Président Vicente Fox © Diario REFORMA
UPDATE: Mexico-Chiapas, Reports on the Governments

IN FOCUS: Alternative Development or an Alternative to Development?

“Only when you have cut the last tree, fished the last fish and contaminated the last river, will you realize that you can’t eat money”
– Native American saying

Economic globalization: One market, One world

The celebration of the 3rd Summit of the Governments and Heads of State of the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean in Guadalajara (Jalisco, Mexico) May 28th and 29th, 2004 demonstrated very different visions of the concept of ‘development‘.

This “official” Summit was to follow up on the project of establishing a “bi-regional strategic association” initiated between the countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and the European Union (ALCUE) in Rio de Janeiro in 1999. This association would, among other things, “stimulate international economic cooperation in order to promote integrated and mutually beneficial trade liberalization as a way to increase prosperity (…)” (The Rio declaration, 1999)

This 3rd Summit centered around two main objectives:

  1. “The strengthening of multilateralism”: support for joint actions between countries on issues of peace and international security, international financial structures, external debt, and cooperative development;
  2. “Social cohesion”: cooperation on all issues related to poverty; social development policies, democratic government, the generation of employment, the distribution of wealth, and migratory flows.

The strategies and objectives for these bi-regional relations are framed by what has come to be called “economic globalization.” This type of globalization implies the promotion of a large network of commercial exchange relations, that is, one big market. The establishment of this kind of market requires that the countries involved change any laws which represent obstacles to the free circulation of capital, whether financial (money), productive (raw materials and manual labor), or commercial (goods such as food, clothing, domestic appliances, and services).

This mode of global economic organization has been in practice for decades. In 1949 (after the World War II and in the middle of the Cold War), Harry Truman, upon assuming the presidency of the United States of America, defined as the mission of the “free-world” (that is, the capitalist world) to end all poverty and to contribute to the development of “under-developed” nations. The so-called “era of capitalist development” was born, giving rise to the distinction between “developed” and “under-developed” countries and effectively exporting to all nations the model that today we know as “Neoliberalism.”

The neoliberal development model

During the 1940s, it was thought that an economic globalization governed by trade and technology would end social inequality and poverty. Thus emerged the category of countries “on the path to development,” with the implicit assumption that these countries would eventually catch up to the “First World.” In reality, according to the World Bank’s own report on World Development from 1990, the rich have continued to get richer, while the poor have only gotten poorer.

More recently, a 2002 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on ‘the Least Advanced Countries’ (LAC) shows that in these countries, extreme poverty has doubled in the last 30 years and now affects 307 million people. The report predicts that, if the current economic tendencies persist, the number of people that live on less than one dollar a day in the LAC will pass 420 million by the year 2015.

Meanwhile, the principle objective of the neoliberal project consists of eliminating the two main barriers to achieving a single global market: customs tariffs, which countries impose on imports of external goods; and subsidies, with which countries protect their domestic industries and producers. In this framework, international cooperation between countries is one more way of ‘helping‘ people achieve Western-style development.

Critiques of the neoliberal development model in Guadalajara

The neoliberal model of development has been increasingly called into question because of its requisite transformation of all forms of existence (not just in economic terms but also in social, political, and cultural ones) towards competitive production and commercialization. However, the critiques of and alternatives to the neoliberal economic model, in which the distribution of capital and power stay in the hands of the few, are in themselves very diverse.

As a response to the ‘official‘ Summit in Guadalajara, multiple NGOs and a variety of social organizations held simultaneous “social forums” in order to discuss alternatives to the policies of the European Union in Latin America.

In one social forum, “Linking Alternatives”, there were present very distinct postures in critique of neoliberal development. On one hand were the organizations that question the actual carrying out of the Free Trade Treaties between Latin American and European governments. These organizations support a development respectful of human rights and propose to use the mechanisms established by the trade treaties themselves, such as, in the case of the Trade Agreement between the EU and Mexico, the so-called ‘Democratic clause’ and ‘Social Observation‘, as instruments for civil society to control the human rights violations caused by these policies.

On the other hand are the social movements and organizations that consider the politics of the European Union to be part of a new economic and cultural colonialism that uses the discourse of democracy and human rights as a ‘Trojan Horse’ in order to gain legitimacy in imposing its policies. For these organizations, every culture should be free to decide its own life project and to invent ways of combining the fight against poverty with the protection of the environment based on the experience of its people.

The declaration from the social forums in Guadalajara, released jointly by Latin American and European civil society, rejects the neoliberal policies that in both continents are generating more inequalities as well as the privatization of health, education, and culture. The European Union, the declaration claims, does not represent a real alternative to United States policies in Latin America. On the contrary… “it uses foreign aid policies as an instrument to facilitate the penetration of their own companies, and (…) the cooperative agreements in matters of security contribute to the militarization of the continent.”

In opposition to this strategy, members of civil society demand:

  • The primacy of civil, political, economic, environmental and cultural rights over trade liberalization
  • The promotion of a model of aid based on solidarity
  • The commitment of developed countries to designate at least 0.7% of their GDP to development funds and to the search for new ways of redistributing income in both the national and international arena orientated towards the fight against poverty, support for sustainable development, and social justice policies, such as social security and taxes on speculative capital transactions.
  • The renegotiation of public external debt
  • That all development funds financed by the EU must be defined through consultation with and the full participation of the people affected, as stated in Agreement 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The diversity of alternatives to the current economic model range from positions of confidence that the State can still be an actor in limiting the negative impacts of neoliberal policies, to “anti-system” positions which search to construct new proposals that don’t recognize or rely on the State.

Resistance and the search for alternatives

Indigenous communities have represented one of the principle movements against the policies of planned development; their survival outside the mercantile world is one demonstration of the possibility of a diversity of realities and cosmovisions that can inhabit the earth.

“A world in which there are many worlds” was the demand of Chiapan Zapatistas to redefine the nation-state as a place in which many different cultures could have their place. Later this demand was converted into one of the principle slogans of the alter-globalization movement against a cultural homogeneity driven by current global capitalism.

The Zapatista Caracoles (literally, “snails“) and their project of autonomy have put neoliberal projects in check by establishing territorial control over their regions and through the reconstruction of communal life through collective projects and the creation of autonomous governments.

The Caracoles have also generated transformations in the field of international aid by deciding for themselves what type of aid they will accept, including when, how and for what that aid is directed. The networks of solidarity that have formed between national and international civil society and the autonomous Zapatista governments represent a reversal in the relations of superiority-inferiority (where the donor decides how and for what funds are used) implicit in many internationally-funded projects. This new approach and the conditions imposed by the Zapatistas on any development projects in their regions has sometimes generated hostility and discomfort among those who arrive from outside intent on their own way of working. In any case, this type of collaboration operates on very different terms then the economic interests of “globalization,” and responds to the necessities that the “autonomous” determine for themselves.

This resistance project, along with others, coexists, although not easily, with governmental projects:

“In our cooperative, we each give $70 (Mexican pesos). We value our project. If the government gives you a project, they don’t even ask you what you want, what you need. They give you money to do the project that they decide on. You are not going to value it. But they accustom us to these methods and our own projects are left to sink.”
(Juanita, Xomé Ixuk – Women’s Organization ‘Las Margaritas’)

But beyond Chiapas, there exist experiences and struggles all over the world that look to transform the way we live together, recognizing themselves as the bearers of perspectives of the world that differ from that of the west.

In December 2003, a colloquium on “América Profunda” (‘Deep America”) was held in Mexico City where representatives of “indigenous self-affirmation” movements from the Americas met with guests from New Zealand and India to talk about their identity, their struggles, and their hopes.

This project was launched by the Centro de Encuentros y Díálogos Interculturales (CEDI) (The Center for Intercultural Meetings and Dialogues) in Oaxaca, an initiative of Gustavo Esteva to find within so-called “cultural regeneration” new forms of living through the reinvention of culture itself. La Universidad de la Tierra (The University of the Earth) in Oaxaca encourages the construction of new spheres of community. This includes reconstituting cultural roots in order to rediscover local philosophical thought, food sovereignty (from cultivation to preparation), the art of living, communal organization, and ways of healing, of learning, and of seeing space and time; in summary, a unique way of living based on communality.

Proponents of the neoliberal economy accuse the people of being the greatest destroyers of the forests, ignoring the fact that dam construction and industry imposed by neoliberal projects have actually generated the greatest environmental changes.

“To transform in accord with nature is something that contradicts the neoliberal model (…) because it denies any future for humanity. The alternatives to this dysfunctional model have been shown at the World Social Forum, in the Movimiento de los Sin Tierra, (the Landless Movement in Brazil), through the theology of ecology, cultural regeneration, and the deification of nature.”
(Jorge Santiago, DESMI)

Based on these alternatives, the “Manifesto against the Green Desert and in for Life” was signed last May in Brazil in which more than 100 Brazilian entities denounced the socio-environmental disaster caused in the last 35 years by the planting of monocultures of eucalyptus and pine that have supplied raw materials for the iron, steel, and cellulose industries while doing serious harm to ecosystems and populations. The manifesto affirms that, contrary to neoliberal thought, “Indigenous people have demonstrated that they are capable of maintaining the forests because they have done so for thousands of years.” In India there is a well-known movement called Chipko, where women hug trees as a way of protecting the forests from destruction.

The delegation of Chiapan social organizations present in Guadalajara released a special declaration requesting a moratorium on the project Socially Integrated and Sustainable Development in the Lacandon Jungle, financed by the United States via an agreement made directly with the Chiapas state government (the only existing agreement of this nature in Mexico). The declaration argues that this project does not comply with Agreement 169 of the International Labour Organisation, which requires prior consultation with the people to be affected by any development project.

The region affected by the project is inside the Chiapas conflict zone, an area visible since 1994. Italian researcher Luca Martinelli, member of the organization Manitese, has investigated the project. Martinelli recalls that many civil and social organizations warned of the risks of the project beforehand, demanding transparency from the government in the agreement process, as the said plan “Conditions, traps, and binds the people and their communities to a dependency on the environmental services market: that is, to a payment system for access to the forests, water, carbon drains, and scientific eco-tourism.”

Martinelli notes that one of the project’s objectives is “to reduce poverty through participatory and sustainable land development, which, according to the parties in the agreement, will directly benefit the state government by enabling a more effective reformulation and application of social development policies.” Martinelli points to “the counterinsurgency character of programs implemented in territories where there is social and peasant opposition when also present are the interests of the World Bank, transnational corporations, and social programs that divide and create conflict between indigenous peoples.”

Martinelli also questions the method of measuring poverty reduction by the number of families with a minimum wage, rather than by the level of self-sufficiency and food sovereignty that they are able to maintain.

Food sovereignty is not only a method of survival but also an alternative way of living that doesn’t make people’s ability to feed themselves dependent on foreign policy. In this regard, Via Campesina (the largest global network of peasant and agricultural families) declared itself against the 2004 Report of the United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO), titled: ‘Biotechnology: Responding to the needs of the poor?” The FAO maintains that biotechnology could be a solution for world hunger and an ever-growing population, and that the only problem in this schema is that genetically modified crops are not reaching the poor.

Via Campesina claims that hunger is not related to technology but rather to social injustice—the lack of access to food and the control over its distribution by transnational companies that “want to manipulate our crops in order to be able to control the food chain at a global level, forcing us to stop producing food – even locally – and obligating everyone the world over to consume their products.”

Developmentalist discourse has distorted the meaning of the word “Prosperity.” The word originally comes from the Latin pro spere, which means “in accordance with hope.” Prosperity depends on the hopes and desires of every person, not on what each can consume or produce in order to be registered on the World Bank graphs that measure “poverty levels”.

We should all start to rethink “development“: for what and for whom? What is poverty? What is aid? Who defines it and who controls it? What can we do today to change the tomorrow that has already been defined for us? The most likely will be to recognize the multiplicity of ways of dreaming and imagining what we hope for in life and to discover the true poverty of uniformity.


  • Sachs, Wolfgang (coord.), Diccionario del desarrollo, México, Ed. Galileo y la Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa, 2001
  • América Profunda. Un ejercicio de reflexión en la acción, México, Proyecto (2003)
  • Arriola,J., y Aguilar, J.V., Globalización de la Economía, El Salvador, Equipo Maíz, 2001.
  • Ribeiro, S., “La FAO declara la guerra a los campesinos” en www.argenpress.info (17/06/2004)
  • WRZ, “Rotunda manifestación en Brasil contra el Desierto Verde y a Favor de la Vida”, en Ambiente y Sociedad, AÑO 5, Nº 163 (16 de junio de 2004) en www.ecoportal.net