Universität Bielefeld

Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay

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“Buen Vivir” and “Vivir Bien” (“Good Living” and “Living Well”) are Spanish expressions to name an ethic paradigm coming from ancestral indigenous traditions from the Andean and Amazon regions in South America such as the Kichwa “sumak kawsay”, the Aymara “suma qamaña” or the Guarani “ñande reko” (Medina 2006), amongst others. They are systems or ways of living that conceive relationships between human beings and Nature in holistic, relational, and harmonic terms, considering community as the fundamental axis of the reproduction of life, based on principles of reciprocity and complementarity (Azcarrunz 2011).

For the Kichwa nation, for instance, “sumak kawsay” represents “ the state of welfare of all the vital community, the splendor of life, the supreme” (Macas 2011:23). For the Aymara people, “suma qamaña” is living in harmony with the cycles of Mother Earth, the cosmos, life, and history, and living in balance with every living form” (Huanacuni 2010: 21). In the Ecuadorian Constitution, in the other hand, “good living” is understood as the “harmonic coexistence of human beings and Nature” (Prologue to the Ecuadorian Constitution).

The term has gone through formulation and reformulation processes before and after its constitutional approval in Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009), in which “sumak kawsay” , amongst other traditions, was used for the construction of political, economic, cultural, gender, and other proposals. Works on “genealogy” (Cortez 2010; Cortez / Wagner 2010) of “good living and “sumak kawsay” show that they are collective contributions amid which indigenous organizations proposals, such as CONAIE in Ecuador, and MAS in Bolivia, stand out.

There are various approaches to “good living” today: as an alternative paradigm of “development” (Acosta 2009); as an ancestral legacy of indigenous traditions (Macas 2010, Oviedo 2011); in political – philosophical debates as an inspiration for socialist projects (Santos 2010, Ramírez 2011b), and in intercultural proposals (Walsh 2010) within the framework of profound State and Nation reforms; there are also works on legal and rights debates in the context of its “constitutional” insertion (Gudynas 2009, Ávila 2008), amongst others. As a holistic vision of the world, “good living” / “sumak kawsay” conceives Nature (Pacha) as a vital whole in which all beings are considered in relational terms. Different from historically dominant Western traditions –Platonism, Judaism, and Modernity - human beings are not represented from an “anthropocentric” or “transcendent” vision (Estermann 1998), but as a weave of relations where belongingness to a cosmic whole -pacha mama- determines social relations in their economic, political, cultural, and religious complexity.

About the historical emergence of “good living” / “sumak kawsay”, and its role in life and political debate in the region, it can be affirmed that: a)it appears at the quest for alternatives to a global crisis of life and political paradigms inspired in the capitalist West; b) it is a plural “social construction” carried out by diverse actors at a point of important social and political reforms; c) its ethical/ ecological perspective expresses individual and collective proposals in critical and creative terms, within the framework of the reconfiguration of power.

Regarding public policies, the concept is adopted in Ecuador in the “National Plan for the Development of Good Living 2009 – 2013, in accordance with the “capacities” and “human development” approach by Amartya Sen y Martha Nussbaum (SENPLADES 2009: 18-19). For Rene Ramirez, former minister of Planning, Good Living should be supported on the Aristotelian conception of “good life” to be legitimized as a “public reason” discourse, as the ethical conception of the Andean world “ greatly converges with Aristotelian ethic philosophy” (Ramírez 2010: 49-50).

But “Good Living” as State policy has been questioned by indigenous organizations and other social actors for the loss of its initial anti-colonial perspective and its subordination to “new developmental” political projects (Martínez). And it is that indigenous concepts – from which the constitutional “good living” was formulated- cannot be understood in analogue terms as those contemporary ones such as “progress” and “development”. Moreover, “sustainability” and “eco-development” are paradoxical to the holistic consideration of Nature, unsubordinated to an anthropocentric vision; these concepts would be part of neo-liberal political strategies of the World Bank and of governments in the Region (Chuji 2008). In the same way, poverty according to “good living” is considered circumstantial, or even absurd, given that it would imply ignorance of the adequate treatment Nature should be given, and rejection of social networks in charge of sustaining reciprocity (Gualinga 2003).

Michelle Báez and David Cortez

Please cite as:
Báez, Michelle and David Cortez. 2012. “Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. http://www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/b_Buen Vivir Sumak Kawsay.html.


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--- 2009b. El “buen vivir” para la construcción de alternativas, Conferencia en el Encuentro Latinoamericano del Foro Mundial de Alternativas (26-29.02.09), Quito. URL: http://alainet.org/active/24122&lang=es

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Ramírez, René. 2011a. La felicidad como medida del buen vivir en Ecuador. Entre la materialidad y la subjetividad. Quito: SENPLADES.

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