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by Johannes M. Waldmller
Geneva, 03.05.2014
(cite or print only with permission from the author)
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, the sumak kawsay
(Preamble to 2008 Constitution of Ecuador)
[Sumak Kawsay represents the] definitive burying of the exclusionary neoliberal
system. (Indigenous leader Humberto Cholango, quoted in Becker, 2011: 60).1
Right from the outset, ALTERNAUTAS is by no means intended to discuss only Buen Vivir, or how
it is sometimes called, sometimes (wrongly) equated, Sumak Kawsay (Ecuador, derived from
Kichwa language), neither Vivir Bien/Suma Qamaa (Bolivia, derived from Aymara language) as
alternative 'Latin American' visions to mainstream utilitarian development approaches. Buen Vivir
represents a plurality of more or less specific discursive and practice-related platforms (Gudynas,
2011) to ponder (and practice) alternative visions to and from development, based on lived
experience from Latin America, or more specifically, the Andean region (i.e. in Bolivia, Ecuador,
Peru virtually nonexistent in Chile, Venezuela and Colombia so far, but debates are growing).
The aim of this short overview is to contextualize this doubtlessly important contribution to
development discourses and to point out that there is no simple, clearly definable or 'correct' use of
this concept on the contrary, it's perceived weakness is in fact a strength: by ultimately criticizing
and opposing itself to Western ways of knowledge-making, it intentionally leaves space for reinterpretation, re-appropriation or, as it is frequently called, enactment and reconstruction
(Hidalgo-Capitn et al., 2014: 29). Hence instead of discussing Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay's
invention, discovery or exact origin in detail, I seek to add a condensed overview that should
prevent overly enthusiastic, essentialist or unworldly contributions based on this concept and its
surrounding political struggles (see Simbaa, 2011). For this purpose of 'reconstruction', I refer here
to 'Buen Vivir' only thus implying it's various other notions, social visions and political programs
in use, such as Vivir Bien (Bolivia), sumaq kawsay/Sumak Kawsay/Sumakawsay (Ecuador1

Both quotes are reprinted in (Radcliffe, 2012: 241).


Kichwa), suma kamana (Bolivia-Quechua), suma Qamaa (Bolivia-Aymara), ande reko (Guaran),
kme mongen, etc.2 (see e.g., Alb, 2009; Thomson, 2011; Altmann, 2013), without of course
negating different scopes, meanings and struggled attached to each of them. The reason for my
choice is that international discourses and publications on Buen Vivir seem to be stronger
represented at the international level than Vivir Bien of Bolivia, which became a bit discredited in
the context of disparaging critiques of 'pachamamismo' (and 'pachamamistas', respectively) toward
social and indigenous movements (e.g., Escobar, 2010a; Parga Snchez, 2011; Rodrguez, 2011).
Thanks to its eager and vivid promotion by public figures, such as the former Ecuadorian energy
and mining minister and economist, Alberto Acosta, who also published and edited key conceptual
works on Buen Vivir, yet remaining rather programmatic and less analytical, Buen Vivir was soon
picked up by renowned scholars of the critical Left, post-development or even (the quite
mainstream) human development movement (see Escobar, 2010b; Gudynas, 2011; Mignolo, 2011;
Quijano, 2011; Deneulin, 2012; Radcliffe, 2012). In addition, Acosta served as chairing president of
the Asamblea Nacional Constituyente (National Constitutional Assembly, convened to elaborate the
Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008) in 2007, until breaking up with the previously elected President
Rafael Correa. According to various sources, Acosta himself is responsible for having reclaimed the
notion of Buen Vivir into the Constitution (e.g., Capitn-Hidalgo et al., 2014), after the CONAIE
had started a campaign in front of the assembling center, including claims such interculturalidad
(interculturalism) and plurinacionalidad (plurinationalism) two main pillars of Buen Vivir and the
Ecuadorian state nowadays (see CONAIE, 2007).

What is Buen Vivir?

In very basic terms, Buen Vivir has been approached in the following:
In its most general sense, buen vivir denotes, organizes, and constructs a system of
knowledge and living based on the communion of humans and nature and on the
spatial-temporal-harmonious totality of existence. That is, on the necessary interrelation
of beings, knowledges, logics, and rationalities of though, action, existence, and living.
This notion is part and parcel of the cosmovision, cosmology, or philosophy of the
indigenous peoples of Abya Yala. (Walsh, 2010: 18).
Accordingly, it has also been characterized as tica cosmica(Claros-Arispe, 1996), as viable

Exact spelling of indigenous languages and Buen Vivir/buen vivir as well as of the use of upper and lower case vary
from author to author, from regional dialect to political purpose. I will stick to upper case and Sumak Kawsay here.

3rd way alternative termed vitalismo between developmentalism and socialism based on
indigenous values which can equally found in other regions and cultures (Oviedo, 2012), and as
full-fledged Andean philosophy, 'Pachasophy' (Estermann, 1999 [Spanish original 1989], 2012b,
2013). (Hidalgo-Capitn, 2012) has proposed to generally distinguish between three forms of
discourses and practices of Buen Vivir: (1) Buen Vivir as a political (state-led) socialism of the 21st
century (see Ramrez G., 2010), a blending between neo-Aristotelean, Christian and Andean values
(mainly protection of the environment), linked to all sorts of 'do-gooders' claims', into a political
program. It remains, however, largely within the framework of development, especially human
development; (2) as a utopia to be constructed (cf. Acosta, 2010a), in form of a post-modern
collage combining viewpoints of various international movements of peasants, feminist, socialists,
ecologists, pacifists, theologists of liberation, unionists, etc (cf. Hidalgo-Capitn et al., 2014: 3536). Both should be differentiated from (3) an 'indigenist' form of living and thinking (as opposed to
indigenous) that adds important spiritual, ontological, or 'internal-external', dimensions, based on
individually and collectively acquiring a practice (more than a knowledge) of all-connected
consciousness, being in constant exchange and reflection with the social and natural environment
(see Oviedo 2014). This third account is commonly differentiated from Buen Vivir and called
Sumak Kawsay (sometimes translated as to live altogether in harmony3 and balance, cf. ibid.:
El Buen Vivir en la Constitucin Poltica del Ecuador y el Vivir Bien en la
Constitucin Poltica de Bolivia son una mezcla o un 'champs' como la que gusta
actualmente a la posmodernidad para hacer un 'menjunje' de todo un poco. Es una
combinacin del Buen Vivir platnico, con ciertos postulados cristianos y humanistas,
ciertos conceptos de los paradigmas ecologistas, socialistas, y finalmente aadiendo
ciertos principios generales del Sumakawsay, a todo lo cual le llaman el 'Buen Vivir
Andino', consumando su irrespeto y desvalorizacin a la sabia y milenaria tradicin
andina.4 (ibid.: 276).
Sumak Kawsay is regarded as explicitly entailing no aspirations to governance, to rule, to

Note here that the Western understanding of 'harmony' is entirely different to the 'Andean' one (which refers to
animacy of all things and beings who are connected through energies by default); every translation seems to run
necessarily into trans-cultural difficulties.
The Buen Vivir in the political Constitution of Ecuador and Vivir Bien in the Constitution of Bolivia are merely a
mixture or 'hodgepodge' as currently postmodernism likes to make a 'concoction' a bit of everything. It is a
combination of the platonic Good Living, certain Christian and Humanist principles, certain concepts from
environmentalist, socialist paradigms, and finally adding certain general principles of Sumakawsay. Altogether it is
called the 'Buen Vivir Andino", consummating its disrespect and impairment of the wise and ancient Andean
tradition. (ibid.).

domination, to hierarchies, to competition. Instead it is the quintessential expression of a number of

ontological values, such as connectedness, commonality, and balancing between eternal energies
and poles, existent in every living being (which is everything). In addition, there is no notion of
freedom-autonomy-sovereignty, simply because all of these values are ontologically presupposed
and exist only in relation to... (cf. Oviedo 2014: 277). Thus being is always an active and passive
act of sacred interconnectedness. Everything is alive and sacred. Any seemingly 'subjective'
abstraction of the 'I', as well as of categorizations such as 'good', 'bad', 'higher', lower', more 'just' or
'unjust' etc., remain merely illusions of temporarily misled consciousness, but without real
importance. Sumakawsay es el Cosmocimiento (conocimiento del pensamiento-sentimiento) de la
Vida o ms precisamente es la Vida Consciente o Convivir Consciente o Conciencia de la Vida o
Cultura de la Vida (amor y sabidura). (Oviedo, 2014: 291 who, for obvious reasons, has troubles
to come to a definition).
In order to avoid essentialist accounts of indigenous being and living a discourse wellknown as lo andino from anthropological studies on the ayllu in the Andean region5 a
distinction is frequently drawn between 'pensamiento (thinking) indigenista' and 'pensamiento
indgena'. The assumption here is that the first supports 'indigenismo' (or 'indianismo'), a political
ideology that defends indigenous claims within the framework of nation-states (Hidalgo-Capitn et
al., 2014: 30, Footnote), based on century-long endured suppression and attempts to extinction. One
has not necessarily to be indigenous to support it as indigenista, and in turn not all indigenous
people are indigenistas.
Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay (now equated here for the purpose of a general introduction) is
una filosofa de vida de los indigenas basada en la bsqueda y el mantenimiento de la amona con
la comunidad y con los dems seres de la naturaleza6 (Hidalgo-Capitn et al., 2014: 29). Based on
the basic idea of everyone having one's vegetable patch, home, access to clean potable water, forests
and adequate self-sufficiency, the runa (self-identification for indigenous persons) needs to acquire
and maintain inner strength (smai), wisdom (sabiduria), well-balanced conduct (sasi), capacity for
comprehension (ricsima), the ability to envision the future (muskui), perseverance (ushai) and

By 'lo andino' I refer to a construct that assumes Andean peoples (writ large across space and time) possess a
distinctive (even unique) and coherent set of interrelated cultural proclivities: a common fund of perceptions,
understandings, values, symbols, and social, spatial, and material practices. This 'congealed Andean essence' is
ascribed to Andean peoples whole cloth and, at the same time, deployed to explain Andean societies past and
present. Included in such a view are elements such as the organization of Andean political economies according
to the socio-environmental logic of the vertical archipelago, competitive/complementary dual organization, the
function and value of communal labor shaped by principles of reciprocity, personal relationships between the
human and animate physical world that are expressed in kinship terms, and, not trivially, a presumption that the
indigenous peoples of the Andes possess an almost preternatural capacity for resilience in the face of social and
environmental trauma (Chase and Kosiba, 2007: 1).
Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay is a philosophy of life based on the quest and perpetuation of harmony with the

compassion (llakina). All these abilities are ideally acquired through connecting with nature and
communal learning, called yachachina (Viteri, 2003: 5365; quoted in Hidalgo-Capitn et al, 2014:
36). The ethical dimension of Sumak Kawsay I am intentionally using only the Kichwa notion
here to emphasize the 'indigenista' connotation stresses a series of values, without which 'the good
living in plenitude' is neither achieve- nor maintainable. These values manifest themselves in what
is called 'to eat, drink and make love': comer, beber y hacer el amor (mikuna, upina y huarmita
yukuna) (ibid.). Viteri (2003: 66-71) lists as such interconnected values: 'support' (yanapana),
generosity (kuna), the obligation to receive (japina), reciprocity (kunakuna), advice (kamachi) and
'listening' (uyana). One could add the well-known slogan of the indigenous movements in Ecuador,
Peru and Bolivia (with regional differences): ama killa, ama llulla, ama shua ('no seas prerezoso, no
seas mentiroso, no seas ladrn' don't be lazy, don't lie, don't steal). The four principles embodied
in the Andean cross chakana reciprocity (ranti-ranti), holistic (pura), complementarity
(yananti) and connectedness (tinkuy) (see Macas, 2010: 2931 ; quoted in Hidalgo-Capitn et al.
2014: 37).5
Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay, as social concept and normative order, draws on a fundamental
distinction-correlation to 'Mal Vivir'/Llaki Kawsay (translateable as 'ill living'), which refers to an
overly individualized, materialized, disenchanted and de-spiritualized way of living; of someone
who has lost the connection to the right values and has replaced them by those of the mammon (cf.
Viteri, 2003: 78-93). In this sense, Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay embodies a conservative or even
traditionalist core which only uneasily fits to the progressive depiction of the concept by nonAndean authors at the international level. However, the goal of Buen Vivir is not to 'overcome' 'ill
living', since there is no aspiration to 'live better' but rather to balance both always existent sides
in a refined way. The key to do so, is practicing consciousness, i.e. listening, responding and
correlating with mind, heart and body.
In opposition to Western concepts of exclusivity, competition, subjectification, etc., Buen
Vivir puts emphasis on key values such as solidarity, generosity, reciprocity and complementarity.
These stem from a primordial understanding of oneness, connectedness and animacy, i.e. plants,
animals, water, stones, humans, soil, mountains, etc. are regarded as living beings. There are,
however, diverging levels of such spiritual positions. But while in general, self-sufficiency,
economies of solidarity, equality and sustainability (together with and within communities and
nature), a balance between man and women (understood as values or qualities beyond human
gender) is promoted, orthodox forms of mono-economy, based on the exploitation of natural
resources are rejected. According knowledge is transmitted mainly orally by yachaks and amawtas
community and all other forms of being in nature (own translation).

(shamans, etc.) within communities it is required to have chaka ('bridges') to Western forms of
knowledge-making (e.g., scientific one) in order to gain political influence (cf. Hidalgo-Capitn et
al., 2014: 32).

Buen Vivir: Building a Utopia

The emergence of this life philosophy as indigenista political struggle is linked to discrediting the
national state in the 1980s and 1990s and of mainstream development altogether, the uprising of the
well-connected indigenous movement in Ecuador (Becker, 2011, 2012), the redaction of a new
constitution, synchronized overlaps between political-economic processes in Bolivia and Ecuador
and, eventually, the access of indigenous intellectuals to universities and higher positions within
governments and the state. It is important to mention that all public intellectual figures in Ecuador,
who are usually attributed to the indigenous movement, indeed have studied and gained diploma or
doctorates from state or foreign universities. All have been active within indigenous representative
institutions (with the exception of Attawalpa Oviedo), have published and been teaching, and some
have (or had) been working within governments, parliaments or international as well as regional
forms of politics. Main figures in Ecuador inter alia are: Luis Macas (former president of the
CONAIE), Nina Pacari (former assessor at ECUARUNARI, CONAIE and CONPLADEIN,
nowadays judge at the Constitutional Court of Ecuador, Ariruma Kowii, Carlos Viteri (published the
first account on Buen Vivir in Ecuador in 2001) Lourdes Tibn (MP of Pachakutik), Silvia Tutillo,
Blanca Chancosa (former Secretary General of ECUARUNARI and leader of the CONAIE),
Humberto Cholango (former president of ECUARUNARI), Mnica Chuji (former Vice-president of
the CONFENIAE), Pablo Dvalos (economist without indigenous background, but became
'initiated'), (cf. Hidalgo-Capitn et al., 2014: 41). All of them belong to the Kichwa nation, mainly
from the highlands (sierra), and several have ties to the Intercultural University Amawtay Wasi in
Quito, which was forced to close down in late 2013 after a dubious assessment of quality by the
Correa administration and international educational 'experts' from Spain.7 Amawtay Wasi has been
committed to teach Buen Vivir and to bridge gaps between world views of Western/Occidental or
colonial origin and has also published on Sumak Kawsay/Buen Vivir (see UNESCO and Ospina,
2004; Universidad Intercultural Amawtay Wasi, 2004).
The first appearance of Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay is linked to the anthropological work of

Personal communication with the head of the Ecuadorianists' section of the US-Society for Latin American studies,
Carmen Martinez Novo (November 2013).

Carlos Viteri Gualinga who wrote an unpublished account of his stay in the Amazon, which
circulated first within indigenous institutions and was later published (Viteri, 2002, 2003. He started
by using the term Alli Kawsay (which means Buen Vivir, cf. Oviedo, 2014: 271), but from 2003
onward Sumak Kawsay only to develop an alternative to development, a phrase often used by
Alberto Acosta until present (Acosta and Martnez, 2009; Acosta, 2012). Alli Kawsay has been
identified as in fact meaning 'Buen Vivir', while Sumak Kawsay would mean 'Vida en Plenitud' (or
'living in plenitude'). Since Kichwa makes little use of nouns but of active constructions through
verbs, it is perhaps more adequate to speak of 'good living in plenitude' or 'good living in
commonness', instead of, for instance, the Good Life (cf. Altmann, 2013) which bears
problematic connotations of the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia8 (see e.g., Detel, 2005, Oviedo,
2014: 275).
Around the same time, the Amazonian Kichwa community of Sarayuku published a
manifesto, including a similar concept (Sarayaku, 2003); the community became internationally
known for its eager with for reparations and redress linked to environmental and health-related
catastrophes due to crude oil extraction on its territories. This is in contrast to positions who, mainly
based on accounts from Bolivia, maintain that Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay would not be an
indigenous concept at all, but an invention of Leftist intellectuals and indigenous intellectuals,
collaborating with the privatized German development cooperation GIZ; it has been invented
around the years 2000/2001 in Bolivia at the occasion of a serious of workshops (Altmann, 2013).
In fact, asking local indigenous people in Ecuadorian communities for showing or explaining
sumak kawsay will most likely result in answers, such as: You have to go to the cities and search
there; they know what it means. We have lost and forgotten its meaning and need someone to teach
it to us.
However, authors and witty indigenistas have developed a quick answer by, as we have seen,
pointing to the fact of 'enacting' Buen Vivir and requirements to 're-invoking' it at the level of
communities instead of amply discussing its exact origin. In addition, Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay
has been framed as a much bigger idea, one expressing a fundamental rupture with the world as we
know it (and commonly refer to):
El Sumakawsay no es una va alternativa para el desarrollo, ni una nueva forma de
desarrollo, ni un movimiento al socialismo y al comunismo, ni un nuevo modelo social.

In total opposition to Andean ontological connectedness eschewing any forms of hierarchy, Aristotelian eudaimonia
regards felicity as the highest good to be acquired, after long a debate about the hierarchy of meanings of life.
Eudaimonia is seen as acquirable through cultivating 'virtue' (a word containing the Latin root 'vir' virility, and
pointing to the gender-related lopsidedness of this account, cf. Oviedo, 2014: 276).

El Sumakawsay es un camino alter-nativo y alter-mundial, para la armona y el

equilibrio entre todos los seres que hacen y reproducen la vida en su conjunto.9
(Oviedo, 2012: 255)
Habra que abandonar la idea de 'desarrollo' porque () implica violencia, imposicin,
subordinacin. No se puede 'desarrollar' a nadie, porque cada sociedad tiene su propia
cosmovisin que hay que respetar, y si en esa cosmovisin no existe el desarrollo ni el
tiempo lineal, entonces no se la puede desarrollar, pensando en que se le est haciendo
un bien a esa sociedad, cuando en realidad se la est violentando de manera radical.10
(Dvalos, 2011; quoted in Hidalgo-Capitn et al. 2014: 50).
Such a view is widely, but not commonly shared: Cholango (2010: 78) for example expresses that
Sumak Kawsay represents a new way toward development. However, Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay
has been linked to shifting fundamental epistemological and ontological positions since Descartes,
being at the basis of any 'modern' scientific understanding of the world.
El Sumak Kawsay propone varios marcos epistemolgicos que implican otras formas
de concebir y actuar; en esos nuevos formatos epistmicos se considera la existencia de
tiempos circulares que pueden coexistir con el tiempo lineal de la modernidad; se
considera la existencia de un ser-comunitario, o si se prefiere, no-moderno, como un
sujeto ontolgicamente validado para la relacin entre seres humanos y naturaleza; se
considera una reunin entre la esfera de la poltica con aquella de la economa, una
posicin relativa de los mercados en los que la lgica de los valores de uso predomine
sobre aquella de los valores de cambio, entre otros.11 (Dvalos, 2008b; quoted in
Hidalgo-Capitn et al. 2014: 50).
No se trata de integrarnos al progreso cientfico () para equipararnos y continuar con

All further translations are mine: Sumakawsay is not an alternative path of development, or a new form of
development or movement toward socialism and communism, or a new social model. Sumakawsay is an alternative and alter-worldly way toward harmony and balance between all beings that make and reproduce life in its
togetherness. (ibid.).
10 We should abandon the idea of 'development' because () it involves violence, imposition, subordination. You can
not 'develop' anyone, because every society has its own worldview to be respected, and if there is no development
or linear time in that worldview, then it can be developed, while thinking of doing well for that society, when in fact
violating it radically. (ibid.).
11 Sumak Kawsay proposes several epistemological frameworks implying other forms of thinking and acting; in
these new epistemic formats, the existence of circular time is considered in a way that can coexist with the linear
time of modernity; the existence of a being-community or, if you prefer, non-modern, as an ontologically validated

el proceso civilizatorio (), sino () de salir de esos presupuestos y de establecer otra

'visin y misin' de los seres humanos sobre la vida. El problema no es solamente el
pos-desarrollo, el pos-capitalismo[,] sino la pos-civilizacin (pos-patriarcalismo, posmaterialismo, pos-economicismo, pos-historicismo, pos-antropocentrismo, posracionalismo, pos-politicismo, pos-cientificismo, pos-cosificacin, pos-secularizacin, y
todos los reduccionismos y separatismos creados y sub-creados por el paradigma
civilizatorio)12 (Oviedo, 2012: 240; quoted in Hidalgo-Capitn et al. 2014: 50).
While such claims certainly seem appealing, they however remain shallow in making conrecte
proposals. Throughout key texts and accounts, Buen Vivir and Sumak Kawsay are more employed
as a reference to a different 'other' in order to criticize the status quo. Typically, in this sense, such
texts generally speak of 'our grandfathers and grandmothers', 'natural peoples', 'ancient
communities', etc. without further indication of location and scope. Indigenous representatives,
when asked about their communities and use of Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay tend to make similarly
evasive indications, without further concrete details (e.g., which parts of a family would teach such
values). However, to (re)make Buen Vivir a powerful vision to be (re)integrated at the local level,
for indigenous leaders, such as Luis Macas (former president of CONAIE), the detour via the state
seems inevitable. Evidently, the state would first be required to be tremendously altered, to be
'recreated entirely':
No es posible la convivencia del Sumak Kawsay y el sistema actual, no puede ser un
sistema de este Estado, hay que pensar fundamentalmente en el cambio de estructuras
de este Estado y construir uno nuevo (). El objetivo es recuperar y desarrollar
nuestros sistemas de vida, instituciones y derechos histricos, anteriores al Estado, para
descolonizar la historia y el pensamiento13 (L. Macas, 2010: 16)
In order to promote the revolutionary character of such shifts, the concept has been largely
subject through he relationship between humans and nature; considering a reunion between the sphere of politics
and that of the economy, a relative position of markets in which the logic of usage values predominates over that of
exchange values, among others. (ibid.).
12 This is not about integrating us into scientific progress (...) in order to equip us to continue the process of
civilization (...) but instead (...) to get out of those claims and establish another 'vision and mission' of human beings
about life. The problem is not only the post-development, post-capitalism [,] but the post-civilization (postpatriarchal, post-materialism, post-economism, post-historicism, post-anthropocentrism, post-rationalism, postpoliticism , pos-scientism, pos-objectificationism, post-secularization, and all reductionisms and separatisms
created and sub-created by the civilizing paradigm). (ibid.).
13 A coexistence of Sumak Kawsay and the current system it is not possible; it can not be a system of the State. We
have to think of fundamentally changing the structures of this State and build a new one (...). The objective is to

discussed: some key publications for discussing and reflecting on Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay are
the Boletn ICCI ARY Rimay (Dvalos, 2008a, 2008b; Simbaa, 2011; Tibn, 2000) the journal
Yackaykuna (Saberes) (Luis Macas, 2010; Tutillo, 2002). In addition, and without being able to
indicate more than the fact that his books are currently used in Ecuadorian university curricula of
philosophy and Andean culture, the influence of the early Spanish works of Josef Estermann are
probably not to underestimate for the emergence of this value-based discourse (here in German:
Estermann, 1999 [Spanish original 1998], 2012a, 2012b). Based on his sixteen years-long research
in Peru and Bolivia, the Swiss philosopher and theologists Estermann was one of the first to
systematize and contextualize (in a Western way) Quechua and Aymara worldviews based on values
such as reciprocity and complementarity.
In Ecuador, the journals Amrica Latina en Movimiento (Chancosa, 2010; L. Macas, 2010)
and Aportes Andinos (Kowii, 2011) have published on the topic. Revista Polis, edited in Chile,
published the pathbreaking work by Viteri (2002). Examples of two important contributions in
collective works (particulary: Acosta and Martnez, 2009 -El Buen Vivir. Una va para el
desarrollo), Salud, interculturalidad y derechos. Claves para la reconstruccin del Sumak Kawsay
Buen Vivir (Maldonado, 2010b) and Ms all del desarrollo (Simbaa, 2011) The only two
individually authored books on Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay are Qu es el sumakawsay (Oviedo,
2012), published in Bolivia and Ecuador, and Acosta's second work (2012). There have been major
contributions at international conferences (e.g., Chuji, 2010) as well as TV (Maldonado, 2010a),
numerous blog (e.g., Boff, 2009; Dvalos, 2008b) and international documentary works (e.g.,
Sarasin, 2011). Finally, there is also the thesis by Viteri from 2003, based on his field research:
Smak Kusai. Una respuesta viable al desarrollo (Viteri, 2003).
Taking them together, Buen Vivir becomes graspable as a holistic, all-encompassing life
vision, practical philosophy or cosmovision,14 beyond divides of rationality-emotionality, subjectobject and human nature, but well within struggles around modernity and tradition. The concept and
its' proponents runs constantly danger of essentializing indigenous life forms something which is
also strategically used by political indigenous movements (see Altmann, 2014b). Here are a few
examples of such oscillation, written by indigenous leaders who all enjoyed 'Carthesian-based'
recuperate and develop our systems of life, institutions, historical rights, and prior to the State, in order to
decolonize history and thought. (ibid.).
14 Note at this point that the notion cosmovision has its roots in German philosophy (Wilhelm Dilthey) of the 19 th
century and has been transported to Latin America/Abya Yala in colonial times (Oviedo 2014: 270). Although
occasionally used by indigenous scholars ('cosmovisin'), the colonial connotation of this term for long time
neglecting the existence of non-European philosophy, knowledge or scientificalness with important implications
until present (e.g., make the constitution of Ecuador of 2008 a distinction between 'scientific knowledge', on the one
side, and 'ancestral wisdom', on the other side) should not be disregarded.

El Sumak Kawsay contradice a la teora econmica y al paradigma cartesiano del

hombre como 'amo y seor de la naturaleza' (). Existimos millones de seres humanos,
alejados de las figuras del consumidor, de los mercados libres, competitivos y de la
mercanca; seres humanos cuyas coordenadas de vida las establecemos desde la tica;
seres humanos que pertenecemos a pueblos diversos con una memoria de
relacionamiento atvica, ancestral, diferente a la razn liberal.15 (Chuji, 2010; quoted
in Hidalgo-Capitn et al., 2014: 46).
El Sumak Kawsay () involucra varias dimensiones: social, cultural, econmica,
ambiental, epistemolgica y poltica; como un todo interrelacionado e interdependiente,
donde cada uno de sus elementos dependen de los otros.16 (Simbaa, 2011: 222; quoted
in Hidalgo-Capitn et al., 2014: 46).
[] la visin de los indgenas () respecto del desarrollo () est impregnada por la
cosmovisin indgena que considera a la naturaleza como un todo, que abarca lo
material, lo espiritual y humano (). Esta cosmovisin tiene una serie de principios que
parten de la idea de que se debe: cuidar y respetar al conjunto de seres vivientes que
coexisten en el ecosistema; conservar y fomentar la tierra; proteger los productos de
consumo humano, para mejorar el nivel de vida de la familia y de la comunidad;
proteger los recursos no renovables; incentivar a la comunidad para que cuide su propio
ambiente; socializar a nivel de la organizacin y las comunidades acerca de la
conservacin del entorno como garanta de una vida digna tanto para las actuales
generaciones como para las futuras.17 (Tibn, 2000; quoted in Hidalgo-Capitn et al.,
2014: 49).

15 Sumak Kawsay contradicts economic theory and the Cartesian paradigm of man as 'master of nature' (...). We exist
as millions of human beings, far from the role as consumers, from free and competitive, merchandising markets;
[we are] human beings whose coordinates of life are derived from ethics; humans who belong to various peoples
with atavistic memory, ancestral, different from liberal reasoning. (ibid.).
16 Sumak Kawsay (...) involves multiple dimensions: social, cultural, economic, environmental, political and
epistemological; as an interrelated and interdependent, where each of its elements depend on others. (ibid.).
17 The vision of indigenous people (...) with regard to development (...) is impregnated by indigenous worldview that
considers nature as a whole, covering the material, spiritual and human (...). This worldview consists of a set of
principles based on the idea that one should [have]: care and respect to all living beings that exist in the ecosystem;
conserve and enhance the earth; protect products for human consumption, to improve the standard of living of the
family and community; protect non-renewable resources; encourage the community to look after their own

Buen Vivir as Multiple Discourses: From Local to National and International

US-based scholar Thomson (2011, 449) cites Gudynas18 when referring in his article to the principal
openness of Buen Vivir, and its linkage to other post-development, de-growth or altermundialmovements in the Global West (e.g. Sachs, 1992, 1999; Latouche, 1993; Rist, 1996; Houtart, 2009;
Martnez-Alier, 2012):
Buen vivir is a pluralistic concept with indigenous roots, still in construction, with
many sources. While clearly wanting to break with the modern European project, it
shares a questioning of development and a search for substantial change with some
criollo and western critiques. It is not however, a hybridization or multi- or pluriculturalism. Indigenous cultures are diverse, with each having their own conceptions or
In the wide field of Western knowledge, critical positions on development exist as well.
They have often been marginalized or excluded, but a close examination shows that
they too are searchers of Good Living. In these critiques, which originated from within
those same Western positions, for example, critical studies of development, biocentric
environmentalism, radical feminism, or the decolonization of knowledge, just to name
some of the more recent [...]. These and other examples serve to show that even within
western thought, there are critical currents, which seek alternatives to development, and
in almost all cases have been marginalized or subordinate, and therefore remain under
the same cover of the concept of Good Living. Not only this, but these kinds of
positions are very necessary to strengthen the current stage of construction of Good
Living, as complements to other positions, and each brings specifics which in some
cases are missing or are weaker in other streams.
In recent years, Buen Vivir has entered and spurred lively debate at the theoretical and more activist
level as a viable, reconciling alternative to mainstream economic approaches to development: it has
been linked to biocentric approaches (see Gudynas, 2009), issues of sustainability (Tutillo, 2002)
and even the human development approach (Deneulin, 2012), as promoted by the UNDP. In
general, the discussion has gained momentum with the severe economic, environmental and
political crises the world is confronted since, at least, 10-15 years. In a recent call for papers to a
environment; socialize at the level of the organization and of communities aroung environmental conservation to
guarantee a decent life for both current and for future generations. (ibid.).
18 See: [last retrieve 03.05.2014].

special issue of the international Journal of Environmental Policy and Decision Making, Buen Vivir
has been characterized in the following:
buen vivir seems to avoid two opposing weaknesses often associated with alternative
approaches: one is that it is weak in proposing a viable positive practical perspective
and the other, that it is based on praxis without a theory. The three elements (critique,
a comprehensive strategic approach to social change and praxis) are inextricably linked
in buen vivir, with the distinctive feature of being translated into real political and
institutional arrangements. (cf.
id=2519 [last retrieve: 28.04.2014]).
The latter points toward the constitutional implementation of Buen Vivir in Ecuador and Bolivia,
where it has been outlined as the paramount goal of these states, thus subordinating (economic)
development to the mere role of a means to bring about Buen Vivir. From a state point of view,
Buen Vivir has thus become adopted by governments as a political program; state-owned. At the
same time, these governments are explicitly and implicitly claiming the prerogative of interpretation
to specify the concrete content of Buen Vivir this has been criticized as appropriating non-state
public practices, which, as we have seen, are rather to be claimed and reclaimed by local
communities. Again, some authors go so far as to describe 'Buen Vivir' as the postmodern state
politics of Ecuador (virtually depleted from any authentic Andean context) and 'Sumak Kawsay' for
an ancestral way of learning, belonging and relating to the world that goes much deeper than
political programming within a remaining (post-)colonial state (e.g, Oviedo 2012; 2014).
In particular, after the decades of structural adjustment, financial austerity and a general
political-economic agenda linked to what has been called the Washington consensus (see
Gudynas, 2013), starting around the year 2000, in several Latin American countries, first social
struggles, then debates, and later on institutional and governmental shifts have been triggered to
question national governments, development and the role of states. Many of these shifts aim at reempowering national governments and to direct their income from mainly exporting natural
resources toward public investment in infrastructure, health, education and security. In Ecuador, for
voters approved by referendum in September 2008 a new constitution which commits
the Ecuadorian government to establish an economic, social and political system
oriented towards the realization of good living. This includes the guaranteeing of all

economic, social, political and civil rights as well as the right of Nature. The
Constitution is the result of long historical processes of indigenous mobilization to
demand the recognition of their specific cosmovision and the inseparability of humans
from nature []. (Deneulin, 2012: 1).
The overall goal of such ' economic, political and social conduct toward good living' is
defined as Buen Vivir however it's actual content, the way to bring it about, and also its often
portrayed 'indigenous origin', remain, as we have seen, debatable. Ideally, the state adoption of a
constitution oriented toward Buen Vivir has significant economic, social and political implications.
Under a buen vivir regime, economic exchanges are submitted not to the logic of profits but to the
logic of human flourishing and respect of nature. (ibid., 3). Not accumulation of material wealth
remains the basic value of the economic system, but solidarity, complementarity and reciprocity
(Acosta, 2010b: 23). Material goods are to be produced and exchanged in view of enabling people
to live in dignity and sustaining harmonious relations between people and their environment
(Deneulin 2012, 3). A solidaristic economic system (ibid.) supports a market economy, with a
plurality of markets at the local level, but not a market society submitted to one global market
(Acosta, 2010: 25). In order to change the national economy, Buen Vivir is spelled out in
quinquennial National Buen Vivir plans, which have replaced former national development plans.
These are elaborated by the supra-ministerial SENPLADES (Secretara Nacional de la
Planificacin y Desarrollo) and aim at changing power structures and the economic system on the
longer run (Ecuador will be running out of crude oil in approximately 25 years). The National Plan
for Buen Vivir 2009-2013' (SENPLADES, 2009) includes twelve national strategies and twelve
national objectives with clear targets to achieve. Among these are: to reach 98% of school
enrolment in primary school and 66.5% of secondary school by 2013, to double the participation of
peasant family agriculture in agricultural exports by 2013, to achieve that 50% of all taxes are direct
taxes by 2013, to substitute import of corn, wheat and barley and reduce foreign participation in
domestic consumption to 40% by 2013, to reduce malnutrition by 45% by 2013 (see pp. 73-88 of
the National Plan). (Deneulin 2012, 8). Such, partly certainly utopian, targets require to be
assessed continuously. For this reason, Buen Vivir plans contain up to 150 so-called 'Buen Vivir
indicators'. In addition, Ecuador has become the first country in the world to work on the
implementation of a national human rights indicators system (since 2009), which should be coupled
with Buen Vivir indicators one day. Taken together,
a recurrent theme of the National Plan is the democratization of the means of

production. There are clear targets to change the productive structure so that wealth
creation is oriented towards enabling each person to live well in harmony with the
environment. Among these are targets related to reducing land concentration, making
taxation more progressive, reducing intermediation in the agro-sector, reducing
ecological footprints, increasing import-substitution, lowering concentration in the food
commercialization market, increasing the role of small and mediumsize companies in
the economy. (Deneulin 2012, 8).
It should be added that the goal of Buen Vivir in the current Ecuadorian government's perspective is
to shift the resources-based economy toward one of high-tech production, knowledge and services.
The university project 'Yachay' ('wisdom' in Kichwa), to name just one example, aims at creating a
sort of 'Latin American Silicon Valley', the largest campus on the continent. Overall, 'Buen Vivir
politics', as they are pursued by the government, can be characterized as utterly centralized,
hierarchic and technocratic. They aim at maximum control, stability through social and public
management-type planning and accountability, while regarding every opposing force as threat.
Accordingly, Correa (and his administration) have been described as technopopulist (de la Torre,
2013). The use of modern means of communication and representation (TV shows, social media,
urban lifestyles, etc.) is widespread and intentionally employed by government members. This is
also reflected in the high number of rather young, (typically abroad) well-educated, publicly
employed persons, who have partly been attracted to return to their home country through
governmental programs after economic crisis-induced mass migration in the 1980s and 1990s. A
large part of the newly established urban Ecuadorian middle class is directly or indirectly employed
through government activities and has been largely subsidized (fuel, domestic gas) in recent years
(Dvalos, 2013).
Rafael Correa has drastically changed his discourse in recent years and now openly supports
the extractive industry, including large-scale mining (formerly virtually not existent in the country).
In addition, he is increasingly resorting to authoritarian practices and human rights violations to
curb mobilization against mining concessions for the sake of 'national interests' (ibid., 2, citing
(Bebbington and Bebbington-Humphreys, 2011). The downside of Buen Vivir politics in Ecuador
can also be seen in the new penal code, implemented in 2013 and 2014. In general, national penal
codes are in a sort of dialectical relationship to constitutions: in terms of consequences, they spell
out what constitutions envisage in a normative sense. This is particularly true for the Ecuadorian
constitution which adopted with intent a normative stance toward de-colonial and anti-imperialisim
in order to overcome inequality and historical injustice. While a reform of the penal code has been

demanded for long, it turns out to heavily criminalize every possible threat for the state, in
particular, governments, while little considering the more obvious threat of the state for individuals
(e.g., in cases of torture or genocide). Accordingly, and also because of criminalizing defenders of
human rights and environmentalists (CEDHU et al., 2011), the number of people in prisons
(themselves in very poor condition) have exploded in Ecuador in recent years (Dvalos, 2014;
Garces, 2014).

Buen Vivir remains a politically elusive term, charged with programmatic aspirations of various
social struggles and its proponents; one that is (almost) always re-framed and re-defined by various
justice struggles of likewise numerous social movements. As it is characteristic for the region, the
heterogeneous, competing branches of the government (ministries, supra-ministries, armed forces,
etc.) and overall rather weak democratic institutions require these movements to constantly gain
power and influence on the government itself (see Altmann, 2014a). In its more spiritual forms, It
entails traditionalist and anti-modern claims that reject colonialism-induced modernity entirely on
the basis of a different worldview, based on all-connected consciousness instead of rationality,
subjectivity and abstraction. Proponents of such a view tend to claim a fundamental rupture
between Buen Vivir, on the one side, and Sumak Kawsay (or 'Sumakawsay', to underline the
connectedness), on the other side (see Oviedo, 2014). For them, there is no need to seek justice, to
improve, to grow, to progress or to mitigate needs (at least not materially) since everything
proceeds in all-connected couples of polarization between beings and energies (the famous 'pacha-'
meaning 'pa' eng. 'two' and 'cha' eng. all-permeating energy, cf. Estermann 2013).
Maintaining, stabilizing, balancing, etc. are values put forward in Sumak Kawsay. Naively
collapsing Buen Vivir (a post-modern form of 'biosocialism') with Sumak Kawsay, the ancestral
way of being, would eventually equal to perpetuating the 500 years-long exploitation of the
indigenous on epistemological grounds (ibid.).
It is thus particularly important to read all publications on and about Buen Vivir accordingly
with much caution; Buen Vivir discourses have become a tricky minefield to engage with, also
because actors and authors themselves shift between pro- and contra-governmental positions (as in
the cases of the well-known Ecuadorian economists Pablo Dvalos and Alberto Acosta). Some are
personally more aligned with the indigenous movement, others less, or have been particularly active
in supporting the movement of Afro-Ecuadorians (as in the case of the US-scholar Catherine Walsh

- who contributed much to the emergence of Buen Vivir as well, see Walsh, 2010). CONAE, the
main representing Afro-Ecuadorian institution is nowadays largely subsidized by the government,
which raises questions about dependency, but certainly helps their concerns (in socio-economic
terms, Afro-Ecuadorians are generally much worse off than indigenous peoples in the country).
Leading questions for any reading of Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay should therefore be: who are the
authors? What are their goals and political as well as academic roles? What is the purpose of their
publications, what is their targeted audience? Despite manifold daily struggles in real life, the idea
and discourse of Buen Vivir has gained popularity in academic and activist circles around the globe.
It has been examined in the context of UNDP's human development approach (e.g., Deneulin 2012),
it has been linked to political ecology and debates around sustainability (e.g.,Thomson, 2011;
Vanhulst and Beling, 2013); it has been discussed in the contexts of novel forms of state-building
and legal systems (vila Santamara 2011a, 2011b). There have taken place more practical
workshops on Buen Vivir, for example in Halle, Germany, in autumn 201319 and it has been broadly
politicized as an alternative vision to development, to extracting natural resources, for defending
indigenous rights (in particular their primordial rights to auto-determination, cf. Schulte-Tenckhoff,
2012)) and supporting the essential pillars of the state doctrine of Buen Vivir, 'plurinational' rights,
such as multilingual education (Acosta and Martnez, 2009; Acosta, 2012; Agencia Lationamericana
de Informacin (ALAI), 2008; Gerardo, 2010; Houtart, 2009; Yumbay et al., 2010).
However, every analysis that takes only the 'offical', state-focused discourse into account is
radically doomed to remain short-sighted with important (and sometimes intended) implications;
and likewise would it be the case for an essentialist portrayal of the stereotyped Andean indigenous
people(s) (it is said, for example, that the Shuar and Achuar, the second largest indigenous nation on
Ecuadorian territory, would not have an equivalent concept to the Kichwa-related Sumak Kawsay,
cf. (Descola, 1996). The aim of this short overview was to contribute to a fuller picture of what
Buen Vivir means or can be, and to explain why it would perhaps be more adequate to speak of
numerous (and contested) 'Buen Vivir politics' when reflecting about this idea.
To conclude, two central considerations should be added, for which I am drawing on Radcliffe
(2012: 248) who verbalized the current struggles most accurately:
Contests between diverse actors over the nature, extent and speed of reform can be
understood in postcolonial terms as a discursive and material struggle between a
decolonising move to overcome the enduring aftermath of colonialism (McEwan, 2009),
and a hegemonic conception of state, citizen and society. In social movement
19 See: [last retrieve: 28.04.2014].

formulations, sumak kawsay represents border thinking that challenges developments

colonising discourses and practices (Mignolo, 2005 ; [...]). Yet [Sumak Kawsay] faced
considerable hurdles to dealing effectively with the postcolonial geographies that
compound racial and regional inequality. First, the state remains in practice a colonial
state, unwilling to cede autonomy and territorial rights to collective citizens. Second, the
government continues to interpret and prioritize certain constitutional principles over
others in ways that serve to reproduce postcolonial hierarchies of poverty, difference
and exclusion. Longstanding postcolonial patterns of resource distribution,
(mis)recognition, and violence (epistemic and physical inform) work to reproduce social
marginalization in urban and rural areas, as well as racial hierarchies. In one sense, the
language of sumak kawsay has been used to cloak postcolonial development as usual;
Facing this ongoing and, under the pressure of global crises, intensifying struggle and joining
it under the flag of Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay remains however thorny if one does not know and
live according to Andean 'cosmoconsciousness'. 'How many of those who write today about Sumak
Kawsay or Buen Vivir do actually live in such cosmoconsciousness?', asks Attawalpa Oviedo (cf.
ibid., 2014: 294) And will such practice of conscious being be possible at all, if one has not lived
with those who do it? As Estermann once put it: Uno no puede conocer realmente el pensamiento
filosfico de un pueblo si nunca se ha sentado a su mesa, si no ha bailado sus danzas, si no ha
sufrido con l.20 (2008); quoted in Oviedo, 2014: 294).

20 One can not really understand the philosophical thinking of a peoples if one has not been sitting at their table, has
not danced their dances, and has not suffered with them. (ibid.).

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