Ecopolitics

I have written a book called How Forests Think (Kohn 2013), which is drawn from my work in the Ecuadorian Amazon and concerns a mode of thought that I call sylvan thinking: a kind of thought, available to all of us, that extends well beyond the human. It emerges with life and is particularly visible in dense thickets of life like the tropical forest. I have argued that learning again to think with and like forests should be part of an ethical practice for the Anthropocene. On sabbatical this year, I have returned to Ecuador to try to understand how this particular kind of ecologic might acquire a political life. That is, I wish to understand how this form of thinking might guide us toward ways of being that can nurture sylvan thought in all of its valences. To do this I have been working with the Runa (or Kichwa) community of Sarayaku, which has been at the forefront of indigenous alter-politics (Hage 2012) for decades (see Becker 2012; Melo 2014).

Trees
Forest canopy. Photo by Mike Norton.

In particular, I have collaborated with the community of Sarayaku in the preparation of a proposal for the legal recognition of a new category of protected territory that they call Kawsak Sacha or the Living Forest, which they presented at the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris in December 2015 and also, personally, to France’s president, François Hollande. Kawsak Sacha is a vision of ecological stewardship based on animist principles (Descola 2013). I see it as a hopeful example of how sylvan thinking goes political in these times of ecological crisis.

Here are two excerpts from the proposal (see Sarayaku’s official website for the full text):

Whereas the western world treats nature as an undemanding source of raw materials destined exclusively for human use, Kawsak Sacha recognizes that the forest is made up entirely of living selves and the communicative relations they have with each other. . . . These selves, from the smallest plants to the supreme beings who protect the forest, are persons (runa).
Kawsak Sacha is where [we] interrelate with the supreme beings of the forest in order to receive the guidance that leads [us] along the path of Sumak Kawsay (Good Living). This continuous relation that we . . . have with the beings of the forest is central, for on it depends the continuity of the Living Forest, which, in turn permits a harmony of life among many kinds of beings, as well as the possibility that we all can continue to live into the future.

The people of Sarayaku hold legal title to a territory of 135,000 hectares, which they have designated as Kawsak Sacha. This territory is demarcated by a border of flowering and fruiting trees, visible from the air, which they call a Frontier of Life or Trail of Flowers. In keeping with the idea that the forest is a communicative ecology, the trail performs multiple communicative functions. It tells outsiders of the existence of the Living Forest at the same time that, in the words of the proposal, it “creates the possibility of beginning to dialogue with the beings that make up the Living Forest. In this way the Frontier of Life creates a permanent forum for communication among beings. This can help the entire world recuperate the original understanding of Mother Earth [Pachamama] as a shared home.”

One important goal of this proposal is to stop oil and mineral extraction on native lands and in tropical forests. Currently, property titles in Ecuador apply only to the surface; the government retains the right to exploit subsurface resources. By treating the Earth as a bundle of relations instead of a font of material resources, Kawsak Sacha counters this statist extractive logic. Its proponents frame Kawsak Sacha as “a robust proposal capable of defending the Rights of Nature as it is enshrined in the Ecuadorian Constitution.” In fact, the proposal takes the logic of the Rights of Nature one step further by emphasizing that “in order to extend rights to Nature, one must first recognize its entities as persons (and not mere objects).”

Here are three further excerpts:

We urge the world community to make an effort to achieve a real metamorphosis (tiam). We need to shift from a modernizing model of development—a model that treats nature as material resource—to the alternative of Kawsak Sacha, which recognizes that forming community with the many kinds of selves with whom we share our world is a better way to orient our economic and political activities.
[As guardians of the forest it is our responsibility to make manifest] that the very governments that put forth solemn discourses criticizing imperialism, capitalism, and colonialism are promoting, in the supposed name of democracy, large-scale neocolonialist extractive projects on our lands. . . . [The] gradual disappearance of this ensemble of life that Kawsak Sacha seeks to sustain is nothing more and nothing less than ecocide—that is, it is the systematic extermination of an ensemble of living interrelated selves. And this crime against Humanity and Nature, has, until now, gone unpunished. With the hope of putting a brake on this violence, our proposal is an urgent call to the world community . . .
To conclude [. . .]: the entire world is peopled by beings that sustain our planet thanks to their way of living in continuous interrelation and dialogue. This vision is neither a quaint belief nor a simple conservationist ideal. It is instead a call to the people of the world to learn once again to feel this reality in their very being. This . . . will only be possible once we learn to listen to and dialogue with these other beings that are part of a cosmic conversation that goes well beyond . . . us humans. [This] would be the basis for conceptualizing, building, and disseminating a genuine Sumak Kawsay in our world—a world that today is threatened by an ecological crisis of planetary proportions.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to several Sarayaku community members for lively philosophical conversations and hospitality: José Gualinga, Felix Santi, Hernán Malaver, Franco Viteri, Yaku Viteri, Tupac Viteri, Dionisio Machoa, Sabine Bouchat, Renán Gualinga, and Paty Gualinga. Thanks to Chris Hebdon for logistical help and for many stimulating discussions around the Living Forest.

References

Becker, Marc. 2012. Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador. Updated edition. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littefield.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in 2005.

Hage, Ghassan. 2012. “Critical Anthropological Thought and the Radical Political Imaginary Today.” Critique of Anthropology 32, no. 3: 285–308.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Melo, Mario. 2014. “Voces de la selva en el estrado de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.” SUR: Revista Internacional de Derechos Humanos 11, no. 20: 291–99.