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The Possibilities for Buen Vivir

By Asad Ismi

You may have heard the term “Buen Vivir” when it was made part of the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador (in 2009 and 2008 respectively), the first countries to give rights to nature.

Buen Vivir (BV) is an Indigenous-led philosophy and movement spreading throughout Latin America and beyond that presents an alternative to unsustainable capitalist growth. It arises mainly from Indigenous philosophies of the Kichwa/Quechua people based in Ecuador (who call it Sumak Kawsay) and the Aymara people based in Bolivia (who call it Suma Qamaña).

BV means “living well, but not better than others, or not at the expense of others” writes Zuhal Yeşilyurt Gündüz, associate professor of political science and international relations at TED University in Ankara, Türkiye. Most importantly, BV is about decolonization. It “challenges the legacy of colonialism which has unjustly rendered non-Western knowledge systems as inferior,” writes Cecilia Uitermark of the Netherlands-based Sinchi Foundation, which supports Indigenous projects around the world.

BV sees humans not as individuals but as part of communities that include nature, animals, plants and spirits. At the same time, it’s not solely an Indigenous philosophy. For example, it has been influenced by the degrowth movement in the Global North. Like degrowth, BV rejects both unchecked growth and capital accumulation, and strives to establish harmony. To create this harmony, BV calls for “a self-sustaining and non-accumulative economy in balance with nature” that emphasizes “local and small-scale food production,” according to Uitermark.

Gündüz contrasts capitalism with BV: “While capitalism puts the individual at the forefront (the right to buy, sell, possess, throw [out]), Buen Vivir places the rights of the individual below the rights of the people, societies and nature…. In Buen Vivir, people can never own soil, land, water, resources and forests. Placing a price on nature would mean to own and possess the planet, to buy and sell it like a commodity.”

Ecologist Eduardo Gudynas, executive secretary of the Latin American Centre for Social Ecology in Uruguay and a leading promoter of the movement, emphasizes that BV “is equally influenced by Western critiques [of capitalism] over the last 30 years, especially from the field of feminist thought and environmentalism. It certainly does not require a return to some sort of Indigenous, pre-Columbian past.”

While much has been written about Buen Vivir, especially by academics, it has proved difficult to implement at the state-level. This is to be expected. A particular condition of BV is that it cannot be implemented in one country only—it requires regional and international cooperation to take root in a long-lasting form.

The leftist government of President Rafael Correa that governed Ecuador from 2007 to 2017 tried to put BV into practice by asking rich countries for $3.6 billion in exchange for not extracting Ecuador’s petroleum deposits, which amount to almost a billion barrels of oil. Correa received only a fraction of the money requested and so Ecuador had to return to oil extraction. (Oil is the country’s main export.)

Correa’s former foreign minister, Guillaume Long, told me that Latin American countries like Ecuador “have depended on raw materials for at least 500 years, so this model cannot be changed in a few years. An immediate moratorium on oil or mining extraction can be disastrous…. In Ecuador’s case this would only leave agriculture, which does not generate adequate revenue.”

Long agrees that BV should be implemented and that Ecuador needs to move away from raw material exports, but to do this properly there needs to be a long-term transition plan.

“The Correa government had such a plan and sowed some of the seeds of its implementation,” Long says, “but you need about 20 years of continuous stable progressive government before the plan can achieve significant results.” And how many progressive political parties can stay in power for 20 continuous years in an electoral system?

Long says that the second requirement for the realization of BV is education. The public needs to be taught about this philosophy that many people are not familiar with. You also need a high level of public education in general to move away from a raw materials–based economy, so that people can be empowered to engage in more knowledge-centred productive activities.

Long points out that the Correa government did well in this area, increasing education spending from 0.7% of GDP to 2.3% at a time when the Latin American average for education spending was 0.8%.

The third requirement for transitioning to BV, says Long, is a strong tax base: “A lot of countries that are dependent on raw materials suffer from low levels of tax collection,” he explains. “They go through boom-and-bust cycles as the prices for their raw materials fluctuate on the international market. To stabilize this trend, you need to have effective taxation because that gives you a constant income, so that even if oil prices collapse you still have enough income to keep the state functioning.”

Here too, the Correa government was able to massively increase the taxes it collected—from $3.5 billion annually to $15 billion annually, according to Long. This was done mainly not by raising taxes but by making tax collection much more efficient. Long points out that $15 billion was 50% of annual state expenditure— about the same amount of money Ecuador made from selling oil every year.

The fourth condition needed, explains Long, is significant public investment in those sectors of the economy that can move it towards BV: “Buen Vivir requires huge cultural change. It’s very difficult to implement this post-materialist vision of development if everything is based on the market and consumption.”

The leftist government of Indigenous president Evo Morales, which governed Bolivia from 2006 to 2019, wrote Buen Vivir into its constitution in 2009. But this government also met with several challenges when it tried to implement BV, says Angus McNelly, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Greenwich (U.K.) who specializes in Bolivian politics.

First, McNelly says, “the liberal structures of the state were left unchanged—rule of law, balance of power within the state, individual freedoms, social contract between state and citizens—so there was no way of situating state policies within nature. Liberalism is based on the premise of human exceptionalism because of [humans’] capacity to reason, which places them outside (and above) nature. The institutions produced under this ideology reflect this, allowing no place for the rights of nature written into the new constitution.”

Second, McNelly explains, like Ecuador, when the Bolivian government tried to put BV into practice it “quickly collided with the harsh reality of the political economy of development in South America—a region that has been inserted and re-inserted into the world markets and the global division of labour in a subordinate position [as raw material supplier].”

This was especially true around the time that Morales came to power, which coincided with what McNelly describes as a global commodities boom driven by China’s industrial transformation and mass urbanization.

The commodities boom “drove natural resource prices sky-high, leading South American countries to expand the extraction of natural resources to take advantage of this boom,” says McNelly. “The commodification of nature through extractivism is the polar opposite of Buen Vivir,” he explains, “but it was the basis for the redistributive policies and modalities of social inclusion of progressive governments in the region, including [that of] Morales.”

The boom ended in 2013, but extractivism remains “the dominant feature of political economy and the principal mode of capital accumulation in Bolivia and South America,” according to McNelly. He emphasizes that the boom “forged new forms of dependency that make breaking with this model extremely difficult.”

McNelly believes that “an alternative pathway like the one offered by Buen Vivir can only be achieved with accompanying change in the imperial core and especially the de-financialization of natural resources. The scope for this happening at the moment seems quite limited.”

This situation has not changed with the Luis Arce government coming into power in Bolivia in 2020 (Arce belongs to Morales’s party, Movement Towards Socialism or “MAS”.) However, social movements in Bolivia are pushing the Arce government to move away from extractivism and towards Buen Vivir. In April 2021, Indigenous and farmer organizations along with trade unions signed a letter to the government stating:
“Convinced that we must confront the climate crisis with integrated solutions that include a reduction of greenhouse gases, an energy transition, changing our patterns of consumption and production, a change in our logic of accumulation and concentration of wealth and power, a change in the logic of seeing Mother Earth’s beings as resources and commodities, instead of as brothers and sisters, our family; convinced that we must recover our ancestral harmonious relationship with Mother Earth, we are convinced that to reunify with it requires a change in the system that implies overcoming extractivism, productivism, mercantilism, patriarchy, racism, egocentrism, individualism, neocolonialism, and anthropocentrism.”


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor (CCPA Monitor), July-August 2022.

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