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These Alternative Economies Are Inspirations for a Sustainable World

No one in her village faced food shortages during the lockdowns, nor did they suffer from COVID-19, Moligeri Chandramma assured me through an interpreter this past March. A farmer in the drylands of southern India, she grows more than 40 species and varieties of crops—mostly native millets, rice, lentils and spices—on a bit more than…

Local Futures, an organization dedicated to strengthening communities worldwide, in August 2020. “Focusing on the local has helped us improve access to and affordability of a great diversity of food products—especially native potatoes, quinoa, kiwicha, other Andean tubers and maize, which we cultivate using Indigenous agroecological methods.” The communities instituted strong health and safety measures when the pandemic hit, even as they harvested a bumper crop and distributed more than a ton of potatoes to migrants, the elderly and a shelter for abused teenage mothers in Cusco town.

In Europe, many “solidarity economy” initiatives, which promote a culture of caring and sharing, swung into action when COVID-related lockdowns rendered massive numbers of people jobless. In Lisbon, Portugal, the social centers Disgraa and RDA69, which strive to re-create community life in an otherwise highly fragmented urban situation, reached out with free or cheap food to whoever needed it. They provided not only meals but also spaces where refugees, the homeless, unemployed young people and others who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks could interact with and develop relationships with better-off families, creating a social-security network of sorts. The organizers trusted those with adequate means to donate food or funds to the effort, strengthening the feeling of community in surrounding neighborhoods.

The pandemic has exposed the brittleness of a globalized economy that is advertised as benefiting everyone but in fact creates deep inequalities and insecurities. In India alone, 75 million people fell below the poverty line in 2020; globally, hundreds of millions who depend for their survival and livelihoods on the long-distance trade and exchange of goods and services were badly hit. Similar, albeit less extreme, dislocations also appeared during the 2008 financial crisis, when commodity speculation, along with the diversion of food grains to biofuel production, precipitated a steep rise in global grain prices, leading to hunger and food riots in many countries that depended on imported food. Threats to survival also emerge when war or other dislocations stop the movement of goods. In such crises, communities fare better if they have local markets and services and can provide their own food, energy and water while taking care of the less fortunate.

Woman showing handful of seeds selected from one of the containers on the table in front of here.
People gathered in protest.
Moligeri Chandramma manages the DDS seed bank (top). It contains more than 70 species and varieties of crops. People gathered (bottom) in 2005 to mark 20 years of sustained protests against dam construction on the Narmada River. Credit: Ashish Kothari

The value of these alternative ways of living goes far beyond their resilience during relatively short-term upheavals like the pandemic, however. As a researcher and environmental activist based in a “developing” country, I have long advocated that the worldviews of peoples who live close to nature be incorporated into global strategies for wildlife protection, such as at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity. And in recent decades I have come to agree with critics of globalization such as social scientist and environmentalist Wolfgang Sachs that fending off calamities like biodiversity collapse will require not only environmental adaptations but also radical changes to the dominant economic, social and even political paradigms.

In 2014 a few of us in India initiated a process to explore pathways to a world in which people are at peace with one another and with nature. Five years later (and fortuitously, just before the pandemic hit), the endeavor grew into an international online network we called the Global Tapestry of Alternatives. These conversations and other research indicate that viable options, no matter where they are, tend to be based on self-reliance and solidarity.

Such values are at odds with globalization, which delivers to denizens of the Global North (the better off, no matter where we live) many things that we have come to regard as essential. In contrast to the promise of ever increasing material wealth that underpins our civilization, peoples who live near or beyond its margins have a multitude of visions for living well, each tailored to the specifics of their ecosystems and cultures. To walk away from the cliff edge of irreversible destabilization of the biosphere, I believe we must enable alternative structures, such as those of the Dalit farmers, the Quechua conservers and the Lisbon volunteers, to flourish and link up into a tapestry that ultimately covers the globe.

An Enlightening Journey

Growing up in India, where lifestyles that are intimately entwined with the natural environment survive in large pockets, unquestionably influenced my ideas of what constitutes true sustainability. In the 1970s, as a high school student who loved bird-watching in forests around Delhi, I joined classmates to demonstrate outside the Saudi Arabian embassy when some princes arrived in the country to hunt the (now critically endangered) Great Indian Bustard. Our protest, along with that of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan, which traditionally protects these birds and other wildlife, embarrassed the Indian government into requesting that the hunters go home. Many of us went on to campaign for protection of the Delhi Ridge Forest, one of the world’s biggest urban jungles. In 1979 we formed an environmental group to systematize our efforts. We called it Kalpavriksh, after a mythical tree that makes wishes come true; the name symbolized our growing awareness that nature gives us everything.

Our activism would teach us at least as much as we learned in school and college. While investigating the sources of Delhi’s air pollution, for instance, we interviewed villagers who lived around a coal-fired power plant just outside the city. They turned out to be far worse affected by its dust and pollution than we city dwellers were—although they got none of its electricity. The benefits of the project flowed mainly to those who were already better off, whereas the disempowered experienced most of the harms.

In late 1980 we traveled to the western Himalayans to meet the protagonists of the iconic Chipko movement. Since 1973 village women had been protecting trees slated for logging by the forest department or by companies based in the Indian plains with their bodies. The deodars being felled, as well as the oaks, rhododendrons, and other species, were sacred, the women told us, as well as being essential for their survival. They provided cattle fodder, fertilizer and wild foods and sustained their water sources. Even as an urban student, I could see the central role that rural women played in protecting the environment—as well as the injustice of distant bureaucrats making decisions with little concern for how they impacted those on the ground.

Panoramic view of Parque de la Papa in Peru.
Quechua Indigenous women having a conversation.
Quechua indigenous women selling potatoes.
Parque de la Papa (top) in Peru is one of the original homelands of the potato. The Quechua Indigenous people (middle) govern the region as a “biocultural heritage” territory, conserving a remarkable diversity of potatoes (bottom). Credit: Ashish Kothari

Soon after, my friends and I learned that 30 major dams were to be constructed on the Narmada River basin in central India. Millions worshipped the Narmada as a tempestuous but bountiful goddess—so pristine that the Ganga is believed to visit her every year to wash away her sins. Trekking, boating and riding buses along its length of 1,300 kilometers, we were dazzled by waterfalls plunging into spectacular gorges, densely forested slopes teeming with wildlife, fields of diverse crops, thriving villages and ancient temples, all of which would be drowned. We began to question the concept of development itself. Surely the destruction would far outweigh any possible benefits? Almost four decades later our fears have proved tragically true. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people still await proper rehabilitation, and the river downstream of the dams has become a trickle—enabling seawater to reach 100 kilometers inland.

Over the years I came to understand how powerful economic forces reach around the globe to intimately link social injustice with ecological destruction. The era of colonization and slavery vastly expanded the economic and military reach of some nation-states and their allied corporations, enabling the worldwide extraction of natural resources and exploitation of labor to feed the emerging industrial revolution in Europe and North America. Economic historians, anthropologists and others have demonstrated how this painful history laid the foundation of today’s global economy. Apart from driving irreversible ecological damage, this economic system robs many communities of access to the commons—to rivers, meadows and forests essential for their survival—while creating a dependence on external markets. The massive suffering during the pandemic has merely exposed these historical and contemporary fault lines.

During my wanderings over the decades and especially while researching a book with economist Aseem Shrivastava, I became aware of a far more hopeful trend. Across the country and indeed around the world, hundreds of social movements are empowering the marginalized to wrest back control over their lives and livelihoods. In 2014 Kalpavriksh initiated a series of gatherings called Vikalp Sangam, or Confluence of Alternatives, where the drivers of these spirited efforts could come together, share ideas and experiences, and collaborate, helping to build a critical mass for change.

These interactions and eclectic reading gave me insights into a vital question I was investigating: What are the essential characteristics of desirable and viable alternatives? Happily, I was far from alone in this quest. At a degrowth conference in Leipzig in 2014, I was excited to hear Alberto Acosta, an economist and former politician from Ecuador, speaking on buen vivir, an Indigenous worldview founded on living well with one another and with the rest of nature. Although Acosta spoke no English and I spoke no Spanish, we tried excitedly to converse; subsequently, degrowth expert Federico Demario joined us and helped to translate. We decided to work on a compilation of thriving alternatives from around the world—jotting down 20 possible ideas on the back of an envelope. Later we roped in development critic Arturo Escobar and ecofeminist Ariel Salleh as co-editors of a volume we called Pluriverse. The number of entries expanded to more than 100.

Commonalities

Though dazzlingly diverse, the alternatives emerging worldwide share certain core principles. The most important is sustaining or reviving community governance of the commons—of land, ecosystems, seeds, water and knowledge. In 12th-century England, powerful people began fencing off, or “enclosing,” fields, meadows, forests and streams that had hitherto been used by all. Enclosures by landlords and industrialists expanded to Europe and accelerated with the industrial revolution, forcing tens of millions of dispossessed people to either become factory workers or emigrate to the New World, devastating native populations. Imperial nations seized large portions of continents and reconfigured the economies of the colonies, extracting raw materials for factories, capturing markets for exports of manufactured goods and obtaining foods such as wheat, sugar and tea for the newly created working class. In this way, colonizers and their allies established a system of perpetual economic domination that generated the Global North and the Global South (the world of the marginalized, no matter where they live).

The wave of anticolonial movements in the first few decades of the 20th century, many of them successful, sparked fears that supplies of raw materials for industries and markets for finished goods of higher value would dry up. President Harry S. Truman responded by launching a program for alleviating poverty in what he described as “underdeveloped areas” with their “primitive and stagnant” economies. As detailed by ecologist Debal Deb, newly formed financial institutions controlled by the rich countries helped the ex-colonies “develop” along the path blazed by the West, providing the materials and energy sources for and creating markets for cars, refrigerators and other consumer goods. An integral aspect of development, as thus conceived, propagated and usually enforced by stringent conditions attached to loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has been privatization or state confiscation of the commons to extract metals, oil and water.

Five circles form a flower-shaped Venn diagram of intersecting realms: economic, political, social, cultural and ecological.
Credit: Federica Fragapane; Source: “Alternatives Transformation Format: a Process for Self-Assessment and Facilitation towards Radical Change,” prepared by Kalpavriksh for ACKnowl-EJ (chart reference)

As Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, demonstrated, however, the commons are far more sustainably governed by the communities from which they are wrested than by the governments or corporations that claim them. This awareness has given rise to innumerable grassroots efforts to protect the surviving commons and reestablish control over others. What constitutes the commons has also expanded to include “physical and knowledge resources that we all share for everyone’s benefit,” explains sociologist Ana Margarida Esteves, who helps with the European Commons Assembly, an umbrella organization for hundreds of such endeavors.

Many of the efforts resemble the DDS and the Parque de la Papa in using community governance of commonly held resources to enhance agroecology (smallholder farming that sustains soil, water and biodiversity) and food sovereignty (control over all means of food production, including land, soil, seeds and the knowledge of how to use them). The food-sovereignty movement La Via Campesina, which originated in Brazil in 1993, now includes about 200 million farmers in 81 countries. Such attempts at self-reliance and community governance extend also to other basic needs, such as for energy and water. In Costa Rica, Spain and Italy, rural cooperatives have been generating electricity locally and controlling its distribution since the 1990s. And hundreds of villages in western India have moved toward “water democracy,” based on decentralized harvesting of water and community management of wetlands and groundwater. Mobilizing people to sustain, build or rebuild local systems of knowledge is essential to such ventures.

Secure rights to govern the commons are also important. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Sapara Indigenous people fought hard to gain collective rights over their rain-forest home. They are now defending it against oil and mining interests while developing a model of economic well-being that blends their traditional cosmovisions—ways of knowing, being and doing that are physically and spiritually linked to their environs—with new activities such as community-led ecotourism. Their income from tourism has dropped during the pandemic, but their forests and community ethic give them almost all the food, water, energy, housing, medicines, enjoyment, health and learning that they need. They are now offering online sessions on their cosmovisions, dream analysis and healing. I participated in such sessions in person in their Naku ecotourism camp in 2019. The virtual version is not as immersive but nonetheless represents an innovative adaptation to the circumstances.

Greening cities or making them more welcoming, as the Lisbon social centers do, also requires community-based governance and economies of caring and sharing. Across the Global South, development projects have driven hundreds of millions of people to cities, where they live in slums and work in hazardous conditions. Wealthy city dwellers could do their part by consuming less, which would reduce the extraction and waste dumping that displace people in faraway places. A spectrum of avenues toward more equitable and sustainable cities has emerged. These include, for example, the Transition Movement, which is attempting to regenerate the commons and make European cities carbon-neutral, and the municipalism movement, which is creating a network of Fearless Cities, among them Barcelona, Valparaiso, Madrid and Athens, to provide secure environments for refugees and migrants. Urban agriculture in Havana supplies more than half of its fresh food requirements and has inspired many other city farming initiatives around the world.

Five Petals

These initiatives point to the need for fundamental transformations in five interconnected realms. In the economic sphere, we need to get away from the development paradigm—including the notion that economic growth, as m

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