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The phrase ‘economic development’ has bad associations in Latin America

There are better ways of living; we don’t have to prioritise growth above everything else.

For many of us in Latin America the phrase “economic development” is associated with – among other things – poverty, the exploitation of natural resources, environmental disasters, social discrimination, economic dependence and the criminalisation of protest.

Latin America is the most unequal region in the world, with 10% of the population possessing 71% of the wealth. Environmental disasters and climate change are on the rise and, as a consequence, so is the rate of migration within and across borders.

And here in Bolivia our previously protected national parks are being opened upto oil and gas drilling, potentially endangering communities, indigenous rights and precious biodiversity.

In theory, economic development – created as a goal in the social imagination and promoted by our governments and privileged sectors – will bring benefits in terms of economic investment and technological advances. Agricultural, hydrocarbon, monoculture, mining and hydroelectric projects are presented as initiatives that will generate regional income, local employment and technological innovation.

In reality, many economies of the region remain dependent on the export of raw materials (increasingly to China), ultimately to satisfy consumer appetites in developed countries. And we see devastating impacts from such projects, such as the collapse of the levees at the Samarco dam in Brazil last year, which released a 62 cubic metre river of toxic slurry through populated areas. Swathes of South American virgin forest have been cleared to plant GMO soya crops (pdf) for the global meat market. There are many more examples.

Latin America is one of the world’s biggest regions for mining exploration and is second in the world for oil reserves. We believe it’s no coincidence that governments that have tried to resist the extraction of natural resources for the benefit of foreign interests have found themselves on the receiving end of military intervention, and been replaced by governments more willing to allow access to cheap materials and labour.

Naomi Klein has written about the way that the coup which toppled Salvador Allende was quickly followed by a massive dose of ‘shock doctrine’ as state-owned industries were privatised, government spending cut and trade barriers torn down. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s pliable regimes went along with the structural adjustment policies of the Washington Consensus, designed to liberalise trade and investment.

Communities in the path of extractive projects have become more determined to resist, exposing them to greater repression and criminalisation. Mining conflicts are rife across Peru, while Latin America also tops the list for the number of killings of environmental activists, with most of the murders related to mega-projects for the exploitation of raw materials. Such was the case with indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, who was shot dead after organising resistance to the proposed Agua Zarca dam.

But one discourse challenging the concept of economic development in Latin America is the idea of Vivir Bien, translated (awkwardly) as “living well”. These ideas owe much to the perspectives and practices of indigenous peoples. Many such communities in Bolivia have retained community ownership of their territory as well as collective management of their resources. There are exampleswhere access to land and basic services guaranteed by these arrangements are able to provide a bulwark against the dynamics of commercialisation and privatisation, which often lead to dispossession and generate inequalities.

The concept of “living well” is not synonymous with the models of economic growth and consumerism that economic development brings about; it is becoming ever clearer that these are not true indicators of wellbeing. Economic development in its current model has not only brought more negative consequences than benefits to Latin America, it has also put the planet at risk – with the impacts of accelerating climate change particularly evident in the region, especially in Bolivia.

The time has come to seek alternative ways of organising our lives that don’t reproduce colonial relations of power, inequality, submission and exploitation, and don’t assume the abuse of the marginalised and the destruction of our ecosystems as part of the natural order of things.