Buen Vivir

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= Andean-inspired concept for the good life, i.e. Good Living"

see also: Sumak Kawsay


"In English, buen vivir loosely translates "good living" or "well living", although neither term sits well with Eduardo Gudynas, a leading scholar on the subject. Both sit too close to western notions of wellbeing or welfare, he says: "These are not equivalents at all. With buen vivir, the subject of wellbeing is not [about the] individual, but the individual in the social context of their community and in a unique environmental situation."

Similar thinking is inspiring other social movements across South America, says Gudynas. The link to other indigenous belief systems, such as those of the Aymara peoples of Bolivia, the Quichua of Ecuador and the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina, is explicit. Yet Gudynas is at pains to point out that buen vivir owes as much to political philosophy as it does to indigenous worldviews. "It is equally influenced by western critiques [of capitalism] over the last 30 years, especially from the field of feminist thought and environmentalism," he explains. "It certainly doesn't require a return to some sort of indigenous, pre-Colombian past."

Gudynas is the executive secretary of the Latin American Centre for Social Ecology in Uruguay and author of 10 books and many academic articles, including a recent background paper on the buen vivir philosophy.

A defining characteristic of buen vivir is harmony, he says, harmony between human beings, and also between human beings and nature. A related theme is a sense of the collective. Capitalism is a great promoter of individual rights: the right to own, to sell, to keep, to have. But this alternative paradigm from South America subjugates the rights of the individual to those of peoples, communities and nature.

How does this play out in practice? Take property, for example. According to buen vivir, humans are never owners of the earth and its resources, only stewards. This plays against idea of natural capital, now used widely in business circles. Ecosystem services, for example, where a monetary value is given to environmental goods such as the water provision of rivers or carbon sequestration of forests, is anathema. A more accurate parallel to buen vivir might be collaborative consumption and the sharing economy, two related ideas that are gaining traction globally.

"If you put a price on nature, then you're suggesting an ownership of the planet ... Furthermore, capital is something that is interchangeable between people. But if you destroy the environment, then it's difficult to rebuild it, which undermines it being interchangeable," Guynas argues.

The same is true for human capital. To say a factory worker's hand is worth more than his foot because he or she needs the former to operate a machine constitutes an "unacceptable mercantilisation" in Gudynas' opinion. "For the worker, he still doesn't get his hand back," he adds. Likewise, he cautions against market-driven thinking creeping into education too. "Buen vivir wouldn't design education programmes as forms of investment in human capital, but rather it would design them so that people become more illustrados [enlightened]".

Despite these critiques, the principles of buen vivir are not fundamentally incompatible with market capitalism – albeit with some important modifications. Starting with the demand side, advocates of buen vivir stress the need for us to consume less: "It's all very good pushing for energy efficiency and the like, but if your product does less environmental damage per unit but you end up selling lots more units, then the net impact is worse." The logic is hard to argue with. Nor is it an argument to which corporations are deaf to, as Unilever's championing of 'decoupled growth' illustrates.

In addition, consumers need to begin to pay the "real value" of the products they consume, Gudynas argues. That's to say, environmental and social costs should be incorporated into the final price and not externalised. He gives the example of a $25 electric fan on sale in his home city of Montevideo. "It's made in China, with plastic that isn't recyclable, with copper probably from Chile and other metals perhaps from Peru. None of the social and environmental costs of mining or transport appear in the price. If they did, it could never retail at that price."

An economy structured in accordance with buen vivir would require significant changes to capitalist modes of production too, especially with regards to agriculture. A major crunch point is size. For buen vivir, explains Gudynas, small is beautiful. Small-scale production has a number of benefits: it's more likely to reflect and enhance local culture, to include local people and to protect the local environment. Importantly, it also has a higher probability of serving local needs too. The days of industrial agriculture geared for export would be numbered therefore – a fact that Andean consumers of quinoa would no doubt welcome.

"The current discussion in about how to apply buen vivir is based around production processes that use low levels of raw materials and energy, and [which are] orientated towards regional markets," Gudynas continues. "This would imply a certain disconnection of South America as an exporter of primary commodities for the global economy. It also implies extracting only the amount of natural resources that we need to demand in the continent itself."

Traditional approaches to corporate social responsibility don't come out too well either. "Studies about CSR show that it is a good strategy for improving the brand of a company, but that it doesn't have much impact on the social performance of the sector," Gudynas argues. The problem is partly to do with the founding principles of modern corporations. "They aren't made to be responsible," he says. "They are made to generate profits."

Even if the two – responsibility and profits – could be resolved, the impediment of size still crops up: "There's an enormous distance between the decision-makers, the owners and the consequences of the company's actions … and the managers running the company day in, day out aren't really accountable for the social impacts of their decisions because the owners are so diffuse and spread out."

Gudynas concedes that buen vivir remains an unfolding philosophy. Nor is it meant primarily as a template for organising economic affairs. Rather it describes a way of life and a form of development that sees social, cultural, environmental and economic issues working together and in balance, not separately and hierarchically as at present.

Rather than see buen vivir as a strict blueprint for change, Gudynas suggests that it is better to view it as a launch pad for fresh thinking and new perspectives: "It helps us see the limits of current development models and it allows us to dream of alternatives that until now have been difficult to fulfil." (http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas)


Eduardo Gudynas:

"This platform to "see the world" in distinct ways revolves around axes that are shared either by these cultural critiques, or on a deeper plane, also through the distinct ontologies; they are the common components of each particular expression of Good Life. Among the most important are the following:

Another ethic to recognize and assign values. When we say that Nature becomes the subject of value, what has happened is a radical change compared to the prevailing Western ethic, where everything around us is an object of value, and only people, as conscious beings, can assign values. We also depart from the actual ways of valuation on proposing to abandon the insistence on converting everything around us to merchandise with use or exchange value. And so successively, it may be seen that another ethic toward the world is shared.

Decolonization of knowledge. This consists of recognizing, respecting and even taking advantage of the diversity of forms of knowledge. Breaking (or trying to break) with the dominant power relations, abandoning the pretension of a privileged knowledge which should master and direct the meeting of cultures and knowledge forms. This is more than epistemological relativism, as it lies on a decolonization of knowledge. The other forms of knowledge become legitimate and the political dynamic must be reconfigured to deal with them.

Leave behind the rational of manipulation and instrumentalization. Good Living is a space where you leave the pretensions dominating and manipulating everything around us, be it people or Nature, to convert them to means that serve our purposes.

A vocation oriented to meeting, dialogue or interactions between different knowledge. The very points indicated above prevent Good Living from becoming itself a reductionist stance, where one version claims to be hegemonic, and displaces all the rest. In turn, this interaction should be on both an intercultural level as well as rescuing critical positions within western Modernity itself.

Alternative Conceptions of Nature. This is not a minor issue nor colourful folklore, since conventional development encloses within itself a certain concept of Nature, and in turn, these ideas about Nature allow some certain types of development. In this way, any alternative to development requires reconceptualizing the western idea of a Nature external to us, disjointed as objects, which can be manipulated and appropriated as resources. Good Living covers distinct ways of dissolving the duality that separates society from Nature, and repositions human beings as integral to the fabric of life.

Extended communities. Political communities (in the sense of hosting actors with political expression) are not restricted to people, and there is a place in them for the non-human (in some cases they may be other beings or elements of the environment, or spirits).

A place for experiences and emotions. Good Living could have its material base, but is not restricted to this, as there are protagonist roles in their expressions for emotions, the experiences of joy or sadness, rebellion or compassion. Materialism is not enough for the Good Life." (http://alainet.org/active/48054)


Eduardo Gudynas:

"Good Living or Living Well encompasses a set of ideas coming forward as both a reaction and an alternative to conventional notions of development. On these terms diverse reflections are accumulating which, with great intensity, explore new creative perspectives, on both the level of ideas and in practice.

Given this situation it is useful to consolidate some of the main ideas under discussion. That is the goal of this article. We don't intend to defend any unique definition of Good Living; actually, as will be seen, no one definition is applicable to all cases. The proposal is to provide a panoramic look, even at the at risk of being incomplete, but to make it clear that Buen Vivir [hereafter translated as Good Life and sometimes Good Living] at this time is germinating in various forms in different countries and from different social actors, that it is a concept under construction, which necessarily must adjust to each social and environmental circumstance.

Despite this plurality, we are defending the idea here that one can arrive at a shared platform for Good Living from distinct traditions of thought. Therefore, the current priority is to support these discussions, encourage even more diversification and promote concrete actions.

Starting points

You can start this tour from the testimonies of key persons in the debate on Good Life in the Andean countries. Alberto Acosta, who as president of the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly was one of the most active promoters of the idea, understands it as an "opportunity" and an option “to be built”. In his view, Good Life cannot be reduced to "Western wellbeing", and should be supported in the cosmovisions of indigenous peoples, where what could be called social improvement is "a category in permanent construction and reproduction". Following a wholistic position, Acosta adds that material goods are not the only determinants, but that there are "other values at play: knowledge, social and cultural recognition, codes of ethical and spiritual behaviour in the relationship with society and nature, human values, the vision of the future, among others." But he also warns that there are other sources of inspiration, and that even within Western culture "more and more voices rise which may somehow be in harmony with this indigenous vision."(Acosta, 2008).

The aymara intellectual David Choquehuanca, current foreign minister of Bolivia, argues that Living Well is to "recover the lives of our peoples, to recover the Culture of Life and regain our lives in complete harmony and mutual respect with Mother Nature, with the Pachamama, where everything is life, where everyone is uywas [beings], servants of nature and the cosmos. " He goes on pointing out we are all part of nature and there is nothing separate, and from the plants to the hills they are our brothers. (Choquehuanca, 2010).

Both understand that Good Life implies a substantial challenge to contemporary ideas of development, especially to its adherence to economic growth and its inability to solve the problems of poverty, not to forget that its policies lead to severe social and environmental impacts. They also point out that this idea owes much to the vision of indigenous peoples, and a review of other definitions shows that both intellectuals and activists, Creole and indigenous, converge. As a complement, we offer a set with examples of other conceptualizations.

These and other contributions allow us to point out that there are at least three levels on which to address the construction of the concept of Good Living: the ideas, the speeches and the policies or practices. In the first are found the radical questioning of the conceptual bases of development, especially its adherence to the ideology of progress. In some ways, these critiques go beyond development, and reach other essential issues, such as the ways we understand ourselves as individuals and the ways in which we conceive the world.

A second level refers to the discourses and the legitimations of these ideas. Good Living departs from the discourses that celebrate economic growth or material consumption as welfare indicators, and doesn't praise obsession with profitability or consumption. Their appeals to the quality of life run in other ways, and include both individuals and nature. The doors are opened to other ways of speaking, writing or thinking about our world.

In the third field are concrete actions, such as political projects for change, government plans, policy frameworks and ways of elaborating alternatives to conventional development. Herein lies one of the greatest challenges to the ideas of Good Life, in the sense of becoming strategies and concrete actions which do not repeat the conventional posturing which they criticize, and also must be viable.

Critique of development and beyond

A central aspect in the formulation of Good Living takes place in the formulation of a crtique of contemporary development. For example, it questions the rational of contemporary development, its emphasis on economic aspects and the market, its obsession with consumption, or the myth of continued progress.

An example of this position is offered by Ana Marίa Larrea of Ecuador (2010), who believes that development is a concept in crisis, with clear colonial implications, and is an expression of Modernity. Her critique simultaneously addresses current development and capitalism, and presents Good Life as a way to overcome these limitations.

These critiques of conventional development unfold on several fronts. There is on one hand a set of reactions to their negative effects, either due to specific projects (such as a road or hydroelectric plant), for broad sectoral reforms (such as the privatization of health or education). Contrary to what it proclaims, conventional development leads to "bad development", which leads to a "bad life" (appealing to the characterization popularized by José Tortosa, 2001).

Another set of reactions point to the different ideas in play. For example, they ask hard questions about conventional understanding of welfare only as having to do with income or material possessions, or can only be solved in the market. Good Living emphasizes quality of life, but does not reduce it to consumption or property. It has also heavily questioned the reductionism of presenting development as economic growth, and warned that this is impossible in that natural resources are limited and the capacity of ecosystems to cope with environmental impacts as well have limits.

It is very common to argue that a country develops if the economy grows, especially if they increase exports or investment. In many cases, GDPs have increased and exports have soared, but little or nothing has improved in terms of social and environmental conditions. However, this classical development position is still current, and in turn expresses a firm belief in a lineal progress and evolution of history. Its classic examples rest in considering Latin American countries as "underdeveloped", that must move through successive stages mimicking the trajectory of the industrial economies. Thus a wide range of reflection on Good Life focuses on the fallacies of conventional economism (eg Acosta, 2008 or Dávalos, 2008).

Other questions address the anthropocentric base of current development, which makes everything valued and appreciated in function of its utility to humans. There are also those who denounce the loss of affective aspects. In these areas the contributions of traditional knowledge are very evident, especially in the Andes, which have become key ingredients in nurturing reflections on Good Life. Expressions like the “sumak kawsay” of Ecuador's Kichwa [Quechua] or the “suma qamaña” of Bolivia's Aymara are of enormous importance for the ideas they explain, being made in their own languages, and its potential for decolonization.

Finally, another essential component of good living is a radical change in how we interpret and value Nature. In several of its formulations, the environment becomes a subject of rights, breaking with the traditional anthropocentric perspective.

Thus, it is possible to conclude a first point of agreement: Good Life implies profound changes in development thinking which are more than just corrections or adjustments. It is not enough to try "alternative development", as these remain within the same rationale of understanding progress, the use of nature and relations between humans. Alternatives are certainly important, but deeper changes are necessary. Instead of insisting on "alternative development" we should think of "alternatives to development" (following the words of Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar). Good Life appears as the most important current of reflection which Latin America has offered in the past few years." (http://alainet.org/active/48054)

A platform to see the world in other ways

As we have seen, Good Living expresses different ideas, including the cultural, seeking to move away from Modernity. This makes the questioning of development advance toward questions of enormous complexity, where some even believe that they should go beyond the field of culture. While the use of the word "culture" can be understood in very broad ways, it almost always has connotations that are made toward interactions between humans, where different ways of conceiving of Nature become mere attributes of a relationship outside of themselves. Remember that Good Life challenges the dualism of Modernity that separates society from Nature and turns the latter into an object (or set of objects) that can be dominated, manipulated and appropriated. As well, Good Living seeks to highlight other forms of relationship with its surroundings.

This explains why in many Good Living analyses, references appear to “cosmovisions”, to "being in the world," to "ontologies", or the "Andean cosmic home” (in the words of Yampara, 2002). Beyond the terms or words used, they refer to questions such as our conceptions of ourselves as individuals, the form in which we interact with everything around us, the ethical frameworks and values that are granted and the concepts of becoming historic.

In recent times, these issues are considered using the concept of ontology, and while it's a word that can generate a fear of leading us to an unfathomable philosophic debate, it can offer a working definition to convey the idea presented here. We will appeal to a recent summary the Argentine anthropologist Mario Blaser (2010).

An ontology is the form under which one understands and interprets the world, and is based on a series of assumptions about what exists or not, relationships, etc. An ontology although it is not a predetermination, is built from the practices and interactions with both humans and our non-human surroundings. Under these, one generates stories, practices, myths and beliefs, which can be understood as "stories" that make our experiences and actions believable. Ontologies, Blaser concludes, can be understood as the determinants of overall representations, discursive or not, of our worlds.

Having appealed to Blaser is not capricious, as his work is focused on indigenous groups in the Chaco of Paraguay, with profuse comparisons with other cultures. In his studies he cautions against ontological conflicts, where questions such as the objectivity and validity of knowledge are in play, or which are acceptable practices. Just this sort of thing also appears in the different expressions of Good Living. For example, in some cases they attack the "objectivity" that separates Nature from society, while in others it is considered valid that trees or spirits are integral to a "political community" with humans. Determinations on questions such as true / false, right / wrong, subject of value / object of value, are determined by each ontology, and from them create and reproduce the cultural frameworks which are discussed in previous sections.

Conventional development corresponds to the ontology characteristic of European modernity. Among its main characteristics are policies, which for the purposes of this review may be cited the separation of society from Nature (duality), a unfolding of history which is considered linear, the pretension of control and manipulation, faith in progress, the insistence on separating the "civilized" from the "wild" and so on. It appeals to expert knowledge which determines the best strategies, and imposes a notion of a similar quality of life for all nations. The demands of local groups or indigenous communities must be "translated" into a technocratic knowledge or demonstrate economic relevance in order to influence the progress of this development. Consider the case of a local group that thinks that mining "will kill” a hill that is part of their "community" of life, all of which should be "translated" by the Modern to a list of environmental impacts, with the hope of influencing the decisions of an undertaking, which in turn is legitimated as a sign of "development."

In these cases, one is questioning the discourses, policies and institutions of development inherited from Modernity, in the form of cultural conflicts. But at the same time something more profound happens, since Good Life also makes it clear that there are "other" ontologies, which are built differently and have their own mechanisms to generate validity and certainty, and which understand, value and appreciate their worlds differently. Therefore "ontological conflicts" will be expressed. At this level the ontologies of different indigenous peoples appear, and while some of us who come from the western heritage, "understand", or "feel" that the project of Modernity has been exhausted, and we have reached a critical point which allows us to "see" these other ontologies, not necessarily understand them in all their complexity, but at least observe their expressions, recognize them as valid and respectable alternatives, draw inspiration from them and re-appropriate them to transform our own worldviews.

Among all the new and different ontologies now being displayed, particularly interesting are those that are "relational", in the sense that they establish relationships beyond just human beings. While the modern ontology is dualistic, separating society from Nature, in the ontologies of several indigenous peoples such distinctions do not exist. They are relational in that the human community is integrated by other living and non-living, and even spirits, the same sensitivity is found in some proponents of deep ecology.

The complementarities and articulations indicated above are, in this way, limited by an incommensurability. You cannot reduce Amerindian ontologies from the highlands to the Amazon tropical rainforest, nor to the modern western. They are expressed in languages, cultures, geographies and different histories. Medina (2011) was right when he emphasizes again and again that the aymara suma qamaña code implies an Amerindian cosmovision of complementarities and reciprocities which cannot be reduced or tailored to the Europeans' own cartesianism.

Recognizing these characteristics, it is possible to specify that Good Life can be understood as a platform where multiple ontologies meet. The points of arrival into that common space originate in distinct ontologies, and in different cultures. This common platform should be built from the practice of an interculturalism that looks to the future, to build alternatives to development."

Transitions to Good Living

As the discussion on Good Living advances, there is an increase in demands for concrete action for change based on the current consensus. Many of the critics of Good Living charge that these measures imply an obscurantist imposition of hunter-gatherers living in the jungle. This is totally unfounded, and Good Life is not even an anti-technological proposal.

On the contrary, they continue taking advantage of scientific-technical developments, but certainly in another way, and without excluding other sources of knowledge, and all subject to the precautionary principle. To offer a clear example, under Good Life one should build bridges or roads, although they could have another design, be located elsewhere and serve other distinct proposals to the present-day ones.

Under these changes it will certainly be expected that the State play important roles. This is very necessary in those countries still stuck in market reforms, such as Peru or Colombia. In the case of countries under progressive governments, they have been moving in that direction, giving better conditions to promote subsequent changes toward Good Life. Even some analysts, like Raúl Prada (2010), who notes its determining role in "shaping a social and communal economy". Understandably this position is a reaction to the long and profound neo-liberal reforms of past decades, where the market prevailed, but also one must admit that the situation in countries with progressive governments is distinct. In these contexts it is necessary to be cautious against the temptation to decree Good Life from government offices, assuming that the State knows all and that by itself represents citizens' demands. This is particularly complicated when the same State goes back to a style of conventional development, high social and environmental impact, and therefore moves away from the concepts of Good Life.

Some can claim the new development strategies that some progressive governments try are examples of Good Life. The conceptual bases of this idea deserve to be analyzed. This position is usually based on the strengthening of the State, the reorientation of development to certain popular demands, and in particular the plans to combat poverty (in particular putting in place cash transfers). It is beyond discussion that these social assistance programs have been very important in reducing homelessness and poverty.

But the current problem is that funding for these programs is based on conventional development, appropriating Nature, maintaining the pattern of subordination to natural resource exports. Even more, in some countries the increase in social spending and public works, makes governments even more dependent on exporting minerals, hydrocarbons and promoting monoculture. It's such that you can say that this progress is close to Good Living for its fight against poverty and support for some popular demands. These grey areas are suffered in particular by indigenous communities, especially in tropical areas, as the new frontier of progress in mining and oil companies is located there. The impacts and dislocations generated by this extractivism explain many of the demands and social protests in several countries.

Some views of the heterodox economy may claim to be the best expression of Good Living practices. No doubt some contributions, for example, of ecological economics agroecology are essential, but alone do not create an alternative to development. As well, among the current policies in place in South America, positions like the neo-developmentalism of Brazil, may be presented as the best path to Good Living, by its greater state role, defense of national companies, autonomy from the IMF, and so on. True, it may have some positive elements, but it does not on its own complete the content expected from the alternatives of Good Living.

In both Bolivia and Ecuador they have tried to apply, although in different ways, the constitutional mandate of Good Living. In Bolivia there are several questions in this regard about the National Development Plan (e.g. Medina, 2011), while in Ecuador, the National Plan for Living Well, tries to do it in different ways. These cases serve to make clear that one of the specific areas of dispute over Good Living compared to conventional development involves extractivism.

One must be very clear that a proposition committed to Good Life implies getting out of extractivism. That is a type of activity because of its social and environmental impacts, is clearly incompatible with Good Life in all its concrete expressions. Ecuador's plan recognizes this by posing as a future goal to reach post-extractivism, where the immediate task is to give this proposal concrete actions.

It should also be indicated that the immediate goals of a program toward Good Living should be focused on two objectives that are equally relevant: zero poverty and zero extinction of native species. The eradication of poverty and halt of the environmental debacle appear as urgent measures, and where one and the other are at hand, they are equally urgent.

There will be those who demand specific radical measures of transformation and in rapid succession. Is it possible to propose a revolutionary or radical change, where in a short time one could implement some form of Good Living? It seems difficult to defend that position. As has become clear, the Good Life is plural and in addition a concept under construction, and therefore it's difficult to pretend to have a recipe of specific measures of something still brewing at this very moment. But undoubtedly Good Life, in its own conception, implies a rupture and a substantial transformation with the current order. However, in the very essence of Good Living there is a relativism that allows adjustments to fit each cultural and environmental context; therefore, a “prescription” cannot exist. The Good Life, plural in itself, can not be essentialist.

By one way or another, current demands for change must be directed in a program of "transitions", which encompass moments of rupture and permanent transformation. This process offers opportunities to continue to deepen Good Life, generate a larger base of social support and provide concrete examples of viability. The key is that the balance between the permanent and transformations generates a real movement for change; each new transformation should open the doors to a new step, avoiding stagnation and fixing a sustained pace of change.

Transition initiatives, especially those oriented toward post-extractivism, are being discussed in several organizations in South America. For example, the Peruvian Network for Globalization with Equity is exploring transitions to stop reliance on extractive sectors such as energy, mining, fisheries and agriculture."

Conclusions: After development, Good Living

Eduardo Gudynas:

A final balance of this brief overview allows us to note that Good Life emerges as a meeting point for questioning conventional development, and as well as an alternative to it. Perspectives are incorporated, and even the mood, of indigenous knowledge and other western alternative streams. In this context it should be clear that Good Life should not be understood as a western re-interpretation of an indigenous way of life in particular. Nor is it an attempt to return to or establish an indigenous cosmovision that supersedes conventional development.

In fact Good Life is delimited as a platform where several elements are shared with an eye toward the future; has a utopian horizon of change. This aspect is even present in the contemporary Andean perspective. For example, Sánchez Parga (2009) indicates that in Ecuador sumak kawsay "is no stranger to the recent past, and has nothing to do with tradition", but rather with people who want "to make their lives", without leaving them at the mercy of factors that are alien and hostile. In a context where "modern" means abolishing cultures, traditions and collective past, this position has more of a future project future than revindication of the traditional.

This meeting platform on one side is expressed in terms of cultures, and in addition to them in the ontologies that support them. For this reason, in the plurality of Good Living there are multiple ontologies. Consequently, it cannot generate an essentialist proposal that is identical for all cultures and all places. As a plural concept, it may be said that strictly speaking we are referring to "good lives" which adopt different formulations in each social and environmental circumstance.

While each of the concrete manifestations can not be reduced themselves, it is still possible to identify common elements that allow us to refer to this multiple platform. Beyond agreement in rejecting conventional development and denouncing its negative effects, Good Life shows other agreements. Let's review some of them: in the first place, it abandons the pretension of development as a linear sequence, of historic sequences to be repeated. Good Life, by contrast, has no opinion neither linear nor unique of historicity. In the second place, it defends another relationship with Nature, which it recognizes as the subject of rights, and postulates diverse forms of relational continuity with the environment. Third, social relations are not saved, nor are all things reduced to commodified goods or services.

This allows us to note a fourth element, where Good Life reconceptualizes the quality of life or welfare in ways that do not depend solely on the possession of material goods or income levels. This explains the emphasis given to exploring happiness and spiritual good living. Next, a fifth element ensures Good Life cannot be reduced to a materialist position, as living within it are other spiritualities and sensitivities.

Next should be noted that there is a series of elements that enable weaving links between the different cultural and ontological viewpoints. Among those examined in this article we need to re-emphasize the importance of ethics: Good Life is expressed in a different way of conceiving and assigning values. Identifying intrinsic values in the non-human is one of the most important elements which differentiate this position from western Modernity. From this new viewpoint communities are immediately redefined, expanding them to the non-human, and generating alternative conceptions of Nature. To these are added other components, such as the decolonization of knowledge or abandoning rationales that seek manipulation and domination.

It can be seen that while reaching the platform of Good Living from different starting points, they share a series of postures which means alternatives to contemporary development in practically every aspect.

No doubt, at stake here is a new kind of diversity, and decision-making should be subject to democratic processes to deal with it (although the detail of these mechanisms is a matter for a future article). Many tensions do not disappear by magic, nor will all citizens' demands be won. But what will happen with Good Life is a radical change in the conformation of scenarios and the deployment of mechanisms to discuss different options, the assignment of values, the forms under which agreements are reached and political projects are designed. Until now, certain types of knowledge have been denied or rejected, but under Good Life they become legitimate. As well, the defense of cultural plurality by Good Living gives it a strong vocation oriented to meeting, dialogue and other forms of interactions between distinct knowledge.

For all these reasons Good Life is now a living concept which, as it is common to hear in many Andean valleys, is germinating new ways of life." (http://alainet.org/active/48054)


Article first published in Spanish in America Latina en Movimiento, No. 462, febrero 2011

URL = http://alainet.org/publica/462.phtml

Eduardo Gudynas a researcher at the Centro Latino Americano de Ecologia Social (CLAES) – egudynas @ ambiental.net

Translated by Bob Thomson, Ottawa, Canada, July 2011


Eduardo Gudynas:

The new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador

"In its first formal expressions, Living Well crystallized in the new constitutions of Ecuador (adopted in 2008) and Bolivia (2009). That substantial step was the product of new political conditions, the presence of active citizens' movements, and a growing indigenous protagonism.

In the Constitution of Bolivia it is presented as Living Well [Vivir Bien], and appears in the section dedicated to the fundamental bases of the state, among its principles, values and purposes (Article 8). There it says that we "assume and promote as ethical-moral principles of the plural society: ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (do not be lazy, do not be a liar or a thief), suma qamaña (Live well), ñandereko (harmonious life), teko kavi (good life), ivi maraei (land without evil) and qhapaj ñan (the noble path or life)". This Bolivian formalization is pluricultural, as it offers the idea of living well from several indigenous peoples, and all on the same level of hierarchy?

This set of references to Living Well are in parallel, with the same ranking as other classical principles such as unity, equality, inclusion, dignity, freedom, solidarity, reciprocity, respect, social and gender equity in participation, communal welfare, responsibility, social justice, and so on. (All included in Article 8).

In turn, these ethical-moral principles are directly linked to the form of economic organization of the state where Living Well reappears. The new Constitution indicates that the "Bolivian economic model is plural and is oriented at improving the quality of life and living well" (art. 306). It also postulates an economic order linked to the principles of solidarity and reciprocity, where the state is committed to equitable redistribution of surpluses to social policies of various types. And more, it emphasizes that to achieve "living well in its multiple dimensions", economic organization should accept proposals such as the generation of social product, the fair redistribution of wealth, the industrialization of natural resources, etc.. (Art. 313).

Good Living is treated differently in the new Ecuadorian Constitution. It is presented as "the rights of good life", and within these are included various rights, such as those on food, healthy environment, water, communications, education, housing, health, etc. In this perspective the Good Life is plurally expressed by a set of rights, which in turn are at the same level of ranking [hierarchy] with other sets of rights recognized by the Constitution (those referring to individuals and groups of priority attention, communities, peoples and nationalities, participations, freedom, nature, and protection).

On the other hand, the Constitution presents a section dedicated to "the regime of Good Living ", which has two main components: those related to inclusion and equity (such as education, health, social security, housing, social communication, transport, science, etc.); and those focused on the conservation of biodiversity and natural resource management (e.g., protection of biodiversity, soil and water, alternative energies, urban environment, etc.).

In turn, this regime of Good Living is articulated with the "regime of development". Herein arises an important clarification, because it clearly states that development should serve the good life. The "development regime" is defined as "the group of organized, sustainable and dynamic economic, political, socio-cultural and environmental systems which guarantee the realization of the good life, of sumak kawsay" (art. 275). Its objectives are broad, such as improving the quality of life, building a just, democratic and solidarity economic system, encouraging participation and social control, recovering and conserving Nature, or promoting balanced land use.

We hypothesize a direct relationship between the development strategies to be followed and rights; the "good life requires that people, communities, towns and nationalities effectively enjoy their rights and exercise responsibilities within a framework of interculturalism, respect for diversity, and harmonious coexistence with nature" (art. 275) This development regime must include participatory planning and is expressed in the areas of work, and in food and economic sovereignty.

With these major constitutional expressions of Good Living established, we need to examine both the similarities and differences. It can be seen that in both cases, this idea is directly linked to indigenous knowledge and traditions. In the Ecuadorian text terms in Spanish and Quechua are side by side, while in the Bolivian case references are even wider. The inclusion of names in languages other than Spanish is not a minor attribution, and it forces you to think of these ideas within their original culture reference points. Also, in both cases, the Good Life is a key element to reformulate development; it seeks and tests a new conceptual framework, and pays special attention to determining, for example, economic reform.

But there are also important differences. In the case of Bolivia, suma qamaña and the other associated concepts, are ethico-moral basics, and appear in the framework of the definition of plurinationality. In Ecuador however, sumak kawsay is presented at two levels: as a framework for a set of rights, and as an expression of much of the organization and execution of those rights, not only in the State, but throughout society. It is a formalization of greater breadth and depth, since sumak kawsay goes beyond being an ethico-moral principle and appears within the entire set of rights.

On the other hand, in the Bolivian Constitutional text, this link between suma qamaña and rights is not explicit; for example, there is no reference to this concept in the section on fundamental rights. As well, in the case of Bolivia, Living Well is clearly presented as one of the purposes of the state, while the Ecuadorian text is broader. The Bolivian version leans a bit more on the Ecuadorian State than the Ecuadorian text, but puts more forward on plurinationality than the Ecuadorian. As well, the Ecuadorian sumak kawsay is plural in the sense of accommodating a wide range of rights and is articulated simultaneously with other rights that are not in the text.

Other important differences revolve around approaches to the environment. In this field, the new Ecuadorian Constitution has formalized a recognition of the rights of Nature, which means recognizing it as a subject (art. 72). The position of classical rights is held in parallel to a healthy environment (which are part of the so-called third generation rights and are focused on individuals).

The formulation of the Rights of Nature offers several remarkable characteristics. On the one hand, they are used as synonyms and at the same level as categories of Nature and Mother Earth, which reinforces the importance that is given to indigenous knowledge. On the other hand, their rights are focused on fully respecting their existence, their structure and all their vital and evolutionary processes. This position is reinforced by another innovation which consists in the consideration that the integral restoration of nature is also a right (art. 73). Note that in this way, the environmental component of Ecuadorian Good Living rests on both human rights and the rights of Nature.

In the Bolivian Constitution there are substantial differences. The classical figure of third generation civil rights is maintained, which includes environmental quality and protection. But there is no explicit recognition of the rights of Nature, and it's only possible to move within the framework of classical rights, as one more within economic social and cultural rights.

Tensions with the classical visions of development crept into the Bolivian Constitution in those articles where the proposition is that one of the goals of the State is to industrialize natural resources. While this goal can be understood in the context of historic demands to break the dependence on exports of raw materials, the problem is that it leads to a tension with the goals of the protection of Nature. When it says the "industrialization and marketing of natural resources is to be a priority of the State" (art. 355), it opens the door to all sorts of contradictions with those who demand the protection and integrity of Nature. For example, you could argue the unconstitutionality of protective environmental measures in natural sites where there are mineral deposits or oil to be industrialized, which could fall into a Living Well which avoids the environment." (http://alainet.org/active/48054)

Suma Qamaña

"Simultaneously with constitutional developments the discussion has diversified on the implications of Good Living. It is appropriate to begin a review of the Bolivian contributions on suma qamaña.

Some of its most enthusiastic supporters, such as Xavier Albó, argue that the best interpretation should be the good life in community or "good convivial living". It is a complex concept as the result of input from analysts like Simón Yampara, Mario Torres or Javier Medina. It is linked directly to a full experience, austere but diverse, including both material and emotional components, where no one is excluded, as Javier Medina says. In the same direction the aymara philosopher Simón Yampara (2001) points out that more than material wealth, "harmony between the material and the spiritual" is sought as a "comprehensive wellness / holistic and in harmony with life”. It is a position that has a touch of austerity, in that the goal is to live well, and this should not mean living better at the expense of others or the environment (Albó 2009).

Suma qamaña operates in a special social, environmental and territorial context, represented by the Andean ayllu, as discussed in detail by Torrez (2001). It is a space of well-being with people, animals and crops. There is no duality that separates society from Nature, since one contains the other and they are inseparable complementarities.

Along with the particular emphasis that different social actors give to suma qamaña, there is also a debate on the adequacy of the concept. For example, the aymara intellectual Pablo Mamani Ramirez (2010) believes it is an inadequate approach, and at least two other words should be added: qamiri and qapha. With this he seeks to explain more emphases, such as the "richness of life" in both material and spiritual aspects, self dignity and welfare, and a good heart. For these reasons, Mamani begins by postulating that qamir qamaña is the sweetness of "being still", which reclaims a life style in the face of the imposition of colonial styles of western development.

The Guarani's use of ñande reko (which translates as a way of being), is currently included within Good Life. It expresses a number of virtues such as freedom, happiness, celebration in the community, reciprocity and invitation, and others. All these are articulated in a constant search for "land without evil", which is supported by both the past and the future (see for example the contributions of Bartolomeu Meliá in Medina, 2002).

Not only are there several contributions re Good Life, and varieties in each of them, but even some of their origins are in question. For this reason, Uzeda (2009) asks "whether we can consider sum qamaña a legitimate indigenous reference, genuine or a postmodern invention of Aymara intellectuals of the 21st century (that are still indigenous)". Their response acknowledges that this concept, in the formulation discussed above, is not part of the everyday language or the local representatives of Aymara communities, but then warn that this idea, as "part of a recreation and cultural innovation is no longer indigenous and can, in turn, be appropriated, 'carved'" into an indigenous identity.

This is precisely one of the positive characteristics of Good Living, since trends such as suma qamaña would not be a return to the past but the construction of a future that is different from that determined by conventional development. Its various expressions, whether old or new, original or the product of different hybridizations, open the door to another path.

But as has become clear, any of these are manifestations of Good Living are specific to a particular culture, language, history and social, political and ecological context. You can not take, for example, the idea of sumak kawsay of Ecuadorian Kichwa to transplant it as a recipe for good living that can be applied across all of Latin America. Likewise, neither can you convert or reformat Modernity into a postmodern version of Good Life. As Medina (2011) warns, there is no room here for simplifications such as thinking of the ayllu as a collective farm, or of the indigenous as proletarian.

We must also be alert to other simplifications: Living Well is not restricted to Andean sumak qamaña or sumak kawsay. Similar ideas are found with other peoples, and just by way of example we can cite the shiir waras, the good life of the Ecuadorian Achuar, understood as a domestic peace policy and a harmonious life, including a state of balance with Nature (Descola, 1996). Or the küme mongen, the “living well in harmony” of the Mapuche of southern Chile. Beyond indigenous peoples cases can also be cited for multiethnic and non indigenous groupings. For example, in the so-called "Cambas of the Amazon forest” in northern Bolivia, the product of more than 150 years of meetings and cultural mixing, they defend the "quiet life" with an emphasis on safety, welfare and happiness from an identity closely tied to the jungle (Henkemans, 2003)." (http://alainet.org/active/48054)


Eduardo Gudynas on the evolution of the Buen Vivir debates and their political use

Eduardo Gudynas:

his is an idea in the making, a collective endeavor, different political actors present their own views on Buen Vivir. Solon’s paper could be considered as part of those efforts, particularly in the context of some present-day debates in Bolivia.

Second, on the other hand, it could be useful to depict something like a landscape of different approaches to Buen Vivir and examples of key ideas under consideration. The original or early understandings of Buen Vivir were a product of what one could call a mixing or plural exercise.

The core components of the idea started in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador in the late 1990s; due to political conditions, that path was blocked in Peru, but continued in Ecuador and Bolivia at the time of the arrival of the new left governments. In the case of Bolivia, it is quite clear that few individuals promote the idea, while in Ecuador, it was more a collective effort.

In all these cases, Buen Vivir endorses a rejection of Western ideas of development or progress, and explores alternatives to development in any of its varieties. In short, Buen Vivir was / is an effort to decouple from development and other core concepts of Modernity. It is true that Buen Vivir could be described as a harmonious relationship between “society” and “nature,” but each of these categories are understood in different ways than their traditional definitions.

It is also true that Buen Vivir recovers some traditional or old components of some indigenous peoples—but not all of them. In that original effort, Buen Vivir was not presented as an attempt to return to an old past, to return to the Inca state or any idea of that sort. Buen Vivir, rather, is an exploration on alternative futures. While some indigenous components are part of Buen Vivir, others are not. Non-indigenous actors / ideas were also very important in the Buen Vivir ideas (a clear example is former president of the Ecuadorian Constitutional Assembly, Alberto Acosta, who is not indigenous, and in fact is an economist trained in Germany).

This explains the relevance of “mixing” in the original Buen Vivir. Some Western ideas, particularly those related to critical stands against Modernity, were included in the Buen Vivir. The concept of Nature’s rights, in the sense of a recognition of intrinsic values in non-human beings, stemmed from Western environmental discourses, which were then “mixed” (articulated, fussed, etc.) with the idea of Pachamama, an Andean indigenous traditional concept of human-nature assemblages. This resulted in the recognition of Nature’s rights in the new Ecuadorian Constitution (but not in the Bolivian one). Furthermore, the resulting legal framework was different in each country. In the new Constitution of Ecuador, Buen Vivir is complex: it gets a complete section with several articles, and is presented like a counterweight for development policies. In Bolivia, it is only an ethical guidance principle.

A similar situation faced feminist / gender approaches, as they are part of the critique within Modernity or at its borders, which was a recent input into the core concepts of Buen Vivir. This means that many different indigenous groups must also change / revise their gender standings. Buen Vivir in its original understanding thus requires changes both in indigenous and non-indigenous groups.

There are not strict or direct links between Buen Vivir and indigenous individuals, groups, organizations, etc. Some of them endorse the idea; others reject it, considering it alien to their traditional thinking; still others endorse development itself.

Buen Vivir is also plural. That means that Buen Vivir is more like an umbrella concept, and within it there are more specific categories, as mentioned by Solon. But my point is the following: Bolivian Aymaras’ suma qamaña is different from Ecuadorian Kichwas’ sumaq kawsay, and these are, in turn, different from the deep ecology of some non-indigenous environmentalists. These three, plus some others in that region, all fall under the Buen Vivir umbrella. Differences and similarities require some further explanation and references to anthropological and ethnographic studies, which is not possible here.

Such differences make sense because each position is always rooted in its own specific ecological landscapes, with their histories, and rejects essentialisms. The Aymara version is adapted to its specific setting, and has, for example, a different understanding of community than the Amazonian version in Ecuador.

A clear problem arises: if Buen Vivir is plural, many different ideas and practices could use that label, and the concept became so vague that it ended up encompassing any version of welfare or a happy life in the outdoors. Nevertheless, there are clear boundaries between the Buen Vivir set in its original perspective, and the non-Buen Vivir ideas. I will only mention a couple as examples (as I will return to them below).

(1) Buen Vivir does not endorse the modern idea of progress and of an universal history; a result of this is that it rejects Western development.

(2) Buen Vivir expresses an ethical shift, as it recognize in different ways intrinsic values in the non-human; humans are no longer the only subjects that can produce value.

These and other stances resulted in heated debates over development, especially with regard to the role of natural resource exports, and extractivisms in the Andean countries. These debates were and are intensive, with strong effects in public opinion, involving the participation of presidents, vice-presidents and ministers. I would like to highlight this feature: Buen Vivir debates are not an academic exercise or an indigenous ritual, but are in the 8 o’clock TV news.

This resulted in governments, many academic institutions, and even indigenous groups rejecting Buen Vivir in that original versions and producing new ones that could be placed once again inside development and modernity (Solon addresses some of these problems). If those governments were to follow Buen Vivir, it would be impossible to continue with oil drilling in the Amazonia in Ecuador or the intensive mining in Bolivia. So, as they continue with those development strategies, they introduce new definitions Buen Vivir to make it compatible with or conducive to development.

A first wave of these battles was around the idea of Pachamama / Mother Earth rights, and explains the relevance of the ethical shift. The Evo Morales government around 2010 introduced the idea of the rights of Mother Earth / Pachamama for the whole planet in the debates on climate change. This was done with a number of references to Buen Vivir, and along a radical discourse against capitalism. But according to the original Buen Vivir perspective, that idea of planetary environmental rights makes no sense, because Pachamama is always local, and not planetary. Pachamama is rooted in communities / natures in specific locations. While the Bolivian government claimed for Pachamama global rights, it continues its intensive natural resource exploitation with a number of social and environmental impacts. On one side a strong anti-capitalist discourse, and on the other side, extractivism deeply connected to economic and financial globalization.

All this is linked with the debates of possible revolution or ruptures with capitalism at the local / national level, or by means of a planetary revolution or change—an issue that communists have been discussing for about a century, and which penetrates the development debates in the Andean countries. After the original Buen Vivir perspective, those changes are always local / regional, because the perspective is always rooted in specific landscapes / histories. And because it is non-essentialist, so you cannot produce a Buen Vivir blueprint to be used, let say, in Asia. Furthermore, instead of one great transition, there will be a large number of regional / local ones. So, I presume for the Great Transition Initiative, this issue of “scale” is quite relevant, and Buen Vivir offers quite an experience.

A second wave to redefine Buen Vivir sought to place that idea again “inside” development (as progress, as economic growth). But the governments, scholars, social activists, etc., recognized that traditional ideas of development were not suitable, so they produced new varieties, such as a “socialist” Buen Vivir in Ecuador, or “integral development” in Bolivia. So, these new Buen Vivir reformulations are fitted inside progress or development, and defend consumption and welfare as indicators of the good life. I would like to stress that a number of non-South American scholars in countries in Ecuador and Bolivia, with key backing of these governments, played a major role in this second wave. Stating that the original Buen Vivir was coopted by governments is not good enough; it is not that simple. It involves deep cultural beliefs and pre-political attachments to progress in a variety of actors.

These debates include specific disputes with different theoretical settings. Perhaps one of the most visible is with Marxists, as Buen Vivir-original version shares their critique of capitalism. But, that original Buen Vivir is also an alternative to socialisms. Again: Buen Vivir in the original sense expresses alternatives that are at the same time post-capitalist and post-socialist. This is also relevant for GTI debates: is it possible a transition without an ethical shift? And the meaning of ethics here refers to which / what have value, who / what recognize those values, etc. (and should not be confused with moral standings on right / wrong as example).

The socialist approach, even traditional eco-socialist, is restricted to the realm of human-subjects, and does not endorse the idea of non-human intrinsic values or subjects. A heated debate is underway on these issues in South America. Within GTI, this opens the question of whether a transition is only to move from capitalism to some sort of non-capitalist and good socialist option, or whether the alternative must operate on a deeper level to move beyond Modernity itself.

The multiple transformations, transitions, or revolutions promoted by Buen Vivir-original version, included other subjects that are non-human, reclaiming new definitions of modern core concepts such as justice or citizenship. A number of analyses of these issues are underway in South America, with intensity and passion." (http://www.greattransition.org/forum/gti-discussions/202-vivr-bien-old-cosmologies-and-new-paradigms/2613)

More Information


Via [1]:

  • Social Enterprises for buen vivir in Chiapas: An Alternative to Development

Think pieces for the UNRISD conference “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. 6-8 May 2013 Michela Giovannini, May 2013 [2]

  • Recovering and Valuing Other Ethical Pillars Buen Vivir. Working Paper for the International Workshop Biocivilization for the Sustainability of Life and the Planet in the run-up to the Rio+20 Conference Rio de Janeiro, 9 to 12 August 2011. Ricardo Jiménez, August 2011. [3]