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Buen Vivir

The good life

by Philipp Altmann

In depth

Indigenous community in Ecuador sharing a meal.

Indigenous community in Ecuador sharing a meal.

In the Andean countries of Latin America, the principle of Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay (meaning roughly “living well” or “life in harmony”) developed as an alternative to western notions of development. It is based on the worldview of indigenous peoples and, simply put, aims to ensure material, social and spiritual satisfaction for all members of a community, but not at the expense of others or to the detriment of the natural environment. In 2008, the government of Rafael Correa, who then served as Ecuador’s left-wing president, enshrined Buen Vivir in the new constitution as a policy principle. In the meantime, however, the concept has lost significance.

In Ecuador’s national development plans (from 2009 to 2013 and from 2013 to 2017), indigenous peoples hardly figured. Mentioning them only served a symbolic purpose and legitimised government policy. Constant reference was made to Buen Vivir’s indigenous origins, but its specific indigenous content was never spelled out. Variations of Buen Vivir thinking, however, are found in the documents of indigenous movements beginning in the 1930s. Since the 1990s, indigenous activists have also connected Buen Vivir with calls for local self-administration within a plurinational state.

Partially as a result of the contradictions, the Buen Vivir ideology split into three main branches after the adoption of the 2008 constitution:

  1. the indigenous branch is concerned with autonomy and self-determination,
  2. the state branch is geared to inclusive development and human rights, and
  3. a third branch views growth and development with scepticism and is centred around economist Alberto Acosta and others who oppose oil extraction.

The three branches have developed in different ways, but there was constant interaction between them.

The indigenous branch of Buen Vivir has the clearest definition and the longest history. It has been described by the recently deceased activist Benjamín Inuca. Since the 1930s, variations of the concept have been used to politicise indigenous identity. Since the 1980s, indigenous peoples in Ecuador have been demanding territorial autonomy, plurinationality and interculturality. In this sense, the indigenous version of Buen Vivir is about self-determination at the local level, with development respecting cultural differences and resulting from the action of civil society and local organisations rather than an overarching state. Accordingly, the indigenous branch of Buen Vivir generally opposes the exploitation of natural resources.

In the wake of the anti-government protests of October 2019, in which 20,000 members of indigenous peoples were involved, the term has fallen into disuse. Other terms are now preferred instead, like plurinationality or Kawsay Sacha (meaning roughly living forest). The latter is also disseminated internationally by Patricia
Gualinga, an activist from Sarayaku Kichwa.

A new dawn

The state branch of Buen Vivir has a distinct origin. It arose with the sense of a new political dawn when the Correa government took office in 2007 and established the constituent assembly. The governing party, Alianza PAIS, saw itself as a collective left-wing movement. The new constitution and the initial government policies reflected a broad variety of positions, including the current that criticises conventional development and is associated with Acosta. He is the most prominent intellectual proponent of Buen Vivir worldwide.

At the core of this governmental vision is an inclusive development that:

  • dismantles inequalities,
  • relies on sustainable oil production and mining and
  • is driven by state agencies.

This branch of Buen Vivir thinking considers the state to be unified and centralised. It does not offer scope for more local independence and self-administration. In 2009 and 2010, René Ramírez, then the head of the state planning authority, made an unsuccessful attempt to define a version of socialism based on Buen Vivir. Under his successors, the idea lost its centrality.

President Lenin Moreno, Correa’s successor, took office in 2017. He has drastically reduced the Buen Vivir rhetoric. The current development plan (2017–2021) no longer includes the term in its title. The Secretariat of Buen Vivir, which was only ever symbolic, has been closed. “Living well” is no longer government policy.

Indeed, the state version of Buen Vivir had been in crisis since at least 2013. That was the year when Correa’s third term began. It was characterised by economic difficulties and an increasingly authoritarian style of governance. In 2013, Correa officially ended the innovative initiative Yasuní-ITT due to a lack of international support. Yasuní-ITT was an attempt to prevent oil extraction in a large biosphere reserve in the Amazon region. The idea was that industrialised nations would compensate Ecuador for foregone export revenues. The initiative was designed with input from Acosta. The plan was discussed in Germany’s Bundestag, but Dirk Niebel, who was then the federal minister for economic cooperation and development, did not support it. The failure of this flagship project meant that, at the international level, an important pillar of Buen Vivir had collapsed.

Acosta and his supporters had actually broken with the Correa government as early as 2008, so the group’s influence on his government waned and the state version of Buen Vivir started to lose relevance. However, Acosta continued to promote the concept independently and became very active at the international level. From 2009 on, he disseminated his version of Buen Vivir in English- and German-language publications. He attended many conferences and gave numerous speeches.

In his eyes, Buen Vivir is an open and ongoing project. It is inspired by indigenous cultures and fosters a harmonious relationship with nature. The term can be rather freely interpreted. However, Acosta rejects industrial development, oil extraction and mining. His version of Buen Vivir fits the Yasuní-ITT initiative well, as it is closely related to ideas of climate justice, post-growth and development criticism. Some of his demands resonate internationally. In 2015, for example, François Hollande, then the French president, referred to Buen Vivir in a speech. Acosta’s ideas have left marks on international debate – for example at climate summits and in other UN contexts. They have had an impact on various institutions, including the UNESCO-funded programme Global Citizenship Education.

The high point for the Acosta branch of Buen Vivir was the Degrowth Conference in 2014 in Leipzig, Germany. Buen Vivir was prominently discussed at that conference, which convened scientists as well as social activists. The focus was on criticism of both growth and development. Later attempts to spread Buen Vivir thinking were less effective. They included a 2015 tour of the USA by Franco Viteri, a member of the Sarayaku people, and lectures Acosta and Grupo Sal continue to hold in Germany.

Not entirely distinct notions

The three versions of Buen Vivir have distinct orientations and foundations, but they are not entirely separate. There are several synergies. Proponents of all three branches endorsed the Yasuní-ITT initiative. There is also an underlying sense of mutual acceptance, especially between the indigenous movement’s version and the version that criticises development. Tensions primarily arose about what role the state should play. The indigenous movements reject European ideas of statehood, whereas development critics tend to pin their hopes on spontaneous local cooperation. The Correa administration considered Buen Vivir to be tangible policy.

For some time, Buen Vivir was an innovative concept that served to link different discourses to one another. During its peak from 2009 to 2013, it provided a platform for a variety of interesting initiatives. As a state policy, however, it ultimately gave way to more traditional approaches. Its appeal to scientists and social movements is in decline. Though Buen Vivir has lost much of its relevance, the disputes it facilitated were meaningful and would not have occurred without it.

Philipp Altmann is a professor of sociological theory at the Central University of Ecuador in Quito.