The philosophy of buen vivir, or ”living well’, has recently influenced institutions in several South American countries. In Bolivia and Ecuador, it has been implemented at a constitutional level – though with arising criticism. Can buen vivir guide new policies and imaginaries in the new government of Colombia despite of its contradictions?
In 2022, Colombia elected a new government led by President Gustavo Petro and Vice-President Francia Márquez amid strongly divided public opinion. Their proposal was underpinned by the need to make radical changes to the socio-economic and political model. This was seen as an alternative for the traditional and status-quo based proposition of the opposing candidate.
Among the proposed changes, the new government aimed to include minorities and alternative discourses in the core of public policies. This included a more central role for Indigenous worldviews such as vivir sabroso (”living joyfully”) and buen vivir (”living well”).
The many worldviews of ”living well”
Buen Vivir or buenos vivires, are pluralist South American indigenous philosophies that are based on ancestral wisdom, indigenous practices, and globalization critics. Based on the philosophy of pluralism and co-existing, the concept of buen vivir cannot be tied to one single worldview .
This is why some authors refer to it in plural: buenos vivires. Especially, as the philosophy often includes ancestral elements from the Global South, as well as globalization critics and Degrowth concepts from the Global North.
The most notorious examples of the institutionalization of these philosophies have been in Bolivia and Ecuador. Both countries have included buen vivir as a guiding principle in their respective constitutions.
The Preamble of the Constitution of Ecuador in 2008, reflected an important institutionalization of the philosophy as seen in the following excerpt: “We (…) hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living, the Sumak Kawsay”.
Several scholars of buenos vivires in Ecuador, such as economist Pablo Dávalos, define it in terms of a proposition that mixes several worldviews. This includes a pluridimentional, relational and communitarian concept of a human being. Another Ecuadorian economist Eduardo Gudynas, propose buen vivir as the understanding of well-being, and the attainment of a good life. He suggests harmonization and cohabitation of three main pillars: The Human Being, The Community and Mother Earth.
Critique against romanticization of the Indigenous philosophies
It is important to note that academics have also argued against the romanticization of the buen vivir philosophy.
According to Eija Ranta, academy researcher in Global Development Studies, in Bolivia, buen vivir was accompanied by contradictory state practices that contributed to a romanticization of the concept. For example, the protection of the environment, which is a pillar of the philosophy, was not fully reflected by the state policies.
For social anthropologist Johannes Waldmüller, there are incoherences between the philosophy of sumak kawsay (the concept of living well used in Ecuador) and the lived realities of the peoples in Ecuador and Bolivia. This has become visible for example through abusive policies on natural resource exploitation.
Buen vivir in Colombia
The idea of buenos vivires has influenced some social, political and economic aspects of the Colombian society. One example is the use of the concept as guidance for NGOs such as Corporación Buen Vivir, or projects such as El Buen Vivir.
In departments with a a strong influence of Indigenous cultures such Nariño in the South-West Colombia, buenos vivires have also contributed to the local development plans.
As Colombia’s new government took office in August, 2022, a new development model was proposed based on principles such as Degrowth. The aim was to reform the extractive sector, the recovery of ancestral ways of living, the establishment of culture and land practices as a focus for development, and the recognition of extended Indigenous and social rights.
The new development model was underpinned by pluralist worldviews which stronly relate to the philosophy of buenos vivires.
Servio Caicedo Cordoba Professor of Environmental Politics, have commented that there is no single interpretation of the buen vivir in Colombia. Therefore, it can be more appropriate to talk about the philosophies in a plural way, that is: buenos vivires.
As in Bolivia and Ecuador, the Indigenous worldviews and buenos vivires have also been subject to romanticization in Colombia. Edilberto Lasso, a Colombian anthropologist has, shown this in his research on the conflict between Indigenous worldviews and economic interests in Putumayo region. The region has been highly affected by the sowing of coca crops.
Moreover, Lasso explains that there is a strong influence of Western worldviews on Indigenous philosophy. Some of them claim to follow the principles of buenos vivires, while supporting coca sowing and use of agrochemicals in their land. Given such incoherences, it is important to avoid romanticization to aim for a real application of buenos vivires.
Practical application of buenos vivires
Despite the risk of romanticization, buenos vivires can constitute an underpinning to face important socio-economic contradictions. According to a geographer Sarah Radcliffe, the philosophy positions itself against the fragmentation of relationships between human beings and nature. This is a consequence of favouring a logic of exchange value versus use value and the reproduction of market-based inequalities.
In Colombia, this has been visible by the struggle of several NGOs such as the Red de Guardianes de Semillas to regain ancestral knowledges on native seeds in the departments of Putumayo and Nariño.
Vivir sabroso – ”living joyfully” – is a concept to express the need for dignification of the Afro-Colombian people.
There have been attempts to institutionalize the philosophy of buenos vivires in Nariño, which has a long struggle to recover ancestral knowledges and Indigenous ways of living. In 2016, the Development Plan of the city of Pasto, the capital of Nariño, adopted a notion of buenos vivires as a guiding policy.
Such institutional inclusion of buenos vivires has not been seen in other departments or municipalities of Colombia. One of the reasons might be the high influence of Indigenous identities of the population in the department of Nariño. Psychiatrist Servio Tulio Caicedo argues in his book that the region has been forged throughout centuries by indigenous narratives and cultures.
Is Colombia opening a new path for ”living sweet”?
Colombia’s new Vice-President Francia Márquez, who is an active defender of social and environmental rights of Afro-Colombians, has created the concept of vivir sabroso – ”living joyfully”. This new worldview channels several Indigenous principles and alternative ways of development into mainstream national policies.
Vivir sabroso can have as much acceptance into the conjunction of buenos vivires, as the notions of suma qumaña from Bolivia, or sumak kawsay from Ecuador.
Vivir sabroso, was presented as a concept to express the need for dignification for the Afro-Colombian peoples of Colombia. However, it has also a strong component that is compatible with the principles of buenos vivires. It reflects a dynamic way of conceiving life that is aimed at guaranteeing the multiple rights. These include to live a dignified life in relation with nature, the community tradition and practices and recognizing different dimensions of life and the need to respect ancestral knowledges.
Can Colombia’s new government bring buenos vivires into the state politics?
The new Government Program of Gustavo Petro shows a compatibility of values between the state policies and the Indigenous worldviews.
The current government plan is to fight gender inequality and climate change, fostering water governance and renewable energies, democratization of resources, and reducing inequalities and establishing peace. All of these are compatible with a logic of cohabitation and harmony between the human beings and the nature.
In line with this, the Minister of Environment, Susana Muhamad foster a co-existing harmony between nature and human beings. This was proposed by expanding protected zones, restoring multiple sites with extensive biodiversity and ecosystems at risk, and campaigning to show the harmful impacts of oil or gold extraction.
In addition, Muhammad, along with the Minister of Mining, Irene Vélez, have strongly argued for a degrowth of the economy. This means reducing the production of the economy with to balance the relationship between humans and nature in a controlled way.
The principle of degrowth has been influenced by disciplines such as ecological economics that are non-indigenous. However, it shows that economics can also be made compatible with the principles of buenos vivires. Compatibility can thus be found in the Colombian new political path in embracing the national policies and diverse worldviews. This can occur despite the different interpretations of buenos vivires in the diverse contexts of Colombia.
A pluralist synergy between the institutional, national, and local levels can result in richer dialogue that can rescue ancestral knowledges without romanticizing them. Therefore, Indigenous philosophies should ideally be understood through local dynamics that can help avoiding romanticization of such worldviews.
DAVID CAICEDO SARRALDE
Photo: Unsplash/Zan Ges
Caicedo, S. T. (1981). Psicología del pastuso y anotaciones para la Historia de la Psiquiatría en Nariño. Biblioteca Popular Nariñense.
Kolinjivadi, V. (2019). Avoiding dualisms in ecological economics: Towards a dialectically-informed understanding of co-produced socionatures. Ecological Economics, 163, 32–41. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.05.004
Lasso, Edilberto (2018). Expediciones investigaciones y misiones en la amazonia (Siglos XVI – XX). H& G, Colombia
Lasso, Edilberto (2019). Asomos de memorias, olvidos y aromas en la Amazonía. H&G. Colombia
Røpke, I. (2020). Econ 101—In need of a sustainability transition. Ecological Economics, 169(October 2019), 106515. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106515
Spash, C. L. (2020). A tale of three paradigms: Realising the revolutionary potential of ecological economics. Ecological Economics, 169 (November 2019), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106518
David Caicedo Sarralde
David Caicedo Sarralde is an economist and political scientist with an MSc in Politics, Economics and Philosophy from the University of Hamburg. His research interest lies in the relationship between indigenous knowledges and environmental practices in South America, such as protection of native seeds.
Eija Ranta is an Academy of Finland Research Fellow (2021—2026) and University Lecturer in Global Development Studies at the University of Helsinki. Her research interests include activism, state formation and democracy in the Global South, as well as development alternatives, such as Buen Vivir/Vivir Bien.
The contested pursuit of transformative alternatives in Latin America
The article by David Caicedo Sarralde deals with the state’s new development policy in Colombia. In recent years, the Colombians had stood up to demand the realization of their rights, democracy, and solutions to long-term structural issues, such as unequal land ownership. Many hopes and expectations are projected onto the politics of the country’s first left-wing government. This is, President Gustavo Petro, and his Vice-President, the award-winning environmental activist and Afro-Colombian rights advocate, Francia Márquez, elected in 2022.
Colombian state’s new rhetoric of “living well” is connected to the decades-long activism of Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians over their right to dignity, territories, and self-determination. Many Indigenous peoples have used the Spanish term buen vivir to describe their harmonious and sustainable relations with the earth, rivers, and mountains. Vivir sabroso (living joyfully), promoted by Márquez, similarly references Afro-descendants’ traditional community organizing and convivial land relations.
Although Bolivia and Ecuador have profiled themselves internationally as defenders of the environment and Indigenous peoples, their real-life policies have drawn on neo-extractivism.
Both philosophies, as Caicedo Sarralde suggests, are portrayed as transformative alternatives to violent and unsustainable modes of production that treat land and nature as mere resources, rather than as a living environment.
The origins of the policy of ’living well’
The policy of living well was first launched as state policy in Bolivia (2006), where nearly half of the population self-identifies as Indigenous peoples. And later in Ecuador (2007), which has one of the most well-established systems of Indigenous organizing in Latin America. We have learned from their experiences that when grassroots life principles are translated into the state politics, they become extremely contested.
Although Bolivia and Ecuador have profiled themselves internationally as defenders of the environment and Indigenous peoples, their real-life policies have drawn on neo-extractivism, as Indigenous scholar, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, has critically pointed out. Alongside US and European companies, Chinese, Indian, Russian, and Latin American corporations have actively partaken in the global resource rush.
Additionally, instead of transferring power to the Indigenous communities, state institutions have tended to concentrate power for themselves. The full agency and representation of Indigenous peoples have also been compromised by their co-optation to state institutions and party politics, instead of remaining autonomous.
If Colombia can resist the temptations of an unsustainable resource rush and the authoritarian populism gaining force in the region, as well as fully committing to supporting the diversity and agency of Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians, buen vivir and vivir sabroso policies have much better chances of succeeding than in fellow Latin American countries.
Ranta, E. M. (2017). Vivir Bien Governance in Bolivia: Chimera or Attainable Utopia? Third World Quarterly, 38(7), 1603–1618.
Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2015). Mito y desarrollo en Bolivia: El giro colonial del gobierno del MAS. Piedra Rota & Plural Editores.
Julián Barbosa is a final year PhD student in History at the Institute of Latin American Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin. He has worked as a university professor and researcher in the areas of regional political history, armed conflict, local powers, and state.
Local people as path leaders of “good living”
Buen vivir is a tool that communities and academics have created to stop the destructive advance of globalized economy in the ”Global south”. However, the interpretations by academia tend to ignore the internal dynamics experienced local people’s own aspirations for their territories.
The text rightly points out the need not to romanticize buen vivir approaches. Instead it suggests the need to comprehend the ways in which communities understand the transformations in their territories. The lives of people living in countries with difficult access to basic state services often move between survival, resistance and the desire to access services.
These groups, tend to demand basic services for their communities such as electricity, aqueducts, sewage systems and roads.
It is the local inhabitants who will be in charge of defining their ways of vivir sabroso beyond politics and theory.
The expectations that activists and academics place on leftist governments ragarding environmentally responsible practices should be carefully analyzed. This includes active participation of communities in influencing public policies to transform development models. Otherwise there is a risk of falling the same romanticization.
It is undoubtedly a good sign for historically conservative and racist societies that a progressive government has come to power. However, the dynamics of the political regime do not necessarily suggest that the active participation of minorities will be considered for processes of real transformation and inclusion of communities. The great transformations of societies require an understanding of territorial and regional particularities.
Buen vivir is permanently discussed in Colombian families, neighborhoods, and villages without outher the intervention. This although these communities do not recognize the concept of ”good living” as a practice. These approaches must be studied and understood to observe the local transformations of those who inhabit these spaces. It is these inhabitants who will be in charge of defining their ways of vivir sabroso beyond politics and theory.