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Speaking for the Voiceless: Buen Vivir

By Annabel Cowan

At the beginning of the 21st century, Ecuador and Bolivia went through massive political transformations in the interest of prioritizing ecological sustainability over economic growth. Under the direction of new coalitions forged between Indigenous movements and the working class, laws were adopted to distance the two countries from the extractivist economies of the past, which were deemed to be producing social and environmental costs too high to bear.

As of 2008, the Ecuadorian constitution was amended to read: “We … hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living” (Rapid Transition Alliance, 2018). This was followed, in 2009, by an amendment to the Bolivian constitution citing a ‘good way of living’ as a guiding principle for any state action. In 2011, Bolivia also introduced its “Law of Mother Earth”, which became the world’s first national-level law to extend legal rights to the natural world including protections such as a right to life and a right to exist free of human interference (Hewlett, 2016).

A ‘good way of living’ as a principle of political economy is inspired by ‘Sumac Kawsay’, a Kichwa term from the Quechua peoples of the Andes - also known by its Spanish translation, ‘Buen Vivir’. It is a philosophy inspired by Andean Indigenous thought, and it questions traditional economic notions of development, instead suggesting that ecological principles ought to guide human activity. ‘Buen Vivir’ directly translates to ‘living well’, which causes some people to compare it to the Western notion of well-being, which typically refers to the health of an individual. Buen Vivir’s scope, however, is much larger, and refers to the health of the community (including nature) as a whole.

In recent decades, we have seen the adoption of “Sustainable Development” or “Green Economy” models within Western countries as attempts to reconcile capitalist production with standards of environmental sustainability. Many, however, argue that these initiatives have failed, or that they were of a performative nature from the onset (Kothari, 2014). Indeed, despite these programs, climate change continues to grow as a threat facing our planet, with poverty and inequality continuing to rise as a consequence. In Ecuador and Bolivia, The Buen Vivir movement represents a paradigm shift away from these Western models and instead towards one based on genuine socio-ecological sustainability. As Alberto Acosta, a leader in the Ecuadorian Buen Vivir movement explains “only by imagining other worlds will this one be changed” (Rapid Transition Alliance, 2018).

While both Ecuador and Bolivia are yet to achieve a full implementation of ‘Buen Vivir’ economic principles, the two countries play an important role spreading the popularity of the movement on the global stage. Within international forum, the countries have been avid proponents for the recognition of legal rights for the natural world as well as vocal in the belief that developed, industrialized nations ought to pay back the “climate debt” owed to nations of the developing world who disproportionately suffer the consequences of climate change. On top of this, they have also called for the creation of an international court for Climate and Environmental Justice, which will enable nations, companies, and individuals who damage the environment to be prosecuted for doing so (Rapid Transition Alliance, 2018). As a result of this activism, the Buen Vivir movement is growing in popularity, and similar movements have appeared in the form of the ‘Ecological Swaraj’ in India, or the ‘Eco-Ubuntu’ in South Africa.

While there is undoubtedly more work to be done in order for ‘Buen Vivir’ to be realized in a complete-sense within Ecuador and Bolivia, the doctrine represents an opportunity for a better future. As an open and always-changing philosophy, Buen Vivir creates a space for worldviews that challenge the current, unsustainable capitalist mode of production. The doctrine reminds us that it is possible to live harmoniously with nature, and that our society ought to be a space in which co-existence within and between all communities, human and non-human, is possible.


Works Cited:

“Buen Vivir: The Rights of Nature in Bolivia and Ecuador.” Rapid Transition Alliance, 2 Dec. 2018, www.rapidtransition.org/stories/the-rights-of-nature-in-bolivia-and-ecuador/.

Hewlett, Ryan. “Bolivia's Law of Mother Earth.” Bolivia's Law of Mother Earth, by Ryan Hewlett, Daily Good, 15 July 2016, www.dailygood.org/story/1337/bolivia-s-law-of-mother-earth-ryan-hewlett/.

Kothari, Ashish, et al. “Buen Vivir, Degrowth and Ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to Sustainable Development and the Green Economy.” Development, vol. 57, no. 3-4, Dec. 2014, pp. 362–375., doi:10.1057/dev.2015.24.

Salazar , Juan Francisco. “Buen Vivir: South America's Rethinking of the Future We Want.” The Conversation, 23 July 2015, theconversation.com/buen-vivir-south-americas-rethinking-of-the-future-we-want-44507.

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