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How recognizing the Amazon rainforest as non-human helps counter human-driven ‘sustainable development’ interventions

Projects introduced in the Amazon rainforest to ‘protect’ it from harm hardly ever follow this objective; instead, they represent human interests while negating the interests of non-humans. But the rainforest as non-human also deserves the right to be represented. Luciana dos Santos Duarte in this article draws on developments in three academic fields to show how non-humans can become recognized in such projects.

Known as the Green Hell , the western part of the Amazon rainforest stretching across Brazil has been a stage for many projects that claim to save the world in the name of ‘sustainable development’. These projects are often conceived using the problematic paradigms of ‘new’ and ‘modern’ (for example introducing ‘new ways to…’), and other buzzwords like ‘Forest 4.0’, where technology is always the presumed answer to sustainable development issues because it ensures the making of profits while saving the forest.

Although we are living in the Anthropocene[1], slowly pushing the button of self-destruction, entrepreneurs motivated to ‘save the world’ are not an endangered species. They create projects connecting a company (buyer), an NGO (to provide technical assistance and credibility in the forest), some cooperatives (workforce of rural farmers), multilateral banks (investors), and the Brazilian government (subsidies). All these actors (called stakeholders) are humans, as are their creations (e.g. corporations). They constitute culture and are Culture.

 

Dichotomous thinking

But what about the Amazon rainforest? The forest, or the ‘stage’ that these actors occupy, is seen as ‘just Nature’, assumed to be separate from ‘Culture’ – something we can literally step on, extract, and reshape based on our will. These binaries – culture/nature, human/non-human – feed the paradigms mentioned above, allowing them to permanently exist in the forest and enabling them to come and go. Like waves, the projects go to the Amazon in accordance with anticipated opportunities for profit. Then, they go away. They incorporate ‘new’ ideas, but do not maintain previous ideas.

There is a key difference between humans and non-humans according to French anthropologist Philippe Descola (author of Beyond Nature and Culture, 2005), “Humans are subjects who have rights on account of their condition as men, while nonhumans are natural or artificial objects that do not have rights in their own right”. Therefore, exercising authority over a certain domain of affairs is considered exclusively human. We humans think from the top down, representing our Culture, and are not so diplomatic with Nature.

 

Diplomacy for non-humans

As part of Culture – because it is a human invention – diplomacy mediates between different interests, traditionally benefiting humans, but not non-humans[2]. However, the complexity of this mediation between the interests of hundreds of cultures and nations around the world, which we can see on daily news (wars, terrorism, etc.) becomes overshadowed by the need to mediate between human interference in nature and the right of existence of the thousands of animal and plant species (to highlight just two categories of non-humans) that are dying due to deforestation, pollution, etc.. Due to humans, non-humans are disappearing.

The lack of representation of Nature in ‘sustainable development’ projects leads to the core question: How can we think about diplomacy for non-humans in Nature?

My positionality allows me to answer this question not as a diplomat, but as a product designer pursuing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering and Development Studies, inspired by the outputs of my research in the Amazon. In saying that, and recalling a famous quote on creativity by Albert Einstein, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, I offer three different paths that could possibly inspire a more concrete answer to diplomacy for non-humans: Law, Anthropology, and Industrial Design.

 

The right to representation

In 1972, Christopher D. Stone wrote the breakthrough article; “Should trees have standing?”, launching a worldwide debate on the basic nature of legal rights that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. He based his argument on the reasons why nature should be represented in court, for instance remembering that children in the past were seen as objects without rights or just an extension of their parents until their rights became recognized. Also, if non-humans like corporations can be represented by lawyers, why not trees and rivers?

Indeed, half a century after this seminal article was published, Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first river in the world to finally be represented in court [4]. The Maori people had been fighting for over 160 years to get it recognized as a legal entity. The river’s interest is now represented by one member from the Maori tribe and one from the government.

Regarding the field of anthropology, some scholars have been placing non-humans at the same epistemological level as humans, for instance, making science from what is the form of life of indigenous peoples, creating ideas like pluriverse[6]. However, our indigenous brothers and sisters do not know that their thinking-feeling can be framed in such fragmented terms. They do not see or live the Nature/Culture division. They are Nature.

Likewise, we as humans can be Nature, too, in our rational thinking and our creation of science and projects. As a lecturer in the field of Design, I am teaching my students to represent the voices of non-humans in their designs and to consider their positionalities in the design process. I believe that the agency of a lawyer should start at the embryonic stage of a project, amplifying the agency of the designer. In other words, the designer can represent Nature and non-humans through design inasmuch as they can do this for humans, mediating between the two as diplomats do. We become Nature by allying with Nature in our human activities.

 

The way forward

Once a project is in the Amazon, where we find thousands of non-human species (animals, plants, spirits), there is a lot of work to do – for anyone who can recreate their agency and their positionalities in projects, either for an entrepreneur, a scientist, a policy maker, or a designer – before we can go to court or march on to the apocalypse.

 

References

DESCOLA, Philippe. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 488.

ESCOBAR, Arturo. Sustainability: Design for the Pluriverse. Development, 2011, 54(2), pp. 137-140.

LATOUR, Bruno. Telling Friends from Foes in the Time of the Anthropocene. In Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil & François Gemenne (editors). The Anthropocene and the Global Environment Crisis – Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, London, Routledge, 2015, pp.145-155.

HARAWAY, Donna. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantatiocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165.

HUTCHISON, Abigail. The Whanganui River as Legal Person. Alternative Law Journal, vol 39, 3 2014, pp. 179-182.

ROBINSON, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. London: Orbit, 2020, p. 576.

STONE, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing?–Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Southern California Law Review 45, 1972, pp. 450-501.

STONE, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 264.

VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo. From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Aivinity in an Amazonian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 428.

WALSH, Catherine. Development as Buen Vivir: Institutional Arrangements and (De)colonial Entanglements. Development, 53(1), 2010, pp. 15-21.

[1] The Anthropocene is a concept proposed as a geological epoch to mark the impact of humans on Earth, like changing the climate and causing irreversible damage. According to Latour (2015, p. 2), the Anthropocene is “the best alternative we have to usher us out of the notion of modernization. […] Like the concept of Gaia, the risk of using such an unstable notion is worth taking. […] The use of this hybrid term made up of geology, philosophy, theology and social science is a wakeup call. What I want to do is to probe here in what sort of time and in what sort of space we do find ourselves when we accept the idea of living in the Anthropocene.”

[2] The recent launched science fiction, or climate fiction, book ‘The Ministry for the Future’ (ROBINSON, 2020) provides some insights in breaking this tradition. In the plot, a body stablished in the Paris Agreement acts as an advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens as if their rights were as valid as the present generation’s – humans considering their own non-humans.

[3] The status of legal personhood has been broadened in the course of history. For instance, slaves were once treated as property; however, with the abolition of slavery – a process, not a single event, in many countries – slaves were no longer regarded as property but as legal persons (HUTCHISON, 2014). Likewise, the status of legal personhood for nature – Stone’s idea – has been impacting courts, the academe, and society, which can be read in his book launched almost fifty years after the original article (STONE, 2010).

[4] In practical terms, it means the river can be represented at legal proceedings with two lawyers protecting its interests – one from the Maori, the other from the government. The Maori also received a NZD 80 million (USD 56 million) settlement from the government after their marathon legal battle, as well as NZD 30 million to improve the river’s health.

[5] Viveiros de Castro (1992) had proposed the term ‘perspectivism’ for a mode that could not possibly hold inside the narrow structures of nature versus culture. By studying indigenous people in Brazil and their shamanic practices, he saw that “human culture is what binds all beings together – animals and plants included – whereas they are divided by their different natures, that is, their bodies” (Latour, 2009, p. 1).

[6] According to Escobar (2011, p. 139) “the modern ontology presumes the existence of One World – a universe. This assumption is undermined by discussions in transition discourses, like the buen vivir” (in Spanish, or suma qamaña, a concept from the indigenous people Aymara, in South America), and the rights of Nature. For Walsh (2010, p. 18), the concept of buen vivir “denotes, organizes, and constructs a system of knowledge and living based on the communion of humans and nature and on the spatial-temporal-harmonious totality of existence”. Coming back to Escobar (idem), “in emphasizing the profound relationality of all life, these newer tendencies show that there are indeed relational worldviews or ontologies for which the world is always multiple – a pluriverse”.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Luciana dos Santos Duarte is doing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil) and Development Studies (International Institute of Social Studies). She holds a master’s degree in Production Engineering, and a Bachelor degree in Product Design. She is a lecturer in Industrial Design Engineering at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. Part of her research is shared on her website ethicalfashionbrazil.com

 

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Now it’s time to start monitoring how children learn: moving beyond universal access to education in Bolivia

A recently published UNESCO-led evaluation of the quality of education in Bolivia and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean revealed just how badly it is faring in providing education of sound quality. The report shows that despite near-universal access to education, primary school learners are struggling at school. Alvaro Deuer made similar observations for his Master’s thesis and here argues that to change this, Bolivia’s education system needs to be transformed through the long-term prioritisation of evidence-based research and policy informing the ongoing monitoring and improvement of education quality.

Photo taken by the author

Two years ago, while I was studying at ISS, I conducted two studies on the quality of secondary and tertiary education systems in Bolivia. While doing the literature review, I noticed that between 1994 and 2019[1], Bolivian authorities were more concerned with increasing the coverage rate of education than monitoring its standards. This is concerning given that SDG4 mentions the need for education to be universal and of sound quality (United Nations, 2021). For countries such as Bolivia where access to education is almost universal, the next step is thus ensuring that learners fare well in school and in university  (Deuer, 2019).

UNESCO recently published the findings of a curriculum study forming part of its ERCE 2019 (Fourth Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study), an evaluation of education quality across 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The study echoed my findings that the quality of education is lagging behind access to education in Bolivia. This comes despite the existence of a number of institutions that are supposed to support the monitoring of education standards in the country.

For instance, the Bolivian Constitution makes room for the evaluation of the country’s education system by an independent body (Asamblea Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2009). Accordingly, the Plurinational Observatory of Educational Quality (OPCE) was created under the Law of Education (Asamblea Plurinacional de Bolivia, 2010). The OPCE has been part of different initiatives to monitor and evaluate the quality of Education in Latin America, including the ERCE 2019. Yet monitoring does not take place frequently.

A sad state of affairs

The most recent evaluation the country’s education system has been subjected to is the ERCE 2019. This evaluation measured the learning achievements of students in primary education with the aim of informing decisions of stakeholders of participating countries. The ERCE is subject to careful planning. The entire evaluation takes around three years (Aguilar, 2016). The test evaluates learning outcomes and studies for those learners registered in the third and sixth grade at both private and public primary schools, for four areas: languages, writing, math, and science (the latter only sixth grade) (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2018).

The results of the ERCE 2019 were published at the beginning of February 2021. Its most important findings for Bolivia are (United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization, 2021):

  • Bolivian learners generally are not doing well in school.
  • Learners from indigenous groups fare comparatively worse than other, non-indigenous learners.
  • Those attending private schools fare significantly better.
  • The quality of education is higher for schools in urban (versus rural) areas.

 

It’s clear from the findings that the education sector needs to be overhauled. Yet addressing gaps in learning capacities that affect poor school performance will require more than simply increased funding. Although the addition of ‘facilitating factors’ like improved physical infrastructure, more equipment, or the employment of more teachers can create a better learning environment that helps teachers and students work and study better, they do not necessarily help learners to learn better (Deuer, 2019). What’s needed is evidence-based research on what learners really struggle with and why. I thus argue that studies such as the ERCE could be used as a baseline to evaluate the quality of primary education in general from a transformational approach.

However, Bolivia has not developed a ‘tradition’ of conducting rigorous studies aimed at measuring the ‘impact’ of the education schemes implemented in the ‘transformation’ of student learning. It is only the second time that Bolivia participates in the ERCE[2], which reveals that monitoring and evaluation are not yet adequately emphasised. Although creating a culture of evaluation takes time, once the necessary institutional capacities are developed, these can be extrapolated to other sectors (and education subsystems), which can contribute to improved transparency and qualitative indicators development that goes beyond the percentage of execution of spending. Moreover, accountability regarding expenditures in the educational sector is particularly important, considering that 5% of the country’s GDP is committed to education and that this sector employs 150,000 teachers (Contreras, 2021).

Thus, only when governance networks of the Bolivian education system commit to investing in more evidence-based research, will policy makers start to take measures to close education gaps detected by the ERCE 2019. Following the recommendations of the ERCE, tackling the inequalities of Bolivian society includes focusing on closing the gaps between public and private schools, urban and rural schools, and between learners that live in indigenous and other regions. The gendered access to education should also receive special attention.


Footnotes

[1] This was set as the time frame of the study given that the main struggles and milestones of quality assessment mechanism implementation in Bolivia occurred in this period.

[2] UNESCO conducted the ERCE four times in Latin America and the Caribbean (in 1997, 2006, 2013, and in 2019), but Bolivia has only participated in the first and last evaluations (United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization, 2021). Bolivia was not part of ERCE 2006 since, in 2007 and 2008, the Constitution Assembly rewrote the Constitution. In the framework set by the new Constitution, the current Law of Education was promulgated only by December 2010. Therefore, the timing did not coincide with ERCE 2013, given that its implementation started some years before. However, in 2017 UNESCO implemented a specific assessment in Bolivia as pilot for ERCE 2019.

On the other hand, at the begging of 2018, an evaluation was conducted in Bolivia as part of ERCE 2013. It constituted a preparatory study for ERCE 2019. According to this study, Bolivia ranked 13th out of 16 countries regarding quality education (Brújula Digital, 2021)

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Alvaro Deuer is a Bolivian development practitioner committed to bringing about evidence-based research and policy. He recently finished the Master’s degree in Development Studies at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS). Previously, he obtained Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and later in Political Science and Public Management. Deuer has 7+ years of working experience in various thematic areas such as institutional capabilities building, governance tools implementation, and indicators design.  His research interest includes good practices in the areas of education, decentralization, public finance, and national identities building. Currently, he is studying the (de) construction of the indigenous identity during the Evo Morale´s government (2006 – 2019).

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.