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Assemblages for sustainable development: omissions and transformations in Bolivia

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In this paper, I analyse how global development NGOs treat contentious politics in Bolivia, as the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals are being constituted. In Bolivia, progressive environmental policies (seen in reconceptualising development as Vivir Bien/ Buen Vivir and awarding rights to nature) and increased political rights for indigenous groups (seen in political autonomy over territories and inclusion into a reworked state) have been curtailed and undermined by increasingly aggressive extractive frontiers, particularly in lowland, Amazonian areas. In 2015, the government announced plans to become the energy heart of Latin America, adding hydropower and fracking sites to areas contracted for hydrocarbon extraction. Once again, these cross into, or sit alongside, indigenous territories and conservation areas and bring roads and other infrastructure. Oppositional contentious politics find discourses of progressive change appropriated by the government and face criminalisation and threats in the face of claims for development and the environment.

In this context, I interrogate the environmental remit of the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and question the extent to which they bring about socio-environmental transformation. I argue that assemblage theory is a productive way to investigate and make sense of the (re)emergent sustainability agenda (Delanda 2006), addressing the vague content of the term, as well as questions of power, control and transformation. I show that despite evidence that social movement and contentious politics are crucial for informing understandings of what is (or is not) sustainable (Scheidel et al 2017) and vital for transforming hegemonic and destructive patterns of resource use and ownership (Adams 2008), SDG assemblages can too easily side-step and ignore unsustainable logics of development by failing to include or support contentious politics. Finally, I argue that in Bolivia the SDGs are being disciplined by the state’s extractive project and that the sustainable development agenda remains remarkably unchanged by Bolivia’s national, regional or local environmental politics.

This talk is part of the Political Ecology Group meetings series.

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