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In some of the poorest countries of Latin America, one can find a refreshing (and radical) departure from the conventional economic thinking entrenched in Canada and around the world.

It's not often that people look to countries such as Ecuador or Bolivia as examples that might have something to teach Canada. And yet, when it comes to finding new forms of economic development that pay serious attention to the environment, this is exactly the case. And at a time when Canada's oil sands production continues to grow despite climate science predicting even more alarming consequences, it's high time we had a look at what's going on in the Andes. As part of a documentary production for The Nature of Things, that's exactly what I did.

And I was amazed.

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Both Ecuador and Bolivia are embarking on new paths of social and economic development toward what they call "sumak kawsay," or "living well." This indigenous concept stands in contrast to the neo-liberal model of development that's always about growth. The mantra is more productivity, more growth, more consumption of resources, ad infinitum. Ad nauseam!

In contrast, "living well" is about developing in harmony with nature, meeting human rights and satisfying basic needs for all, and living in balance.

Sure, it sounds nice on paper, but what does it mean in practice?

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told me that one example of this new vision of development is the fact that his country's constitution is the first in the world to give rights to nature. In other words, trees, animals, rivers – entire ecosystems – have the constitutional right to exist and flourish. It's a far cry from Canada's "Ministry of the Environment," which is more about managing human use of the environment than about Mother Nature herself.

In 2010, two American residents of Ecuador were the first to go to court on behalf of nature, over damage to a river caused by a provincial government road construction crew. The case was a first for Ecuador and the world, establishing a legal precedent we can only hope spreads around the globe.

Mr. Correa also told me that Ecuador's attempt to marry ecology and economy has led to a radical proposal to not exploit 20 per cent of the country's untapped oil reserves. Those reserves happen to lie under Yasuní National Park – a jewel of the Amazon rain forest thought to harbour the highest level of biodiversity on Earth. Scientists have found more species of trees in one hectare of this forest than there are in all of North America from Alaska to Mexico.

Ecuador's Yasuní-ITT initiative promises to leave that oil in the ground, to help combat climate change, but asks the global community to be "co-responsible" and contribute half of the profits the country would be giving up: $3.6-billion. So far, they've raised $300-million.

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For a country whose economy depends on oil to propose such an initiative is remarkable. Nearly 30 per cent of Ecuadoreans live below the poverty line, yet the country is wildly supportive of the initiative. What's Canada's excuse? Surely we could afford to do something similar with the oil sands.

Another lesson Canada could learn takes place high in the Andes mountains, in Bolivia's Uyuni salt flats. The flats are the fossil remnant of an ancient seabed containing more than half of the world's lithium deposits. (Lithium is much in demand, and electric cars using lithium batteries are expected to play an increasing role in reducing our carbon footprint.) Heavy hitters such as China, Japan and the European Union are seeking new sources of lithium. But instead of exporting raw lithium to these industrialized nations for them to make the batteries, Bolivia plans to make the batteries itself and thus realize the real economic benefits of value-added products. There's no doubt this is an ambitious gamble that could fail.

Yet, in Canada, we continue being "hewers of wood and drawers of water," as we ship raw logs and raw bitumen elsewhere. At least in this respect, Canada could learn from Bolivia.

Of course, we're not saying that Bolivia and Ecuador have all the answers, or that they don't have environmental and economic contradictions to sort out. But they're grappling with these issues and forging new paths toward a different kind of growth that's attuned with nature – and that's what makes them such exciting models. Which is more than anyone can say for Canada these days.

David Suzuki's Andean Adventure airs on The Nature of Things, Jan. 10, at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV.

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