The Post-Paradigmatic Alternative of Buen Vivir.

Learning from Ecuador to Address Global Problems Locally.

Buen viviris a broad concept still under elaboration and represents a plurality of theoretical perspectives, practical realisations, and positions from a variety of actors including indigenous groups, social movements, intellectuals, and politicians. In its most general interpretation, it denotes and aims at further developing a system of knowledge and living rooted in the communion of humans and nature. Assuming a biocentric vision, the focus is not on the single individual, but on the Pacha Mama (‘Mother Earth’), a harmonious community of interconnected beings, natural elements, and cultures understood through the lens of the cosmovision of indigenous people.

In fact, the term literally means “living well” and derives from the re-elaboration of the Andean ancestral notion of sumak kawsay. In Kichwa language, sumakstands for ‘beautiful’ or ‘full’ and kawsayfor ‘to dwell’ or ‘to live together with others’. The two words are not, however, synonyms. The ideas of development and progress were completely extraneous to the natives’ vision of the world. On the contrary, the concept of buen vivirhas been shaped by or in rejection of hegemonic Western thinking and can be understood either as an alternative ofdevelopment or as an alternative todevelopment. Thus, its different interpretations gave origin to multifaceted social, political, and economic structures for living collectively according to the theoretical principles.

In Ecuador, this assumed the form of an equilibrated blend of elements from different traditions: firstly, the indigenous ethno-development based on ecology, complementarity, and solidarity; secondly, the desire to build a multicultural State able to include marginalised groups; thirdly, a solid theoretical basis grounded in humanistic socialism and sustainable human development philosophy.

This emerged gradually as a political project, through the cumulative struggles of indigenous groups, social movements, and a coalition of left-wing politicians. The resulting RevoluciónCiudadana, (‘Citizens’ Revolution’), of 2006 led to power the Alianza Paísparty which, under the presidency of Rafael Correa, revolutionised the country by introducing a wide range of innovations.

The most impressive achievement is represented by the Constitution of Montecristi approbated in 2008, which marked a clear turning point in the construction of a post-colonial and post-capitalistic society, constituting the first institutionalisation of buen vivir’s principles in an official document. In fact, it establishes many important rights of equal value, ranging from the “rights of the good way of living”, to the “rights of communities, peoples and nations”, and to the “rights of Nature”. To guarantee their practical implementation, the development structure envisaged is based on sustainable economic, social, and political strategies to achieve sumak kawsaythrough the interaction of State planning and citizens’ active participation, thanks to policies and bottom-up processes promoting both inclusion and equity, both biodiversity and nature’s protection. These two pillars focused on society and nature are central to analysing the quantitative and qualitative improvements of the general situation since the revolution.

On the one hand, the marginalised groups obtained a better status in the previous strongly inequal Ecuadorian society. In fact, the attempts to include all the ethnic groups have been translated into policies to fight poverty and discrimination, to guarantee proper nutrition, access to health assistance, and multicultural education. Data show that there has been a considerable macroeconomic progress in tackling these goals: for example, poverty decreased from 37.6 % in 2006 to 21.5% in 2017, thanks to the National Strategy for Equality and the Eradication of Poverty. Although the results were markedly astonishing among indigenous people, with a decrease in extreme poverty from 74% in 2001 to 32% in 2013, there is still a lot of work to be done to remove existing barriers that preclude these groups from full benefit of public policies. Namely, the most important lines of action should involve a focus on the development of rural areas, a model of inclusion respectful of indigenous traditions and the guarantee of the same opportunities for a real “equality in diversity”. Nevertheless, if buen vivir principles were producing a gradual positive change in these directions, since the change of government the situation has worsened again: poverty has increased to 24.5% and extreme poverty from 7.9% to 9% in just 6 months.

On the other hand, also the environmental policies have followed a similar trend.
After the recognition of nature as a subject of right, the government set specific goals to protect, restore, and enhance its respectful fruition. The biocentric perspective, in fact, does not conceive nature as sacred entity to be left untouched, but allows its productive use, which must preserve the ecosystem’s sustainability.

Thus, the State tried to pursue different plans including the National Strategy for Climate Change, the National Water Plan, the Single Environmental Management System. The most challenging innovation regarded the attempt to change the foundations of the domestic production model based on the exploitation of non-renewable resources. To change the energy dependence on oil, many projects were promoted for a shift to hydroelectric power and other international initiatives were suggested. Among these, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative represented a promising turning point in global environmental cooperation, inscribed in the Net Avoidance Emissions project. Ecuador was committed to leaving underground about 850 million barrels of oil in a part of Yasuní National Park, preventing the emission of 407 million metric tons of CO2 for a financial compensation of US$ 3,600 million to be invested in reforestation and protection of biodiversity, renewable energy innovation, and sustainable social development. However, conflicts of interest and corruption compromised the result of the project, determining a failure in implementing long-term strategies to protect the environment without neglecting the socio-economic conditions of its citizens. Conversely, to achieve concrete results in this field, it would be necessary to combine environmental policies with the promotion of a sustainable culture, by changing the way of thinking of the whole society, not only in Ecuador.

This need to spread a new cultural approach for an environmentally sustainable and socially respectful life is diffused at the global level in many different realities united by the urgency to find a solution to common problems and by the acknowledgment of the failure of the dominant system.

Among possible alternatives, buen vivirhas the great strength to overcome the Western sustainable development dilemma by seeking neither to dominate nature, nor to protect it from human intervention, but rather conceiving the development as the attainment of the equilibrium state of living in harmony.

Nevertheless, differently from other paradigms, it does not represent a “ready-to-use tool box” against the neoliberal model. It is not an ecological, economic, and cultural recipe to be exported, but rather a way of thinking different from the Western one, which could be first adapted and then adopted elsewhere. In such a process, it is necessary to transcend the purely original specificities, “de-indigenising” them, to extrapolate the general principles of a life in communion with nature and learn from these how to deal with each peculiar local situation. In fact, although many contemporary challenges are affecting almost the whole world, every reality faces them differently and has to address them consequently. It is, thus, necessary to depart from the rigidity of ideologies, to abandon the presumption of the existence of a global truth or universal answer, and to set, instead, a dialogue to share ideas and experiences.

Avoiding crystallization in labelled boxes, movements inspired by buen vivir have, nevertheless, to deal with a certain degree of mediation and compromise to affirm themselves in political terms.  However, if the urgency of policy decisions requires some quick arrangements, it is important not to forget the holistic approach able to combine multifaceted aspects of each phenomenon against simplifying trends. To be effective, when buen vivir is institutionalised or politicalized, its intrinsic flexibility must prevent it from remaining trapped into rigid forms, unable to respond to constantly changing exigencies. The main limit of the Ecuadorean experience was not the inadequacy of the theoretical ground of the movement, but the inability to continue adapting its principle once inserted in the Constitution and adopted by a political party.

Learning from this, it is possible to scale up some elements of this local example not to formulate a new global development model, but to diffuse on the global stage and in international forums of discussion a framework of alternative ideas in fields related to environmental governance, developmental, and social agendas. What is more important, however, is to scale also sideways and to operate at different systemic levels without hierarchies, simply sharing experiences and enriching reciprocal understanding. By exchanging and learning from each other,buen vivir implementations could offer not a detailed plan of action, but a wide range of suggestions to go beyond the short-term development, showing a new way of setting priorities and values, ways of pursuing them, and ways of looking at the world.

Thus, what buen vivirrepresents is a post-paradigmatic horizon able to suit various situations and to transform itself according to mutable necessities, acting as an attractive “alternative buzzword” or a “buzzword for alternatives” for many different people and realities.

If it will be able to escape the perils of becoming a discursive tool co-opted in narratives only functional to the State, its structures, and economic powerhouses, buen vivir could have a great potential for a radical ecological, multicultural, and plurinational transformation of the society with an interepistemic insurgency able to address many local and global problems.


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