Art as the emergence of Nature’s Contributions to People.

Folk art from highland Ecuador — Painting by Juan César Umajinga. Photo by Joe Quick.

My colleague Joe Quick and I recently published a piece in Latin American Research Review titled On the Pursuit of Good Living in Highland Ecuador: Critical Indigenous Discourses of Sumak Kawsay. This paper draws on Joe’s ethnographic fieldwork in highland Ecuador, near Quilotoa.

In this paper, we explore how life in the Ecuadorian highlands includes not only the life of struggle but also expansive dimensions of reciprocity between a breadth of plant, animal, mineral, and metaphysical life. Acknowledging such reciprocal relations with deference and respect to the more-than-human world appears integral to engaging the essence of living well.

One value of case study work is that higher-order abstractions are filtered through the lens of particularity. Demonstrated in our paper through the manifestation of a tourist-oriented painting style in light of discourses of living well (i.e. buen vivir in Spanish or sumak kawsay in native Kichwa), culturally-relevant visions of good living become a synthesis of ancestral relationship, contemporary interpretation, artistic license, and projection into a future where Indigenous perspectives are centered rather than sidelined.

We cover a lot of conceptual territory in our paper yet one connection wasn’t included, mostly because of timing (a …l e n g t h y… submission and peer-review process). The connection I want make here involves a system of classification generally known as ecosystem services and the ongoing effort to develop internationally consistent terms and conditions for assessing ecosystem services that intentionally include intellectual space for Indigenous worldviews. Such worldviews are not typically taken into account. They are often actively ignored or subject to ridicule. This systematic rejection of non-Western perspectives is often seen as a perpetuation of the entitlement and hubris of colonialism.

Disagreements over how to use ecological resources may or may not arise over financial concerns. In much economic reporting, a financial lens frames the beginning and end of debate. But the seeds of discord over resource management are often sown over unrecognized or unacknowledged cultural misalignment — what one might call cosmopolitical confrontations. Indigenous and nonindigenous thought leaders are calling for new or renewed perspectives — narratives and cultural practices that (re)claim the voices of Indigenous peoples’ lived experience and assert those perspectives into mainstream discourse.

Two examples of this call for new narratives in the North American context are this Twitter thread by Kim TallBear and parts of Sherri Mitchell’s book Sacred Instructions.

Informed by views such as these, Joe and I addressed trope inversions as challenges to hegemonic discursive authority. These inversions are often catalyzed through new words, metaphors, sounds, images and other works of art.

Paintings by artists like Juan César Umajinga of Quilotoa, described in our piece, can be seen as a reification of cultural ecosystem services. These are the “nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences” (see Milcu et al. 2013). The cultural ecosystem services construct has morphed into nature’s contributions to people, described by Sandra Díaz and colleagues in Science as “all the contributions, both positive and negative, of living nature (diversity of organisms, ecosystems, and their associated ecological and evolutionary processes to people’s quality of life.”

Pascual et al. write about nature’s contributions to people as “the conduit between nature and a good quality of life.” This conduit can be examined from a generalizing perspective, typical of standard economics and the natural sciences, as well as a context-specific perspective, typical of work that integrates local and Indigenous knowledge (i.e. traditional ecological knowledge) into its framework of valuation.

The painting style that has emerged around Tigua and Quilotoa in highland Ecuador has several dimensions of value. It connects ancestral relationships with contemporary life, supplements family income, asserts discursive agency, and situates emergent yet linked ecological and cultural (i.e. ecocultural) interdependencies. As an effort to tell new or different stories about the interwoven and dynamic reciprocity of multidimensional social lives, these paintings can be seen as symbolic efforts to conjure sumak kawsay (i.e. living well, flourishing) out of the primordial ether of ancestral cosmopolitical relations.

These paintings are a form of nature’s contributions to people made real.

This creative work contests dominant or hegemonic discourses of The Good Life — a way of living typically unquestioned in consumer culture; derived from rampant resource extraction and material wealth accumulation at the expense of larger communities of planetary life, including other human life.

The “good life” of contemporary Western thought tends to champion individualism, white male perspectives, techoscientific modernization, and a version of capitalism that eschews ethics of fairness, equality, and inclusion for ethics of material wealth hoarding. One might call it unreflected-upon hedonism. Artists throughout the world challenge these views by drawing from heterogeneous perspectives and inverting dominant social cues to critique the excess of First World consumerism and other social ills. Pluralistic valuation of ecosystem services is central to a more expansive view.

There are many ways to paint a scene.

Cultural ecosystem services or nature’s contributions to people (and other life), as a conceptual territory and practical endeavor, is contested terrain among scholars in part because of the eclectic nature of the concepts involved and the diversity of measurement methods across disciplines. The cultural perspective attempts to account for intangible or nonmaterial resources with other more easily-quantifiable resources such as air and water quality, land use, etc.

Most of what is valued via neoclassical economic methods are those aspects most easily quantified. As Milcu and colleagues suggest, perpetuating traditional economic-focused systems further deepens “the gap between counting that which matters to people and that which is easy to measure.”

Most of what planetary systems provide to human life in the actually-existing world are of the nonmaterial variety, however. These include our perceptions of “nature” or “the environment” as well as life of the spirit in its relation to ecological stewardship. The planet and all its affordances inspire some of the most breathtaking, beautiful, controversial, and revolutionary creative work — from grand masters to local artists. Much of what matters to people facing the already-existing life of struggle is valued little, if at all, when approached through traditional economic valuation systems.

Paintings in the style of artists from Quilotoa and Tigua merge abstract cosmopolitical confrontations with the tangible forms of canvas, oil, and brush. In making real the connections between ancestral worldviews and contemporaneous struggle in the actually-existing world, this art repositions human wellbeing as the long-term goal toward which scholars, economists, and others can orient the collective compass of development work — as human development rather than simply economic development.

Rather than subverting their own histories, collective social organization, and relationships to place, the Kichwa artists of Tigua and Quilotoa sometimes refuse to translate their lived experience into settler frames of reference. Such an assertion is inherently political as it symbollically subjugates nonindigenous frames of reference and understanding. As such, it is a profound critique of dominant discourses related to evaluating nature’s contributions to people.

Such decolonial assertions represent a collective voice that has, for centuries, been subject to physical, emotional, and intellectual violence. This affirmative ancestral worldview, Joe and I suggest in our paper, situates an understanding of the world that is “not antimodern but [does] recognize that modernism has often been anti-indigenous.” This worldview asserts a post-scientific understanding of living well by rejecting or subverting “the hegemony of scientific reductionism or technoscientific modernization in favor of seeing development work not as simply economic development but as human development, rooted in the history of particular human lives in particular cultural contexts and locales.”

The essence of good living is evident in the deeper stories that connect life in the 21st century to ancestral ways of knowing and being. These stories are manifest in the art of local Native people. Their creative representations are instructive, reminding people of what may have been forgotten as much as offering practical paths forward, toward resilience in the face of ongoing oppression and human-caused global ecological disruption.

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Primary sources:

Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Braat L., Kubiszewski, I., Fioramonti L., Sutton, P.,
Farber, S., Grasso, M. (2017). Twenty years of ecosystem services: How far have we come and how far do we still need to go? Ecosystem Services 28, 1–16.

Diaz, S. et al. (2018). Assessing nature’s contributions to people. Science 359 (6373), p. 270–272.

Funtowicz, S.O., Ravetz, J.R. (1993). Science for the post-normal age. Futures 25, 739–755.

Funtowicz, S.O., Ravetz, J.R. (1994). The worth of a songbird: Ecological economics as a post-normal science. Ecological Economics 10, 197–207.

Milcu, A. Ioana, J. Hanspach, D. Abson, and J. Fischer (2013). Cultural ecosystem services: a literature review and prospects for future research . Ecology and Society 18(3):44.

Mitchell, S. (2018). Sacred Instructions. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Pascual, U. et al. (2017). Valuing nature’s contributions to people: the IPBES approach. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 26–27, 7–16.

Plieninger, T., Dijks, S., Oteros-Rozas, E., Beiling, C. (2013). Assessing, mapping, and quantifying cultural ecosystem services at community level. Land Use Policy 33, 118–129.

Schröter, M., van der Zanden, E.H., van Oudenhoven, A.P.E., Remme, R.P., Serna-Chavez, H.M., de Groot, R.S. & Opdam, P. (2014). Ecosystem Services as a Contested Concept: A Synthesis of Critique and Counter-Arguments. Conservation Letters, November/December, 7(6), 514–523.

Tenberg, A., Fredholm, S., Eliasson, I., Knez, I., Saltzman, K., Wetterberg, O. (2012). Cultural ecosystem services provided by landscapes: Assessment of heritage values and identity. Ecosystem Services 2, 14–26.

Turnhout, E., Bloomfield, B., Hulme, M., Vogel, J. & Wynne, B. (2012). Listen to the voices of experience. Nature 488, 454–455.

Place-based ✨ Ecology + Social Relations + Meanings. Writing, Editing, Teaching & Learning. Ruralist. Homecomer. Driftless Minnesota.

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