Indigenous autonomy and indigenous community-based research

Tirso Gonzales

Tirso Gonzales, Aymara, holds a PhD in Rural Sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After postdoctoral studies at UC Davis and UC Berkeley, he became Indigenous Studies professor at UBC-Okanagan, Canada. Currently, he is Associate Researcher at Pontificia Universidad Católica Peru and a member of Universidad del Pacífico´s Ciencia Andina Think-Tank group. Tirso works as scholar and activist on Indigenous Peoples and food issues and worked as a member of the IAASTD LAC team.

Walter D. Mignolo

Walter D. Mignolo is Professor of Romance Studies in Trinity College, Professor of Literature and Director of the Center for Global Studies and the Humanities at Duke University. He is associated researcher at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, and at the Center for Indian Studies in Sout h Africa, Wits University, Johannesburg. He authored a variety of books related to this topic, most recently “On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analysis, Praxis”, co-authored with Catherine Walsh.

This essay assesses the relevance of the “development” concept in relation to Indigenous peoples, focusing on three global co-existing scenario-options: re-westernization, de-westernization (1) and Buen Vivir (also known as “Living Well”).

The two different concepts of state led development that are commonly used within globalization are ‘Rough Unsustainable’ and ‘Sustainable Development’. Both originated in Western cosmology (2) to benefit the state and a few corporate businesses, both are based on “growth”, presuppose an economy of “accumulation” and exploitation. They both lead to increasing inequality and assume that society is part of the economy rather than the economy being an aspect of socio-cultural organizations (Table 1).

The “Sustainable Development” option is not conducive to Indigenous peoples’ food production or ancestral vision.

The design and implementation of this kind of “development” (Sachs 2010) is based on a system of ideas, beliefs, emotions, and institutions that are distinctly different from Buen Vivir. At the foundation of Buen Vivir is Indigenous autonomy and Indigenous community-based research (ICBR) that nurtures life as a whole. This is a conceptual approach arising especially from Indigenous peoples emphasizing living in harmony with nature. Yet despite Indigenous food systems’ contribution to feeding the world, the IAASTD paid little attention to Indigenous autonomy and ICBR. Nevertheless, despite chronic research funding shortages, both have continued to grow and innovate on most continents, while enabling different types of Indigenous learning to boost Buen Vivir across multiple dimensions (Tebtebba 2010, 2012, 2008, PRATEC 1998).

In 2008, IAASTD proposed “equitable and sustainable development” as the goal for food systems, identifying agroecology as a pathway. But in spite of the IAASTD’s attention to equity, the “Sustainable Development” option is not actually conducive to Indigenous peoples’ food production or ancestral vision, mission, and strategy, which is necessary to achieve Buen Vivir – procuring balance and harmony for life as a whole (Table 1). The 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) provides a clear roadmap for achieving Buen Vivir. Yet to date, most countries that approved the IAASTD have continued to disregard UNDRIP (Tebtebba 2012, 2010; Gonzales 2015).

Table 1: Agroecology & Buen Vivir and state led global scenarios. Source: Elaborated by Tirso Gonzales. Based on Mignolo, 2016; Gonzales & Hussain, 2016; Sachs 2010

Sustainable development, indigenous autonomy and ICBR in the globalization scenarios

Although Sustainable Development has all the institutional support of the United Nations and is strongly positioned to mitigate the disastrous consequences of Rough Unsustainable Development, this cannot happen using the same mindset that created them. In the current political globalization scenarios, we have a tension between re- and de-westernization. While the USA, European Union and allies are trying to re-install Western dominance, other powers – such as the BRICS-countries – work towards an end of the Western or US-Dollar dominance.

Both, the Rough Unsustainable and the so-called Sustainable Development share the same definition of development that precludes the possibility of thinking of Indigenous Sustainable Economies and Buen Vivir. Similarly, the dispute between Rough and Sustainable Development permeates the tension between re- and de-westernization. The formation of BRICS countries de-link in many ways from Western designs, but does not question “development” (e.g. China) as the only possible horizon for a global economy.

The UN´s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must be understood in the context of the multipolar global order of today and tomorrow. The UN is an institution conceived, epistemically and politically, within the parameters of Western cosmology. When the UN launched the SDGs in 2015, de-westernization was very well advanced. In this multipolar world order, sustainable development was negotiated between the interests of re-westernizing the planet and the negation of the interests of de-westernization advocates. Consequently, the Sustainable Development proposal sought to mitigate the harms of Rough Unsustainable Development, but fell short of proposing a radically new vision for living.

Sustainable Economies

There is however a third approach-scenario, “Sustainable Economies”, which de-links economies from the SDGs and from re- and de-westernizing state-led projects alike. The Sustainable Economies Project follows neither one of the “Development” approaches nor the IAASTD, but is based on Indigenous cosmologies and praxes of living. After IAASTD, the challenge remains to embrace a new mindset that allows us to think of de-linked Sustainable Economies. For these to flourish, we must learn from, support and interact with Indigenous cosmologies and praxes. Sustainable Economies shall be created and managed by Indigenous leaders and communities (Tebtebba 2012, 2010; Mignolo 2020, Esteva 2015).

Support indigenous community-based research and Buen Vivir

Indigenous community-based research is embedded in and informed by the Indigenous cosmologies of Buen Vivir and has its own methods, indicators and validation systems. Dialogue and collaboration is imperative between Sustainable Development-agroecology stakeholders and Buen Vivir Indigenous practitioners. Foreign aid actors should learn from the small Euro-American funding institutions that support Indigenous autonomy and ICBR. This would upscale the co-production and cross-fertilization of agricultural knowledge and strengthening of Indigenous agricultures (Tengö 2017).

ICBR has been successfully tested and validated its methods with a variety of Indigenous Think-Tank institutions such as the Tebtebba Foundation, PRATEC; AGRUCO and the Universidad de la Tierra as well as with Indigenous NGOs, a cluster of European-funded individuals and institutions and the scholarly fields of Indigenous and Modernity/Coloniality Studies (Gonzales & Hussain 2016, Tebtebba 2012, 2010).

Indigenous autonomy has its own resolve (Esteva 2015) and has been imprinted in the expression Sumak Kawsay in Quichwa, Suma Qamaña in Aymara, and translated into Spanish as Buen Vivir and adopted by non-Indigenous “Latin” Americans. Buen Vivir encourages sustainable development and agroecology supporters to look forward at the same time that they look backward (Ñawpaman Puni, in Quechua) and “becoming Native to this Place” (Jackson 1994). By becoming native to the place, country and planet human beings make the Rough Unsustainable Development untenable.

The challenge re- and de-westernization face is to take seriously the paradigm of diverse and sustainable economies. The “development” concept is simply not relevant.


1 De-westernization´s main characteristics are political and economic rather than geographic and refer to all countries that desire an end to international dependency based on the legacies of the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference and the US dollar’s global dominance and that delink from economic decisions made by the WB, IMF, United States and the European Union. ↑ back to the text

2 Cosmology and cosmo-vision are two Western concepts, one underlining the logos and the other the eyes, shattering all other forms of expressing the experience of Pachamama, which is the Quechua-Aymara equivalent to the regional Greek cosmos and Latin universum. Aymara intellectuals talk about ‘cosmo-con-vivencia’, that is, the experience of the cosmos (vivencia) as well as living in harmony with the cosmos (convivencia, that is, con-viviality). ↑ back to the text


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Gonzales, T., 2015. An Indigenous Autonomous Community-Based Model for Knowledge Production in the Peruvian Andes, In Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, 10:1, 107-133.

Gonzales, T. and Hussain, M., 2016. Indigenous autonomy, community-based research, and development aid. Sumaq Kawsay in three epistemic scenarios. In AlterNative 2016: 266-281.

Mignolo, W., 2020. Sustainable Development or Sustainable Economies? Ideas Towards Living in Harmony and Plenitude. Global Coloniality and the World Disorder. Translated into Mandarin, to be published by the University Press of the National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan.

PRATEC, 1998. The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development. (Eds) Frederique Apffel-Marglin and PRATEC (the Andean Project for Peasant Technology). Zed Books.

Sachs, W., 2010. The Development Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge as Power. (Ed) Wolfgang Sachs. Zed Books

Tebtebba, 2010. Towards an Alternative Development Paradigm. Indigenous Peoples Selfdetermined Development, (Eds) Tauli-Corpuz, V., Enkiwe-Abayao, L. and de Chavez, R. Tebtebba Foundation.

Tebtebba, 2012. Sustaining and Enhancing Indigenous People’s Self-determined Development: 20 Years After Rio. (Eds) J. Cariño, K. Wessendorf, M. E. Regpala, R. de Chavez, and T. Gonzales. Tebtebba Foundation.

Tebtebba, 2008. Indicators Relevant for Indigenous Peoples: A Resource Book. (Ed) Mara Stankovitch. Tebtebba Foundation

Tengö, M., Hill, R. Malmer, P. et al., 2017. Weaving knowledge systems in IPBES, CBD and beyond — lessons learned for sustainability. In Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 26:17–25.

Figueroa-Helland, L., Thomas, C., Aguilera, A.P., 2018. Decolonizing food systems: Food sovereignty, indigenous revitalization, and agroecology as counter-hegemonic movements. In Perespectives on Global Development and Technology 17 (2018): 173-201.


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