Gustavo Esteva Had a Vision

David Barkin

Gustavo Esteva’s life was marked by an indefatigable zest to imagine and craft “alternatives” to  moribund societal structures, and he participated in the construction of many new worlds with friends, colleagues and students. Gustavo also built them with people he did not know, those inspired by some text of his or who approached the Unitierra (University of the Earth) full of good intentions, but without a clear idea. Such was the strength of Gustavo’s vision by which, without realizing it, many people were drawn into his world.

Forty years ago, Gustavo brought together a committed group to organize a very important text at the time, The Battle for Rural Mexico. Then as now, it was clear that our country required a new strategy to “green” the countryside again, which meant strengthening peasant organizations and promoting agri-food production based on traditional agrarian communities and their ancestral knowledge. At that time, an initiative “Sin Maíz no hay País” [Without Corn there is no Country] emerged, which brought together millions of producers and academic groups to execute a program that would restore state support for the peasantry. This successful mobilization culminated in the creation of the Mexican Food System, which unfortunately was captured by agro-industrial groups to serve their own interests, at the expense of peasants and, consequently, the country.

This mishap, however, could not deter the intrepid deprofessionalized intellectual in Gustavo. He was always searching for new ways to placate his insatiable search for the path that would lead him to the construction of new worlds. Gustavo found it in a small circle of intellectuals gathered around the Intercultural Documentation Center (CIDOC) that Iván Illich had created in Ocotepec, Morelos, in the mid-60s in the Cuernavaca Valley. The Austrian philosopher discussed with friends and strangers new ideas to face the great problems of the moment with books such as: Deschooling Society, Conviviality, and Medical Nemesis, among others. The encounter would become an explosion of ideas, collaborations and proposals to translate Illich’s texts into ways of organizing; in activities to chart the new paths Gustavo had been seeking for much of his life. This encounter would last almost three decades, until the death of the philosopher, Ivan Illich.

The economic, social and environmental crises that were plaguing the planet did not seem to deter the “leaders” of the North Atlantic world in their task of continuing the colonizing work of past centuries, as well as in their eagerness to extend their homogenizing model to the rest of the planet. In the face of this onslaught, local and regional responses would emerge to forge some of the many other worlds Gustavo had been thinking about and dreaming of. Ivan Illich and Gustavo accompanied each other on international trips, prompting others to organize to extend and deepen alternatives to “education” and “cures” to the myths of individuality, equality or progress, with solutions that would leave peoples and the planet in better conditions.

With the Zapatista uprising in 1994, Gustavo found the opportunity to engage in dialogue directly with a group that was proposing to embark on a different path. Thus, he embarked on a new route, putting into practice the dictum of Antonio Machado: “Hiker, there is no path, the path is made by walking” (put to song by Joan Manuel Serrat). Gustavo accompanied them for more than a quarter of a century, debating and learning, convinced that they were advancing in a good way to consolidate their communities, ensuring a better life for their cadres, sustained in the care of their territories, building a new world where many worlds fit. In one of his last essays, he insisted:

“Inspired by the Zapatistas, many of us are going to listen to others, to embrace and link ourselves with them, learning from each other and practicing solidarity. We didn’t turn our gaze upwards; we turned in towards each other. We aren’t interested in power from above, because we affirm ourselves in power from below, the power that we already have and that we can all exercise every day. Thus, inspired by the Zapatistas to embrace and interweave amongst ourselves in these transformative times, we are changing the world.”[1]

Gustavo’s greatest project was embodied in the creation of, and still is, the University of the Earth. Even after his death, the various groups that assumed the reins of his projects continue to advance with their collaborations to build more balanced communities and environments, offering a harmonious relationship between collaborators and their territories. Created at the end of the twentieth century, Unitierra is a proposal to capture the depths of Illich’s vision, generating an environment of self-teaching, informed by a constant flow of interlocutors – both face-to-face and virtual – who share their experiences, their projects, and their dreams for the construction of new possible worlds. But it was not limited to philosophical exchanges and sharing of the experiences of the participants; they began to get involved in the proposals of the communities of the region and in the social struggles of the various groups committed to defending their territories. At the same time, it was in the process of implementing the regional political reform that created space for operationalizing “uses and customs” as a possibility for local self-governance. The Unitierra gradually became a magnet for Oaxaca’s creative forces and a beacon that offers a continuous flow of written and audiovisual materials to stimulate similar initiatives elsewhere; today, they have materialized in Puebla, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, and San Pedro Huitzo, Oaxaca, as well as Los Angeles and the Bay Area of San Francisco, California in the USA.

Uniterra is not just a center for academic excellence, it also takes its role as a laboratory for practical experiments on socio-economic change extremely seriously.

However, Gustavo was more than this non-institutionalized institution. He was an endless fount of provocations, proposals, interlocutions that always challenged those of us around him to rethink. Gustavo was also a permanent disciple of the indigenous and peasant peoples in their communities and in their struggles; a student eager to learn, but also to meet them in their terroirs to discuss, debate, clarify. In this way, he translated the concept of “conviviality” into a daily practice of dialogue that built friendships and promoted real commitments to forge new opportunities, the new worlds that many of us long for but that Gustavo visualized for several decades.

The convivial society that Gustavo was creating encompassed the best of socialist ideals, but without the institutions that confine them. It is not a world where individuals flourish, but a rhizome of interconnected communities that are learning to collaborate, to strengthen the productive, cultural, social and environmental ties that would allow us to overcome the destructive dynamics that characterize our world today. It is a society where the social groups that dominate globalized markets and nations at the service of capital would not fit.

Gustavo Esteva’s political vision for social transformation emerged out of the wisdom and experience of the communities and activists he embraced as his partners for change.

Until his last moments Gustavo was thinking about how to move forward in this construction. He wanted to leave a legacy of materials that we could study to continue his work. From the consolidation of the organization of water management in the Valley of Oaxaca and the diversification of agroecological systems in the Sierra Juárez to the strengthening of the political project of an integrated group of social fighters in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, his immense capacity to combine theory with practice was clear. The remarkable quality about this lucidity was its ease of inclusion, of embracing all those who were eager to live in one of these better worlds and to encourage them to get down to work. I rescue one of Gustavo Esteva’s favorite phrases in these uncertain times, quoting Arundhati Roy, he repeated: “Another world is not only possible, she is already on her way. On a quiet day, I can already hear her breathing.”

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David Barkin is Professor of Economics at the Xochimilco Campus of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in México City. He is a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences and of the National Research Council. Much of Dr. Barkin’s work is conducted in collaboration with local communities and regional citizens’ groups. His most recent books include: Wealth, Poverty and Sustainable Development and Innovaciones Mexicanas en el Manejo del Agua. (Mexican Innovations in Water Management).


[1] Gustavo Esteva (Ed.) Visions, voices and practices of the Zapatistas, Oaxaca and Hong Kong: Ediciones Unitierra and Our Global University, 2021; pp. 82-3. Available in: https://our-global-u.org/oguorg/en/download/Conferences/ssfs8/Voices-and-Practices-of-the-Zapatistas_PDF.pdf

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