Rethinking Ecological Economics: A Mayan Perspective

Rethinking Ecological Economics: A Mayan perspective

Manuel May Castillo Albert Chan Dzul and David Barkin

Rethinking Ecological Economics: A Mayan perspectiveA global online symposium of the International Degrowth Network and the International Society for Ecological Economics was held from 1-4 September, with the theme Economy and livelihoods after Covid-19. Two of the organizers of this text participated in a joint presentation, on behalf of the Mayan organizations Ka’ Kuxtal and U Yich Lu’um, members of the TICCA Consortium ( In that intervention, we shared an overview of the environmental problems that affect us as Indigenous Peoples and how in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, joint responses are being developed from local indigenous communities.

After the presentation, the three authors of this report met in a video conference to share our impressions and draw some conclusions from the meeting, which we summarise in the following lines.

In this meeting, a forum was launched called Indigenous and Black communities and the impact of Covid in which several members of Indigenous and afro-descendant communities from around the world were able to present, in first person, our experiences in the consolidation of regional and international networks. It was a great experience to share space with Indigenous sisters and brothers from the Americas and Europe. This definitely represents a great step forward in the dialogue and inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in global issues that concern us all, especially in terms of care and respect for Mother Earth. However, this meeting also left us with the impression that a Eurocentric perspective still predominates in the reflections on livelihoods, and that in the discussions on the economy, mercantilist and monetary currents of thought predominate. Paradoxically, in its beginnings, the word economy (from the Greek Oikos; “household,” “home,” or “place to live” and nomia, management or nomos, law) had a close semantic connection with the environment, the household, and even with ecology (Oikos and logos). Furthermore, we could see that an anthropocentric positioning still dominates, even for the development of (economic) degrowth strategies. Many of these strategies are adaptations of others that, under concepts such as green economy, circular economy, climate-smart agriculture, among others, more than questioning the current economic system, perpetuate it. In any case, the results are the same: dispossession and environmental degradation.

In our contribution, we took the opportunity to invite the audience to challenge anthropocentrism – promoted by colonial regimes and supported by Christianity – and to integrate the great diversity of Indigenous philosophies into these debates. For example, we cited the philosophical ideas of the Mayan Peoples, where it is clear that nature deserves the greatest respect. This philosophy is evident in the rituals, for example, in the requests for permission from the Yuumtsilo’ob, the spiritual guardians of nature, to cut down the forest, sow the corn or collect medicinal plants.

The role that Indigenous Peoples and local communities play in biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation is increasingly recognized by Western science, and above all in various international forums and organizations. It goes without saying that this recognition has come about thanks to the impetus of Indigenous Peoples and local communities themselves, organised in different networks such as the ICCA Consortium, against the backdrop of governments, mainstream science and multinationals that defend conventional conservation or the “greening” of the economy.

In addition, we stressed that in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation of marginalisation and violation of the rights of the Mayan Peoples has deteriorated. In particular, with the territorial reorganisation project called ‘Tren Maya’ which includes the development of mega-cities and industries in so-called ‘development poles’ on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. This mega-project for the (neo)colonisation of the Mayan jungle is being constructed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, threatening the human right to health and a healthy environment of both the Mayan communities and the workers themselves, despite judicial decisions ordering the cancellation of these activities to protect the health of local communities.

In this forum we questioned the idea of economic growth being promoted by multinational interests promoting mega-projects in our Territories of Life, because we see a direct connection to racist, scientifically false, morally condemnable, and socially unjust Western-colonial doctrines. Specifically, we refer to the doctrine of capitalistic ‘development’, which is not only imposed without the Consent of the Mayan communities, but is also taken for granted as being morally ‘superior’ to the Mayan philosophies of coexistence with nature and Mother Earth.

In our participation we also denounced Western ideologies such as the doctrine of discovery or terra nullius (as both racist and self-declared superior), that continue to be the basis of the legal frameworks on which economic development strategies, are designed, both domestically and internationally. We explained that the ‘Tren Maya’ project of territorial reorganisation promotes the colonisation of the Mayan Forest with its mega-cities and mega industries without the consent of the Maya Peoples. The State, under the influence of the doctrine of discovery, arrogates unto itself an ultimate or superior right over Indigenous territories and resources (assumed to be terra nullius), just as the colonisers did in the past using the Papal Bulls. This is why we consider the ‘Tren Maya’ project of territorial reorganisation to be a neocolonial project.

For their part, the legal frameworks biased by these doctrines, facilitate the practice of systemic racism within the institutions of the State. This became patently and insultingly clear when we read the phrase included in the Environmental Impact Statement of the ‘Tren Maya’ project of territorial reorganisation: ‘ethnocide can have a positive turn: ethnodevelopment’.

Such biased legal frameworks continue to marginalise Mayan morality and philosophy to the detriment of Mother Earth and her sacred elements as well as the millions of people living in the region. As an example, we point out the lack of integration of Indigenous philosophy within the national legal framework, which creates a breeding ground for water monopolisation by companies granted concessions to exploit water for agro-industry, GMO cultivation, mining, etc., while for Mayans, water is a sacred being. In this sense, we affirm that even when water concessions are legal, they are not morally sustainable nor socially just.

That is why we are interested in dismantling these doctrines and ideologies while contributing to the formulation of new strategies that respect Mother Earth (Territories of Life) and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. In this sense we also invited the scientific and academic community to rethink their conceptual frameworks, given the need to work together as humanity for a better planet for all.

One of the main arguments of the apologists of capitalism and its development schemes, such as the territorial reordering Tren Maya project in southern Mexico, is that the Indigenous Peoples do not propose clear alternatives for the conservation of nature. In response we shared experiences and activities, as members of the ICCA Consortium and as Indigenous Peoples, highlighting the contributions, based on the diverse forms of coexistence with Nature and Mother Earth, in the elaboration of collective regional and global strategies for the preservation of the Territories of Life. For example, the Mayan organisations mentioned above have defended the idea that the conservation of the Territories of Life is the result of a spiritual relationship with Mother Earth that is inherited from the ancestors. In other words, conservation occurs precisely due to the spiritual coexistence with nature and Mother Earth, but conservation is not pursued as an ultimate goal. From these experiences, we have witnessed progress in the recognition of Indigenous contributions to biodiversity conservation, which are vital for facing up to global changes, including strategies for dealing resiliently with the effects of COVID19.

Furthermore, at the domestic level in Mexico, we are in the process of consolidating a network of Territories of Life in which we identify legal resources to demand adequate legal recognition of Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies.


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