Realizing a Future ‘Otherwise’: A Material Claim about Planning and Future-making

Julia Schwab, 

This blog entry is a modified and shortened version of the paper “Temporalities in Friction: Temporal Violence and Planning in the Ecuadorian Amazon” published in FIGEMPA: Investigación y Desarrollo (July 2023)

The window for a future ‘otherwise’ (Povinelli, 2012) seems to shrink for the Ecuadorian Amazon as its past and present are marked by (neo-)colonial entanglements unfolding in the intensification of extractive dynamics. Whether deforestation, oil extraction or mining, it is challenging to re-imagine a transformation of these violent structures. The climate crisis ironically represents both a peril to reproduce and an opportunity to break up these patterns of historically grown colonial inequality. On the one hand, climate change affects the sensitive ecosystem of the Amazon. Furthermore, the peril of a transition towards a low-carbon world economy induced by the climate crisis, among other reasons, paradoxically accelerates oil extraction, deforestation for very light balsa wood used in the construction of wind parks, and mining for critical minerals such as copper (Alarcón et al., 2022; Schwab, 2023). On the other hand, the climate crisis highlights the Amazon as ‘the lungs of the Earth’ recognizing its important role in regulating climatic, hydrological and wind patterns. Therefore, conservation efforts in the region became part of the international agenda in the fight against climate change; paired with the pan-regional Indigenous movement, more attention is given to Indigenous actors living there as well. Critical voices are becoming louder, asking why the practices and the knowledge of Indigenous and local communities are increasingly acknowledged while at the same time less than 1% of global climate finance is directly channeled through them (Rainforest Foundation Norway, 2021). This underlines the importance to understand climate colonialism not merely as a by-product of capitalism, but as a core aspect of modern colonial structures (Bhambra & Newel, 2022) exercising all kinds of (im-)material and (non-)physical violence (see e.g. Pipyrou & Sorge, 2021; Nixon, 2011; Farmer, 1996; Spivak, 1994; Bourdieu, 1979; Galtung, 1969).

This two-folded effect of the climate crisis in the Amazon caught my attention, and I started to wonder whether the reproduction of the ‘continuum of violence’ (Scheper-Hughes & Bourgeois, 2004) in Indigenous territories – intervened by oil companies or not – is temporal, i.e. potentially not reaching into a future timespace. How is such a ‘temporal violence’ impeded or enabled?

While I was doing my fieldwork in Arajuno, a small Kichwa town of some 2.000 inhabitants in the Ecuadorian Amazon that is not (yet) exploited by any oil company, I could observe multiple forms of “subtle” (and not so subtle) violence every day; ranging from structural, epistemic and symbolic violence (see also Schwab, 2023). After I started conveying workshops in 2022 with members of different communities in the area to think about desirable futures and if oil fits into this picture, I increasingly got an uneasy feeling. While it was a quite easy task for most participants to formulate a desirable future vision, the pathway to get there and realize this vision was rather difficult. The obstacles in the present often seemed too complex; most prominently the lack of economic means, whether at an individual level, in the community organization or for the municipality. The lack of economic resources seemed to be omnipresent and putting a sudden end to all the dreams and visions of my participants.

This made me question if I am exercising a kind of temporal violence myself by making my interlocutors envision something that is rather impossible to realize for them at this point in time. How can academia actually assist planning for an alternative future if there are no means to materialize it? While I have not found a satisfactory answer to that question yet, I did become interested in planning processes and its future-making (or breaking) possibilities more generally.

In a nutshell, it can be summarized that official state planning in Ecuador follows a logic of parallelism. As a community leader has formulated, “the state says and contradicts” (El estado dice y contradice). On the one hand, the state wants to protect the environment and the biodiversity e.g. by promoting the conservation program Socio Bosque. On the other hand, the state is extracting oil from the same territories it means to protect (Schwab & Combariza, in press). The (neo-)extractivist state in its role as planner legitimizes ongoing oil extraction and mining with its promises for development and more recently with a doom and gloom discourse on a lack of viable economic alternatives in the face of a low-carbon future. This turns planning into a utilitarian mechanism in the sense of future-making for the “greater good” (Silveira et al., 2017). A questionable approach leaving open for whom this future is planned and beneficial. In other words, state planning is used to maintain an inert status quo; propagating stability. Here, planning clearly loses its ‘optimistic’ and ‘future-oriented’ qualities by turning into a token “evacuating the near future” (Guyer, 2007).

In contrast, planes de vida (life plans) of Indigenous organizations appear in this ‘planscape’ (Österlin & Raitio, 2020) as a potential subversive figure to counter hegemonic planning practices. The origin of the planes de vida go back to the ILO Convention 169 and the right to Indigenous self-determination. Nowadays, the CTEA, a state institution created for the re-distribution of extractive rents in the Amazon to the local level, is in charge of the administration and funding of the planes de vida. Just the larger Indigenous organizations of second or third degree (e.g. CONFENAIE, PAKKIRU) were entitled in recent years to elaborate their own plans – leaving grassroots organizations like the one in Arajuno out of the picture as they are technically part of the provincial representation of PAKKIRU. Several million dollars were spent to elaborate these plans. Looking closer however, this investment could be called into question. First, none of the plans is officially launched yet; also due to corruption issues within the public university IKIAM that was contracted for technical assistance. Second, to realize any project foreseen in a plan, the organizations have to apply for these funds. Due to the difficult access to education, work on voluntary basis and lack of funding, many organizations still lack these capacities and cannot contract an external person to do so either. Third, the funds would not be administered by the organizations themselves as the CTEA has identified a lack of administrative structures. Instead of  building up the necessary structure to do so however, the CTEA opts for the continuation of a paternalistic pattern of external control. These issues point towards a planning practice that exercises temporal violence against Indigenous communities assuring the continuance of violence into the future.

The Kichwa communites in Arajuno are a first degree organization called ACIA-AKAT. Therefore, they were not eligible for the funds of the CTEA. However, their president told me they were thinking about elaborating a plan de vida anyways. She underlined that:

We need a person here to write down all the projects to present. […] We know that in the COP26 there are these Green Funds but nevertheless we have not been able to access this because we are not able to do these projects. But nevertheless, we are here fighting, seeing how we can be beneficiaries of all this [green funding] (Community leader, March 24, 2022).

She went on addressing the goal of the organization to conserve the forest, but also provide an economic income to families: “If we conserve the forest we also have to look out for the economy of the families. Sometimes we contradict ourselves: we want to conserve but how does the family sustain itself, right?“ To keep their autonomy, resist extractive projects and change the course of the present towards a more desirable future, Indigenous organizations obviously need money. This financial claim is often ignored in analysis of future-making and planning. Yet, “realizing projects” is utterly important to all the Indigenous organizations I talked to. This realization has to be understood holistically: realizing their way of doing things, realizing their future visions, realizing resistance, realizing territorial defense, realizing counter-violent practices (see for the latter also Nixon, 2011). Even though some of these imagined projects people wish for respond to the capitalist system, the material dimension and needs of people on-site cannot be just dismissed – this would be romanticizing and paternalistic. As the leader of the community organization in Arajuno states: “Today, in order to live, people need money”. Of course, it is important to be critical and see the implications and orientations that these decisions and developments would involve, however, my point here is to underline the importance to respect the right to Indigenous self-determination.

To address both conservation and economic opportunities, but also their territorial defense against extractivism, ACIA-AKAT decided to put together a plan de vida. The idea was that if there is an economic alternative, people will be less convinced by the oil company’s promises. This was also one of the main results of my workshops – and turned out to be a realistic concern. When I returned to Arajuno in 2023, the majority of the members of ACIA-AKAT favored a candidate with a pro-oil discourse in their internal elections for the presidency.

The main reasons to convince the general assembly of ACIA-AKAT to shift from an anti-extractivist resolution a few years earlier to negotiating again with the oil company were of a material nature. The anti-extractivist orientation towards the future did not appear attractive anymore for the majority of the members facing daily struggles to satisfy their basic needs. In the winning narrative of these elections, conservation efforts were portrayed as not paying the bills, tourism not being viable for every community, and in general, the projects and support from international cooperation or non-governmental organizations not being enough and too slow. This was contrasted by a promise for an accelerated pathway towards a desirable future, fueled by oil.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the case of Arajuno and the question of why oil keeps being the most persuasive option for many people. On the one hand, the relations of violence follow a logic of temporalization. This makes velocity an important aspect influencing future-making and hence, decision-making. In other words, how fast can we achieve our desirable future is decisive. On the other hand, it shows that there is a nexus between the ‘marketization’ (Çalışkan & Callon, 2009; 2010) of future visions, the existing relations of violence and the velocity of reaching a desirable future. Oil convinces in this correlation with an imagined fast-paced change for the better. It trumps any alternatives with a speed-up transition towards a future in which all needs will be satisfied. Equality and a seat at the negotiation table will be possible. This imagination overlooks, however, power issues that lay at the core of relations of violence.

With the recent developments in 2023 and ACIA-AKAT’s election for a pro-oil leader the efforts to elaborate a plan de vida might have reached a deadlock. To conclude, I want to share an extract of an early (unpublished) draft of the plan which reads:

Poverty, unsatisfied basic needs, put pressure on the social fabric and weaken the traditional ties of governance and governability. Even more so when the main source of employment to obtain money is public employment […]. That is why having political influence and participating in the local government [GAD] becomes more important than volunteering in the Kichwa social organization. […] That is why it should be the other way around: the focus [of us] as a people should guide the actions of the GAD, the national government and private companies that potentially have an interest in operating in the territory. This development of governance denominated with cultural pertinence […] is what is required to recover authority and to direct all the expenses, investments, technical assistance, infrastructure, that will be implemented (ACIA-AKAT, 2022).

To conclude, planning can (theoretically) take the form of decolonization and turn violence into a temporal structure. While the organization planned to play along the epistemologically hegemonic regulations of the CTEA in order to elaborate their plan de vida and to have it formally and legally recognized, the content and aim of the plan would have been rather subversive. It was meant to be a manifesto against the central state’s extractivist logic, the municipality’s undermining of Indigenous self-organization, and private oil companies taking advantage of the vulnerable situation of the local communities.

It has to be seen in the future, if climate finance will be able to alter these structures of violence and allow decolonial planning practices to ensure that temporal violence will be temporary.


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