Phase 3. Global Impacts of Local Experiments

Chapter 7 described how indigenous and campesino farmers in Tungurahua resisted efforts by international advocates to implement an IWM system based on markets for ecosystem services. However, these farmers recognized that a new IWM system might dovetail with their long-standing struggle for greater control over land and water resources. They negotiated with outside IWM advocates to experiment with an alternative program rooted in indigenous norms that challenged the dominant international model of sustainable development. Their approach sought to realize the Kichwa concept sumak kawsay (buen vivir in Spanish), which refers to living in harmony with nature rather than dominating nature or removing human presence through conservation. When Tungurahua’s indigenous movements united, they became a dominant force in the province’s new Water Parliament. This gave them significant influence over the province’s IWM reform process, allowing them to infuse indigenous norms into IWM institutions, policies, and practices. The resulting governance system marked the first time the ideal of sumak kawsay was institutionalized within formal government structures.

Since then, the term sumak kawsay and its Spanish translation buen vivir have infiltrated international discourse surrounding sustainable development, moving global discussion toward a search for new ways to live in harmony with nature, including by granting rights to nature. This chapter traces the process by which Tungurahua’s experiment with IWM reform helped spark this change in order to examine phase 3 of grassroots global governance. I first define sumak kawsay, contrast this with the traditional, Western notion of development, and then describe how Tungurahua’s IWM reform efforts produced the first experiment with institutionalizing sumak kawsay. The chapter’s second part shows how Tungurahua’s experiment was scaled up nationally through network activation, resulting in Ecuador’s National Plan for Buen Vivir. This plan guides Ecuador’s national development strategy, which has become part of a greater international campaign for the rights of nature and alternative paths of sustainable development—a global movement for buen vivir.

The chapter then shows how Ecuador’s experiment with buen vivir has influenced the global discourse on sustainable development. In particular, Ecuador’s experience catalyzed international organizing and action around a new global idea—the rights of nature—both at the international level and domestically in countries around the world. Ecuador is held up as a concrete example of an alternative to the dominant approach pursued through the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Consequently, the Tungurahua case illuminates how local populations working with competing interpretations from international agendas experiment with innovative local governance regimes and how the scaling up of these regimes carries local norms, principles, and practices to the global level, where they challenge traditional thinking.

By tracing the influence of Tungurahua’s IWM reforms on global sustainable development discourse and organizing around the rights of nature, the chapter illustrates how governance networks that form around local experiments expand upward through the mechanisms of network activation. Members engage in strategic framing, share information and technology, train new knowledge communities, and organize them through linking institutions. They also create or alter international governance institutions to concentrate and direct resources toward implementing new policies and practices.

This chapter also highlights a key characteristic of bottom-up network activation. As governance networks expand nationally and internationally, and contestation over principles and practices shifts to national and international arenas, organizations with more influence in these arenas take on leading roles in transnational governance networks. National governments play a particularly important role in international policymaking circles, while international NGOs and IGOs have a global impact via their international programming and activism. These organizations use their influence to manage how principles and practices that are scaled up from local experiments are defined internationally, shaping the evolution of global ideas.

For example, Ecuador’s government and international NGOs are influencing the way sumak kawsay/buen vivir are defined in international policy arenas, and thus are shaping what it means to live in harmony with nature. By infusing these indigenous concepts with new meaning, based on organizational interests, they are driving the evolution of these concepts at the international level, just as grassroots actors altered the meaning of global ideas when applying them in local arenas. As a result, international discourse surrounding sumak kawsay/buen vivir differs from the way grassroots indigenous organizations in Tungurahua discuss the terms. While these concepts evolved when scaled up, they retained elements of local norms and consequently are altering international organizing and discourse about how to conceptualize and practice sustainable development. Consequently, the scaling up of buen vivir illustrates not only how network activation from the grassroots to the global level alters international discourse and organizing around global ideas, but also how the evolution of global ideas is impacted by the shift in power within transnational networks that accompanies shifts in policy arenas.

The following case study shows how the packaging of local experiments’ principles and practices into new meta-concepts—ideas for tackling global problems—facilitates international mobilization. Meta-concepts like buen vivir set goals with broad appeal, like human well-being, sustainable development, and climate change mitigation. Over time, principles and practices from multiple local experiments are incorporated into meta-concepts. This gives them a level of generality that facilitates international collaboration among organizations with distinct interests. While national governments and international organizations invariably add their own interpretations, meta-concepts nevertheless provide a platform for diffusing local norms, principles, and practices to the international level. Sometimes, they challenge existing global ideas, as in the case of buen vivir. The local ideas contained in meta-concepts drive the evolution of global discourse, the policies of international organizations, and international structures for tackling global problems. In short, they drive the evolution of global ideas.

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