by Arturo Escobar | 15 Jun 1999

June 1999



In recent years, the debates on biodiversity have begun to embrace the importance of local knowledge, cultural diversity and traditional production systems for managing the planet's genetic resources. Less known or debated is the fact that social movements in some parts of the world are crafting their own conceptualization of biodiversity and its appropriation and conservation. This "political ecology framework", is distinct from those developed by other prominent actors, such as progressive intellectuals and NGOs. Social movement activists have developed their views in the context of two factors: dominant visions of biodiversity conservation on the one hand, and the defence of local culture, ecologies, and territories on the other. The social movement of black communities in the Pacific rainforest region of Colombia illustrates this perspective on biodiversity.


Current concerns over biodiversity center on the rapid pace of genetic erosion. There is great disagreement about many issues, including the type of human actions most responsible for the depletion of diversity and the recommendations for solutions. There is a growing realisation that the essential value of biological diversity is dependent on both its biological dimension (the genetic front, which embodies millions of years of evolution) and the cultural dimension (the manifold practices of local farmers associated with traditional plant and crop varieties). For some, cultural and genetic diversity are so inextricably linked as to make both "gene and memory banking" inseparable sides of the same strategy.

In the biological sense, biodiversity is defined as the natural stock of genetic material within an ecosystem. But "biodiversity" goes well beyond the scientific domain. It is an example of the coproduction of technology, science and society. Biodiversity can be thought of as fostering a transnational network that encompasses diverse sites in terms of actors, practices, cultures, and stakes. Each actor's identity affects, and is affected by, the network. International institutions, NGOs, botanical gardens, pharmaceutical companies, and scientific "experts" occupy the dominant sites of the network. The "truths" they produce might be resisted or re-created to serve other ends, for instance, by social movements. From a dominant perspective, the aim is to create a stable network for the movement of objects, resources, knowledge, and materials by relying on a simplified construction, most effectively summarized in biologist Daniel Janzen's motto about biodiversity: "you've got to know it to use it, and you've got to use it to save it." Looking at the resulting network, it is possible to distinguish four main positions: globalocentric, national sovereignty, progressive NGO, and social movement perspectives.

Globalocentric perspective

The dominant view arising from the network emphasises resource management. This view derives from dominant institutions, such as the World Bank and the big northern environmental NGOs, and is supported by industrialised countries. It is based on a particular representation of the threats to biodiversity and emphasises symptoms and band aids rather than underlying causes. This perspective proposes appropriate mechanisms for biodiversity management, including in-situ and ex-situ conservation and national biodiversity planning. It focuses on intellectual property rights as the chief mechanism for the compensation and economic use of biodiversity. It also promotes the problematic practice of bioprospecting, which has serious impacts, including the loss for small farmers and indigenous peoples of rights to their own plants and knowledge. The Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) underlies the basic architecture of the network.

Sovereignty perspective

The dominant globalocentric perspective is challenged by some Third World governments which, without questioning it in a fundamental way, seek to renegotiate the terms of biodiversity treaties and strategies. Although there is great variation in the positions adopted by Third World governments, they tend to emphasise issues of sovereignty, particularly in international fora such as the CBD. Some countries strongly oppose policies favoured by industrialised nations, such as certain aspects of intellectual property rights; others call on rich countries, particularly the US, to negotiate on key issues, such as technology transfer and biosafety protocols.

Progressive NGO perspective

The real challenge to the resource management orientation comes from both progressive NGOs and social movements. They see the globalocentric perspective as a form of bioimperialism, and instead promote biodemocracy. By reinterpreting the threats to biodiversity (putting emphasis instead on habitat destruction by megadevelopment projects, monocultures of the mind, agriculture promoted by capital and reductionist science, and the consumption habits of the North), biodemocracy advocates shift the attention from South to North as the root of the diversity crisis. Its advocates promote a radical redefinition of production away from the logic of uniformity and toward the logic of diversity. Biodemocracy is articulated around a series of requirements based on local control of natural resources and support for practices relying on the logic of diversity, including recognition of the cultural basis of biological diversity. Progressives oppose intellectual property rights over biodiversity and advocate collective rights that recognise the intrinsic value and the shared character of knowledge and resources. This view thus contests the most cherished constructs of modernity, such as positivist science, the law of the market, and individual property and ownership. The NGOs advancing this position constitute subnetworks at national and transnational levels that are still poorly understood.

Social Movements' perspective

A second challenge to the globalocentric perspective is crafted by social movements that explicitly construct a political strategy for the defense of territory, culture, and identity. While having many points in common with the progressive NGO perspective, this view is distinct conceptually and politically and occupies a different role in the biodiversity network. Activists in these movements use the dominance of biodiversity as an issue of concern as a conduit to protecting their entire life project, not just their genetic resources. In many cases, concern over biodiversity has followed on from broader struggles for territorial control. In Latin America, a number of valuable experiences have taken place in this regard, chiefly in conjunction with the demarcation of collective territories in countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil. The experience of one such movement is outlined below, highlighting the broader perspective on biodiversity it has developed.

The Colombian experience

The emergence of social movements for the defence of natural resources predates the biodiversity question. In recent years, however, a number of social movements, particularly but not solely in rainforest areas, have been confronting the biodiversity question head on. Such is the case with the social movement of black river communities in the richly diverse rainforests of the Colombian Pacific.

The emergence of this movement has taken place against a complex backdrop. At the national level, significant events included the opening up of the Colombian economy to world markets in 1990 and a substantial reform of the national constitution in 1991, which granted black communities of the Pacific region collective rights to the territories they had traditionally occupied. Internationally, tropical rainforest areas were in the limelight, because of their importance as the main biodiversity powerhouses on the planet. The emergence of collective ethnic identities in the Colombian Pacific and similar regions thus reflects a double historical movement: the emergence of the biological as a global problem, and the bursting forth of cultural ethnic identities. 1

The social movement of black communities that has developed in the region comprises, amongst other local actors, a network of more than 140 local organizations known as Proceso de Comunidades Negras, PCN. Emphasis is given by the PCN to the social control of the territory as a precondition for the survival and strengthening of culture and biodiversity. In the river communities, activists and communities have worked together to understand the meaning of the new constitution and to develop concepts of territory, development, traditional production practices, and use of natural resources. This process led to drawing up a proposal for the law of cultural and territorial rights called for by the 1991 constitution (Ley 70, approved in 1993), and to firming up a series of politico-organizational principles relating to identity, territory, autonomy, and alternative development.

Because of its rich natural resources, the Pacific Coast of Colombia is in the spotlight of the national and international development establishments. Activists have sought to insert themselves in biodiversity-related discussions at all levels. One of the most important fora for this has been the active engagement of river communities and PCN activists with the government-run Proyecto Biopacífico (PBP), which accepted the black and indigenous movements as essential partners for dialogue. Of growing importance is the increasing transnationalisation of the movement through participation in official fora such as the CBD and in oppositional movements such as the Geneva-based People's Global Action against Free Trade. At the same time, PCN activists have run for local elections; have continued to organise locally and nationally; and have sought funding for territorial demarcation. In the midst of this, there has been an escalation of violence in the region, some of it directed explicitly against activists and communities to discourage them from pressing for territorial demands. These tensions are related to the overall intensification of development, capitalism, and modernity in the region.

PCN activists have progressively developed a political ecology framework through their interaction with community, state, NGO, and academic sectors. Within this framework, the territory is seen as a fundamental and multidimensional space for the creation and recreation of the ecological, economic, and cultural practices of the communities. The territory is seen in terms of articulations between patterns of settlement, space and symbolic practices, and the use of resources. One of the important contributions of the PBP was to research the traditional production systems of the river communities. These systems are more geared towards local consumption than to the market, and for this reason they have generally been sustainable. The practices are characterised by low-intensity exploitation, shifting use of productive space over broad and different ecological areas, diverse agricultural and extractive activities, family and kindred-based labour practices, and horticulture. In many of the river basins these systems not only are under heavy stress, chiefly because of growing extractivist pressures, but they are increasingly untenable, requiring novel economic and technological strategies that will also generate resources for conservation.

Activists have introduced a number of important conceptual innovations. The first one is the definition of biodiversity as "territory plus culture." Closely related to it is a view of the entire Pacific rainforest region as a "region-territory of ethnic groups;" that is, an ecological and cultural unit that is woven together through the daily practices of the communities. The region-territory is also thought about in terms of "life corridors" which bring together communities, their activities and the natural environment. Life corridors might link mangrove ecosystems or extend from the middle of the rivers to the inside of the forest. Some are formed around particular activities, such as traditional gold mining or women's shell collecting in the mangrove areas. The region-territory is a management category that points toward the construction of alternative life and society models. It is an attempt to explain biological diversity from inside the eco-cultural logic of the Pacific. The territory, conversely, is seen as the space actively used to satisfy community needs. For a given river community, the area of effective appropriation of resources has longitudinal and horizontal dimensions, sometimes encompassing several landscapes and river basins. The territory embodies a community's life project.

The region-territory, on the other hand, is conceived of as a political construction for the defense of the territories and their sustainability. Sustainability cannot be conceived in terms of patches or singular activities, or only in economic terms. It must respond to the multidimensional character of the practices of effective appropriation of the ecosystem. The region-territory can thus be said to articulate the life project of the communities with the political project of the social movement. Similarly, the definition of biodiversity encompasses local principles of autonomy, knowledge, identity, and economy. Nature is not an entity "out there," but is deeply rooted with the collective practice of humans that see themselves as integrally connected to it. Within this conception, the reductive view of biodiversity in terms of genetic resources to be protected through intellectual property rights becomes untenable.

The struggle for territory is above all a cultural struggle for autonomy and self-determination. The strengthening and transformation of traditional production systems and local economies; the need to press on with the collective titling process; and working towards organizational strengthening and the development of forms of territorial governability are all important components of an overall strategy centered on the region. Despite the fact that the primary interests on the part of the country's conservation establishment are genetic resources and habitat protection, and not the eco-cultural demands of the movement, PCN activists have found partial convergence with the strategies of these other actors. According to interviews conducted by the author, for many of the national staff of the PBP and the PCN activists, the shared experience of five years has been hard, tense, and frustrating, but generally positive. The PBP and the PCN have developed a complex view of the socio-economic, cultural and political forces that shape the Pacific and have amply demonstrated the lower impact of traditional systems on biodiversity.

The broader context

The example of the social movement of black communities in Colombia, and similar movements in other parts of the world, speak of a set of crucial and poorly understood concerns involving the novel intersection of genetic knowledge with forces of globalisation. In both biodiversity and transgenic agriculture, gene technology and patents are used to consolidate power over food and nature. Gene technology is strongly associated with progress and survival. Corporations and international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation play a key role in propogating these pervasive views. The Colombian case reveals other forms of dealing with conservation and food production that do not rely on genes and patents. Activists suggest that what is at stake in the struggle over genes are contrasting cultural backgrounds, contested understandings of food and nature, and diverging concerns with globalisation, cultural autonomy, and models of the economy.

Biodiversity discussions tend to highlight the division between Euro-American and other cultures. It is only through biotechnology, the market, and intellectual property rights that indigenous peoples and farmers can realise the wealth of their resources. But for many peasant and indigenous societies, genes and intellectual property rights are not meaningful categories or concepts. Locally meaningful categories ñ including blood, reciprocity, commons, and non-commodified forms of compensation ñ cannot be easily translated into Western concepts of genes, persons, and individual property. Social movements argue that there may be room, however, for building in different interpretations of accepted concepts, such as including the idea of collective cultural property and other products of collective life into debates on intellectual property. Such a shift would re-embed ownership in cultural life.

Knowledge and innovation are also emphasised by social movements. In many peasant communities, innovations emerge within a tradition. Community economies are grounded in place (even if not place-bound), and often rely on the recognition of a commons consisting of land, material resources, knowledge, ancestors, spirits, and so on. By imposing the language of intellectual property rights on peasant systems, the benefits of community innovations are made to accrue to external capital. This is why there is a need to protect community spaces outside the market so that the place for local innovation is preserved and the results may be locally enjoyed. The conflict between economic reasoning and ecological reasoning that is central to biodiversity debates needs to be solved politically. Otherwise, conservation strategies will amount to a merchandising of biodiversity. Is it possible to defend a post-economic, ecological production rationality? Social movements are clear advocates of ecological economies and their visions, analysis and experience could provide some answers. They refuse to reduce territorial and ecological claims to the exclusive terms of the market, and this is an important lesson for any biodiversity conservation strategy.


Biodiversity and other technoscientific interventions such as transgenic agriculture constitute powerful networks through which concepts, policies, and ultimately cultures and ecologies are contested and negotiated. New perspectives on these issues advanced through these networks have a growing presence in the strategies of social movements in many parts of the world. Despite the negative forces opposing these movements, they could represent a real defense of social and biophysical landscapes in ways that are not mediated by the genetic reductionism that characterizes dominant trends. The movements show that life, work, nature, and culture can be organized differently than they are in the dominant models of culture and the economy.

Arturo Escobar is an anthropologist based at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA. The author can be contacted at [email protected] A longer version of this article, “Whose Knowledge, Whose Nature? Biodiversity Conservation and Social Movements' Political Ecology," was published in the April 1999 issue of the electronic journal, Journal of Political Ecology. For comments and more information, please contact the author. The Proceso de Comunidades Negras can be contacted through Libia Gruesco and Carlos Rosero, email: [email protected]


1. The Pacific Coast region of Colombia covers a vast area (about 70,000 km2) stretching from Panama to Ecuador and from the westernmost chain of the Andes to the ocean. It is a unique rainforest region, one of the world's most biodiverse. About 60% of the region's 900,000 inhabitants (800,000 Afro-Colombians, about 50,000 Embera, Waunana and other indigenous people, and mestizo colonists) live in the few larger towns; the rest inhabit the margins of the more than 240 rivers, most of which flow from the Andes towards the ocean. Black and indigenous peoples have maintained distinct material and cultural practices.


Main sources:

* S Brush and D Stabinsky, eds (1996), Valuing Local Knowlege. Washington: Island Press.

* Corner House (1998), "Food? Health? Hope? Genetic Engineering and World Hunger." Corner House Briefing, No. 10. Sturminster Newton, UK: The Corner House

* A Escobar (1997), "Cultural Politics and Biological Diversity: State, Capital and Social Movements in the Pacific Coast of Colombia." In Between Resistance and Revolution. R Fox and O Starn, eds. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, pp 40-64.

* A Escobar and A Pedrosa, eds (1996). Pacífico: Desarrollo o Diversidad? Estado, Capital y Movimientos Sociales en el Pacífico Colombiano. Bogotá: CEREC/Ecofondo.

* GRAIN (1998), "Patenting Life: Progress or Piracy?" Global Biodiversity 7(4): 2-6.

* GRAIN (1995), "Towards a Biodiversity Community Rights Regime." Seedling 12(3): 2-14.

* GAIA/GRAIN (1998). "Intellectual Property Rights and Biodiversity: The Economic Myths." Global Trade and Biodiversity in Conflict, No. 3.

* L Grueso, C Rosero and A Escobar (1998). "The Process of Black Community Organizing in the Southern Pacific Coast of Colombia." In Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: re-visioning Latin American Social Movements. SE Alvarez et al, eds. Boulder: Westview Press, pp 196-219

* J. Martínez Alier (1996). “Merchandising Biodiversity”, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism /(1): 37-54.

* V Nazarea (1998). Cultural Memory and Biodiversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

* PCN and OREWA (1995). Territorio, Etnia, Cultura e Investigación en el Pacífico Colombiano. Cali: Fundación Habla/Scribe.

* R Pistorius (1997). Scientists, Plants, and Politics. A History of the Plant Genetic Resources Movement. Rome: IPGRI.

* V. Shiva (1997). Biopiracy. Boston: South End Press.

* M Strathern (1998). "Cultural Property and the Anthropologist." Paper presented at Mt. Holyoke College, December 8, 1998.

* Third World Network and Research Foundation for Science, Technology and the Environment (1994). Resource Kit for Building a Movement for the Protection of Biodiversity and People's Intellectual Rights. Kuala Lampur/Dehra Dun: Third World Network and RFSTE.

Author: Arturo Escobar
Links in this article: