Contribution to GTI Roundtable Vivir Bien

Eduardo Gudynas

I would like to start by acknowledging that Vivir Bien, or Buen Vivir, is an idea in the making, a collective endeavor, with different political actors presenting their own views on it. Solón’s paper could be considered as part of those efforts, particularly in the context of some present-day debates in Bolivia.

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” 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-wing governments. In the case of Bolivia, it is quite clear that just a few individuals promoted 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 and progress, and explores alternatives to development. 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 these categories are both understood in different ways than their mainstream definitions.

It is also true that Buen Vivir recovers traditional concepts and practices 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 of alternative futures. While some indigenous components are included, others are not. Non-indigenous actors and ideas were also very important in the the development of 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 critiques of Modernity, were included in Buen Vivir. The concept of Nature’s rights, in the sense of a recognition of intrinsic values in nonhuman beings, stemmed from Western environmental discourses, which were then “mixed” (articulated, fused, 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 Ecuadorian constitution, Buen Vivir is complex: it gets a complete section with several articles, and is presented like a counterweight to development policies. In Bolivia, it is only a principle of ethical guidance.

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; and 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 Solón. 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. 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 non-Buen Vivir ideas. I will mention two examples (as I will return to them below).

(1) Buen Vivir does not endorse the modern ideas of progress and a universal history and, as a result, rejects Western development.

(2) Buen Vivir expresses an ethical shift, as it recognizes in different ways intrinsic values in the nonhuman; humans are no longer the only subjects that can have or produce value.

These and other stances resulted in heated debates over development, especially with regard to the role of natural resource exports and extractivism in the Andean countries. These debates were and are intensive, involving the participation of presidents, vice presidents, and ministers, and having a sizable influence on public opinion. Buen Vivir debates are not an academic exercise or an indigenous ritual, but a topic for primetime news.

As a result, governments, many academic institutions, and even indigenous groups rejected Buen Vivir in its original version to produce new ones that could be placed once again inside development and modernity (Solón 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 introduced the idea of the rights of Mother Earth/Pachamama for the whole planet in the debates on climate change around 2010. This was done with a number of references to Buen Vivir and embedded within a radical critique of capitalism. But according to the original Buen Vivir perspective, the 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 about 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. From the original Buen Vivir perspective, those changes are always local/regional, because the perspective is always rooted in specific landscapes/histories. And since it is non-essentialist, you cannot produce a Buen Vivir blueprint to be used, let’s say, in Asia. Furthermore, instead of one Great Transition, there will be a large number of regional/local ones.

A second wave sought to redefine Buen Vivir by placing it “inside” development (as progress, as economic growth). But the governments, scholars, social activists, etc., recognized that conventional ideas of development were not suitable, so they produced new varieties, such as a “socialist” Buen Vivir in Ecuador or “integral development” in Bolivia. These new Buen Vivir reformulations are fitted inside progress or development and defend consumption and welfare as indicators of the good life. A number of non-South American scholars played a major role in this second wave in Ecuador and Bolivia, with key backing from these governments. 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 the original version of Buen Vivir 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 postcapitalist and postsocialist. This is also relevant for GTI debates: Is a transition possible without a corresponding 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).

The socialist approach, even a traditional ecosocialist one, is restricted to the realm of human subjects, and does not endorse the idea of nonhuman 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 entails only a move from capitalism to some sort of noncapitalist 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 the original version of Buen Vivir, included other subjects that are nonhuman, 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.

Eduardo Gudynas
Eduardo Gudynas is a senior researcher at the Latin American Center on Social Ecology (CLAES). His work focuses on the environment and alternatives to development, and he is involved with various social movements seeking to advance such alternatives.

Cite as Aaron Karp, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Vivir Bien," Great Transition Initiative (February 2018),

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.

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