I recently attended the Canadian Association for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CALACS) 2013 Congress. As much as CALACS was an academic conference, I felt that it was also a call for action. Academic conferences are a great venue to discover what other researchers are devoting their life to and for emerging scholars, it provides an opportunity for our ideas to be heard and assessed by other scholars. In my opinion, academic conferences focus simply on advancing selfish professional and academic goals far too often (I am speaking about my own experience with academic conferences). As such, it seems that panels are filled with people trying to validate their research in front of a like-minded audience and add yet another talk to a CV. Unlike other conferences I have attended, however, I feel that CALACS was about capturing a vision and engaging communities into action for social change.
I have decided to dedicate at least one post to draw attention to some of the incredible people that I had the pleasure of listening to recently, who work on Latin American issues.
Arturo Escobar challenged us about our interactions with the world and explained how certain actors at the margins of contemporary societies are challenging secular, capitalist, liberal modernity. These actors seeking “a world where many worlds fit,” (phrase coined by the Zapatista movement) have adopted a relational view of the world (idea that person embedded in the community; economy embedded in society; society embedded in nature) are already bringing about radical transformation in the political, social, economic and ecological realms.
Avelina Pancho and Graciela Bolaños from Universidad Autónoma Indígena Intercultural spoke about the successes and challenges they have faced in establishing themselves as an indigenous academic entity. Among the successes is the empowerment of indigenous peoples through education that is culturally sensitive and politically salient. It empowers indigenous peoples because it involves them in the education process rather than imposing an education model that is not relevant to their everyday lives.
Marie-Christine Doran gave a thought-provoking talk about the state of certain Latin American democracies and the way in which they are regressing through the criminalization of dissent. Instead of seeing civil protest and engagement as democracy in action, states are often resorting to violence and legislative reform to silence individuals. She noted that states are vilating rights in order to preserve their ideologies of democracy.
Finally, many of the presentations referred to the notion of Buen Vivir or “living in harmony with our communities, ourselves, and most importantly, our living, breathing environment” (Sumak Kausay, as defined in pachama.org). This concept, which is directing many of the Latin American inidgenous movements, certainly depicts a new logic in community development. While there certainly are challenges associated to its applicability, it certainly is a source of hope for a mejor vivir (or better life).
One of the most important take-home points for me after this conference was the way in which change can first occur among the people who constitute this abstract notion of the state (which we ultimately (re)construct daily!). Society has the power to bring about change and there are already traces of a radical transformation that is happening. There are challenges in the world still, as Marie-Josée Massicotte points out, but as she also points out, it is in the margins that the greatest transformations are occurring.