Archive for March, 2010

Branding + Mingas + Coops = Salinas

Friday, March 26th, 2010

It was not easy to get to Salinas. Only 90 km North-West of Baño, nevertheless it took us several hours of various detours, some crazy driving on the opposite lane of a road under construction (apparently the only way to get where we wanted to get), and a long wait on a queue at 3000 meters due to a bad accident in front of us. We arrived in Salinas at 10 pm, but in spite of the fact that we felt to have arrived in the middle of nowhere, we were greeted with pizza and beer, few smily faces and one of the last rooms in the hostel.

Salinas is a small town (well, actually a village) at 3500 meters in the Ecuadorian Andes, very close to that amazing volcanic giant that is the Chimborazo (6267 mt).

From Salinas selection

The Salinas area is much larger, and comprises 32 communities ranging from 600 to 4500 meters above sea level, thus representing a huge variety of climate and ecosystems (and resources as we will discover later . . .an area comprising the perfect climate for producing coco beans as well as the perfect climate to process the beans into fine chocolate).

From Salinas selection

There are about 6000 people living in this area. A middle aged man working in the youth co-operative that manages the hostel where I am staying with my family tells me with some pride that 95% of the population is part of the “organisation” (the other 5% apparently choose not the be in it, but they are benefited by the organisation nevertheless, since they sell their produce to it). The “organization” is in reality a quick name for several associations, foundations, consortia and cooperatives, ranging from cheese producers to textile, ceramic and chocolate making, herbal medicine and trash collection, a radio station an hotel, a hostel, and a “office of community tourism”. To have a general idea of the scale of this, watch the video (in spanish) at

When we woke up early in the morning, the small town buzzed with life.

From Salinas selection

From the higher planes, women were coming down with donkeys and lamas carrying milk into the town and to the cheese factory. From the lower planes instead 2 coaches brought teenagers of the technical institute of the town of Guaranda in a study tour. The youth were buzzing around the main square, playing volleyball and hanging around in bands, before learning the biochemistry of cheese production at the local cheese factory. One thing that you could not fail to notice is that everybody you run across — whether a woman carrying a baby and pulling a Lama, or a man walking with tanks of gasoline, or a teenager passing by with a baseball cap, were greeting you with a smile and a “buenos dias”.

There is something intriguing in Salinas, and that is that you do not know when capitalism ends and commonism begins . . .and viceversa. You feel definitively the presence of both and this is unsettling and make someone like me nervous. But I promised myself to keep an open mind, I am travelling to understand commons, the mechanism of their coupling with capital and the limitation of this coupling, as well as the lines of struggle and power relations that emerge in various context of commons.Forty years ago, this was a very very poor town. A salt mine still visible from our hostel room, was the only source of employment. A Columbian family, the Cordovez — who reached the area few centuries earlier with guns and strange pieces of paper with stamps from the Spanish crown saying the common land around Salinas belonged to them — was the only boss employing the locals for miserable wages and forcing them into a state of servitute and semi-feudal dependence. Now, all that land that we could see belongs to the community by means of the “organization”: 33000 acres of it, taken from the church and from the Cordovez!

But it was taken “nicely”, that is it was bought. Forty years ago, in the early 1970s, in an age of land struggle and land reforms, the Cordovez family could not believe their luck when the newly formed credit coop — the very first cooperative to be born here — offered to buy the land. The coop was formed to contrast the money sharks who were preying on the people in times of need like funerals, weddings, emergencies, with the lending rates of usury. Behind the origin of the coop that inititated the cooperative movement in this far away province, and indeed behind the origin of several other coops comprising the “organisation”, there is an Italian priest, who arrived in Salinas 40 years ago for a 3 months mission helping building a community house - and he is still there.

From Salinas selection

Antonio Polo, an energetic 72 years old Padre Salesiano, is a type of “commons entrepreneurs”, someone who is in the business of triggering and promoting commoning processes that sustain and consolidate themselves in some types of commons institutions.

I met Antonio in his house next to the church.

From Salinas selection

The window of the kitchen faces the square, so it is possible to see all movements down below. The kitchen seems to be in itself an open house, people coming in and out, someone waiting for dinner and another selling eggs at a good price. Antonio explains to me that the original choice to buy the land from the Cordovez, rather than taking it, in spite of the fact that the locals had really all the reasons for reclaiming their own land from the Cordovez who effectively stole it from them, was moral and economically rational. It was moral, because it was an anti-violent choice. And it was economically rational, because when people buy land they have an invested interest to make it productive for them (at least in the sense that they have borrowed money to buy it and they have to repay the loan with interest). I have my doubt, as the reasons given seemed to me too ideological. After some probing it seemed to me that the Cordovez family was interested to sell and selling at a relatively good price because of the broader context of land struggle and talks of land reform, hence of “violence” against the private property of the big land owner. The “peaceful” choice was therefore dependent on the “violent” context, making the moral distinction between the two quite thin, and leaving the distinction relevant only from a strategic point of view, that is contingent to the existing condition and opportunity to pool resources together (whether human political resources or money resources). On the other hand, there are experiences of movements of people reclaiming land by trespassing the gates of the large property owners that has led to the formation of institutions such as school and health centers besides allowing the land to be used for productive purposes meeting the food needs of the people. The landless movement in Brazil is a case in point.

Antonio explains how through the years the different cooperatives, foundations and consortia were formed to give work to the locals after the salt mine was closed. He is definitively an engine of ideas for imagining new productive enterprises.

From Salinas selection

The cheese factory pulls the milk from the surrounding areas (and the cheese from the different cheese factories that are established in local communities). The chocolate factory got the coco beans from the subtropical areas where the climate does not allow to process the coco into fine chocolate.

From Salinas selection

The annexed italian Torrone factory — which regularly export its products to fair trade shops in Italy — allows the use of abundant local honey. The herbal medicine laboratory, pulls together the herbs and plants brought by the locals, and the drying mushroom facilities use the mushroom collected under pine trees that where planted in deforested areas — with some environmental concerns, given the fact that pine trees are not really local plant species. All the “social enterprises” of the “gruppo salinas” — the name that was given to brand the activity of the areas for reasons of commercialisation and export — plus its “strategic allies” employ overall 434 people, but the total producers involved are far more than that, ranging from 1600 to few thousands (depending on different point of view). But it is clear that the cooperatives have a core workers employed in the centre, and a range of other members with a different contractual arrangements. The system at times resembles a textbook case of “putting out” system”, in the sense of a method of production dispersed in the home of workers, who mostly work part time for money alternating it with subsistence agricultural production. The important difference with the capitalist pre-industrial version of this, is that the organising tasks of the “boss” is in the hand of the employed members of the coop, and the paying rates, rhythms and general rules for delivery times of the other members are negotiated in coop assemblies (subject of course to the external constraints set by the market).

From Salinas selection
From Salinas selection
From Salinas selection

For example, the textile coop comprises few full time workers designing sweaters and hats and organising distribution of the wool to be turned into finished product. Obviously, they also represent the middle point between the need of the market and the bulk of knitting workers of the coop. In the room at the entrance of the shop, I witnessed a moment of exchange between the full time workers and the part timers (incidentally, the very fact that this exchange occurs under everybody eyes — including the consumers — and not in some back room, is a plus on “transparency”). Two women pull out some sweaters and huts from of a plastic bag. The woman at the other side of the counter, weight them and check the weight against the numbers in a register so as the weight of the finished product is pretty much the same as the wool originally issued. Then they briefly check the quality of the product, searching for irregular stitches etc.. There seemed to be some discussion with respect to the value of the product, and an agreement was quickly reached and recorded on the register, new wool was weighted, recorded and issued.

From Salinas selection

I was told that there is generally no pressure for a worker to finish a job on a given time, a part from when there is a big commission and the workers agree to commit to a deadline. All the payments in all coops are generally made through the credit coop. Assemblies of coop members occurs every couple of weeks to discuss matters of work organisation, and the one for the cheese factory was advertised with a big hand written poster with the agenda in front the of place to collect milk, as it was the one in front of the credit union. I wished I had the time to attend such a meeting.

From Salinas selection

I asked to be given some example of how the principle of solidarity works within the “Salinas Group”. One example is in the case of the cheese coop. Every farmer who is a member of the coop, is paid the correspondent amount for the milk she brings in for the production of cheese. However, at the end of the year, the monetary surplus is not distributed among coop members on the basis of their milk contribution, but is shared among them for common projects: either buying new equipment, or transferred to community funds. This way, as our guide told us, “the farmer who has 10 cows is helping the farmer that has only one cow”, allowing for some re-distribution. Another example is the use of Mingas. Minga is a quechua word used by various ethnical groups throughout the Andes and refer to unwaged community work, in which men, women and children all participate in pretty much convivial ways and generally ends up in big banquets. Infrastructure work such as road maintenance, water irrigation, planting, digging, but also garbage collection and cleaning up the square are all type of work that calls for a Minga of different size and are used in Salinas. Yet another example is the important use of foundations, that channel funds earned in social enterprises for projects for the community.

We have therefore a mix of organising principles between private and community production, adaptation to the market and its needs for “competitiveness” and solidarity and communitarian values, a mix that would be interesting to deconstruct and study with some more lengthy field work in terms of how power relations are reproduced or diffused, and how the distribution and control conflicts inherent in market-oriented arrangements are dealt with. But the overall basic question in the back of my mind is this: what is co-opting what? Is capital co-opting the commons or the commons co-opting capital? My impression is that taken as a whole, Salinas offers a context in which dignity is definitively at the centre of doing things, and capital is not all, and perhaps — perhaps not yet — not even the most important thing. However, the limitation of the Salinas’ coupling of market and competitive principles with solidarity and community’s ones become more evident, the more we look at this experience from the perspective of scale. Few observations here.

1) One of the largest acquisitions is an old manufacturing plant to turn the abundant wool from the area, into thread, and thus “vertically integrate” it with the artisan production of sweaters.

From Salinas selection

Although part of this plant was donated, other parts of it was bought on credit. Also, the amount of energy it cost to operate is quite high, and the community does not have access to a source of cheap renewable energy. All this and taking into consideration all the other costs, implies that the break-even point (the point at which the plants does not loose money and does not make any) is 10 thousands Kg of wool thread at month. However, the international solidarity fair trade circuit can offer to buy only 5 hundred Kg a month in sweaters at the given fair trade price (which, although higher than market price has an obvious upper limit, because also the fair trade operators have a business to run and a commodity to sell). This implies that the rest of production of wool ( up to 20 thousands Kg. a month, which is the maximum capacity of the plant), enters the normal market circuits and provides the raw material for underpaid and overexploited textile workers around the world. This is one way in which the damned capitalist “law of value” enter Salinas.

2) One of the most recurring themes in conversations, literature and videos with respect to Salinas, is that its experience can become a model to other poor rural communities. It could of course, but the more it will become so, the more the rule of the “fallacy of composition” would apply: you cannot infer that something is true for the whole from the fact that it is true of some part. Not anymore able to use a market niche (i.e. an area of the market which is relatively free of competition), the salinesitos workers would set their products against the products of other cooperatives around the world, thus undermining their livelihoods (and of course, this is already happening to some extent). It is the same for the “success” of fair trade coffees in our supermarkets, which makes the consumer effectively choose which “fair trade” community to help in building schools or hospital, a choice often influenced by the relative price of the different “community brands”. I think the world we seek is different, is one in which everybody should have access to health and education irrespectively of the price of the commodity they sell. The capitalist ideologues solution for this conundrum is the same as the solution for the conundrum that emerges from income and wealth polarisation: the dogma of the necessity of aggregate growth, which implies the search for always new areas of commodification of life and, as by-product, would destroy communities and the planet. At the systemic level, the Salinas experience is not the solution, although within it, there are definitively important aspects of the solution.

3) In the history of the Salinas social enterprises, there is and there has been from the beginning not only a strong reliance on international solidarity and donations — often but not only channelled through institutions and organisations within the Catholic church — but also an important reliance on debt. With the subscription of debt to promote purchases of capital (hence extend the scale of production), comes the need of selling to repay debt, and the process of subjectification of the locals to meet market deadlines. This is inevitable, as to the extent we rely on market mechanisms for our reproduction, we are subjected to its rules and general laws of operation. Obviously, in the history of Salinas there have been some problems with individuals’ and coops’ delays in making a payment, and perhaps some default. For this purpose, one of the aspects that most attracted my attention is the use of the participation in Mingas (an instance of commoning rooted in local traditions throughout the Andes) as one of the criteria for the classification of coop members as “serious,” hence for the extension to them of credit and other coop services (an instance of subjectification to the market through a disciplinary process). (See Antonio Polo. 2006. La porta aperta. 30 anni di avventura missionaria e sociale a Salinas di Bolivar Ecuador. Quito: FEPP, p. 64). I am not sure how and to what extent this has been the case, but what this reveals to me is the cooptation of commoning to promote capitalist market values and not viceversa.

I have mixed feelings about this Salinas’ experience. There is no doubt that the 69 agro-industrial and 38 service communities enterprises are quite a means for the local population to meet reproduction needs in ways that shield them from the most exploitative practices of other areas in the region and make them active participants in commoning processes centred on dignity. But the increasing reliance on, and strong preoccupation with, global export circuits and on the markets seems excessive, with the risk that experiments like these really become the vehicles for commons co-optation. Also, although there is a clear environmental sensibility in the discourse of this community in the brochures and book I have read (for example, there is an awareness that excessive expansion of cheese production has some environmental impact), there is too much concern about finding new sources of revenues by “adding value” to local resources processed into export products, and none at all about the environmental problematization of global production chains and ones own role within it. There is definitively no consideration for “Pachamama” in the celebration of mushroom or snails meet exports towards European and Asian markets, products that both the Europeans and Asians could and should produce themselves if they so much desire them: a basic element of critical food sovereignty discourse.

Actually this opens up to another critical issue, also recognised by Antonio Polo in our conversation. And this is that the process in Salinas has started from agri-industry, rather than agriculture. The discrete amount of common land available could have perhaps been used more for the community, and only now some experiments are conducted with green houses and different types of plants. I wander whether the Salinas reality would be any different today if 40 years ago, priority was put on the generation of food self-sufficiency within the areas. In any case, the Salinas reality is one that deserves more attention and study, because it helps us to pose the big questions we need to pose if we are preoccupied with processes of radical social transformation. Questions such as: how can local commoners be actors of their own social renewal? How and to what extent can they access the social wealth they need for the pursuit of the good living through their commoning as opposed to their work disciplined by the market? How can they access circuits of wealth generation outside their local circuits? What forms of distribution and exchange can they invent with other commons? To what extent the existing market circuits can be safely used as a way to access wealth? How to set up limits?

schools, trespassing rules, and power

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Just imagine any school in Europe during break time (admitting they still have some breaks) , the kids pouring in the yard and playing with that typical noise of children crowd run loose. Just imagine some strange kids wanting to enter from the outside, together with a couple of adults . . .what is the chance the kids  — and the adults — are let in to play? I guess the chance is higher that school “security” call the police, and the police arrives accompanied by social services to check on the parents behavior.

My two-year old son was banging his head against the closed gates of the school complex in Misahualli, in the Napo region of the Amazon forest.

He loves playing balls and he saw quite a few of them on the other side of the gate, together with kids from  5 to about 14  screaming, running and having fun.  His 6 years old brother was a bit more cautious, but clearly would have also loved to share some fun time with the other kids on the other side. My partner and I instead were boringly hushing him away from the gate, telling him the “right thing” : no, come away love, they are at school, we cannot enter, and all the sweet bla bla to transmit to him the “no trespassing rules” that we are accustomed to. Only a couple of months before, our six years old could not play with his own school mates because he missed school in the morning, and this was sufficient to make him an outcast during play time in the afternoon! So, while we were talking and he kept banging his head, a young woman approached the other side of the gate, undid the chain and opened the gate. Unlike us, Ncola did not hesitate and run in. We looked at her and ask with some wonder: “can we get in?”: “Claro que si’” she said.

On what authority could the woman  open the gate for us? She was nothing less that one of the two woman traders who get in the school for half an hour a day during recreation, break time, selling kandies and ice creams.

But her action was subscribed by a care taker who greeted us as nothing had happened, and a couple of teachers walking about the yard and nodding  with a smile to acknowledge our presence. We wandered around the large yard during  break time, the kids playing basketball, handball, and running up and down the slides.

Nicola was a bit puzzled when the couple of hundreds kids around him started to disappear after the bell rang, and kept running after the last kids until the end.

When all have disappeared, he turned the corner to find out that an older boy was still hiding away playing basketball . .we all joined in for a while, until he felt he really had to go and run towards his class. . . .

Transpassing rules are rules that filter access to commons, that define the porosity of borders and therefore the type of relation with the outside world. Without some type of transpassing rules, there would not be any commons, because commons are not open access, but involve some community working out, governing and defining the rules of access. In the nature of these rules as it is revealed when they are implemented, the community show what type of commons they have built, or, which is pretty much the same thing, what types of human beings  they are in relation to “the other”.  This little episode has shown to us how a gate-less school where any body from outside could get in and out is not necessarily the answer to a closed school where nobody from the outside could get in an out. The answer is the power to open the gate exercised by  people of the community, the power of individual judgement (the woman who opened the gate) and  the power of collective control (the caretaker and the teachers observing and, in this case, agreeing with the action). This shared power is really what ultimately enhance our sense of security without at the same time undermining our common sense.

The market as a commons: thoughts after a visit to Saquisili

Monday, March 15th, 2010

We travelled to Saquisili the other day, a small town 80 km South of Quito, where we were promised we would have found an impressive indigenous market, with little stuff for tourists. On the way, we got lost in a small  mountain village, Bolivar, and run across the first example of what in Quechua is called Minga, the work that  communities  put together for a common purpose without being paid for.

My grandfather was doing Minga all the time in the mountains of the Italian Appenines, without calling it that way — and I am not sure whether this working together to build dams and walls, maintaining the country’s roads or harvesting wheat had a special name. The group  of men and women we encountered in Bolivar where moving stones, digging holes and mixing cement to build a community house in the main  square of the village, so as the people could store stuff without being afraid of the “ladrones”. They put us back on the right track toward Saquisili.

We finally arrived in Saquisili and parked our rented car right in front of the market.

There were actually two markets, quite similar to one another, at two ends of the town. They were held under large roofs, and as expected  they were bubbling with life. the first thing we noticed after a while walking around the stalls was that virtually all market traders  were women selling fruits and vegetables and other food — meat, sugar, cheese, bread, fat, lard, ecc.

Most men, on the other hands, where hanging around and talk and eat. Some of them wandered around and sell “junks”: picture frames, household stuff, small toys, etc, while few others where loading heavy stuff on trucks. The other thing we noticed is that nothing is wasted: the fat of the cooked meet is collected in small plastic bags to be sold separately  . . .the crumbles that fall on the wood cutter when the big barrel of sugar is cut in smaller pieces (as large as a bread loaf) are offered to passer by  . . .some are even directly taken without being offered  . . . a man with fish-heads goes around selling them from a bucket  80 cents — they are huge fish heads and they promise a great soup . . .

Few hours in this market makes you realise that the market as a place is definitively a commons, i.e. there is a commons resource, a process of commoning and a community of commoners. There is a common resource, for example the covered square where all the stalls are located. Whether it is actually owned directly by the people or by the municipal council defines the type of filtering mechanism through which use-access of the facilities is configured. This filtering is obviously a site of conflict and power.  In Baños I asked the people selling food in the municipal market there, and they have told me a painful tale to get access to the licence, permits and authorisation to be able to sell in the market building. (It is a similar process in many European towns). But once they got in as individuals, they joined the other small sellers in an association to increase their power vis-a-vis the council, as if once the use-access rights are dealt with, what is left is the battle ground of control powers.

Thus, the precondition of the common resource, is a filtering of some type, which defines use-accss.  Obviously, a lot one can say about the type of filtering mechanism, the processes of inclusion and exclusion, the networks of clients, the powers of control that are exercised in this place, the extent to which the cleaning, or infrastructure maintenance are delegated to the outside world (council or private contractors) or are part of the distribution of tasks within the commons. Then there is the second element of the commons, the commoning. Being in Saquisili, once cannot fail to observe a continuous flow of productive and relational interaction to make the market as it is: like a woman helping another woman to put the bag of potato on her shoulders; like the children buzzing around as if they where a main means of communication among stall tenders. And much of the structure of the market cannot be but the result of past commoning. For example, the fact that al the bread sellers (and makers), and all the cheese sellers (and makers), and all the food makers (and sellers), are clustered together, cannot be but  the result of some decision in the past, even if this decision is the result of some spontaneous process. Because it is obvious to the economically trained eye, that one rationale of this clustering is in the limitation of competition among the sellers, another aspect of market place as a commons. Bread makers and cheese makers for example are all selling the same product — virtually indistinguishable — and the price is the same. A wheel of cheese $1.10. A horizontally split sixth of the wheel $0.25. The price at the beginning of the line of cheese makers, is the same as the price at the end. The same for bread seller. A bag of sweet bread for $1, all along the line.

Competition still exists, as the traders where trying to get my attention making eye contact and waving their products in order to sell their bread or cheese, and not that of their competitors. When I approached one and concluded a deal, the others seemed to talk to one another as if commenting on the ability of that woman to cut a deal, to gossip about it.

The third element of commons, that of community, is thus also evident  as the commnoning in particular forms build relations, waves solidarities but also reproduce hierarchies, and gives form to conflict and to the ways in which the community deals with it.

The Saquisili market has a lot in common to many other markets in Europe I am more familiar with. The key element is obvious: there are buyers and sellers, and prices, and transactions. But because there is so much more that these basic elements, and this much more is so much unfamiliar to me that hits my eyes (the range of goods, the customs, the smell and colour of the buzz), then few hours in Saquisili markets  helps me to understand  there is an important point to make in the difference between the market as commons and the market as abstract mechanism of resource allocation as it is envisioned in the model of orthodox economics.  The  presupposition of this market as commons is not only the type of filtering mechanism that allows these traders to access the market. Also, it is the sphere of the household economy within which the vast majority of these products are produced. And since the sphere of household economy is a commons — indeed, one of the commons at the smallest scale, the market place is a commons at a higher  scale, that is one that has  articulating elements and — as all commons at higher scales –  allow communities to mesh, commoning to weave norms and rules and resources to be pooled. If, at a general approximation, we understand commons as the productive sphere of non market transaction, then the market as a commons is not an oxymoron, but an expression that serves us to point out that the types of measures of market transactions presuppose a lot of non-market life.  It is not in the market in general that we see the disappearance of the commons. It is capitalist markets, and not market in general, that reduce the commons of the markets to only one, what is common between buyers and sellers, that is to be the participant of a valuing process that reduces everything — and I mean, everything — to the common measure of money.

Yasuni, Commons, Pachamama

Monday, March 8th, 2010


I am in Ecuador at the moment, where I arrived with my family 6 days ago for a three months trip in Latin America. I have just came back from a conference on the Yasuni area of the Amazon, where  in the last 30 years, petroleum enclosures have been threatening the common land of the Waorani and some of the last indigenous peoples still living in isolation in the Amazon. We learn that there is no clean oil exploration, that the amount of toxic by-product — even in the case of no spillage — is enormous and very difficult to handle, with toxic consequences for sources of fresh water and all forms of life depending on it. Around the wells used to search for oil,  the percentage of oil in the land was so high to be 20 or 30 thousands times above the maximum level for safe agricultural production.

The aim of the encuentro was to try to counter the ambiguity of the Ecuador president Correa who in 2007 has offered a plan that Ecuador will not allow extraction of the ITT oil fields in Yasuní, if the “world community” can create a compensation trust to leave the oil permanently in the ground and fund Ecuador’s “sustainable development” into the future. I leave aside here the fact that in the recent versions of the proposal this “compensation trust”  was substituted with a marketisation of the Yasuni in terms of carbon credit bonds, a mechanism highly criticizable not only because carbon credit markets have been found ineffective to meet the need of carbon reduction and because they tie the resources destined for social and ecological ends to speculation, but also because they threaten the autonomy of the indigenous people over their territory, since carbon bonds requires the local indigenous to act in the interest of the “monetary value” of the Yasuni carbon bond in competition to all carbon bonds issued around the world.

However, a part from the carbon market replacing the trust, Correa seems to want to master an incredible juggling exercise. On one hand, declared that no further oil exploration will be undertaken in the Yasuni area, while on the other hand and at the same time, he is signing  permits for further exploration. I asked people around, and the reasons given to me  for this contradiction are various, ranging from the fact that he is a very whimsical man, passing through the effect of the oil lobby, and arriving to the fact that the plan was never his in the first place, but of economist Alberto Acosta, who originally proposed the plan and since then he left the government.  (Acosta was at the encuentro, and a very critical voice, calling for a moratoria of all oil exploration, invoking the new constitution,  claiming the movement project as a life project not only for the indigenous or the Ecuador people, but for the entire planet, since Amazonia is the source of water for the rest of Ecuador and Yasuni has the greatest biodiversity in the world). But maybe this juggling is really the manifestation of the fact that to coopt the commons one needs to leave the options open, so as to navigate the contradictions and jump in the moment when opportunity arises.

“The country is yours, power is yours”

The project of commons-cooptation seems to me quite evident walking around the city of the encuentro — Orellana — and the nearby city of Coca — a dusty oil town, the gateway of the Yasuni park. They are both covered in posters that invite citizens to think of their city, their country and their resources as theirs. Posters like “your resources, we handle them well”, or “the country is yours, you have the power” seem to show that wanting to instil a sense of “common ownership” is clearly important from the state/oil companies propaganda’s side. A different sense of “common ownership” instead came up in the Yasuni encuentro, where I have been hearing several indigenous voices speaking, all demanding for an uncompromising end of oil exploration and an end of oil activities in the Yasuni. One after another these voices gave different illustrations of the reasons for this, but all repeated different versions of the same tune: Pachamama.

Pachamama is the deity of Andean origin and refers to “mother earth”, not just as geological earth or nature but also as a set of relations, a deity of reproduction, a protective rather than creative deity or perhaps better, a deity for which human creation is just a moment of a reproduction cycle. In this sense, the discourse is quite distinct from Western environmentalism, that — a part from the gaya hypothesis — sees earth  as simply the context of human activity. It seems to me that paradoxically, the insistence on Pachamana, as the sacred mother earth from which we depend on, is, quite amazingly, a materialist  approach to nature. The idea that “mother earth” is a precondition of our existence  echoes Marx’s notion that earth is the mother of value, that is the precondition for all human activity, an insight often left out in the compendia of Marxist thought.
The deity of Pachamama is a deity of protection, but as all religions, is a reflection of a human cosmological vision that grounds action. It is man and women who must protect earth, if earth must deliver the means for human survival. Otherwise, “la Pachamama tiene hambre frecuente y si no se la nutre con las ofrendas o si casualmente se la ofende, ella provoca enfermedades.” (wikipedia) The story of climate change seems to fit quite well this narrative.

In the Encuentro on the Yasuni, Pachamama is evoked endlessly in all different ways, until one realises there is little mysticism in Pachamama, or at least, the rational kernel of mysticism is grounded on solid material reality, the reality of property relations, of clashing idea of “common ownership”. The indignation of the people whose land is threatened with petrol leaks and toxic waste find in Pochamama a value discourse that clashes with the value discourse of the oil companies and the state, but at the same time enable them to compete with this discourse in terms of seeking alliances and building up the scale of the movement.

Standing on Pachamama allows this rebellious indigenous discourse to reveal three elements of conflct:

First, the question of use and access of land, of who has access and who can use it, the question of the community of commoners.  This claim is made in terms of a basic bipolarism between who will promote life in the Yasuni, and who will promote death in the Yasuni: as it is mentioned in the large banner of the encuentro, Yasuni is between life and death, and speech after speech remind us that the coalition of the Yasuni movement is a coalition that has embraced the project of life. The project of life find its political actors, its “commons entrepreneurs” in those who recognise a basic truth, and that is that the precondition for the reproduction of human life, of human creativity, of human existence, is our relation to Earth, because we and everything depend on Earth. As one man said “we cannot live  without Pachamama, we have to eat, we have to dress ourselves, so we need Pachamama.” That is, we need not just “resources” as things to extract, but the processes that reproduce these resources, because we have also to eat and drink and dress tomorrow and for generations to come. From the recognition of the basic dependence, to the identification of the clash, there is a simple step: “those who do not believe in Pachamama, are sucking the blood of Pachamama”, that is oil and water, and thus also threatening the survival of the people. And since the river connects the various communities, and Pachamama is Pachamama for all, Pachamama also represents also the condition for the preservation of all communities. As put it by another intervention:

“we are here for life of Pachamama, for the life of all nationalities.”

This discourse is actually extended, as around the Yasumi there is a discursive recomposition that exceeds the struggle and the preservation of the indigenous communities, and begin to involve “planetary Pachamama”. Yasuni after all is a planetary lung of crucial importance for global climate and biodiversity, as all the rest of the Amazon rain forest.

The claim over the Yasuni is thus in the first instance a claim over use and access: the people who recognise the importance of the Yasuni for their preservation must have use access to the forest.

The second element that emerge as a clash in ownership is the question of control. Who control the destiny of the forest? Those who have secular knowledge on how to preserve it, to maintain its life while reproducing theirs, or the government? One man pointed this out:

“The government cannot negotiate on matters of the Amazons behind our back”

another one said:

“the territories are autonomous and the companeros tiene da administrar el territorio [the comrades must administrate the territory]”

Autonomous control of the territory by the indigenous community is crucial for the maintenance of the use appropriate use.

Finally there is the question of the overall value system that is able to articulate use/access and define the whats and hows of control, the value system that gives a particular form of property and ownership life and sustenance.  This is a clash between Pachamama (and communal man) vs homo economicus (and earth as a mine).  As a Quechi from Peru told us :

“Pachamama: this is what we drink, we eat, we dress.  . .. It is a lie that we need to work, to earn money, in order to raise children. It is by defending the land that we do this.”

The lie is of course a lie to the extend we see it from outside, from a different value system and value practices, in the case of the speaker, from the value system captured in Pachamama. In our daily life within capital’s loops, the lie of having to run the race to acquire money to get by is a very potent reality, one that blur our vision and hide our ultimate dependence to the eco-system. Thus, this third conflictual element is the most difficult to deal with and recognise in a politically effective way, because in the course of the reproduction of daily life as “homo economicus”, our true “dependence to Pachamama” is structured in such a way that we see only our dependence on money and, therefore, on the social mechanisms that reproduce and accumulate money. How we do disentangle from this is one of the most important question we face. And obviously is not only a question of “false consciousness”, because the dependence on money is real ..

Thus,  we have here a clash between two claims of ownership and the politics of “alliances” around these two claims. One, by the state and oil companies as “representative” of the ecuadorians, for which they administrate their oil resources while preserving the forest (sic — an impossibility). On the other by the Waorani as “representative” not only of ecuadorian, but of humanity as a whole, since the Waorani commoning on the Yasuni is the only way to sustain the Yasuni as planetary commons.  To to put in another way  we have the following points: 1) earth provides food, clothing and all we need — it cannot come from anywhere else! Hence to the community of the Yasuni, the preservation of the forest is of crucial importance. 2) therefore the indigenous claim common *ownership* to the part of earth that give them sustenance, the yasuni - to the jungle, the river, the bio-physical relations therein.   3) a claim of common ownership that almost naturally turns into a claim of autonomy in terms of the administration of the territory, since the *preservation* of the Waorani is one with the preservation of the Yasuni, and 4) Pachamama and homo economicus reveal two distinct and clashing valuing and measuring rationalities upon which notion of ownership (use access + control) are built. Yet, Pachamama is not lack of recognition of pay offs. The indigenous commons ownership also translate in pay offs to the Ecuadorian people (preservation of water sources for the entire country) and the world (through preservation of Amazon sink), thus the Yasuni is also a commons to them, at a different scale, and with different modalities of use-access and control, yet a common nevertheless. Hence, the struggle here also provides a basic general framework within which to devise schemes of compensation and reparation through which not only the Yasuni stay without oil and trash, but also without poverty.