión democrática. Archipiélago N.9. Reproduced in
Opciones, 31, 19/03/1993, p.3.

Berry, W.“Properly
speaking, global thinking is not possible”. (1991) Out of Your Car, Off
Your Horse, The Atlantic Monthly, February, 61-63

Bishop, J. In a brilliant short piece he asked 30 years
ago how it was possible to maintain that any of our societies are democratic,
and posed all the pertinent questions.(1989)
Democracy, Aristotle, Marx and the Contemporary Myth. State College, PA,
Pennsylvania State University, Science, Technology and Society Program

Cronin, Th. (1989) Direct Democracy. The Politics of
Initiative, Referendum, and Recall. Cambrisge and London, Harvard University

De Sousa, B. has been defending democracy and explaining
how it has been democratically dismantled. See, in particular, De Sousa, B.
(ed.) Democratizing Democracy. Beyond the Liberal Democratic Canon. New York,
Verso Books.

A. (2008) Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham,
Duke University Press.

Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the
Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham
and London: Duke University Press.

Global Tapestry of Alternatives. https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org/es/ (09/28/2019)

Gutiérrez R. and others (2011) Palabras para tejernos, resistir y transformar
en la época que estamos viviendo. Cochabamba: Pez en el árbol.

Hamilton, A. / Madison, J. and Jay,
J. (2000) The Federalist. A Commentary on the Constitution of
the United States. New York, The Modern Library. See also (2002) Ellis, J.J., Founding
Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York, Knopf; (2000) Jennings, F.
The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire. Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press. For a recent discussion of “sovereign immunity” (how the
rulers are legally protected) see (2019) Justice John Paul Stevens, The Making
of a Justice: Reflection on my First 94 Years. Boston, Little Brown.

Lummis, D. (1996) Radical Democracy. Ithaca and London:
Cornell University Press. (See in p. 47 the estimate about the number of years
required for the poor countries to catch-up with the rich countries.)

Nandy, A. wrote an excellent critical piece on the
creation of the modern nation-statein
(2010) 295-307, W. Sachs, ed. The Development Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge
and Power. London & New York, Zed Books. His bibliography mention both some
the classics and very pertinent contemporary texts.

Tooze, A. (2019) Democracy and
Its Discontents. The New York Review of Books, 66, 10, 52-57, 06/06/2019.

Via Campesina. https://viacampesina.org/en/ See https://www.etcgroup.org/whowillfeedus
for information about advances on food sovereignty.

Wilentz, S. (2019) No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the
Nation’s Founding. Boston: Harvard University Press.

R. has been closely observing the political scene in Latin America,
particularly at the grassroots. See particularly (2019) Ramor, R. / Zibechi.
R.  Dispersing Power: Social Movements as
Anti-State Forces. Chico, Cal., AK Press; Zibechi, R. (2012) Territories in
Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements. Chico, Cal., AK Press; (2017).
Movimientos Sociales en América Latina: el “Mundo Otro” en Movimiento. México,
Bajo Tierra Ediciones. His column refers frequently to the themes of the essay.
particularly El fin de las sociedades democráticas en América Latina, La
Jornada, 13/10/2017, available at: https://www.jornada.com.mx/2017/10/13/opinion/021a1pol Also Insurrecciones silenciosas, La
Jornada 10/11/2017, available at: https://www.jornada.com.mx/2017/11/10/opinion/020a1pol

Development and postdevelopment

Alonso González, P., & Vázquez, A. M. (2015). An
Ontological Turn in the Debate on Buen Vivir – Sumak Kawsay in Ecuador:
Ideology, Knowledge, and the Common. Latin American & Caribbean Ethnic
Studies, 10(3), 315–334.

Altmann, P. (2014). Good Life As a Social Movement Proposal
for Natural Resource Use: The Indigenous Movement in Ecuador. Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable
Development, 12 (1), 82
– 94.

Escobar, A. (1994) Encountering Development: The Making and
Unmaking of the Third World. New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Quick, J., & Spartz, JT (2018). On the Pursuit of Good
Living in Highland Ecuador: Critical Indigenous Discourses of Sumak Kawsay.
Latin American Research Review, 53 (4), 757–769.

Sachs, W. ed. (2010, 2d. edition). The Development
Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge and Power. London & New York, Zed Books.
See in particular Sachs’ preface and introduction, my own piece on development,
Vandana Shiva on Resources and Ivan Illich on Needs.

Patriarchal frame

Von Werlhof, C. (2013) Destruction through “Creation” –
The “Critical Theory of Patriarchy” and the Collapse of Modern Civilization.
Capitalism Nature Socialism, 24, 4, 68-85.

Von Werlholf, C. (2015) Critical Theory of Patriarchy. Oaxaca, Mexico: El Rebozo Palapa Editorial.

Gustavo Esteva is a grassroots activist and an author of more than 40 books on economics, cultural anthropology, philosophy and education.

On reading Esteva’s ‘Beyond the Democratic Nation-State’

by Arie Salleh

Sydney January 10th, 2020.

Gustavo Esteva writes with the sincerity and simplicity of one deeply experienced in the politics of everyday life. He rarely calls on academic terms, unless there is good reason. So his essay opens by tracing the idea of democracy from Ancient Greece, through the Treaty of Westphalia, French Revolution, and on to the US Constitution. At every turn, he shows the practice of democracy has been incoherent and exclusionary of class, race, and sex-gendered others. But as the article continues, Esteva does visit a couple of philosophic themes that may be worth looking at more closely. 

Esteva explains that the class structure of neoliberal capital is characterised by what Giorgio Agamben has called a ‘surplus population’ with no place in the economy. This precariat is a global labour class who cannot labour. But a further class of disposables, beyond Agamben’s original focus, is not even designated a ‘class’ in Left analysis. This is because it is not seen as part of the production sector. Women worldwide mainly inhabit the re-production sector – and women as bodies are regularly disposed of. 

In the small affluent nation of Australia, an average of one woman is murdered each week in the home by her life-partner. In India, young men often follow a gang rape by incinerating the woman’s used body. In Argentina, the law forbids abortion even if the mother is too ill to carry the child to term. Her life is disposable; the newborn is not. The same logic applies to commercial surrogacy ‘womb rentals’ entered into by poor Thai women. Again, the body of the prostitute provides men with the convenience of disposable sex. 

The point of these remarks is not to criticise Esteva in any way at all. He is rare among radical thinkers for his sensitivity to the international epidemic of violence on women. Rather, I want to suggest that the concept of surplus population and human disposability might be more widely applied in discussions of democracy. 

A second academic theme introduced by Esteva is the subtle yet authoritarian governance by ‘the dispositive’. As Agamben would say: ‘anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.’ 

A case in point could be the privately funded Earth System Governance project, administered from Lund, and aiming to rationalise environmental law so as to administer it through new transnational state agencies. Or for another example, consider the ambitious 2015 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, which are full of good intentions, yet embedded in the ecologically contradictory eurocentric premise that global economic growth is a precondition for ‘the good life’. 

Esteva points to a further dispositive in the form of the United States’ project for the full militarisation of daily life by means of the Internet of Things. This involves people becoming internet dependent for the management of every conceivable activity from baby monitoring to refrigerator defrosts. Thousands of space satellites, some already in place, will furnish 5G telecommunications technology in this classic instantiation of the dispostitive. There will be routers along every street servicing homes and electric cars; and trees may need to be removed where these interrupt the weak 5G signal. 

The Internet of Things as latest incarnation of ‘progress’ will call for a massive increase in mining and industrialisation; a rise in energy consumption and global warming; other ecological and human health impacts of 5G technology are contra-indicated; there are privacy implications; and whole societies will be vulnerable to hacker attack. In deliberating on the nature of 21st century democracy, the Working Group Beyond Development might give serious attention to these political impacts of information technology. 

By contrast, Esteva, in the fine tradition of Ivan Illich, has pioneered arguments for commoning and local eco-sufficiency. And he enjoins the ‘global tapestry of alternatives’ project called for by recent post-development thinkers. As Esteva says: 

Instead of trying to construct dispositives or organizations of national or international scope, autonomous initiatives take care of what is within their reach. They construct collective and communal agreements that recover a sense of limits and proportionality. They are increasingly certain that global thinking is impossible. Only destruction can occur on a global scale. 

Ariel Salleh is an Australian sociologist in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney who writes on humanity-nature relations, social change movements, and ecofeminism. 

Community resistance to a Power Plant in Senegal

by Ibrahima Thiam

A fisher community leaving in Bargny at 15km from the city of Dakar is facing the consequences of an industrialization program of the Senegalese state praised to be the way for economic emergence. The socioeconomic change and mutations resulting from the series of projects have deep impacts on the community’s livelihoods.

The economy of Bargny employing more than thousand
fishermen and at least one thousand women drying, and packaging fish products is
threatened. The SOCOCIM Cement industry was granted of 241 ha land, the
creation of the Bargny-Sendou mineral and bulk port occupies 650 ha and the
urban Pole of Diamniadio stands on a1,644 ha. The installation of the future
mining port stands as a real threat for the fishermen. Bargny is also hit by
the global warming and its coasts belong to the most impacted in Senegal with a sea rise level of 2 Meters. Families are affected while some of them are
displaced and their family structures are destroyed.

Today a main part of the youth sees the illegal migration as the alternative. The skepticism of the communities is based on the contradiction between economic growth praised by the State and the threatening of their livelihoods. When land grab and Meer grab meet the no involvement of the communities to the decision-making processes, there is no democratization’s process.

A resistance movement is organized to defend the rights of the communities through campaigning and denouncing the industrial aggression and the luck of respect of their economic, social and cultural rights. Their complain to the African Development Bank (ADB), the West African Development Bank and BOAD and the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) have been approved and todays in spite of the construction of Sendou power plant, the Senegalese government has decided to stop the coal project.

Ibrahima Thiam is with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Dakar and works on natural resources, vulnerabilities and alternatives, and Climate change.

Resistance and devotedness: learning democracy under pressure

by Kitti Baracsi

we imagine democratic education as entire school communities practising
participation, to what extent can schools escape the current approach taken in
the public education system? What if they encounter hostility and restrictions?
Can we learn democracy through transgressions and resistance? This article
tells the story of three school communities where participation and solidarity
are growing under pressure.[1]
Examining democratic practices on the ground and the conflicts that arise gives
us insights into what is at stake in state schools.

a say, feeling part of a community

your kids attend a state school, you usually just take them there and pick them
up. Nobody ever asks you how
to do things, so in return, you do
[1] .
That’s it; somehow you become too unconcerned. But this school was different.
We had to think about what was important to us”, says Katalin Walter, whose daughter attended Vadgesztenye school in Pécs-Somogy,
on the outskirts of Pécs, Hungary.[2]
This small, previously pretty much unknown state elementary school made
national news following the rise and fall of a community-based project launched
in 2017.[3]
It all began with an idea by Erika Csovcsics, who at the time ran the group of
institutions to which this small school belonged.[4]
Radical methodological changes had been introduced, e.g. working in
mixed-age groups, with some teaching done outdoors, in nature for instance.
Many of the introduced practices emphasised the
importance of the community. Accordingly, a number of middle-class families
decided to enrol their children at this school, which was already caught up in
the segregation process.[5]
They could have chosen to send their children to another school, but felt they
would get an exceptional education there. The
initiative counted on the participation of families, with working groups formed
to reach decisions about educational issues and to closely monitor what went
on at the school.

Protest, Granada, 2018 (Photo by Kathryn Palmateer)

know, the principal reason for enrolling my children at this school was the organic canteen”, was something that parents of kids
attending the Gómez Moreno elementary school in Albayzín, a district of Granada
in Spain, would often say.[6]
The issues here are not simply the importance they attach to their children’s
eating habits and health, or teaching food sovereignty. Since the school
canteen has been managed by the families’ association for 17 years now, parents’ direct involvement and collective
decision-making in assemblies, like the organisation of a wide range of
programmes in addition to the canteen, give the families involved a sense of
community and agency.[7] This provided a perfect ground[2]  for initiating the
learning communities (comunidades de
)  project[8]
back in 2015.[9]
This project focuses on joint educational actions designed to foster social and
educational transformation based on two key factors: interaction and community participation.  Among other things, it entails direct involvement in so-called ‘interactive groups’, lessons
where families and other volunteers play curriculum-related games with the children in small groups. According to María Dolores López López[10], the
school’s chief of studies and volunteer
coordinator over the last 4 years, this project enabled better
collaboration between the families’ association
and the school and also contributed towards the school’s significant
improvement, as reflected in the rising number of enrolled students and greater
public recognition. The families warmly welcomed the project. As she put it:
The best moment was the so-called dreaming when families talked
about the school they’d aspired for their children. It was a[3] [4] 
moment of faithfulness”.

in action

nine years, Marisa Esposito has been the head teacher at the Stefano Barbato
elementary school in the 69º teaching district in Barra, a neighbourhood of
Naples in Italy, where she has taken several initiatives aimed at enabling
families and the community as a whole to play an active role. Talking about the importance of community and the fight
against the territory’s disintegration, she mentioned a ‘time bank’, a
grandparents party, events with local artists
and a project on neighbourhood legends, in which mothers found a narrative
space to talk about their life, suffering and childhood. “We believe in
idea of the
[5]  educational community. Whatever we teach children, they
must find it at home, too”, she said in an
interview in 2018.[11]
According to Marisa Esposito, the neighbourhood where she was brought up has
changed over the years, turning into a place where fear and individualism
dominate due to the presence of organised crime. She therefore sees the main
purpose of the school as being to restore cohesion in the local community.
According to her, though, families do not see how education could offer their
children a better future. Still, the school is almost their only reference
point, since the neighbourhood has no other cultural spaces. Marisa’s mission
through the years has been to include Roma students. Thanks to her approach,
based on her experience as a social educator, [6] children felt free to go to her office and ask for advice or

the changes introduced at the Vadgesztenye school were drawn from extensive
experience and seemed to work, transforming it from an establishment with few,
mainly underprivileged pupils into a place where middle-class pupils and poor,
mostly Roma children met.[13]
“I guess there’s no need to explain how important it is to reduce social
inequalities and raise underprivileged children by educating them in Pécs.
Likewise, it’s unnecessary to say why it is important for well-fed middle-class
children to learn how to communicate with them and be sensitive to their needs.
Because as adults, they will live together”, writes Judit Szentendrei, a
mother whose children went to this school.[14] She
explains that her family, along with others, consciously decided to face this
challenge, taking tiny steps and facing many failures along the way. The families
treat the school and local environment as a place in which to act for
solidarity. Indeed, according to Judit Szentendrei, the biggest success story
has been that her children learned how to live alongside others.

Vadgesztenye, Pécs, 2018 (Photo Antal Szentendrei)

how to live together is also a central issue in the Gómez Moreno school, which
has children of approximately 25 different nationalities, some from foreign
middle-class families (referred to as guiris
by the locals), and others from local foster homes, with very diverse
backgrounds. The learning communities include participation in classroom
activities and decision-making, among other things. The work on participatory
processes and solidarity seems less deliberate than
it is in Vadgesztenye, but encountering different people and other realities is
part of everyday life for the children and their families. A transformation is
under way, but progress is slow. This project, as in Barra, crucially hinges on
the presence of teachers previously trained in specific methods as well as on the
dedication of the school’s management team.


The school canteen in Gómez Moreno is the only organic one run by an
association of families in
Andalusia. So
its struggle is also symbolic. Unlike some other
regions in Spain, in Andalusia there is no law giving priority to family-run
organisations, so they have to compete in the
same tenders with huge catering companies offering lower prices but also
inferior quality, since they do not operate a kitchen on site (e.g. use
local ingredients), but transport food over fairly
large distances. In 2018, this prompted families −
and not for the first time − to take to the streets, shouting ¡No me toques la olla! (Don’t touch my
cooking pot!) and then barricade themselves inside the school for a week in a
display of resistance. A major caterer won
the tender, which was published and closed earlier
than usual, without the association being informed or
invited to take part in it.[15]
But their protest was successful, and the catering company decided to hand over
its contract to the association. However, their victory was only partial,
because for two school years the association have t[7] o
run the canteen for the price set in the tender whilst at the same time trying to
adhere to their organic and environmentally friendly principles.[16] The association of families, along with other associations
and platforms[17],
is now calling for a change in the regulations,
Clara Bermúdez Tamayo explained.[18]
That said, the demonstrations seem to have helped to build a sense of
community, one mother, Raquel Hernández Benítez, describing them as
“exercising a collective struggle, teaching children through first-hand
experience that when something is not right, we organise ourselves to fight it.
This is fundamental to active, critical and intelligent citizenship”.

In the case of Barra, as explained above, it is the
overall context that makes change difficult to achieve, especially introducing
the idea of Roma inclusion. Even those who agreed that Roma children also need
an education did not defend the head teacher when other parents attacked her
As she went on to point out, people are more prejudiced against Roma than
against criminals, to whom they have become more accustomed. After many
years of collaboration between the school and the Association N:EA[20], families seem to be accepting the presence of Roma children,
admittedly with a degree of resignation, but as something increasingly commonplace[8] . Also, thanks to Roma inclusion projects[21] introduced in a few classes, Roma and non-Roma children have access to improved teaching methods [9] and are
involved in a wider range of activities. For instance, some teachers have been
trained in cooperative learning. In this regard,
notwithstanding their genuinely problematic aspects[22], these
projects benefit the entire school community, partly due to the head teacher’s commitment to use them to realise her vision.

is lentejas me las dejas! (Hands off my lentils!) Protest, Granada, 8 May 2018 (Photo Kathryn Palmateer)

In 2018, Erika Csovcsics’s application to become[10]  the head
teacher at the Vadgesztenye school was
unsuccessful, and the new head teacher’s arrival has
changed everything, returning to the ‘traditional’ approach despite the
families’ efforts to reach an agreement. When families started to protest, they
were accused of wanting a school where studying was unnecessary and told
that administrative failings were the reason for bringing in a new principal. In the end, the families
managed to find a semi-private solution: learning groups were formed with the
children enrolled in a school in a nearby village, based on a special
agreement. “For me, the main achievements were that we managed to find a way
out and succeeded in keeping the group together. You know, we were the very
families who could have looked for another school, but we resisted for a really
long time because we didn’t want to leave others behind who might have had no other option”, added Katalin Walter. However, this arrangement only ended up lasting a year.[23]

This was no isolated case. Many alternative schools and learning
group initiatives are not exactly welcomed by the
Hungarian government. The recent amendment of the public education law[24]
introduced changes in how home schooled status
can be obtained
[11]  and
to curriculum requirements affecting private alternative
The teachers and families see this as an attempt to
restrict projects that go beyond the centrally imposed agenda and have hitherto
been a refuge for families who did not want to comply with it.

and devotedness

examples described above feature different agents of resistance, but power
relations within communities are another important aspect to consider. In the
case of the Vadgesztenye school, reversing the spiral into segregation by
bringing in middle-class families seemed the only way of
saving the school. A similar situation began to take shape at the Gómez Moreno
school, which had also seen fewer pupils enrolling over a number of years.
However, in the Albayzín district, the presence of Spanish and foreign
middle-class families in the school must be seen within the overall local
context, characterised by gentrification and the conflicts deriving from it.[26]

Still, the stories in this article show how resistance by a school community, albeit fleeting in some cases, and devotedness, can change children’s education. The three examples depicted here show that transgressing the dominant bureaucratic, methodological or ideological approach can prove effective for a while, though repressive dynamics kick in again when conflicts emerge. Flexibility and initiative are key factors in enabling such projects. But hostility on the part of the public administration also seems to inspire families and activists to some extent to take control of their kids’ education and call for change in the state education system. These initiatives are often tolerated and sometimes even supported (co-financed or recognised) by the authorities, but when it comes to conflicts of interests, bureaucratic arguments take precedence. Still, resistance enables these communities to create, learn and relearn democratic processes, think about their local context and take action based on their conclusions. A situated pedagogy works with critical interventions that incorporate the particularity of a place: it understands and combats structures of oppression with reference to the immediate context.[12] [13]  (Gruenewald 2003, Kitchens 2009). After all, thinking in these terms, what better way could there be of learning democratic resistance through first-hand experiences than fighting for local initiatives and adopting a solidarity-based approach?


Gruenewald, D. (2003).
Foundations of Place: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Place-Conscious
Education, in: American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 619–654.

Kitchens, J. (2009).
Situated Pedagogy and the Situationist International: Countering a Pedagogy of
Placelessness, in: Educational Studies. 45(3) Critical Geographies in/of
Education, 240–261.

INCLUD-ED Strategies for
inclusion and social cohesion in Europe from education. Final report, (2012)
Available at:    https://www.comunidaddeaprendizaje.com.es/uploads/materials/13/7a62b64132b4508ba1da8cbcc2043ac6.pdf  Final report. 2012.

J. (2018). Commuting to segregation. The role of pupil commuting in a Hungarian
city: between school segregation and inequality, in: Review of Sociology 28(4),
133–151. Available at: http://szociologia.hu/dynamic/szociologia_2018_04_133_151_oldal.pdf.

[1] The author carried out
research projects at each of the described schools. See for instance Fare rione, fare scuola, a project run by the Orangotango
Collective under the Schools of Tomorrow programme of the House of the World’s
Cultures (HKW) in Berlin. The author is also involved in
the learning communities at the Gómez Moreno

[2] The interview for this
article was conducted in September 2019.

[3] For instance: https://index.hu/belfold/2019/01/02/pecs-somogy_vadgesztenye_altalanos_iskola_csovcsics_erika_tankerulet_klik_pava_peter_hatranyos_helyzetu/

[4] Erika Csovcsics previously ran the Gandhi High School in
Pécs, the first Romani high school, founded in 1992.

[5] The segregation process referred to
here entailed non-Roma families starting to send their children to other
schools, other families doing the same and the number of new enrolments
dwindling. To learn more about the situation in Pécs, see a recent study on
commuting and segregation (Zolnay J., 2018).

[6] http://www.easp.es/blogmsp/2018/06/04/el-comedor-ecologico-gomez-moreno-un-espacio-de-promocion-de-la-salud-infantil/.

[7] AMPA Gómez Moreno Amigos de una Escuela Mejor

[8]  For more information about the learning
communities project in this particular school: https://www.observatoriodelainfancia.es/participanda/proyecto-comunidades-de-aprendizaje-del-ceip-gomez-moreno/

Information and methodological support in Spanish:  http://comunidadesdeaprendizaje.net/,  Actuaciones Educativas de Éxito https://www.comunidaddeaprendizaje.com.es, or the report of the
INCLUD-ED project https://www.comunidaddeaprendizaje.com.es/uploads/materials/13/7a62b64132b4508ba1da8cbcc2043ac6.pdf

[9] The project was devised by a group of
teachers in collaboration with the head teacher, Isabel López.

[10] The interview was
conducted in September 2019 for this article. María Dolores López López continued to work as a
volunteer coordinator under new leadership starting from the 2019/2020 school

[11] The interview was
conducted by Paola Piscitelli in 2018.

[12] She worked as a maestra di strada (social educator).

[13] The number of newly
enrolled pupils rose from five in 2014 to 25 in 2018.

[14] From the open letter to
Péter Páva (head of the Pécs school district), written by Judit Szentendrei,
one of the mothers. Date: 12 December 2019. Translated by the author.

[15] https://www.ideal.es/granada/ceip-gomez-moreno-20180605194140-nt.html

[16]  https://www.elsaltodiario.com/educacion/familias-gomez-moreno-recuperan-comedor-acuerdo-empresa

[17] Plataforma por una
Alimentación Responsable en la Escuela (Comedores responsables), Escuelas de
Calor AMPA de Sevilla, Confederación Andaluza de AMPAs, FAMPA Granada

[18] Interview conducted in
September 2019 for this article.

[19]An hepatitis A epidemic triggered a violent
conflict between some families and the head teacher. The families accused the
Roma pupils of being the source of infection, while the head teacher defended
her position on including Roma children. https://ponticelli.napolitoday.it/barra/epatite-scuola-genitori-accusano-rom.html

[20] Associazione N:EA (Napoli: Europa Africa)

[21] The school is one of a number taking part in the ministerial project Progetto per l’inclusione di bambini e
adolescenti rom, sinti e caminanti
(Project for the inclusion of Roma,
Sinti and Caminanti children and adolescents).

[22] Such projects have
been criticised by professionals and researchers,
among others, for the discontinuity of their funding and for focusing on intervening at
the level of education without offering real solutions for Roma people’s
exclusion from the labour market and housing, thereby sustaining their
long-term marginalisation.

[23] When another head teacher
was appointed to run the village school, there was no way of maintaining the
former agreement, so children had to start the current school year dispersed across various schools.

[24] 2019/LXX, amending national public
education law 2011/CXC.

[25] Until recently, this status had
offered a way of participating in small, hitherto non-institutionalised
learning groups, while staying within the state education system.

[26] To learn more about the
neighbourhood’s problems, as seen by the children and other habitants, see the information on the  Albayzín, Human
Heritage project, involving collaborative
ethnographic research carried out in the school since 2018 by Kitti Baracsi,
Gloria Calabresi, Dario Ranocchiari and many other volunteers committed to the
learning communities project. http://lefthandrotation.com/museodesplazados/ficha_ceipgomezmoreno.html https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpZzLK42XzjdMaeXVzPi0Lw/videos

Kitti Baracsi is an educator, researcher and activist specializing in collaborative methodologies and critical pedagogy.