Can Ecuador’s ‘Buen Vivir’ translate in the United States?

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buen vivir

Greg Harman

With an 8-1 passage of a resolution in support of the landmark Paris Agreement, an international agreement by the global community to work together to solve the climate crisis, San Antonio has proved itself finally ready to take on the most pressing global/local issue of our time.

With the successful vote and movement toward an actual climate change adaptation plan, those Cityfolk tasked with moving the public at large toward their particular vision of sustainability have started to tap into that of “buen vivir.”

However, the decision to use an English approximation (“the good life”) of the Spanish translation (“buen vivir”) of an indigenous Amazonian concept of living in balance and ecological wisdom fails to carry over much of the original meaning.

The “good life,” as I’ve always heard it expressed in the United States, represents a life of leisure, of wealth, a beer in hand, and maybe a bass fishing boat.

Yet, this vision is a long distance from the phrase’s original Kichwa of “sumak kawsay,” with a better straight-to-English translation being, perhaps, “harmonic life.” As described more fully in one paper I’ve been reading at the Conflict Transformation Across Borders program in Ecuador, sumak kawsay “is a fluid and relational concept, establishing a constantly adapting bond between humanity, nature, spirituality, and a responsibility for maintaining this bond for future generations.”

Such language may be strange to the ears of many in the U.S. and so-called Global North, but debates around development and the meaning of buen vivir/sumak kawsay have been in the public sphere in Ecuador for years, bringing some of these same challenges. Can buen vivir serve as a “development model” steered by the hands statesmen, politicians, or urban planners?

Ecuador is the first nation on earth to recognize the rights of Mother Nature. Though the language hinges on regulation of the state, it allows for people to bring lawsuits on Pachamama’s behalf.

From the 2008 Constitution:

Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.

Summarizes the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature:

Rather than treating nature as property under the law, Rights for Nature articles acknowledge that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.  And we–the people–have the legal authority to enforce these rights on behalf of ecosystems.  The ecosystem itself can be named as the defendant.

Despite promises of development strategies by President Rafael Correa that would put rights of nature and environmental health at the center of Ecuador’s political policies, such promises have crumbled in recent years.

Eisenstadt and West critique Correa’s attempt at sumak kawsay politics this way:

Correa claims to adopt a developmental model based on the indigenous concept of sumak kawsay (buen vivir or harmonious living). As aptly summarized by Kauffman and Martin (2015, 43), this concept bypasses the Western duality where humans dominate or conserve nature, because humans are believed to be an active part of nature rather than separate from it. Under sumak kawsay, “[r]ather than a linear progression of accumulation, development is understood as the attainment and reproduction of the equilibrium state of buen vivir, which refers to living in harmony with nature” (Kauffman and Martin 2015, 43).

There aren’t many engaged in my adopted home town that are capable of easily knowing themselves as a mere aspect of nature rather than nature’s conservators. Myself included. It is, as some of my friends would put it, the lamentable product of a colonized mind.

Some have located the turning point in Correa’s failure in a failure to secure $3.6 billion from the most industrialized nations on earth (those most to blame for climate change) for the protection of one of this country’s (and our planet’s) most biodiverse reserves.

The thinking went that oil development within the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) section of Yasuni National Park at the represented a potential windfall of $7 billion for Ecuador. If the world truly valued a habitable and sustainable future those who have already benefited so much from fossil fuel-based development should step up to the plate and assist in its protection.

Yasuní National Park “is widely considered one of the most biodiverse places on the planet,” according to Kevin Koenig. It has more species per hectare of trees, shrubs, insects, birds, amphibians, and mammals than anywhere else in the world. It was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989, and it is home to the Tagaeri-Taromenane, Ecuador’s last indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.”

Needless to say, “The World Failed Ecuador,” as Juan Falconi Puig wrote in 2013 for the Guardian.

Last year, the government embarked on a planned 276 oil wells in the ITT.

Today, oil development represents a third of the country’s income.

Oil pipelines were ever-present on our trip into the cloud forest to the east of Quito this weekend.

Ecuador is a good place to study the struggle that occurs around oilfield development, indigenous mobilization, and the challenges of communicating nature-based values to the colonized world. Consider: While Ecuador represents only four percent of the population of Latin America, it is believed to harbor eight percent of the continent’s environmental conflicts.

If sumak kawsay doesn’t translate in Ecuador, what chance do we have in a place like Texas? Is the appropriation of terminology, even if twice removed from the original, this “good life,” worth promoting?

As a human-rights defender from Columbia reminded me in class last week, having good legal language does not always translate as justice on the ground. That said, it is important that a framework exists to support new social constructions when the people are ready to demand them.

So how will people talk about “the good life” in San Antonio? It could be that buen vivir is a seed that, no matter how distant from its origin, allows conceptions of what that “good life” really is to eventually metamorphisize into a more truly human(e) cosmic positioning. How quickly those connections and repairs are made will depend much on who is doing the translating.


Check the Ecuadorian national plan to see what buen vivir look like as a socialist development project.

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