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Is Sustainable Development a Utopian Quest?

The book ‘Utopia’ was written by Sir Thomas More in 1516 about a hypothetical place that offered good governance and equality to its citizens. The name of this place was ‘Nusquama’ which translated to ‘Nowhere.’ He wrote it as a sideways commentary on the corruption and societal decay that was evident to him in 16th Century Europe. His work spawned a whole genre of literature that supposed either an ideal socioeconomic and legal societal framework, or, alternatively, a dark place overtaken by totalitarianism. This later, anti-utopian genre critiqued such centralized planning ideas as altruistic and misguided and reflected the anti-Marxist sentiments that were prevalent in Western literature during the mid and late 20th century.

Proposals for utopian projects and speculative works in the utopian genre tend to focus on solving a central social problem, predominantly the inequality of socioeconomic class status and its related problems of poverty and unfulfilled needs. Some would argue that the increasing emphasis by writers, analysts and systems designers on “sustainable development” is a new form of utopianism. If this is so, they assert, it is important to cast a critical eye on such projects.

In this article I will show how, although much of the rhetoric that surrounds the superficial “marketing” memes of sustainable development; when you strip the movement to its core principles, it is not utopian in its most authoritarian sense. Rather, it is a pragmatic, systematic approach to incorporating all that modern society knows and can know about how to preserve life on the planet. The utopian view that Plato promoted and More critiqued was ultimately focused on the socioeconomic and political dimensions of human existence. Sustainable development expands that view to illustrate the relationships of these dimensions with the natural world and beyond.

In July, 2010 I wrote about the Five Core Principles of Sustainability as developed by the Sustainability Laboratories (“Lab”). In November of 2009 I had introduced a model project currently under development in Israel, near the Dead Sea. This sustainable development project, known as Project Wadi Attir and a key project of the Lab, is a prime example of how the principles are applied. Then, in December, 2009 I updated readers on the progress of the Project.

In October, 2010 I also provided subscribers and readers a short video-documentary on two humanitarian projects in Peru. One project I highlighted in the video was located in Urubamba in the Sacred Valley and has a strong educational focus. Developed as a commercial enterprise with a non-profit NGO arm, the NGO represents a focused spotlight on a key need in that region. I since have learned of another project being developed in Peru that is further to the north….near the town of Tarapoto. This later project has the potential for being a broad spectrum development that encompasses the Five Core Principles of sustainable development. It offers a good palate for applying the Five Core Principles to test both the robustness of the principles themselves, and the validity of the project as a sustainable development initiative.

Tarapoto Project Background

Tarapoto is a small Peruvian city of about 110,000 residents in the northeastern in the Amazon basin. It sits at about 330 meters altitude (1,083 feet) in an area known as the high jungle plateau or the cloud forest. It is located in the San Martín Province of the San Martín Region.

Source: Google Earth - Photo by Alex Sifuentes

It is a commercial hub that has about four daily flights to and from Lima, the nation’s capital. It is a prime tourist destination for ecotourists seeking access to the upper Amazon basin. There is a growing cadre of expatriates from Europe and the U.S. living in the area, according to the primary project proponent, Erwin Anders. Sr. Anders has purchased 120 Hectares and has begun development on a multi-faceted project that incorporates many elements that will be attractive to expatriates seeking a healthy lifestyle away from the maddening crowd.

Peru is a country with a population of a little over 28 million people that sits on the West coast of South America along the Andean mountain chain. Peru’s current President is the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) member, Alan Garcia Perez, elected in 2006 as a pro-trade moderate dedicated to macroeconomic reform. Partly as a result of his leadership, Peru had one of the best-performing economies in Latin America in 2009, with GDP growth of 9.8%—higher even than that of China (9.1%). Peru is a major exporter of copper, lead and zinc; growing demand for gold and platinum has also made these minerals attractive for mining. Corn is another major export, but the worldwide demand for palm oil is changing the landscape.  Peru receives a moderately positive seven (7) on the CountryWatch political risk index. It has also received relatively positive rankings by Freedom House for Civil Liberties and Political Rights. The Peru ranking on the Happy Planet Index issued by the New Economics Foundation is: 54.4 and it is ranked #28 in the world.

Five Core Principles Test

Before proceeding, let’s review the definition for sustainability:
“A dynamic equilibrium in the processes of interaction between a population and the carrying capacity of an environment such, that the population develops to express its full potential without producing irreversible adverse effects on the carrying capacity of the environment upon which it depends.”

Now let’s look systematically at how the Tarapoto project reflects the five domains.

The Material Domain: Constitutes the basis for regulating the flow of materials and energy.

Contain entropy and ensure that the flow of resources, through and within the economy, is as nearly non-declining as is permitted by physical laws.

Sr. Andres has reported that the area around Tarapoto has been heavily denuded due to illegal logging. He also reports that the Peruvian government is now subsidizing land owners for reforestation initiatives including the provision of seedlings and local labor for planting. Dr. Rainer Schulte, a German specialist on the dart frog that has lived in Tarapoto for 20 years, is quoted as saying “Was also on a short trip to Yurimaguas: illegal wood everywhere- all roadside forest gone and replaced by oil palms and Pijuaio palms to the horizon. Where will this end?” He also notes: “San Martin once was covered with 5-million hectares of luxuriant rainforest, but today [there] are barely surviving 1.8-million hectares.”

As mentioned above, Peru is a major copper, zinc and lead exporter. One NGO that has been active in the San Martín region of Peru is Amichoco. In 2009 a program they sponsored called Oro Verde was awarded the SEED Initiative prize for their work on curtailing uncontrolled mining. They have developed the world’s first locally generated, certified program for responsible mining practices. As part of their work they are providing seedlings to land owners for reforestation projects. These efforts, and others, help the Tarapoto Project to meet the test for the materials domain.

The Economic Domain: Provides a guiding framework for creating and managing wealth.

Adopt an appropriate accounting system, fully aligned with the planet’s ecological processes and reflecting true, comprehensive biospheric pricing to guide the economy.

In the environs around Tarapoto, agricultural crops include citrus fruits, apples, banana, cocoa and coffee. Honey bees and poultry husbandry are both popular. Land prices are relatively moderate, however, rising rapidly due to the influx of foreign direct investment (FDI), speculators, and agricultural subsidies and incentives by the Peruvian government to reforest denuded hills. Further, transportation improvements in the rural areas are also causing an increase in land prices.

As part of the Tarapoto project an ecological systems data collection process could be implemented on a trial basis. Several global NGOs whose focus is Amazonian basin conservation are active in the area. One or more of these could champion such a project to document the reforestation/agricultural systems balancing that will occur as the area becomes more populated. When coupled with capitalistic efforts of individual entrepreneurs to carve out a living in this landscape, this would help to generate jobs for the local people above and beyond the agricultural sector jobs that would naturally emerge. This would allow the Tarapoto Project to become a model for the economic domain.

The Domain of Life: Provides the basis for appropriate behavior in the biosphere.

Ensure that the essential diversity of all forms of life in the Biosphere is maintained.

According to CountryWatch unchecked logging of the sierra, overgrazing, and pollution of air and waters by mining activities, have led to a host of ecological challenges. In this regard, NGOs, like those noted above, have been attempting to address and deal with these grave matters. Key to this domain will be the re-creation of diverse habitat for the large variety of flora and fauna teetering on extinction. Wetlands area preserves and wide margins at the edge of agricultural tracts could help in this re-creation effort. This would boost the Tarapoto Project’s domain of life score.

The Social Domain: Provides the basis for social interactions.

Maximize degrees of freedom and potential self-realization of all humans without any individual or group, adversely affecting others.

Much has been written about the atmospheric implications of the loss of the Amazonian rainforest for CO2 emissions and their contribution to greenhouse gases. Regional efforts to implement public policies that call for habitat margins and land preserves, as outlined above, could help to mitigate this. This could be done while at the same time, providing for an economic basis for the local economy.

Expatriates from Europe and the US and Canada could also benefit from such programs if the regional and national governments were really serious about long-term sustainable development of this area. This would enhance the attractiveness for FDI, the preservation of land through the reduction of soil erosion, and (if implemented on a large enough scale) the ability for Peru to meet the terms and conditions of climate change multilateral agreements to which it is party.

The Spiritual Domain: Identifies the necessary attitudinal orientation and provides the basis for a universal code of ethics.

Embody the seamless, dynamic continuum of mystery, wisdom, love, energy, and matter for guiding human actions.

The indigenous people of Peru are primarily Catholic and the region has a long and rich spiritual history. Expatriates would likely bring many different types of religions, both Christian and non-Christian, as they begin to populate the environs around Tarapoto. To achieve a high score on this measure the spiritual domain would need to be modeled more on the ‘ascending’ versus the ‘descending’ framework as articulated by Ken Wilbur in him important book: ‘Sex, Ecology and Spirituality: The spirit of evolution.’

Although Tampoco and the surrounds are not like the Nusquama described by Sir Thomas More in 1516, this high-level view can give us a basis for comparison. A sustainable development venture of today has a chance of leapfrogging over the altruistic shortcomings that have been lodged against utopian projects in the past. A concise guide, such as those given as the Five Domains, can help sustainable project developers envision a future that is truly broad spectrum and capable of meeting the tests of the future. Importantly, there is an appropriate role for national and regional governments in both envisioning this future, and enabling the collective actions that will enhance the quality of life for those involved.

If you are interested in learning more about the Tarapoto Project, contact Erwin Andres at:  erwin.anders@gmail.com

2 Responses to Is Sustainable Development a Utopian Quest?

  1. Jane Ginn

    January 24, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Another note from the Blog of Chandan Sapkota:

    Glacier melt hasn’t caused a national crisis in Peru, yet. But high in the Andes, rising temperatures and changes in water supply over the last 40 years have decimated crops, killed fish stocks and forced villages to question how they will survive for another generation.

    Without international help to build reservoirs and dams and improve irrigation, the South American nation could become a case study in how climate change can destabilize a strategically important region, according to Peruvian, U.S. and other officials.

    [..] Peru is home to 70 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, which are also found in Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. Peru’s 18 mountain glaciers, including the world’s largest tropical ice mass, are critical to the region’s water sources for drinking, irrigation and electricity.

    Glaciers in the South American Andes are melting faster than many scientists predicted; some climate change experts estimate entire glaciers across the Andes will disappear in 10 years due to rising global temperatures, creating instability across the globe as they melt.

  2. Jane Ginn

    January 23, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Dr. Rainer Schulte’s comments on this post:

    Forestry in Peru is a wide field, totally unexplored. Coming from Europe where our forests are managed at least 500 years and seeing this disaster here with only species killing and no real management of those wonderful tropical woods is a horror. The only thing, to have furniture in your house here is buying Melamine panel furniture coming in from Chile! Natural hardwood is extremely rare now (Caoba, Tornillo) so no way to get on them any more (and San Martín is the size of Costa Rica!).
    At least, in sustainable “on site” management of Dendrobatids, I am the leader with the ZIRA method. But the question is if we may save the forest from destruction by breeding and exporting the ZIRA frogs, given the fast market saturation if we export some species. At least, for tourism projects in the Amazon, my ZIRA method is the standard now, installed at most lodges. I started at the Tahuayo with Mario Callegari (who tragically died by a motorcycle accident, having survived the Gran Pachaten expedition). ZIRA in tourism projects secures the native species around the lodge, so the visitants may see those usually hard to find species at any time- and during every step of reproduction. This is worth hard cash for the lodges. I say, YES, sustainable fauna management is possible here.
    The problem is the fast and deadly primary habitat loss of those species- and Sauce lake is one of the worst examples how in a few years the forest cover is eliminated totally- not even leaving the 50 m fiscal land belt at the lake or quebrada- river shores. We are losing unique Dendrobatid species; and they are not sufficiently researched. And worse, [there] are those Palm oil forest killer projects financed by World Bank and the InterAmerican Development Bank. See the example of Palmas del Shanusi at the border of San Martín and Loreto- Yurimaguas. Such eco-criminals should sit in jail instead of running a Bank in Perú (BCP).
    Forest rescue and conservation is an issue of law enforcement, education at all levels and cash incentives. Brazil is learning how to make millions with standing rainforest- see the natural cosmetics enterprises (Natura) and other examples. We are still at the beginning in Peru. Maybe, the Carbon Credit move will help us to keep the forests standing. But I doubt this Рand it will be a SLOW move. The run for gold in the Southern forests and the beginning gold war in the North in Aguaruna territory along the Mara̱on river are bad signs.