Monday, November 19, 2012

The Buen Vivir concept - more than just Dolce Vita

My conference this weekend was extremely interesting, both from the agricultural perspective (although not many new-to-me points were brought up, I think a lot of the other participants that did not come from a food/ag background learned a lot) as from the larger Latin American context. There were many topics brought up that could be discussed in-depth, but I wanted to learn and write more about a socio-cultural and socio-political concept that I had never previously encountered: that of Buen Vivir. I listened to a presentation by Thomas Fatheuer and have most of my information from this presentation as well as his (very recommendable) publication with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on the topic. 

"Buen Vivir" entered the socio-political discourse in the Andean countries of Bolivia and Ecuador after the election of left-oriented, progressive governments under Rafael Correa (elected 2006 in Ecuador) and Evo Morales (the Bolivian president since 2005). In an attempt to break with their past - both with (neo-)colonialism and the more recent neoliberalism -, both countries adopted new constitutions in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and the constitutional project that lasted from 2006 to 2008 saw considerable democratic and indigenous consultation about these so-called "transitive" constitutions: constitutions geared towards change that "create new worlds with words". They were supposed to not only document the status-quo, but also create a conceptual road map and answer questions such as "where do we want our country to go in the future? What do we care about? What is our vision of society?"

This is where "Buen Vivir" comes into play. Based on the indigenous traditionally close connection of humans with nature, on an ideal focused not on development and growth but on an equilibrium condition known in Quechua as Sumak Kausay, the concept recognizes the rights of nature and moves away from an anthropocentric view of sustainability. From this viewpoint, the "good life" is a life in community and solidarity with others - both human and non-human-, with respect for the diversity of preferences and needs, based on harmony and reciprocity. According to the President of the Constitutional Assembly of Ecuador, Alberto Acosta, “Buen Vivir is a category in the life philosophy of indigenous societies that has lost ground due to the effects of Western rationality’s practices and messages. Nevertheless, without committing the error of false idealization, it makes an important contribution as an invitation to accept other practices and wisdom.” 

The impressive side of the story in my eyes is that this indigenous viewpoint not only exists on a societal, non-governmental level, but has been enshrined in the constitutions of both countries (considering that indigenous peoples constitute large proportions of the population of both Ecuador and Bolivia, and are even in the majority in Bolivia, this is a very positive example of actual representative democracy). Ecuador's constitution defines Buen Vivir as one of its central objectives - including both the equivalent to the UN - ESC rights (economic, social and cultural), but also the definition that “Buen Vivir requires that individuals, communities, peoples and nations are in actual possession of their rights and exercise their responsibilities in the context of interculturalism, respect for diversity and of harmonious coexistence with nature” (Article 275). And true to its plurinational objectives, the constitution of Bolivia refers to a multitude of indigenous concepts such as : amaqhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (do not be lazy, do not lie, do not steal), suma qamaña (vive bien), ñandereko (vida armoniosa – harmonious life), teko kavi (vida buena), ivi maraei (tierra sin mal – Earth without evil, also translated as‘intact environment’), and  qhapaj ñan  (Camino o vida noble – the path of wisdom).

The application of these practices in reality is complex and controversial, especially since a period of neo-extractivism has arrived in Latin America in which it is tempting to exploit natural resources in order to finance (amongst others) social projects. But our presentation did also mention a fascinating attempt at a direct translation of principles into practice - the Yasuni ITT initiative.

File:Mono ardilla - Saimiri sciureus.jpg

The Ecuadorian rainforest is a haven of biodiversity. Image By ggallice (Geoff Gallice)
[CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a proposal by the Ecuadorian government under the general concept of accounting for Net Avoided Emissions in the fight for climate change. The principle is easy - Ecuador agrees to aims to leave 20% of the country’s oil reserves, located in the Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini oil block at the Yasuni National Park, un-exploited. Not only could valuable eco-systems be saved, this 'pact' would also avoid the emission of 407 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In return, the international community would pay Ecuador 50% of the expected returns on the oil if exploited, thereby paying for 'Avoided Emissions', while Ecuador would agree to contribute the other 50% as an act of good global citizenship. The plan was proposed by Ecuador in 2007, and the global concept of Net Avoided Emissions was presented at COP 16, the meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun in 2010. There is a UNDP-administered trust fund that started up in 2010 as well that is aiming to raise $3.6 billion over 13 years until 2024. Though from what I found online the fund-raising efforts are still at the very beginning, the initiative is going strong, and lobbying around the world (for example recently at the World Economic Forum in Dubai) for some more global citizenship. I hope they don't give up! 

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