“Hola, Gustavo!”- A personal tribute to Gustavo Esteva

by Ashish Kothari

“Hola, Gustavo, como estas?!”

“Hola, Ashish … bien, y tu?”

“Bien, Gustavo!”

Every month, this is how I have opened a conversation with Gustavo Esteva, as part of the meetings of the core team of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives (GTA). The Spanish exchange stops here, and we switch to English, with Gustavo’s eyes twinkling at my severely limited attempts at carrying out a conversation in his language.

I will not see that twinkle again. I will not be able to have that exchange again. I cannot believe it, refuse to believe it … but Gustavo is gone. At least in his physical avatar, he is no more going to be on the screen for me to greet. Or in person – for I was so looking forward to being with him in his house in Oaxaca, Mexico, this May, subsequent to attending the World Social Forum in Mexico City. I will not be able to hug him, feel the fatherly embrace I was so longing for. And yet, his spirit will be there, and I hope I can still visit his house and some of the places he graced with his presence for 86 years.

At this grand old age, Gustavo Esteva passed away on 17 March. Till a few days before that he was all there, age having done nothing to dim his enthusiasm, energy, intellect, and generosity of time. I was in Ladakh, up on the trans-Himalayan part of India, when I (and my colleague Shrishtee Bajpai) heard the heartbreaking news of his body’s brave but eventually failed attempt to shrug off the impacts of a COVID infection. We were in a homestay in a Ladakhi village, and we cried in front of our astonished but quietly supportive hosts. Since then, tears have come unprompted many more times as we collectively remember him in GTA and other meetings. But so have some wonderful memories, and gratitude for all that Gustavo gave us and the world.

Gustavo Esteva with Subcomandante Marcos.

I don’t want this to be a mini-biography of all that Gustavo did; there is plenty available on that, including in Wikipedia, and in a short memoir-like article that Gustavo readily wrote for the Radical Ecological Democracy website. From a disillusioned office boy and corporate honcho in his late teens and early 20s, to a rising (and also quickly disillusioned) bureaucrat in a (supposedly) revolutionary Mexican government, to a guerilla-activist-academic-writer sharply interrogating western modernity and ‘development’, Gustavo’s life was a bewildering multiplicity of engagements. He advised the (really) revolutionary Zapatistas (in the article just mentioned, he is seen sitting with the legendary Subcomandante Marcos in some workshop), and argued vigorously for autonomy of peoples from the hegemony of both nation-states and capitalist corporations. He helped set up remarkable alternative learning and dialogue spaces like Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth), Centro de Encuentros y Dialogos Interculturales Asociacion Civil (Centre for Intercultural Encounters and Civil Society Dialogues), and Crianza Mutua (Mutual Nurturing). Like his senior, Ivan Illich, from whom he gained much inspiration, Gustavo also wrote prolifically. That is fortunate for us, since we can keep digging into his mind and heart through his writings.

On a personal note, Gustavo was also a family friend. He worked with my father, equally a critic of modern development and nation-states, as also with my elder brother Smitu who was an activist-scholar of human and ecological rights. I have vague memories of Gustavo visiting us in the 1980s when I was very young. We were sporadically in touch in the first 2-3 decades of my activism as an environmentalist, and I visited him in Oaxaca 19 years ago when I was in Mexico for a Greenpeace International Board meeting. He graciously treated me and my then wife Sunita to a great Mexican meal, during which he made me eat grasshopper chutney, saying I’d have to do this if I want to ever come back to Oaxaca. Despite my vegetarian ethics, I did as he bid … and was in fact waiting to eat it again in May when visiting him. Perhaps I will indeed still have it, and see in my mind’s eye the twinkle in his eyes as I do that.

Gustavo Esteva with Sunita Rao, Oaxaca 2003. Pic. Ashish Kothari

Fast forward two decades. Gustavo came squarely back into my life in 2018, when I wrote to him about the idea of starting a confluence of radical alternative initiatives around the world. This is an idea I had proposed at the International Degrowth Conference at Budapest in 2016, and it was slowly marinating with some initial discussions amongst many colleagues. It turned out that Gustavo along with Arturo Escobar and others were thinking of something similar. He immediately responded positively, and enthusiastically became part of a growing core team of volunteers that launched the Global Tapestry of Alternatives in 2019.

Gustavo Esteva on a recent “Global Tapestry of Alternatives” Zoom call. Pic. Ashish Kothari

Over the last 2-3 years, it is this core team that has met on a monthly basis, sometimes more often, to take the GTA forward. Gustavo has been a regular in these, always waiting his time to speak, always listening carefully to what everyone else said (regardless of whether they were veterans or very new to the issues being discussed), always ready with his own insights. He would vehemently defend his views, for instance on the absolute need to abolish the nation-state, and to move beyond western ‘human rights’ discourses; but he would also be willing to listen to those who had a somewhat different viewpoint. Remarkably, he also readily agreed to help administer the funds for GTA, putting in his own time to do mechanical tasks including trudging to the bank (remember: by now he was 84-85!) to sort out international transfer issues. He finally ‘retired’ a few months ago, keen that younger colleagues take over Unitierra … but as we know about any such person, there is no real retirement. He had begun to work on a project to archive the work of Ivan Illich, as also his own, when he was snatched away … work that his younger colleagues will continue as a tribute, and also because the collective writings of Illich and Gustavo are such a shining light for sanity in this world.

Gustavo Esteva with Ivan Illich.

In Ladakh, on a dark night, the sky is ablaze with stars. One night, I look up and whisper ‘Hola Gustavo!’. One of the stars, twinkling much like Gustavo’s eyes, whispers back, “Hola Ashish. Como estas?”

Bien, Gustavo! I am well! We are well, because you are still with us!

Ashish Kothari is a founder member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, India. His personal tribute to Gustavo Esteva first appeared on the Radical Ecological Democracy website and is reproduced here with kind permission.