Buen Vivir: Panacea or Political Spin?

Sophie Coombs | Latin America Fellow

As climate change progresses, placing increased stress on dwindling natural resources, societies must rethink untenable, industrialist and extractivist approaches to economic development. The transition away from unsustainable models of development will first and foremost require a transition in the way we think about natural resources. Considering humanity’s long-term survival is contingent on that of the planet, it is perhaps time we ditch the anthropocentric notion of ‘natural resources’ altogether and start envisaging the environment as another stakeholder in the climate change debate.

What is Buen Vivir?

Many Latin-American Indigenous belief systems have long espoused this view, conceptualising humanity not in opposition to, but as a part of the environment. Popularised in the early 2000’s, the concept of Buen Vivir, literally meaning ‘to live well’, is a general term based on several Indigenous worldviews such as the Quechua idea of “Sumak Kawsay” (plentiful life) and the Aymara notion of “Suma Qamaña”. Buen Vivir emphasizes the idea of a collective wellbeing in which the collective refers to both society and the environment. The movement places a premium on solidarity, reciprocity and an ecocentric way of life.


In practice, the implementation of the Buen Vivir philosophy favours alternative economic models that recast productivity as being of equal importance to positive social and environmental outcomes, such models include the solidarity economy and the circular economy. The concept has also gained traction at an official level, with Ecuador and Bolivia incorporating Buen Vivir and the rights of nature into their constitutions in 2008 and 2009, respectively. But has constitutional recognition of Buen Vivir in Ecuador and Bolivia had a meaningful impact on environmental and economic policy? Or is it merely an exercise in co-opting Indigenous identity for political gain?


Pure politics?

Despite enshrining ideals of social and ecological harmony in their respective constitutions over ten years ago, it is debatable whether the Ecuadorian and Bolivian governments have actually implemented the principles of Buen Vivir in a significant way.

In Ecuador, the inclusion of Buen Vivir at a constitutional level was spearheaded by socialist president Rafael Correa. Similarly, in Bolivia, constitutional acknowledgement of Buen Vivir took place under the leadership of leftist Indigenous president Evo Morales. It must be noted that the efforts of the Correa and Morales governments have gone some way towards realising the ideals of Buen Vivir. Social policy implemented in the two countries has seen poverty decrease significantly in the past decade. Additionally, recognition and valorisation of indigenous culture in the national political sphere, as seen in both countries, is also an important step towards reckoning with Latin-America’s colonial past.


However, the positive outcomes of Bolivia and Ecuador’s successful social-aid programs are somewhat marred by the fact that both governments relied on state-led extraction of natural resources to fund these initiatives. In clear opposition to the ecocentric principles of Buen Vivir, mining in Ecuador has, in fact, expanded since the 2008 constitutional reforms, with President Correa allowing foreign extractors to encroach on at-risk indigenous lands. Furthermore, the Correa government has even threatened and attempted, somewhat successfully, to silence Indigenous-led environmental activism groups which has led some commentators to believe that political commitments to Buen Vivir, in Ecuador at least, are but a superficial endeavour to garner indigenous votes.

What can we learn from Buen Vivir?

It might be argued that Ecuador and Bolivia’s failure to honour Buen Vivir in terms of environmental and economic policy signals an incompatibility between Andean indigenous philosophy and the globalised modern world. Yet, the fact that Buen Vivir clashes with western development’s ‘progress at all costs’ attitude is precisely why we should take notice of it. Considering climate change is a product of unchecked human development, taking stock of the environmental and social impacts of our economic activities can only be a good thing.


Buen Vivir has the potential to provide communities with a roadmap for simultaneously tackling social and environmental issues in a wholistic way. Many community-centred economic projects are already reaping the benefits of the sustainable, small-scale development often associated with the ideals of Buen Vivir. One such example is the Cleveland model, in which citizen-owned cooperatives provide local institutions like hospitals or universities with essential goods and services - thereby cutting down on the environmental cost of transporting such products as well as tackling community unemployment.


Envisaging climate change as a local, immediate problem that can be mitigated with community-based action, is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be adopted from Buen Vivir. In contrast to national or international climate action bodies, communities are often able to mobilise rapidly against local issues, and collaboratively construct solutions tailored to the conditions of a certain area.


Crucially, Buen Vivir is also firmly rooted in Indigenous understandings of human-environment relations. With indigenous peoples set to be disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, it is imperative that their voices and epistemologies are centred in the transition towards a greener future.


The truth is that there is no silver bullet solution to climate change. But in taking a leaf from Buen Vivir and considering environmental and social wellbeing in every political decision, however small, we may start to construct a more just and sustainable world.


Sophie Coombs is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.