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Social Enterprises for buen vivir in Chiapas: An Alternative to Development

28 Jun 2013

Social Enterprises for <i>buen vivir</i> in Chiapas: An Alternative to Development
This is part of a series of think pieces by scholars and practitioners working on a broad range of issues within the field of Social and Solidarity Economy. The series is being published in conjunction with the UNRISD conference “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. The conference took place on 6-8 May 2013 in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service.

Indigenous peoples in Mexico, as in many other countries, experience hard living conditions and socioeconomic marginalization. In this think piece, Michela Giovannini argues that this is because mainstream development programmes have failed to address their needs, and neoliberal policies have sacked their territories and natural resources without making a significant positive impact on their well-being. She suggests that a Latin American indigenous “alternative to development”—buen vivir—may offer a way out of this situation. Based on her qualitative research in the Mexican State of Chiapas, Giovannini argues that social enterprises created by local Mayan communities can be a way to pursue buen vivir—well-being grounded in harmony between human communities and the natural environment—and offer an example of how indigenous communities themselves devise and implement strategies to fulfill their economic, social, environmental and political needs. The analysis presented in this think piece leads to important policy recommendations.

Michela Giovannini is a PhD candidate at the University of Trento, Italy, and collaborates with Euricse (European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprise).

Indigenous peoples and “development aggression”

All over the world indigenous communities generally live in areas that are very rich in terms of natural resources. In spite of this richness, they are among the poorest and most marginalized groups in society.

Natural resources located in territories inhabited by indigenous communities are often exploited by national governments and multinational corporations, without significant positive changes in indigenous peoples’ socioeconomic conditions. Neoliberal policies promoted by the IMF, the World Bank and some bilateral donors, such as liberalization of investment, mining and other extractive activities, and rights to land and property, have often facilitated the expropriation of indigenous territories and the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources. This development model has caused the destruction of entire ecosystems, an increase in deforestation and extraction of minerals, oil and gas, as well as the construction of high-impact infrastructures, such as dams for hydroelectricity. Furthermore, this model has led to the displacement of entire communities, and to the impoverishment of indigenous peoples’ livelihood conditions. The violation of indigenous individual and collective rights caused by top-down development processes has been described as “development aggression” (Tauli-Corpuz, 2008). Such an approach violates the “right to free, prior and informed consent” and the “right to decide priorities for development”, in ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. This legally binding convention has been ratified by 22 countries, including Mexico, the case study discussed below.

In Latin America there is a strong correlation between indigenous peoples and poverty indexes. As reports by the World Bank recognize (Hall and Patrinos, 2006), human development indicators (poverty, education, health, income determinants, access to basic services) are low, and the impact of the recent economic crisis has further worsened the situation.

Chiapas represents a paramount case in this sense, with a large indigenous population (27%), the highest poverty rate in Mexico (78.4%) and, at the same time, a wealth of natural resources including hydropower, forests, biodiversity, minerals and oil. In Mexico, development programmes at both federal and state levels tend to be paternalistic and generate dependence rather than support job creation and the improvement of health and educational services (see UNDP, 2010). Cases in point are “Oportunidades”, based on cash transfers conditional on specific behaviours in nutrition, health and schooling; and “Sustainable Rural Cities”, a programme to relocate poor (often indigenous) households from isolated rural localities to newly built rural cities.

Women's Handicraft Organization, Acteal.
Photograph courtesy of Michela Giovannini.

According to the neoliberal logic that inspires these programmes, rights are conceived of as individual rather than collective, a view that often creates tensions for indigenous communities. The mainstream conception of development has rarely taken into account endogenous factors such as local approaches to resource management, and indigenous institutions, social relations and cultures. Conversely, mainstream approaches have regarded indigenous peoples as passive actors that must renounce their culture and institutions in order to pursue economic growth and development. This colonialist view implies that assimilation of indigenous groups into the dominant society is a winning strategy.

Buen vivir as an indigenous alternative to development

Unsatisfied by the effects of the neoliberal approach to development, indigenous groups in Latin America have formulated an alternative. Buen vivir (which can be translated as “living well”) emerges from Latin American indigenous tradition and can be considered one of the most important Latin American conceptual contributions of recent years (Gudynas, 2011). Two innovative aspects proposed by buen vivir can be highlighted. First, well-being is regarded as possible only within a community. Second, like human beings, the natural environment is also considered a subject of rights. This approach, which moves beyond the Western mainstream conception of development, can be situated in relation to “post-development” critiques defined as “alternatives to development” in opposition to “alternative development.” This idea follows a conceptualization by Escobar (1992) who, among others, calls for the need to deconstruct the mainstream Western idea of development, overcoming its exclusive foundation on economic growth.

Buen vivir highlights the crucial role of natural and cultural resources. Such resources should not be commodified, but rather employed to pursue collective and communitarian well-being that involves both human communities and the natural environment. In this framework and in contrast to the neoliberal discourse of inclusion or assimilation of indigenous peoples, indigenous social movements claim their right to be different and call for reconceptualizing development, modernity and economy.

Buen vivir is not a static spiritual concept. On the contrary, it is “an idea that is continually being created” (Gudynas, 2011) and that can have real application beyond indigenous communities: the concept has been included in the national constitutions of Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009), and it inspires several public policies in these two countries.

Social enterprises as a means to sustain buen vivir

Mainstream development approaches and traditional forms of entrepreneurship are not sufficient to guarantee the well-being of indigenous peoples, as evidenced by the variety of unsatisfied needs faced by these populations. As a consequence, it is necessary to acknowledge that economic systems are increasingly characterized by a plurality of entrepreneurial forms, and non-conventional enterprises may play a key role in promoting a self-managed approach to development.

Indigenous entrepreneurship has been characterized by various non-conventional forms of enterprise, generally based on the incorporation of indigenous cultural features and on cooperative organizational forms. Social enterprises, which manage to combine an entrepreneurial dimension with the pursuit of explicit social aims, represent one example. Social enterprises offer a new development paradigm—an “alternative to development”—that balances the intrinsic abilities and value of human beings, communities and the natural environment, over the search for profit maximization. The social and solidarity economy sector, to which social enterprises belong, supports a different view of development that can lead to the realization of buen vivir (Acosta, 2008). This capacity of social enterprises is ascribed to their specific founding characteristics: the explicit social aim, their embeddedness in the indigenous community, and their participatory governance model.

Coffee Producers Organization, Acteal.
Photograph courtesy of Michela Giovannini.

Indigenous social enterprises in Chiapas

Qualitative research was conducted by the author in Chiapas with the aim of: (i) identifying the unsatisfied needs of indigenous peoples which led them to become involved in social enterprises; and (ii) determining the suitable dimensions of social enterprises to sustain buen vivir. In-depth semi-structured interviews were carried out with 16 social enterprises created and managed by local indigenous communities. Social enterprises were grouped in four categories according to their field of activity: handicrafts; agriculture (coffee); support and educational services; and ecotourism. Findings suggested that the unsatisfied needs of indigenous peoples are not only material. Indigenous peoples need decent work, access to health services and education, and basic infrastructure. They are eager to participate in the public sphere (this is especially evident in the case of women); and they seek greater autonomy and the affirmation of their rights, beyond formal recognition by the Mexican Constitution (Art. 2) and by ILO Convention 169. They also ask that their spiritual respect for “Mother Earth” be reflected in sustainable protection of the natural environment.

The analysis highlights four crucial dimensions of the economic, social and environmental sustainability of social enterprises.
  • First, the collective dimension: the participatory governance model strengthens participation by community members and contributes to enhancing social cohesion; the self-organization of indigenous groups is also a defense strategy to obtain fair prices when selling the goods they produce.
  • Second, the social dimension: social enterprises seem better suited to exploit local resources and re-direct them towards general-interest goals; cultural elements are a strong component around which indigenous communities gather to safeguard and affirm their identity, and to build self-managed entrepreneurial activities. Through social enterprises indigenous peoples can implement their own vision of society and their relation with land and the natural environment.
  • Third, the entrepreneurial dimension: it is crucial in guaranteeing the sustainability of social enterprises beyond external funding interventions. This dimension is still embryonic in some organizations, but the potential for its further development exists. The self-sustainability of social enterprises contrasts with the short-term, paternalistic approach of traditional development policies.
  • Fourth, the political dimension: the establishment of social enterprises can be seen as an alternative model to the capitalistic one, as several Latin American scholars claim (see for instance Coraggio, 2011), consistent with the idea of buen vivir. The political dimension derives from the links between social enterprises and social movements (Zapatista and Liberation Theology, in the case of Chiapas). Most of the organizations interviewed were established after 1994, the year the Zapatista uprising marked a watershed in raising indigenous peoples’ awareness of the need to be active subjects of cultural, human and social rights, and to promote their autonomy and self-organization.

Conclusions and policy recommendations

Several concrete practices of social enterprises illustrate the linkage of this enterprise form with the principles of buen vivir.
  • First, the embeddedness of social enterprises in the indigenous communities, and the communitarian decision-making processes, testify to how community is crucial in sustaining well-being.
  • Second, safeguarding the natural environment through ecotourism projects and organic agriculture, and the organization of self-managed workshops devoted to raising the environmental awareness of community members, are in line with the crucial role of nature as a subject of rights proposed by buen vivir.
  • Third, the rediscovery of indigenous traditional handicrafts and communitarian organizational practices, such as communal work, are coherent with the crucial role played by buen vivir in sustaining processes of decolonization by supporting indigenous self-determination and preservation of the indigenous identity. Emphasizing activities that are based in an indigenous identity also reduces the risk of indigenous peoples' assimilation in the dominant culture.

Zapatista Mural, Caracol de Morelia.
Photograph courtesy of Michela Giovannini.

The Chiapas case study suggests that public policies in support of indigenous self-managed development, and the social and solidarity economy sector, remain ineffectual at both federal and state levels in Mexico. A law on social and solidarity economy was passed in 2012. This law aims at organizing the sector, defining it to include cooperatives, ejidos (a form of communal land for agriculture regulated by Mexican law where community members individually possess and cultivate a specific parcel), communities, workers organizations, and social organizations for the production, distribution and consumption of “socially necessary” goods and services. The law also provides for the creation of a National Institute of Social Economy, which should recommend specific policies to support and expand the sector.

While it is still too early to evaluate concrete results of this law, mere legislative intervention is likely to be insufficient given the high level of distrust in public authorities. Instead of passing new laws, the analysis suggests, self-managed solutions, directly implemented by communities, should be given a wider scope of action by removing existing hurdles to social enterprise activities.

Nevertheless, the state has a fundamental role to play in guaranteeing the redistribution of resources and the consolidation of the social and solidarity economy sector. Investments in education, health, housing and food sovereignty should be considered as crucial, as well as employment generation and access to credit.

The first step should be the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, and the participation and consultation of communities, according to the principles of free, prior and informed consent, in all policies directed towards them. Public policies, instead of being focused on top-down poverty reduction programmes, should be supportive of the self-managed solutions proposed by indigenous communities themselves, and their autonomy, which, in line with buen vivir, constitutes one of their most pressing demands. In this sense social enterprises can be considered an effective instrument for self-determination and self-managed solutions oriented towards buen vivir, and they should be supported by public policies as a means to address some of indigenous peoples’ unsatisfied needs. Public policies should be inspired by the consideration that economic pluralism can lead to economic democratization and inclusive economic growth, especially when it presupposes direct participation of people in the decision making that affects the common good.

Acosta, A. 2008. “El Buen Vivir, una oportunidad por construir”, Ecuador debate on Innovaciones y retos constitucionales, No. 75, pp. 33- 48.

Coraggio, J.L. 2011. Economía social y solidaria. El trabajo antes que el capital, Abya Yala, Quito.

Escobar, A. 1992. “Imagining a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements”, Social Text, No. 31-32, pp. 20-56.

Gudynas, E. 2011. “Buen Vivir: Today’s tomorrow”, Development, Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 441–447.

Hall, G. and Patrinos, H.A., eds. 2006. Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Human Development in Latin America: 1994-2004. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Tauli-Corpuz, V. 2008. The Concept of Indigenous Peoples' Self-Determined Development or Development with Identity and Culture: Challenges and Trajectories. Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education, Philippines.

UNDP. 2010. Informe sobre Desarrollo Humano de los Pueblos indígenas en México: el reto de la desigualdad de oportunidades. PNUD, México.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.