In the Andean countries of Ecuador and Bolivia, indigenous worldviews that prioritise harmony with nature over economic development have been enshrined in law. The Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008 declares “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.” This “good way of living” (or Buen Vivir in Spanish) is rooted in the cosmovision of the Quechua peoples of the Andes, of “sumac kawsay”, a kichwa term which denotes the fullness of life, rooted in community and harmony with other people and nature.
The Bolivian Constitution of 2009 recognises Buen Vivir as a principle to guide state action. That same year, Bolivia led the UN General Assembly to proclaim April 22nd as ‘International Mother Earth Day’, and Bolivia’s 2011 Law of Mother Nature was the first national-level legislation in the world to bestow rights to the natural world.
As well as drawing from indigenous traditions, these constitutional and legal reforms build on alternative philosophies of development that reject the neoliberal logic of ‘extractivism’ – a view that sees the natural world largely as an inexhaustible supply of resources available for exploitation – for the ecological and social destruction it has wrought in Latin America. The reforms signal a move towards a developmental approach that prioritises ecological balance over relentless growth.
This rapid transition to the adoption of a different conception of human life and development began in the late 1990s, with a growing discontent in both countries around neoliberal market reforms. Through the early 2000s, progressive political movements grew that, for the first time, successfully brought together the traditional white working class left with the indigenous movement – forging powerful coalitions who supported the election of progressive candidates in both countries. Evo Morales, an indigenous leader, was elected President of Bolivia in 2006 and Rafael Correa, a middle-class mestizo intellectual who courted the support of indigenous groups, became President of Ecuador in 2007. Once in power, both Presidents worked closely with indigenous groups to introduce new constitutions that seek to reframe public policy in support of the rights of nature.
Alberto Acosta, the president of Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly that was charged with leading the development of the new constitution, said in reflection of the inclusion of Buen Vivir that “only by imagining other worlds will this one be changed”. The relevance of this rapid transition lies in the fact that two nations have dared to collectively dream of alternative worlds, and taken steps to put them in place.
The ancient values that are enshrined in the concept of Buen Vivir mark a radical departure from western conceptions of economic development in favour of ecological principles. In seeking balance and harmony with nature, Buen Vivir calls into question the very concept of development. In Andean indigenous ontology, there is no concept of linear progression through time, meaning that there can be no development as there can be no preliminary state of underdevelopment. The definition of “community” is also distinct from the Western conception of a social world of humans – as it also encompasses the natural world, dissolving the Western nature-society dualism and expanding citizenship to include the non-human world. Buen Vivir evokes a sense of the collective – the fullness of life of the community – and so is different to the Western idea of “well-being” which tends to focus on the individual. Quality of life is seen to involve a good spiritual life, with the right “to live and be loved” and “to have time for contemplation” included as guiding principles in Ecuador’s national planning documents.
By enshrining Buen Vivir and the rights of nature in their constitutions, Ecuador and Bolivia have taken a radical step in reframing the place of humans in the world, one that many consider to be vital for the global transition to a more ecologically balanced future. In so doing, these Andean nations have fundamentally reshaped the purpose of public policy and guiding principles of national planning.
Ecuador’s National Development Plan of 2009-13 sought to depart from a traditional neoliberal development model towards implementing the principles of Buen Vivir. The plan included a strategy for the development of a ‘biopolis’, a society based on ‘bio-knowledge’, eco-tourism and agro-ecological products – to be achieved via a four stage plan 1) selective substitution of imports; 2) use of clean energy to consolidate the energy surplus; 3) diversification and substitution of exports; and 4) deployment of bio-services and their technological implementation. Crucially, Bolivia’s Mother Nature law enshrines the right of nature “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”. These are significant steps even though, admittedly, the restructuring of the economic development models of both countries away from their traditional extractivist bases has not yet been achieved in practice.
Indigenous groups make up a significant portion of the populations of both Andean nations – in Bolivia, indigenous peoples form a majority at 71%, and in Ecuador a significant minority at 43%. Despite this fact, in both countries, indigenous peoples have historically been marginalised, with elites of mestizo or Spanish descent holding the reins of power since the colonial period.
Authoritarian rule throughout the 1960s and 1970s in both countries shut down the space for political organisation and resistance by leftist and indigenous movements. Democratisation from 1979 in Ecuador and 1982 in Bolivia opened up this space, but the main political parties continued to be dominated by white and mestizo elites that above all represented corporate interests and supported large scale extractive projects, which often had dire consequences for indigenous populations.
Both countries historically had looked to the United States for their economic development model, and were pressured into accepting Washington Consensus policies driven by the World Bank and IMF that saw the implementation of neoliberal market-driven policies and the shrinking of the state. As a result, both countries developed economies that were heavy dependent on commodity and extractive sector exports, making them highly vulnerable to fluctuations of international markets.
Towards the end of the Twentieth Century, economic and political instability in Ecuador had seen 8 presidents in a decade and the dollarization of the economy, accompanied by mass migration to the United States. At the turn of the century, both countries faced endemic levels of poverty and inequality, and a deepening resentment was felt by the poor and indigenous population for the longstanding struggles against the failing Western model of development and economic exploitation.
In both Ecuador and Bolivia, indigenous groups had long campaigned for the recognition of their rights and the protection of nature – but their worldview remained marginalised until the early 2000s. Key to this rapid transition in both countries was the emergence of charismatic leaders who championed the indigenous cause, and who were able to draw together a broad coalition of both indigenous and white/mestizo leftwing support.
Bolivia’s Evo Morales, of Aymara indigenous descent, had been raised in the Aymara tradition to respect mother nature – each day his parents would making offerings of coca leaves and alcohol to Pachamama at dawn. In the 1990s Morales was involved in the growing indigenous coca grower’s movement. In 1999, he founded the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and led protests against the government’s neoliberal policies, such as the privatisation of water and gas. MAS successfully merged indigenous demands such as land reform with a populist agenda focusing on unemployment and poverty – which led to a broad coalition of support amongst indigenous, poor and left wing white/mestizo groups that ultimately brought Morales to power.
Rafael Correa is not of indigenous descent, nor did he have a background in social movements, however, he ultimately relied upon a similar support base to Morales in Bolivia. The Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador (CONAIE) proposed the development of a new constitution that recognised indigenous rights – Correa adopted this proposal in his presidential campaign which won him the crucial support of CONAIE and much of the indigenous population of Ecuador. Once in power, both Morales and Correa set up constituent assemblies that had strong representation of indigenous groups.
Another relevant factor in both rapid transitions was the role of international actors in supporting the philosophical grounding behind the new constitutions. As well as drawing on indigenous traditions, the concept of Buen Vivir also draws from Western critiques of capitalism and environmental movements. The Ecuadorian constituent assembly was directly advised by the US-based Pachamama Alliance and the Community Environmental Legal Defence Fund. The Bolivian Assembly did not receive such direct support from international actors – but there was significant exchange between the two Andean countries through the development of their constitutional innovations.
It is important to note that there have been serious tensions in the practical application of the ideals espoused in the new Constitutions. Although to date significant advances have been made in both Ecuador and Bolivia to address poverty and inequality, both governments have fallen short of radically restructuring their economies in line with the ecological principles of Buen Vivir and the Rights of Nature. Both Presidents have relied heavily on traditional development strategies of income derived from nature resource exploitation to fund the social programmes that have been key to lifting their citizens out of poverty.
Morales, who nationalised the oil and gas sectors, and poured their profits into poverty reduction programmes is quoted to have said “I thank Mother Earth, the Pachamama, and ask her that the oil continues to appear”. Under Evo Morales, export revenues of Bolivia grew six-fold, from $2.2 billion just before of his election to $12.9 billion. Correa also renegotiated oil contracts to massively increase the share of the state’s profits from 50% to up to 99%.The mining and the agribusiness sectors also thrived under Correa, with the proportion of exports represented by raw materials increasing from 74.3% in 2007 to 83% in 2014. In particular, the rollback of the commitment not to drill for oil in Yasuni National park and crackdowns on indigenous and environmental groups, cast doubt on the Ecuadorian Government’s commitment to the principles enshrined in the constitution. Morales has also faced clashes with indigenous groups over development plans for a major motorway that was planned to cross indigenous territories – ultimately forcing the suspension of the project.
The Ecuadorian National Plan of 2013-17 began by stating “Buen Vivir is our horizon”. Advocates and supporters would argue that this remains to be the case, although the road may be uneven, and there is still a long way to go.
1. Broad coalitions of progressive actors – from indigenous and other backgrounds, white and mestizo – came together in support of an alternative view of development that seeks to prioritise ecological balance over economic growth.
2. “Only by imagining other worlds can this one be changed” – a fundamental shift in our understanding of the world and humanity’s place within it is possible, and has been articulated at a national scale in two democratic countries.
3. Charismatic leaders can be catalysts of change, but there are risks in relying too much on individual figureheads to drive forward radical structural reforms. Despite leading the adoption of ecologically-progressive constitutions, leaders of both countries have compromised on the ecological principles they championed in favour of economic activities ostensibly aimed at tackling poverty in the short term.
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