By Mara Precoma
When trying to understand the cultural and political context within which Two Rivers Reserve operates, it is helpful to familiarize oneself with the concept of buen vivir. Those who have heard of buen vivir have likely come across the “fun” fact that Ecuador’s Constitution bestows rights upon nature. While this is true, there is much more to buen vivir – an idea with revolutionary potential.
Buen vivir is best understood as an umbrella term for a set of different, context-dependent positions. It is loosely translatable into “good living,” but the inadequacy of this translation already points out that buen vivir is far from the western notion of wellbeing which prioritizes the individual. Buen vivir describes a community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive way of life. This worldview is embedded in various Indigenous belief systems across South America, but it is also expressed by critical movements such as feminist thought or environmentalism. Two of the most well-known approaches to buen vivir are the Ecuadorian Kichwa concept of sumak kawsay and the Bolivian Aymara concept of suma qamaña, both Andean conceptions of life which value diversity and a harmonious relationship with nature.
In its more abstract form, buen vivir constitutes a philosophy. It tries to overcome the artificially created dichotomy between society and nature which has resulted in an understanding of nature as an inanimate object which can be sold and owned. Buen vivir advocates for cohabitation with others and nature. At the same time, buen vivir proposes an alternative model of economic development and societal organization. It prioritizes the collective over the individual, the community over the self. As opposed to a consumption-based and profit-driven market economy, buen vivir promotes reciprocity, redistribution and small-scale, local production. It acknowledges that each product comes with a social and environmental price; one which South America pays all too often as its resources are exploited in order to satisfy a global market. Buen vivir also encompasses the legal and political recognition of diversity and the celebration of cultural pluralism. In Ecuador, for example, Indigenous movements are promoting the idea of a plurinational state.
Buen vivir asks for transformations. Not just transformations of the economy, the political and legal system, education or the health sector, but transformations of thought and changes to the ways in which we perceive our surroundings. Rather than a strict blueprint, it is a platform for critical thinking and alternative visions.
Ecuador has shown that buen vivir can be translated into practical strategies. In 2008, the country included buen vivir in its Constitution. Together, economy, politics and society are to promote and protect the principles of sumak kawsay. In Ecuador’s Constitution, buen vivir does not just constitute an ethical principle, it represents a set of rights. Breaking with traditional patterns of environmental protection, nature itself is attributed rights. The Constitution states that “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence” (Article 71).
Knowing of the continued environmental degradation which takes place under the eyes of the Ecuadorian government, a puzzling contradiction emerges. With regard to environmental protection, Ecuador’s Constitution seems to be an aspirational document at best. This is why the conservation work of organizations such as Two Rivers Reserve takes on such an importance. However – and this point is not to be underestimated – the constitutional appointment of the Rights of Nature authorizes a rhetoric which legitimizes the public performance of rights claiming, an important step towards the lasting implementation of any claim. Buen vivir is hope, after all.
Balch, Oliver (2013): “Buen Vivir: The Social Philosophy Inspiring Movements in South America.” The Guardian, 4 Feb. 2013, www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas.
De La Cadena, Marisol (2010): “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics’.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 334–70.
Gudynas, Eduardo (2011): “Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow.” Development, vol. 54, no. 4, pp. 441-47.
República del Ecuador (2011): “Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador.” Political Database of the Americas, 31 Jan. 2011, https://pdba.georgetown.edu/Constitutions/Ecuador/english08.html.