Gustavo Esteva

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Gustavo Esteva, in 2008.

Gustavo Esteva (August 20, 1936, in Mexico City – March 17, 2022, in Oaxaca[1] was a Mexican activist, "deprofessionalized intellectual" and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in the Mexican city of Oaxaca. He was one of the best-known advocates of post-development.


Esteva's life—as he tells it himself—has been marked by many ruptures;[2] there are also many facts to confirm this view. Esteva has worked in very different environments.

Esteva's father died early.

At 15, I was forced to support an extended family of siblings, aunts and cousins, becoming first an office-boy in a bank; and, then, thanks to Truman’s Development, the youngest executive ever for IBM. Thanks to the Development experts and their Education projects for underdeveloped Mexicans, I had arrived!!! With my newly minted education credit hours, I could be at the very center of the Development Epic: providing good services to the community, good conditions for the workers and good profits to the stakeholders; while of course, gaining a solid income, prestige and a sports car.[3]

Part of my function, as personnel manager, was to contribute to a process of indoctrination that forged loyalty of the workers to the company. The workers had to submit to that ideological straitjacket, according to which to struggle for the good of the company meant to struggle for one’s own interests.[4]

Esteva worked for different companies. "Despite the personal discomfort brought about by an increasing awareness of the fraud of the original promise of my profession, I advanced rapidly in my career."[4] Finally he turned to the public sector. He worked for the Bank of foreign trade and joined a marxist group with revolutionary aspirations which he quit in 1965.[5]

When I accepted an important position in government, I did not do it with the idea of making the revolution from within government, or to promote relevant social change. I needed a salary and I sought refuge in my work, while I was still trying to achieve some clarity within me and about what to do. In the following years, while I worked in the office of the President in charge of planning the public budget, I dedicated a good part of my free time, many hours and days of work, to the writing of my first book: Economy and Alienation. I would close myself in my room, separating the intellectual activity from the rest of the things I was doing. It is perhaps the only one of my texts to which I seriously dedicated a prolonged effort of research and reflection. It is a book which I still value and which contains arguments and reflective analysis which I still support. It allowed me to formulate a conception of the world and an attitude towards change that does not require violence.[6]

From 1970 to 1976 he was a high-ranking official in the government of President Echeverría.

When he gave up this job, he was totally disillusioned about statist development practices.[7]

Even the best development programs, like those I was conceiving and implementing, were totally counterproductive: damaging to their supposed beneficiaries.[8]

A long session with [the next president][...]López Portillo and his top advisors two weeks before he took office removed any doubts for me as to the path I should take. In that session the President announced unequivocally that his policies would be adverse to the peasants. Five days after this session I initiated the first of two non profit organizations, entering thus the world of civil society in which I have been working since then.[6]

In 1983 he met Ivan Illich. "[...] I was invited to a Seminar in Mexico City on the social construction of energy with Wolfgang Sachs. Ivan was there. I was mesmerized. That very night, I embarked on my Illich studium. A little later, I started to collaborate with him. Still later, slowly, we became friends."[9]

He was an advisor with the Zapatista Army for National Liberation in Chiapas for the negotiations with the government. He worked at the Centre for Intercultural Dialogues and Exchanges (CEDI) in the city of Oaxaca, published regularly in different journals, and worked with Indian groups and NGOs. In 2019 he co-created the Global Tapestry of Alternatives process.[10]


Esteva had a Catholic upbringing. When he lost his faith in God he replaced it with a faith in reason.[11] Through his studies he became familiar with instrumental rationality; dissatisfied he turned, after some soul searching,[4] to Marxism. During the 70s Esteva

[...] took part in a very intense debate regarding the peasants. The debate took place throughout Latin America and especially in Mexico, which partially were resonating to a world debate. The topic of this debate allowed me to advance a radical critique of Marxism’s well-known position on the peasants. I was classified as a 'campesinista' in contrast to various other intellectual positions, in a debate basically celebrated within the Marxist framework. Even though I continued, for a long time, to consider myself a Marxist, little by little I abandoned Marxism as a doctrine and as a political and ideological orientation. [...] In that process, through which I came closer and closer in contact with the concrete activities of peasants, I was able to question the categories of all the disciplines in which I had been educated or which I had learned on my own. I began to formulate a radical critique of development. This change in my thinking could be clearly seen in the name of an umbrella organization, Analysis, Development and Gestión, created in 1979 to coordinate the actions of many other NGOs we had constituted in that period.


I suspect that the most important rupture in my life occurred when I began to remember my experiences with my grandmother as a child. She could not come to our house in Mexico City through the front door because she was an Indian. She was not allowed by my mother to talk to us in Zapotec or tell us stories about her community. My mother assumed that the best she could do for her children was to radically uproot them from their Indian ancestry. But I adored my grandmother and during holidays asked to be sent with her, to Oaxaca. Remembering my grandmother, remembering what she taught me in spite of the restrictions imposed by my mother –something I had in the back of my mind through my previous journey-, re-membered me with the people at the grassroots. I described this experience in a text written in 1986 and which I still consider an important guiding text, “Regenerating People’s Space.” In this text I alluded to the new questions that I began to ask myself in that time, and also some of the ways in which I began to confront them. My theoretical work on people of the margins, which was abundant in those years, very clearly shows a new path which was consolidated and affirmed when I met Ivan Illich in 1983.

The rupture with previous ways of thinking and acting is clearly evident in the 80s. What I did and what I wrote clearly illustrates it. I still, however, found myself, especially in the sphere of ideas, rooted in the Western horizon of intelligibility. Only after moving to live in the Zapotec village of San Pablo Etla, in Oaxaca, in 1989, and after my involvement with the Zapatistas starting in 1994, was I able to abandon that horizon and seriously entertain the possibility that a new horizon had appeared for me, even though I was still not able to fully articulate it.[4]

With Marxism, Esteva has given up all ideas about a vanguard. He is an advocate of radical pluralism.[12]

Discussing the national identity Esteva refers to Guillermo Bonfil' distinction between a profound (México profundo) and an imaginary Mexico (México imaginario). He questions the modern obsession with planning the future and "projects" of all kinds:

The national project has been based entirely on proposals put forth by imaginary Mexico. [...] A project implies projecting oneself into the future. Modern humans want to construct the world according to the image they have of themselves, their representation of the world, as opposed to accepting that they are constructed in the image and semblance of God or by tradition (Villoro, 1992). They need a project. The Mexican elite inherited and accepted this compulsion, but it did not attempt to invent its own project: instead it relied on the Western model, which it believed to be universal. All that was necessary was to impose it, with the adaptations that each generation considered appropriate.[13]

The contrasting attitude of the indigenous peoples, according to Esteva, is not to reject change, but

[...] one of their best traditions, which explains that historical continuity, is that of transforming tradition in a traditional way. They know that they cannot exist without a vision of the future, but they do not pretend to control that future: instead of the arrogant expectations of modern man, based on the assumption that the future is programmable, they maintain hopes, well aware that these may be fulfilled or not: they nourish them to keep them alive but without holding onto them. They have not been able to avoid the experience of modernity, but they have not become rooted in it.[14]

Traditionally the indigenous people did not oppose their own project to the dominant project -- but times have changed:

Today, however, two factors are for the first time driving the people of deep Mexico to articulate their own project: the urgency of confronting the latest version of the dominant project, in which there is no dignified space for them, with a unified vision that expresses the diversity of their own ideas and interests and the fact that this latest dominant project has aggravated the historical conflict between Mexicans to the point that it has depleted the original justification for nationhood -- indeed, were it to continue it would divide Mexican society in a way that would be unsustainable.[15]

Selected works[edit]

  • David Barkin, Gustavo Esteva: Inflación y Democracia : El Caso de México, México : Siglo XXI, 1979
  • Gustavo Esteva: Economía y enajenación [Economy and alienation], México, D.F. : Biblioteca Universidad Veracruzana, 1980
  • Gustavo Esteva: La batalla en el México rural, México : Siglo XXI, 1982.
  • James E. Austin and Gustavo Esteva (ed.):Food policy en Mexico : the search for selfsufficiency, Ithaca ; London : Cornell Univ. Pr., 1987
  • Gustavo Esteva: Fiesta - jenseits von Entwicklung, Hilfe und Politik, Frankfurt a. M. : Brandes & Apsel, 1992 -German translation of a selection of essays, enlarged second edition in 1995
  • Gustavo Esteva: Crónica del fin de una era : el secreto del EZLN, México : Ed. Posada, 1994
  • Gustavo Esteva Figueroa and Madhu Suri Prakash: Hope at the margins : beyond human rights and development, New York : St. Martin’s Press, 1997
  • Madhu Suri Prakash and Gustavo Esteva: Escaping education : living as learning within grassroots cultures, New York [etc.]: Peter Lang, 1998
  • Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash: Grassroots post-modernism : remaking the soil of cultures, London & New Jersey: Zed Books, 1998
  • Gustavo Esteva, and Catherine Marielle (eds.):Sin maíz no hay país: páginas de una exposición, México : Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Dirección General de Culturas Populares e Indígenas, 2003
  • Gustavo Esteva, Salvatore Babones, and Philipp Babcicky: The future of development : a radical manifesto, Bristol: Policy Press, 2013
  • Gustavo Esteva, a cura di, Ripensare il mondo con Ivan Illich, Riola (Bo), Mutus Liber, 2014
  • Gustavo Esteva, Nuovi ambiti di comunità Per una riflessione sui ‘beni comuni’, Collana Voci da Abya Yala, Documenti dall'America latina, a cura del gruppo Camminardomandando, Edizioni Mutus Liber, 2016
  • Gustavo Esteva, Gustavo Esteva: A Critique of Development and Other Essays, Routledge, 2022
  • Esteva, Gustavo: "Regenerating People's space" in: Saul H. Mendlovitz and R.B.J. Walker, Towards a Just World Peace. London: Butterworths, 1987; pp. 271–298.
  • Esteva, Gustavo: "Tepito: No Thanks, First World", in: In Context, num. 30, Fall/Winter 1991
  • Esteva, Gustavo: "Development" in The Development Dictionary. A Guide to Knowledge as Power, London & New Jersey: Zed Books, 1992, pp. 6–25
  • Esteva, Gustavo: "Re-embedding Food in Agriculture", in: Culture and Agriculture [Virginia, USA], 48, Winter 1994
  • Esteva, Gustavo: "From 'Global Thinking' to 'Local Thinking': Reasons to Go beyond Globalization towards Localization", with M.S.Prakash, in: Osterreichische Zeitschirift für Politikwissenschatft, 2, 1995
  • Esteva, Gustavo:"Hosting the Otherness of the Green Revolution" in: Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Stephen A. Marglin, eds.: Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, pp. 249–278
  • Esteva, Gustavo: "Beyond Development, What?", with M.S. Prakash, in: Development in Practice, Vol. 8, No.3, August 1998.
  • Esteva, Gustavo: "The Zapatistas and People's Power", in Capital & Class, 68, Summer 1999.
  • Esteva, Gustavo: "The meaning and scope of the struggle for autonomy" in: Lat. Am. Perspect., 28:2, March 2001, pp. 120–148
  • Esteva, Gustavo(2004a): "Back from the future" -Notes for the presentation in “Schooling and Education: A Symposium with Friends of Ivan Illich” organized by TALC New Vision, Milwaukee, October 9, 2004. online
  • Esteva, Gustavo(2004b):“Rupturas:” Turning Points online
  • Esteva, Gustavo: The Oaxaca commune and Mexico's autonomous movement's, Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, México : Ed. ¡Basta!, 2008, 22 p.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Muere el investigador Gustavo Esteva", 17/3/22, La Jornada
  2. ^ Esteva 2004b, passim
  3. ^ Esteva 2004a:1
  4. ^ a b c d 2004b - no paging
  5. ^ "An incident in which the leader who had recruited me into the group killed another leader because of jealousy, hid in my house and put us all in jeopardy by protecting him (in order to protect ourselves), finally made me see the light. These were the conditions of violence which we were imposing on ourselves and wanted to impose on all of society. I could not continue on that path. Again, I experienced a rupture in my life." Esteva 2004b - The date is mentioned in an interview with in motion magazines, see external links
  6. ^ a b Esteva 2004b
  7. ^ Ziai 2005: 48
  8. ^ Esteva 2004a:2
  9. ^ Esteva 2004a:4
  10. ^ "Global Tapestry of Alternatives: core members". Apr 2023.
  11. ^ Those who believe in reason don't believe they believe."Reason became a substitute for God, without my knowing it; it became the ultimate referent, valid in and of itself. This new consciousness, typically Western for both believers and non believers, presupposed a trust in reason that assumed it to be the objective and solid foundation of all human thought and behavior. One had the impression that you don’t have a belief in something (in reason), but rather that reason has succeeded in establishing itself as the ultimate horizon of intelligibility: it is not something in which you believe, but something you “know.” Its condition as faith is thus hidden. As the Spanish poet Machado said, 'faith is not a matter of seeing something, or believing in something, but rather in believing that one sees.' What I saw, then, without believing I believed in it, was that reason (and ultimately science) gave me a true way to see the world. From that perspective, the fantasies, tricks, errors or illusions of reason, could only be attributed to my own limitations and not to reason itself." 2004b - no paging
  12. ^ On this notion see Esteva 1996, passim
  13. ^ Esteva 2001:122
  14. ^ Esteva 2001:122-123
  15. ^ Esteva 2001:123

Secondary literature[edit]

  • Terán, Gustavo: Conversations with Mexican nomadic storyteller, Gustavo Esteva : learning from lives on the margins, Dissertation, University of Vermont, 2002. [1]
  • Aram Ziai: "Gustavo Esteva (born 1936). Selbstbestimmte Gemeinwesen statt Entwicklung" in: eins. Entwicklungspolitik. Information Nord Süd, No. 23/24, 2005, 48-50

External links[edit]