Is it possible to have development without harming nature?

gudynasperusumuioMeet The Arne Næss Chair 2016 at the University of Oslo: Eduardo Gudynas

South America has made significant social progress in recent years, resulting in poverty reduction and improvement in social protection programs. However, many organizations and researchers are concerned that progressive governments in South America have intensified the explotation of natural resources to fund their social policies.

Eduardo Gudynas is the 2016 Arne Næss Chair and Professor in Global Justice and the Environment. He is the executive secretary of the Latin American Centre for Social Ecology in Uruguay, and one of the most influential and creative environmental thinkers in Latin America today.

Natural Resource Extraction

Extractive industries exist in every South American country, and most of the economies are deeply dependent on raw material exports.

As demand for fossil fuels and minerals has exploded globally in recent years, many Latin American governments have come to see extractive industries as increasingly central to financing their social programs. The extractive industry consists of any operations that involves removing oil, metals, coal, stone, etc. from the ground. Examples of extractive processes are oil and gas extraction and mining.

But critics warn that the benefits have a high environmental cost. It is at the local level in rural areas where the environmental and social burdens of extractive industries are most likely to be found. Gudynas claims that the emphasis has been on the economic revenues the industries bring but not on the social and environmental impacts like biodiversity loss, water and soil pollution, and deterioration of living conditions for rural, often indigenous, populations.

– Of course they contribute to the macro economy of the region. But it scares me that no one has counted on the cost of the social and environmental impact of the extraction industry, neither on short or long term. The real economic balance is very uncertain, he argues.

Gudynas have a hard time finding anything positive about what he calls “extractive” sectors, such as large open pit mining or oil drilling in the rainforest. But he insists on the fact that being critical to extraction is not the same as being against the use of natural resources.

– It’s the intensive exploitation of natural resources in order to export them out of the region that I’m criticizing.

Minera Antucoya, Chile. Photo: Antofagasta Minerals, Flickr


Development without harming nature

I asked Gudynas if development is possible without harming nature. He insists that you could achieve a good quality of life for the inhabitants without harming the nature.

But it would implicate a different lifestyle than the conventional one, says Gudynas.

The idea of development as it is mostly presented today, presupposes the idea of growth and progress. It includes a duality of nature and society, he continues.

– My work is to criticize that idea of development.

Jointly with several other researchers, Gudynas has supported an alternative to the traditional development idea, called “Buen vivir” that also recognize the intrinsic values in nature. Buen Vivir could be translated to something similar to “a good life”, but which is based on social communities rooted in their lands. Thus, this “good life” implies expanded communities, both in the social and ecological dimensions.

Especially in countries with a high percent of indigenous communities these ideas about “Buen vivir” have become part of public discussion. In Ecuador the intrinsic rights of nature have even been included in the new constitution.

Europe is not our problem

Gudynas argue that the fact that South American governments are so dependent on the extractive industries is one the biggest problems in the region today. The leading social ecologist wants to selectively disconnect the continent from the global economy as a way of first sorting things out internally in Latin America.

– We should prioritize using the land to provide food for our own societies. The region should be more autonomous.

Many countries are today heavily dependent on Latin American minerals and agricultural products, like for example soya. So what do we do if Latin America stops exporting?

– I don’t know, smiles Gudynas. Basically that is your problem, not ours. But even if Latin America were to adopt the “Buen vivir” proposal at a greater scale, we would continue exporting some goods, but certainly in more reduced volumes.


By Hilde Holsten, Center for Environment and Development, University of Oslo; September 2016 –

Photo: Eduardo Gudynas giving a lecture in Lima (Peru); photo Servindi (Latin American Indigenous News Agency