To overcome the systemic crisis of humanity and Mother Earth we must turn to indigenous ecological concepts, says Pablo Solón in his new book
by Richard Fidler
In his balance sheet of Bolivia’s “process of change,” published recently on this site, Bolivian intellectual and activist Pablo Solón advanced some proposals for a new course inspired by the ideas of Vivir Bien, a philosophy associated with the indigenous peoples of the Andean countries of South America. Vivir Bien, roughly translated as “living well,” is incorporated as a guiding principle of the state in the new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia.
Ecuador’s constitution refers to it as Buen Vivir and describes it as “a new form of citizen cohabitation, in diversity and harmony with nature.”
Bolivia’s constitution defines it in general terms as an ethical or moral principle of the plural society, in which the state is said to be “based on the values of unity, equality, inclusion, dignity, liberty, solidarity, reciprocity, respect, interdependence, harmony, transparency, equilibrium, equality of opportunity, social and gender equality in participation, common welfare, responsibility, social justice, distribution and redistribution of the social wealth and assets for well being.” (Art. 8)
In a book published in August, Solón elaborates on these ideas in presenting what he terms a “systemic alternative,” one of many on offer today, he says, such as ecosocialism, degrowth, ecofeminism, etc. My translation of the book is posted below. A pdf version of the English translation is available here.
Vivir Bien (sumaq qamaña in Aymara, sumak kawsay in Quechua) is an intellectual construct based on a contemporary understanding of how precolonial peoples lived, with their cosmovisions, knowledges, representations, their rationality, everything in relation to their material situation and their relation to Nature.
It is derived from oral traditions handed down often clandestinely over more than 500 years from societies whose material bases, cultures and visions of the world were almost destroyed by colonization and later republican regimes established by the white creole settlers — a genocide combined with ethnocide.
Vivir Bien borrows from surviving traditions of communal living in indigenous rural and agrarian communities. It is a concept under permanent construction and reconstruction, especially in societies like Bolivia’s, where the indigenous are not only a majority of the population but are now predominantly urban, and where the governing party’s professed adherence to a “socialist horizon” in its development policy purports to build on the precolonial precepts of buen vivir.
As this suggests, Buen Vivir encompasses a number of concepts that sit in uneasy coexistence. On the one hand, it is philosophically a critique of modernity and the idea of linear progress through constant expansion of material production of commodities. It questions the ontology of the West and its scientific and technological vision of historical progress, its anthropocentric vision of development. But it also advances proposals for cultural, economic, and political reconstruction of society that often seem akin to a redefined modernity.
It is based on a utopian concept of community space in which there is reciprocity and co-existence in harmony, social responsibility, consensus — a new model of life applicable not just to the indigenous peoples but to the entire planet. It implies social equality, equity, solidarity, justice, peace. In short, a harmonious relationship between humanity and with Madre Tierra. Given the inherent competition, violence and ecological devastation of capitalist society, Vivir Bien as an objective is necessarily a vision of a post-capitalist society.
The concept emerged with new force on the state and political level in the last few decades as the indigenous peoples came to the fore in vast social struggles directed against the destruction of ecosystems, industries, public services and societies under the neoliberal phase of capitalism, and in the search for concepts opposed to its logic.
In this sense, it is anticapitalist and ecological. And as such it has informed the programs of governments and parties that self-define as socialist (as in Bolivia under Evo Morales and his Movement for Socialism) and (at the same time) of intellectual and activist movements developing in opposition to the economic reliance of all countries in Latin America on extraction and export of natural resources, both non-renewable (hydrocarbons, mining) and renewable (agribusiness) with their ecologically destructive consequences.
Indigenous societies are not a homogeneous bloc, nor are they socio-cultural islands within the broader society. So their interpretations of Buen Vivir differ. Many defenders of sumaq qamaña and sumak kawsay are suspicious of the materialist aspects of socialism, which tend to treat nature as both use value and exchange value. Some look not for alternative development but alternatives to development.
But other Buen Vivir proponents see parallels with the ecosocialism of Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy, or “socialism of the 21st century” (Hugo Chávez), building on Karl Marx’s concept of how capitalism provokes separation between man and nature, making nature a pure object for humans, a simple thing of use. It is often forgotten that Marx spoke of communism as the reconciliation of man with nature, a dialectical return to their unity. This current points to ways in which underlying concepts of Buen Vivir indicate a path toward fighting climate crisis.
If I read him correctly, Pablo Solón has a greater affinity with the latter approach than he has with the “anti-extractivists” who are seeking alternatives to development tout court. In a subsequent article, I will discuss how the MAS government describes its strategy for development, the goal of which, it says, is “communitarian socialism toward Vivir Bien.”
Solón, who writes as a partisan of Bolivia’s “process of change,” broadly defined, presents his approach as an alternative to the government’s current development agenda, one that is more consistent with the original objectives of Vivir Bien. I would argue, however, that his concept also has much in common with communitarian socialism as described by the MAS, although not necessarily with the government’s practice.
 ¿Es posible el Vivir Bien?: Reflexiones a Quema Ropa sobre Alternativas Sistémicas (La Paz, Fundación Solón, 2016).
 François Houtart, “The concept of Sumak Kawsay (Living Well) and how it relates to the Common Good of Humanity.” An abridged English version is available as chapter 4 of Birgit Daiber and François Houtart (ed.), A post-capitalist paradigm: The common good of humanity” (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Brussels) A note explains that this paper was prepared for the Institution of Superior National Studies on behalf of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ecuador, 2011.
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Is Vivir Bien possible?
Candid Thoughts about Systemic Alternatives
by Pablo Solón
Why systemic alternatives?
We are living through a systemic crisis that can only be overcome through systemic alternatives. It is not only an environmental, economic, social or institutional crisis that confronts humanity. It is a crisis of humanity and of the Earth as a system. It is a systemic crisis caused by a set of factors, an egregious one being the capitalist system’s relentless search for profits at the expense of the planet and humanity. This system is leading to the extinction of species, to major losses of biodiversity, to the degradation of the human being; it is exceeding the absolute limits of nature. It is not a cyclical crisis, or even a crisis of capitalism, which in the wake of a depression will recover to continue its expansion, setting new records of growth. It is a much more profound crisis which has extended to all aspects of life on Earth and which now has its own dynamic without the possibility of reversal within the framework of the capitalist system.
Our most urgent task, if we wish to stop this collapse of life, is to overcome capitalism. Far from imploding from its internal contradictions, capitalism is reconfiguring itself and will continue its pursuit of profit until it has squeezed the last drop of blood from people and planet. Everything can be commodified. Everything is converted into a business “opportunity”: natural disasters, financial speculation, militarism, human trafficking, war, etc. Capitalism knows no limits. Super-exploitation, overconsumption and waste are the principal motors of this system as it pursues infinite growth in a finite planet. Increasing inequality and the destruction of vital cycles of nature are its legacy.
The alternatives to this system can only be constructed if we deepen our understanding of the process by which capitalism reconfigures itself. Capitalism has shown that it has great flexibility to adapt, capture, remodel and create ways out for itself. What begins as an idea or a progressive movement is coopted, transformed and incorporated in order to maintain and reproduce the system. The challenge is to build alternative societies capable of breaking with the logic of capital and of avoiding cooptation by capitalism. The alternatives do not arise in a vacuum, they emerge in the struggles, experiences, initiatives, victories, defeats and resurgence of social movements. The alternatives arise in an often contradictory process of analysis, practice and proposals that are validated in reality.
There is no single alternative. There are many. Some come from the indigenous peoples, such as “Vivir Bien.” Others, such as “degrowth,” are being built in industrialized societies that have gone beyond the limits of the planet. The “global justice” movement is a reaction to the globalization of the transnational corporations. “Ecosocialism” is an attempt to rethink alternatives from a non-anthropocentric perspective. “Food sovereignty” is a proposal that develops the concrete alternatives originating among the small farmers, peasants and indigenous peoples. “Ecofeminism” contributes the women’s dimension that is essential to overcoming the patriarchy linked with anthropocentrism. The “rights of Mother Earth” are designed to construct new relationships with nature. The concept of “the commons” emphasizes the self-management of human communities. The “economy of solidarity,” the “economy for life,” the “economy of transition”... all of them contribute from various perspectives. Each has strengths, limitations, contradictions and points in common. All are ideas under construction. They are pieces in a puzzle that has many responses, and that will constantly change with the worsening of the systemic crisis. Our purpose is to understand these alternatives in their process of development, to identify their potentialities, and to look for the complementarity among these distinct visions in order to tackle the systemic crisis.
In what follows we will focus on one of these ideas: Vivir Bien (Bolivia), Buen Vivir (Ecuador), sumaq qamaña (Aymara) or sumak kawsay (Quechua). Our objective is to analyze the way in which the concept of Vivir Bien is constructed, to point to some of its essential elements in the construction of systemic alternatives, to assess how it has been implemented in Bolivia and Ecuador — with greater emphasis on the first country owing to the author’s involvement and knowledge — and attempt to reply to a question that many are asking after a decade of progressive governments in the Andes: Is Vivir Bien possible beyond the indigenous community? After a decade of governments that embraced this indigenous vision, are we closer to understanding and implementing it? And if we have lost our way, how can we return to the path of Vivir Bien?
Development of the concept
Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir is a process that has passed through different stages of enchantment and disenchantment. Vivir Bien is a concept under construction, one that is disputed. Big business institutions now speak of Vivir Bien, but in a way that is very different from what its promotors imagined more than a decade ago in the fight against neoliberalism. Vivir Bien is a space of polemic and controversy in which there is no single absolute truth. There are many truths as well as countless lies that today are canonized in the name of Vivir Bien.
The concept of Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir has gone through different phases. Three decades ago almost no one in South America was talking about this vision. What existed then was the Aymara sumaq qamaña and the Quechua sumak kawsay, which express a set of ideas centered in the systems of knowledge, practice and organization of the native peoples of the Andes of South America. Sumaq qamaña and sumak kawsay were living realities of the Andean communities, the subject of studies by anthropologists and Aymara and Quechua intellectuals. During almost the entire 20th century this vision went unnoticed by broad sectors of the left and the workers’ organizations, especially in urban areas.
Sumaq qamaña and sumak kawsay had arisen some centuries earlier and still continued to exist in Andean communities, although retreating ever more under the pressure of modernity and developmentalism. Among other indigenous peoples of Latin America there also existed similar visions and terms such as Teko Kavi and Ñandereko of the Guaraní, Shiir Waras of the Shuar and Küme Mongen of the Mapuche.
The concept of Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir began to emerge and be theorized toward the late 20th and early 21st century. Perhaps sumaq qamaña and sumak kawsay would never have given origin to Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir without the devastating development of neoliberalism and the Washington consensus. The failure of Soviet socialism, the absence of alternative paradigms, the advance of the privatizations and the commodification of so many spheres of nature inspired a process of relearning the indigenous practices and visions that had been devalued by capitalist modernity.
This process of revalorization occurred in both theory and practice. The dismissal of tens of thousands of workers through the application of the neoliberal measures provoked a change in the class structures of the Andean countries of South America. In the case of Bolivia, the miners who for almost a century were the vanguard of all the social sectors were relocated and in their place the indigenous peoples and peasants came to the fore.
The indigenous struggle in defense of their territories not only generated solidarity but awakened interest in understanding this self-managing vision of their territories. Sectors of the left and progressive intellectuals that had lost their own utopias through the fall of the Berlin wall began to take a close look at what could be learned from these indigenous cosmovisions. That is how the concept of Vivir Bien and Buen Vivir emerged. In reality, both terms are incomplete and insufficient translations of sumaq qamaña or sumak kawsay, which have a more complex set of meanings such as “plentiful life,” “sweet life,” “harmonious life,” “sublime life,” “inclusive life” or “to know how to live.”
Vivir Bien and Buen Vivir, as new concepts, had not yet matured when suddenly a new phase began with the arrival of the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006) and Rafael Correa in Ecuador (2007). The terms were institutionalized by both countries in the new state constitutions and transformed into referents for various normative and institutional reforms. Vivir Bien came to be a central part of the official discourse and the national development plans of both countries incorporated the terms as references.
The triumph of these concepts at a constitutional level prompted the complementarity of alternatives with other visions, such as Thomas Berry’s “Earth Jurisprudence,” generating the development of new proposals like the rights of Mother Earth and the rights of nature, which had not been present originally in Vivir Bien. The impact of Vivir Bien was so strong that a set of other systemic alternatives internationally like degrowth, communes, ecosocialism and the like turned their attention to this vision.
However, this constitutional triumph of Vivir Bien was also the beginning of a new phase of controversies, and the central one came to be its concrete application in the reality of both countries. This new stage, which initially was accompanied by great hopes, very quickly turned into profound disputes. Is Vivir Bien really being applied? Are we moving toward this objective or have we lost our way?
The application of Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir, which both governments proclaimed nationally and internationally, led to a redefinition of the concept. What really is Vivir Bien? Is it an alternative vision to extractivism or is it a new form of development, more human and friendly to nature?
In Bolivia and Ecuador alike there now exist different interpretations of what is meant by Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir. Simplistically, we can say that in actuality we have an official vision, another one that is challenging and rebellious, and still another that is passable even for financial institutions like the World Bank. As the years pass, the positions and differences have become sharper. Today important longstanding proponents of Vivir Bien in both countries think the respective governments are not practicing Buen Vivir and broad sectors of the population think these alternatives have remained only in the discourse. Vivir Bien as a paradigm in both countries is in crisis because it has lost credibility in their societies. However, its essence subsists and still nurtures processes of national and international thinking.
Is Vivir Bien really possible at the level of a country or a region? After a decade of governments claiming adherence to Vivir Bien, what are the errors committed and the lessons to be drawn? How can we advance toward a practice that accords more with the postulates of this vision?
We do not know what the future of Vivir Bien will be. Perhaps it will end as mere distractionist rhetoric or as a new form of conceptualization of sustainable development. Today the governments of Ecuador and Bolivia want the concept to adjust to their practice, and not for their policies to actually follow the subversive road of Vivir Bien. In the attempt to canonize their vision of Vivir Bien, they have in their favour innumerable media and the complicity of international institutions that have seen that the best strategy for blurring this proposal is to appropriate it in their language.
In this context of controversy, relearning and an uncertain future it is fundamental to go to the essence of this proposal if we are to advance in its actual implementation.
The core elements
There is no decalogue of Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir. Any attempt to define it in absolute terms would stifle this proposal under construction. What we can do is to approximate its essence. Buen Vivir is not a set of cultural, social, environmental and economic prescriptions but a complex and dynamic mixture that starts from a philosophical conception of time and space and proceeds toward a cosmovision pertaining to the relation between human beings and nature.
In this document we do not pretend to address all of its facets but rather to focus on those that can be central to the theoretical and practical construction of systemic alternatives. In our opinion the strength of Vivir Bien in comparison with other alternatives like the communes, degrowth, eco-feminism, deglobalization, ecosocialism, etc., is in the following elements: (1) its vision of the whole or the Pacha; (2) coexisting in multipolarity; (3) the pursuit of equilibrium; (4) the complementarity of diverse subjects; and (5) decolonization.
The whole and the Pacha
The point of departure of any systemic alternative transformation is its comprehension of the whole. What is the totality in which the process of transformation we wish to undertake operates? Can we carry out a profound change in one country alone? Can we be successful if we focus only on economic, social and institutional aspects? Is the global capitalist system the whole subject matter or is it part of a larger whole?
For Vivir Bien the whole is the Pacha. This Andean concept has often been translated simply as Earth. That is why we speak of Pachamama as Mother Earth. However, Pacha is a much broader concept that includes the indissoluble unity of space and time. Pacha is the whole in constant movement, it is the cosmos in a permanent state of becoming. Pacha refers not only to the world of humans, animals and plants but also to the world above (Hanan Pacha), inhabited by the sun, the moon and the stars, and the world below (Ucu Pacha), where the dead and the spirits live. For Vivir Bien all of this is interconnected and the whole makes up a unity.
In this space the past, present and future co-exist and interrelate dynamically. The Andean vision of time does not follow Newton’s mechanics, which state that time is a coordinate independent of space and a magnitude that is identical for each observer. To the contrary, this cosmovision reminds us of Einstein’s famous sentence: “The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.” Within the concept of the Pacha the past is always present and is recreated by the future.
For Vivir Bien time and space are not lineal but cyclical. The lineal notions of growth and progress are not compatible with that vision. Time advances in the form of a spiral. The future is connected with the past. In any advance there is a return and any return is an advance. Hence, as the Aymara say, let us walk with our backs toward the future and our eyes on the past.
This spiral vision of time questions the very essence of the notion of “development,” of always advancing toward a higher point, of the search to always be better. This ascendant becoming is a fiction for Vivir Bien. Any advance involves turns, nothing is eternal, everything is transformed and is a re-encounter of the past, present and future.
In the Pacha there is no separation between living beings and inert bodies, all have life. Life can only be explained by the relation between all the parts of the whole. There is no dichotomy between living beings and simple objects. Similarly, there is no separation between human beings and nature. All are part of nature and the Pacha as an entirety has life.
According to Josef Estermann, the Pacha
“is not a machine or a giant mechanism that organizes itself and moves simply by mechanical laws, as stated by the modern European philosophers, especially Descartes and his followers. Pacha is rather a living organism in which all parts are related to one another, in constant interdependence and exchange. The basic principle of any ‘development’ should be, then, life (kawsay, qamaña, jakaña) in its totality, not only that of humans or animals and plants, but of the whole Pacha.”
The objective of human beings is not to control nature but to care for nature as one cares for the mother who has given you life. That is the sense of the expression “Mother Earth.” Society cannot be understood in relation to human beings alone; it is a community that has nature and the whole at its centre. We are the community of the Pacha, the community of an indissoluble whole in a permanent process of cyclical change.
Suma qamaña and sumak kawsay are Pachacentric, not anthropocentric. The recognition and relevance to the whole is the key to Vivir Bien. The Andean cosmovision places the principle of “totality” at the core of its existence.
Vivir Bien means we have to centre ourselves on all aspects of life. Material life is only one aspect and cannot be reduced to the accumulation of things and objects. We have to learn to eat well, dance well, sleep well, drink well, to practice one’s beliefs, work for the community, take care of nature, appreciate elders, respect whatever surrounds us and learn as well how to die, because death is an integral part of the cycle of life. In the Aymara way of thinking, there is no death as understood in the West, in which the body disappears into a hell or a heaven. Here death is just another moment of life, because one lives anew in the mountains or the depths of the lakes or rivers.
In this sense, the whole has a spiritual dimension in which the conceptions of self, of the community and of nature are based on and linked cyclically in space and time. To live in accordance with the whole means living with emotion, concern, self-understanding and empathy toward others.
This cosmovision has a series of concrete implications. Namely, favourable policies are those that take account of the whole and not only some parts. To act only according to the interests of one part (humans, countries of the North), elites, material accumulation, etc.) will inevitably generate imbalances in the whole. Any measure must try to understand the multiple dimensions and interrelations of all the parts.
Coexisting in multipolarity
In the Vivir Bien vision, there is a duality in everything since everything has contradictory pairs. Pure good does not exist, good and bad always coexist. Everything is and is not. The individual and the community are two poles of the same unit. An individual is a person only in as much as he or she works for the common good of his or her community. Without community there is no individual and without singular beings there is no community. A person is not strictly speaking a person without his or her partner. The election of authorities is by twos: man-woman, as a couple. This bipolarity or multipolarity of partners is present in everything. The individual-community polarity is immersed in the humanity-nature polarity. The community is a community not only of humans but of non-humans.
Vivir Bien is learning to live together in this duality. The challenge is not “to be” but “to learn to interrelate with the other contradictory parts of the whole. Existence is not something given but a relational concept.
In the Andean communities individual private property coexists with communal property. There are differences and tensions between members of a community. To manage those tensions various cultural practices are carried out oriented to producing certain levels of redistribution. This means, for example, that the wealthiest pay for the fiesta of the entire community or are responsible for other acts or services that benefit everyone.
And there are the distinct practices of collaboration within the community. In the Minka everyone performs collective labour for the community. In the Ayni some members of the community support others and in return the latter repay this with support to the former during the seeding, the harvest or in some other way. In the Andean communities, the principal milestones are not limited only to the individual or his or her family, but are shared with the entire community. When a child is born, the whole community celebrates. Marriage is not only the union of two persons but the union of two families or communities.
The indigenous communities worldwide are very diverse. They vary from region to region and country to country. But notwithstanding their differences they share the sense of responsibility and belonging to their communities. The worst punishment is to be expelled from the community; it is worse than death because it is to lose your membership, your essence, your identity. In contrast to this indigenous practice, the western societies tend to focus on the individual, on personal success, on the rights of the individual and above all on the protection of one’s private property through laws and institutions.
Vivir Bien is not egalitarian; that is an illusion because inequalities and differences always exist. The key thing is not to remove them but to coexist with them, to prevent inequalities and differences from becoming more acute and polarizing until they destabilize the whole. In the framework of this vision the fundamental thing is to learn or relearn to live in community respecting the multipolarity of the whole.
Vivir Bien is a call to redefine what we mean by “well-bing.” To be rich or poor is a condition, to be human is an essential characteristic. Vivir Bien is concerned less with “well-being” (the condition of the person) and more with the “being well” (the essence of the person).
The pursuit of equilibrium
For Vivir Bien the objective is the pursuit of equilibrium among the various elements that make up the whole — a harmony not only between human beings but also between humans and nature, between the material and the spiritual, between knowledge and wisdom, between diverse cultures and between different identities and realities.
Vivir Bien is not a version of development that is simply more democratic, non-anthropocentric, holistic or humanizing. This cosmovision has not embraced the notion of progress of the western civilizations. In opposition to permanent growth it pursues equilibrium. This equilibrium is not eternal or permanent. Any equilibrium will give rise to new contradictions and disparities that call for new actions to rebalance things. That is the principal source of the movement, of the cyclical change in space-time. The pursuit of harmony between human beings and with Mother Earth is not the search for an idyllic state but the raison d’être of the entirety.
This equilibrium is not similar to the stability that capitalism promises to achieve through continuous growth. Stability, just like permanent growth, is an illusion. Sooner or later any growth without limits will produce severe upheavals in the Pacha, as we are seeing now in the planet. Equilibrium always is dynamic. The objective is not to arrive at a perfect equilibrium without contradictions, such does not exist. Everything moves in cycles, is a point of arrival and departure for the new disequilibria, for new and more complex contradictions and complementarities.
Vivir Bien is not to achieve a paradise, but to pursue the well-being of everyone, the dynamic and changing equilibrium of the whole. Only by understanding the whole in its multiple components and in its becoming is it possible to contribute to the search for new equilibria and to live in conformity with Vivir Bien.
According to Josef Estermann, in the Andean vision human beings are not owners or producers but rather “caretakers” (Arariwa), “cultivators” and “facilitators.” The only force that is strictly productive is Mother Earth, the Pachamama, and its various elements such as water, minerals, hydrocarbons and energy in general. Human beings do not “produce” or “create,” they cultivate or grow what Pachamama gives them. Human beings are those who help to give birth to Mother Earth. The role of humans is to be a bridge (chakana), a mediator that contributes to the pursuit of equilibrium, cultivating with wisdom what nature has given us. The challenge is not to be more or have more but to search continuously for equilibrium between the different parts of the community of the Earth.
This essential component of Vivir Bien has major implications because not only does it challenge the dominant paradigm of growth but it promotes a concrete alternative with the pursuit of equilibrium. A society is vigorous not by its growth but because it contributes to equilibrium both between human beings and with nature. It is fundamental in this process to overcome the concept of human beings as “producers,” “conquerors,” and “transformers” of nature, and to substitute that of “caretakers,” “cultivators,” and “mediators” of nature.
The complementarity of diverse subjects
Equilibrium between contraries that inhabit a whole can only be achieved through complementarity. Not by canceling the other but by complementing it. Complementarity means seeing the difference as part of a whole. The objective is how, between these different parts, some of which are antagonistic, we can complement and complete the totality. Difference and particularity are part of nature and life. We shall never all be equal. What we must do is to respect diversity and find ways to articulate experiences, knowledges and ecosystems.
Capitalism operates under a very different dynamic. According to the logic of capital, what is fundamental is competition to increase efficiency. Whatever restricts or limits competition is negative. Competition will ensure that each industry or country specializes in something in which it can gain. In the end each will become more efficient at something and will encourage innovation and increase productivity.
From the perspective of complementarity, competition is negative because some win and others lose, unbalancing the totality. Complementarity seeks optimization through the combination of strengths. The more one works together with the other, the greater is the resilience of each and of all. Complementarity is not neutrality between opposites but recognition of the possibilities that provide the diversity to balance the whole.
In concrete terms this means that instead of seeking efficiency through equal rules for unequal groups, industries or countries, we should promote asymmetrical rules that favour the most disadvantaged so that all can rise. Vivir Bien is the encounter of diversity. “Knowing how to live” is to practice pluriculturalism, to recognize and learn from difference without arrogance or prejudice.
Accepting diversity means that in our world there are other Buen Vivires in addition to the Andean version. Those Buen Vivires survive in the wisdom, knowledge and practices of peoples who are pursuing their own identity. Vivir Bien is a plural concept, both in the recognition of human pluriculturalism and in the existence of diversity of ecosystems in nature (Gudynas and Acosta, 2014). Vivir Bien proposes an intercultural encounter between different cultures. There is no single alternative. There are many, which complement each other in order to make up systemic alternatives.
Vivir Bien is not a utopian regression to the past, but the recognition that in the history of humanity there have been, there are and there will be other forms of cultural, economic and social organization that can contribute to overcoming the present systemic crisis to the extent that they complement each other.
In the vision of Vivir Bien there is a continual struggle for decolonization. The Spanish conquest 500 years ago initiated a new cycle. That colonization did not end with the processes of independence and constitution of the republics in the 19th century, but it continues under new forms and structures of domination.
To decolonize is to dismantle those political, economic, social, cultural and mental systems that still rule. Decolonization is a long-term process that does not happen once and forever. We can achieve independence from a foreign power and be more dependent on its economic hegemony. We can conquer a certain economic sovereignty yet continue being culturally subjugated. We can be fully acknowledged in our cultural identity by the new Bolivian constitution and yet continue to be prisoners of a western consumerist vision. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the decolonization process: liberating our minds and souls, which have been captured by false and alien concepts.
To build Vivir Bien we have to decolonize our territories and our being. The decolonization of territory means self-management and self-determination at all levels. Decolonization of the being is even more complex and includes overcoming many beliefs and values that impede our re-encounter with the Pacha.
In this context, the first step in Vivir Bien is to see with our own eyes, to think by ourselves, and to dream with our own dreams. A key point of departure is to encounter our roots, our identity, our history and our dignity. To decolonize is to reclaim our life, to recover the horizon. To decolonize is not to return to the past but to put the past in the present, to transform memory as an historical subject. As Rafael Bautista puts it,
“The linear course of time of modern physics is no longer of use to us; that is why we need a revolution in thinking, as part of the change. The past is not what is left behind and the future is not what is coming. The more we are conscious of the past the greater the possibility of producing the future. The real subject of history is not the past as past but the present, because the present is what always needs a future and a past.”
Vivir Bien is a plea to recover the past in order to redeem the future, amplifying the overlooked voices of the communities and Mother Earth.
Decolonization means rejecting an unjust status quo and recovering our capacity to look deeply so as not to be trapped by colonial categories that limit our imagination. To decolonize is to respond to the injustices that are committed against other beings (human and non-human), to break down the false limits between humanity and the natural world, to say aloud whatever we think, to overcome the fear of being different, and to restore the dynamic and contradictory equilibrium that has been shattered by a dominant system and way of thinking.
Constitutionalization and implementation
Any institutionalization and formalization of a cosmovision always entails a dismemberment of that vision. Some aspects will be featured and others left aside. Some meanings will stand out while others are lost. In the end there remains a mutilated corpus that may reach a wider audience although it is incomplete.
That is what occurred with Vivir Bien and Buen Vivir under the governments of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. For the first time, after centuries of exclusion, the indigenous peoples’ vision was recognized and incorporated as a core element in the political agendas of both countries. Suma qamaña and sumak kawsay were made central points of reference in the official discourse. Everything began to be done in its name.
Vivir Bien and Buen Vivir were included, in differing wording, in the new constitutions of both countries in 2008 and 2009. In Ecuador’s case, the term “sumak kawsay” appears five times and “Buen Vivir” 23 times, even giving rise to a Chapter (Rights of Buen Vivir) and a Title (Rules of Buen Vivir) in the new constitution.
However, when we take a close look at how this concept is developed, we find it has been incorporated as:
1. An ideal to achieve: A new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living, the sumak kawsay (Preamble)
2. A way of life: The State shall promote forms of production that assure the good way of living of the population... (Art. 319)
3. A set of rights such as: water and food, healthy environment, information and communication, culture and science, education, habitat and housing, health, labour and social security (Title II, Chapter 2)
4. A concept of what is entailed by development and productivity:
The development structure is the organized, sustainable and dynamic group of economic, political, socio-cultural and environmental systems which underpin the achievement of the good way of living (sumak kawsay). (Art. 275)
Planning national development ... to enable access to the good way of living (Art. 3)
To develop technologies and innovations that promote national production, raise efficiency and productivity, improve the quality of life and contribte to the achievement of the good way of living. (Art. 385)
In the case of the Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, “Vivir Bien” is mentioned seven times and “suma qamaña” once. Unlike the Ecuadorian version of rights of Buen Vivir, the Bolivian text presents it as a set of ethical-moral principles: The State adopts and promotes the following as ethical, moral principles of the plural society: ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (do not be lazy, do not be a liar or a thief), suma qamaña (live well), ñandereko (live harmoniously), teko kavi(good life), ivi maraei (land without evil) and qhapaj ñan (noble path or life). (Art. 8)
Similarly, in the new Bolivian constitution it is presented as an ideal to achieve, a way of life, and it is linked to productive development of the industrialization of natural resources. (Art. 313)
To summarize, the Ecuadorian version puts greater emphasis on a vision of rights while in the Bolivian version it is closer to an ethical-moral concept. Nevertheless, in both constitutions those concepts co-exist with, are hinged on and instrumentalized in terms of a dominant developmentalist and productivist vision throughout the text.
Without denying the importance and the major difficulties involved in the drafting and approval of these constitutions, it is obvious that in their incorporation Vivir Bien, Buen Vivir and sumak qamaña lost much of their substance. They were transformed more in symbolic terms of recognition of the Andean indigenous peoples than in points of inflection for the capitalist developmentalist model that still exists under the so-called “plural economy.”
But beyond its formal inclusion in the constitution, the laws and development plans, it is fundamental to appreciate what has happened to this vision during the last decade. How has it been implemented? To what degree has it been given concrete expression in various aspects of life in these two countries?
To answer these questions, let us look at what has occurred at the level of the economy, nature and the strengthening of the communities and social organizations which, at the end of the day, will always be the principal protagonists of any process of change.
Both governments contend that we are following the road of Vivir Bien notwithstanding the difficulties and problems. The proof, they say, is in the statistics of GDP growth, the reduction of poverty, the increase in their international monetary reserves, the increase in public investment, the expansion of infrastructure in roads, health care, education, telephones and many other indicators.
The figures are real and in some cases very significant. GDP has grown by an average 4.2% per year in Ecuador and 5.0% in Bolivia: poverty has been reduced to 11% of the population in Ecuador and in Bolivia extreme poverty has fallen to 16%. This is due principally to an increase in public investment, from 4.2% to 15.6% of GDP in Ecuador and from 14.3% to 19.3% of GDP in Bolivia. This increase has made way for various social programs, bonos or conditional cash grants as the World Bank calls them, and in both countries inequality of income, as measured by the Gini index, has declined.
These achievements of the last decade were due to an increase in state revenues from the boom in raw materials prices and the renegotiation in some cases of the contracts with the transnational corporations. In Bolivia the nationalization of hydrocarbons did not mean statization of foreign companies but a renegotiation of the distribution of profits. The share of total profits the gas transnationals get through earnings and recoverable costs declined from 43% in 2005 to only 22% in 2013. This meant that the Bolivian government had eight times more revenue, rising from $673 million in 2005 to $5.459 billion in 2013. This increase in state revenues has allowed a leap in public investment, the award of bonos, the development of infrastructure projects, the extension of basic services, the increase in international reserves and other measures.
There is no doubt that the conditions of life have improved for various sectors of these populations, and that explains the popular support still enjoyed by both governments. However, are we really on the road to Vivir Bien?
Today the prices of hydrocarbons and raw materials have dropped as a result of the deceleration in China’s economy and both countries are moving dangerously toward economic crisis. Their revenues from raw materials exports have begun to fall, the international reserves are beginning to decline and external indebtedness is rising. Factories that were previously statized — for example, Bolivia’s ENATEX — are closed. President Correa is signing free trade treaties with the European Union that he previously rejected. Bolivia has put up for sale $1 billion in bonds on Wall Street and Evo Morales travels to New York to attract foreign investment.
Why are we in this situation? Simply because of external factors or because of an inconsistency with Vivir Bien?
Ecuador and Bolivia, like Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, were captivated by the easy money from raw materials exports during the past decade. Although Bolivia and Ecuador, in their official discourse, told themselves the central objective was to reduce dependency on raw materials exports, cease being mono-export countries, diversity the economy, promote industrialization, increase productivity and add value to what they produced, there is no denying that today these economies are more dependent on exports of raw materials than before.
The diversification of the economy has not occurred because it was more profitable in the immediate context to bet on extractivism and raw materials exports. The progressive governments wanted to show immediate results, with public works and bonos, and the quickest way to obtain resources was to continue pursuing the course so often criticized in the past. With a discourse of Vivir Bien that was sometimes anticapitalist and progressive, they promoted a reinforcement of dependency on exports accompanied by some mechanisms of redistribution of income that did not alter the essence of the system of capitalist accumulation.
Notwithstanding the speeches, the transnationals and national oligarchies to a large extent continued to enrich themselves and benefit from this extractivist-populist model. In the case of Ecuador,
“The main economic activities are concentrated in a few companies: 81% of the soft drinks market is in the hands of one company; likewise, one company controls 62% of the market in meat; five sugar mills (with just three owners) control 91% of the sugar market; two companies, 92% of the cooking oil market; two companies control 76% of the market for hygienic products, and we could go on.... The profits of the hundred largest firms increased by 12% between 2010 and 2011, and they are close to a staggering $36 billion. It should be noted that the profits of business groups in the period 2007-2011 grew by 50% over the previous five years, which was the neoliberal period.” (Acosta, 2014)
In Bolivia the situation is similar. The profits of the banking system rose from $80 million in 2006 to $283 million in 2014. At the present time two transnational companies, PETROBRAS and REPSOL, handle 75% of the natural gas production. The minister of housing himself, in an “appeal to the conscience” of private enterprise that it invest in Bolivia, noted that residential construction industry profits increased from $900 million in 2005 to $4 billion in 2014.
In Bolivia the interests of the great majority of pre-2006 landlords have not been affected. Land surveys and titling that largely favoured the indigenous and peasants have been promoted but no attempt has been made to dismantle the power of the latifundistas. GMO-produced soy, which in 2005 represented only 21% of total exports of that product, accounted for 92% in 2012.
In practice the slogan “We want to be partners, not bosses” has been used to re-articulate a new alliance of the plurinational state with the old oligarchies. The government’s prevailing strategy has been to make agreements with the economic representatives of the opposition even while persecuting their political leaders. A sort of economic carrot and political stick which has meant that many sectors of the bourgeoisie that initially were in opposition have since come over to supporting the government.
Now that the time of the fat cows has ended, the old and new rich allied with these governments are beginning to take their distance from them and to build their own political alternatives. The exports share of the revenue pie chart has shrunk and the sectors with the most weight want to preserve their profits as best they can at the expense of the state and the rest of the population. Hence the return of post-populist neoliberalism. A return that comes not only from outside the “progressive governments” but also from within now that the governments themselves are beginning to adopt criteria of efficiency and neoliberal profitability, closing factories and trimming increases in benefits instead of affecting the dominant sectors in the economy that have been enriched during the last decade.
The economic crisis is eroding the popularity of the progressive governments and the Right that was previously their ally is sabotaging them from outside as well as inside by carrying out coup-like actions, as we have seen in Brazil. We are witnessing the end of the cycle of the progressive governments and also of that populist extractivism that has been applied in the name of Vivir Bien.
Abuse of nature
One of the postulates of Vivir Bien that is most disseminated is that of harmony not only between human beings but also with nature. The governments of Bolivia and Ecuador initially won renown for their emphasis on Mother Earth in their discourse. The Ecuadorian constitution of 2008 recognized the rights of nature. Bolivia followed suit in 2009 when it got the United Nations to back an international day of Mother Earth and in 2010 adopted the law on the rights of Mother Earth in its legislation.
Everything seemed to point to a change in the relationship with nature, especially in light of concrete proposals such as the Yasuni ITT initiative in Ecuador. In the latter case, President Correa promised to keep an area in the Yasuni National Park, a region rich in biodiversity, free of petroleum exploitation in exchange for economic compensation from the international community. Specifically, Ecuador would leave an equivalent of 856 million barrels of oil below the ground in return for payment by developed countries of $350 million annually. This was the first time a country had proposed to break with extractivism in order to conserve nature and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, Ecuador’s offer was not followed by the expected economic compensation. In 2013 Rafael Correa declared the Yasuni ITT initiative terminated and announced the beginning of petroleum exploitation in the area without even allowing a citizens’ consultation on the matter to take place.
Bolivia likewise began with great promise. Art. 255 of its new constitution provided for the “prohibition of importation, production and commercialization of genetically modified organisms.” However, in 2011the Plurinational Legislative Assembly adopted Law No. 144 concerning the Communitarian Agricultural Productive Revolution, which in Art.15 replaces the prohibition with a requirement of registration and labelling of GMOs: “Any product destined directly or indirectly for human consumption that is, contains or is derived from genetically modified organisms, shall be duly identified and indicate this condition.” Five years after the adoption of this law there is still no labelling of GMO products and production of GMO soy for export has increased exponentially.
Similarly, the protection of national parks and protected areas has been called into question. The government has approved norms and projects for oil and gas exploration and exploitation in such areas, and has attempted to build a highway through the middle of the TIPNIS national park, although its construction was paralyzed by the opposition of indigenous peoples in the region along with other sectors of the population.
Deforestation annually affects between 150,000 and 250,000 hectares of native forests, to the benefit above all of agro-industry, cattle raising and real estate speculators. The government has simply promised to end illegal deforestation by 2020 and has made no commitment to stop native deforestation in the current year, as recommended in Sustainable Development Goal 15.
Many mining, hydroelectric, petroleum and infrastructure projects are being approved and implemented without real environmental impact assessments. The government has even adopted projects for nuclear energy development despite the contrary provisions in the constitution and the Rights of Mother Earth law.
Between discourse and reality, between law and practice, there is a huge chasm in both countries. It is impossible to cite any example during the last decade in Bolivia in which the rights of Mother Earth have prevailed over the interests of extraction, pollution and depredation of nature. The law has remained on paper with no implementation of such provisions as the establishment of a Defensor de la Madre Tierra [Mother Earth ombudsman].
As Rafael Puente says: “The botton line seems to be: we denounce the abuse of Mother Earth by all the developed countries to the whole world, but we reserve for ourselves the need to mistreat Mother Earth until such time as we have reached a minimum level of development.”
Eduardo Gudynas maintains that the progressive governments “feel most comfortable with such measures as campaigns to stop using plastic or to replace light bulbs but they resist environmental controls over investors or exporters.” And he concludes that “the caudillos feel that environmentalism is a luxury that only the wealthiest can afford, so it is not applicable in Latin America until poverty is overcome.”
Weakening of the community and the social organizations
The essence of Vivir Bien is in the strengthening of the community, the promotion of complementarity in contrast to competition, and the pursuit of equilibrium in opposition to boundless growth. How have we advanced in those aspects? Are the indigenous communities and social organizations stronger today? Are they more complementary to each other? Have the differences, hierarchies and privileges been reduced? Is there much greater creativity on the part of the social movements? Has there been an increase in their capacity for initiative and recreation of alternative imaginaries?
If we look at Bolivia, where the process of change has relied from the beginning on strong indigenous and social organizations, we can say that in general the social movements and indigenous communities have been weakened, not strengthened, in the last decade.
What has happened is a sort of paradox. The indigenous communities and social organizations have received a series of material goods, infrastructures, credits, conditional cash grants and services. But instead of contributing to their strengthening as living and self-managing organisms, they have been weakened, even fragmented.
Before the 2005 election victory, the social movements in Bolivia had the capacity not only to stop some privatizing projects around water and gas, but also to bring together a major part of the population behind the proposal of recovery of territory, nationalization of hydrocarbons and redistribution of wealth. In other words, the indigenous peoples and social organizations were capable of building a societal alternative to neoliberalism. Today that dynamism has been lost; instead we have entered a phase of sectoral bargaining in which each and every sector has its demands and mobilizes in an effort to get from the Plurinational State the most it can in terms of public works, credits, tax shares, bonos, etc.
The property granted by the government to leaders of indigenous communities and social organizations has generated a clientelist logic of patronage. The social movements have ceased to be the protagonists of change and have been transformed into clients seeking things and works from the government. Each seeks to improve its particular situation through exerting pressure on the state as benefactor. It is no longer a question of changing Bolivia but of getting the best cut. In reality, the idea of building a new society based on indigenous values has been lost.
The indigenous communities, which for centuries resisted the Spanish conquistadors’ so-called modernity and capitalism have now become prisoners of this mirage thanks to the practices and discourse of their indigenous government, which tells them the task is to achieve a 5% increase in GDP growth per year over the next 15 years. The modernity of consumption and efficiency that in the past were resisted by the indigenous communities are now beginning to be accepted. Projects that previously were rejected by the peasant organizations, such as megadams, or were considered unthinkable, like a nuclear plant, are today accepted in the name of modernity. What the Conquest, the Republic and neoliberalism were unable to do over centuries, the present government has achieved in a decade: transforming the imaginary of a majority of indigenous peoples. Perhaps that is why the last census revealed a striking fact: the number of persons who considered themselves indigenous, far from increasing, had declined from 62% in 1990 to only 41% in 2013.
An example of this expansion of capitalist modernity that erodes the communities and the indigenous vision is the high-risk Dakar competition that will travel through Bolivia for the fourth year in 2017. For any humanist, environmentalist and anticapitalist activist, the Dakar is a deplorable event that was brought to us through the direct intervention of the president of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. This year the government will pay $4 million to the organizers of this competition in order to get half of its journey to be held in Bolivia, including Lake Titicaca and La Paz.
The Dakar has nothing to do with the Bolivian reality or with Vivir Bien. It is a competition in which one needs at least $80,000 to participate; the competitors promote major transnational enterprises. The Dakar is a sort of Roman circus of the decadent era of fossil fuels. Each year some pilots and spectators are killed. The archeological damage and environmental impact are a real scourge for Mother Earth. The Dakar is a colonizing spectacle in violation of nature and human conscience. It is so widely questioned and the cost is so high that Chile and Peru no longer participate in it. However, the Dakar survives in Latin America thanks to the help and support of the indigenous and plurinational government of Bolivia.
The authorities justify and extol the Dakar, saying it is a performance that brings us closer to modernity, that it generates “economic movement” of more than $100 million, and that it serves to promote Bolivia as a tourist destination. If the objective really were to publicize the country the government could promote another class of events based on our cultural traditions, such as the Chasqui, for example. That is, an event in which one crosses Bolivia by foot, as the ancient Chasqui did, sharing experiences, knowledges of different regions and ecological strata, seeking complementarity among distinct knowledges, encouraging solidarity among participants and promoting the values of Vivir Bien and respect for nature.
However, the incredible thing is that there has been no discussion about this within the government or the social organizations. Critical voices are marginal and do not in fact come from the indigenous peoples, who were always critics of these practices. If it had ever occurred to any of the neoliberal governments to bring the Dakar to Bolivia, you can be sure that the social organizations would have organized road blockades in some of its stretches. However, no it is the indigenous government of the process of change that promotes it, and that completely reverses the values and principles they defended for centuries.
The social and indigenous organizations have also been eroded by corruption. Having more available resources, their leaders directly administering some funds, some have been corrupted or have ended up being accomplices by omission.
The indigenous, social and civil organizations that have opposed policies of the central government have been marginalized, ignored, worn down and even divided. The indigenous solidarity that was once a natural practice has broken down when indigenous sectors were repressed (TIPNIS and Takovo Mora) and the rest of the peasant and indigenous organizations have said nothing.
In short, Vivir Bien has been absent and confined solely to speeches.
Vivir Bien Is Possible
If what we have experienced is the application of an extractivist-populist model in the name of Vivir Bien, what might have been a practical implementation of Vivir Bien more consistent with its principles and vision? Is Vivir Bien possible in the reality of one country? Where is the problem? In its inapplicability beyond the limits of the indigenous communities? In the lack of understanding of this vision? Is this proposition ahead of its time?
It is not easy to answer these questions. A series of concrete proposals for its implementation have been advanced throughout the last decade but almost all have been partial or specific to a sector. There has been no articulated, integral and coherent proposal of measures to advance along the road of Vivir Bien in either Bolivia or Ecuador. Only some very useful approaches but of a particular character without a comprehensive complex of initiatives that would allow us to transform the reality in its many dimensions. The questioning of the poor or contradictory implementation of Vivir Bien, or of its lack of implementation, has not been accompanied by a holistic set of proposals at various levels. When it comes to applying Vivir Bien, we have forgotten one of its most important postulates: totality and completeness.
A key error was to think that Vivir Bien could be fully developed using state power, when in reality Vivir Bien is a proposal that is built on the basis of the society. The constitutional recognition of Vivir Bien and Buen Vivir deepens this illusion and encourages the belief that advances toward Vivir Bien could be made through a national state-based “development” plan when the secret of this vision in fact lies in the strengthening of the community, in boosting its capacity for complementarity with other communities and in the self-management of its territory.
In the case of Bolivia, the vice-president is the principal exponent of this statist vision which, applied in its extreme, is the opposite of Vivir Bien. As Álvaro García Linera has put it:
“The State is the only actor that can unite society. It is the State that takes on the synthesis of the general will, plans the strategic framework and steers the front carriage of the economic locomotive. The second carriage is Bolivian private investment. The third is foreign investment. The fourth is small business. The fifth is the peasant economy and the sixth, the indigenous economy. This is the strategic order in which the country’s economy must be organized.”
This vision of an all-powerful state that oversees everything is contrary to Vivir Bien. It is society that must determine its own course if we are to counteract the perverse dynamic that any state power involves.
In the Bolivian case we have always spoken of an internal struggle between the exponents of “developmentalism” and the “pachamamistas,” between the “modernists” and the adherents of Vivir Bien. However, it must be said that the error of the “pachamamistas” and supporters of Vivir Bien was that we too were profoundly statist. We thought that in opposition to the neoliberalism that had dismantled the state the fundamental thing was to give more power to the state, ignoring the essence of the logic of power.
The “pachamamistas” and the developmentalists have differed over the orientation that the empowerment of the state ought to take. For Bolivia’s vice-president, the fundamental objective was to enlist our forces
“in the implementation of a new economic model that I have provisionally called ‘Andean-Amazonian capitalism’. That is, the construction of a strong state that regulates the expansion of the industrial economy, extracts its profits and transfers them to the community in order to strengthen forms of self-organization and commercial development that are specifically Andean and Amazonian.”
The discussion of this proposal was centered on the concept of “Andean-Amazonian capitalism” but not on the conception of the state that it implied. That was in the time of the “nationalization of hydrocarbons” and whatever pointed to the strengthening of the state seemed correct. The differences were more over the rationale of a strong state: was it to build Vivir Bien or to develop a new phase of capitalist construction?
The role of the state in the construction of Vivir Bien cannot be, nor should it be, that of an organizer and planner of society as a whole. The state must be one more factor that contributes to the empowerment of the communities and social organizations through practices that are not clientelist. That means that before providing the communities and social organizations with material goods such as vehicles, union headquarters or sports fields, it is necessary to encourage them to study, learn, analyze, debate, question, construct public policies and in many cases carry them out without awaiting a green light from the state. The concepts of sumaq qamaña and sumak kawsay survived for centuries in struggle against the Inca state, the colonial state, the republican, nationalist and neoliberal state. These were weighty communitarian visions and practices albeit without recognition by the established powers in each of those epochs. By “statizing” Vivir Bien we began to undermine its power as a force for self-management and interrogation.
Normally, for the Marxist left the objective is to take power in order to change society. This entails capturing and transforming the state in order to change society from above. However, the experience with “progressive” governments of the last decade would demonstrate to us that for Vivir Bien the taking of power should be in order to encourage even more the process of emancipation and self-determination from below, questioning and subverting all of the colonial structures that persist, including the new state forms that arise in the process of change.
Empowering the local and communitarian
Thinking in terms of the whole means that the economy must not be placed at the center in the construction of a new society. What we have seen in recent years is an obsession on the part of the misnamed governments of Vivir Bien with growth in terms of GDP that measures only the part of the economy that is commodified, that is, the production of goods and services that enter the capitalist market in a way that destroys nature and human beings.
Instead of economic growth for the capitalist market, efforts should be oriented to promoting the recovery of equilibrium at all levels — a search for equilibrium between different sectors of the economy and society that cannot be achieved without attacking the structural causes of inequality.
The present inequality, which is severe, cannot be overcome through conditional cash grants or transfers of money to the poorer sectors. Redistribution cannot be limited to the reassignment of the fraction of revenue that is not appropriated by the economically more powerful sectors. The search for equality between human beings cannot be reduced to welfare programs while the big landlords, extractive enterprises and big bankers continue to accumulate substantial profits.
The experience of the last decade shows that the transnational enterprises and domestic oligarchies, when obliged by social pressure, may accept a redistribution of income so as not to lose all their profits. However, when the bonanza of international prices comes to an end and hits them in their pockets, they deploy all kinds of actions to remove the “progressives” from government and apply the most savage neoliberal policies.
It is not possible to modify substantially the redistribution of wealth without substantially altering the power of the powerful. What was done was to renegotiate contracts with the transnationals, put some enterprises under state ownership, and try to get on well with the banks, the agro-industrialists, some business sectors and to attract foreign investment that can be invested “fairly.”
This model — in first place the state, in second place domestic private investment, in third place foreign investment, in fourth place micro-enterprises, in fifth place the peasant economy, and in the last place the indigenous economy — has failed. The so-called “plural economy” was a delusion because it pretended that everyone was going to be recognized and enjoy equal conditions when in reality an hierarchical and pyramidal structure survived, in which the state substantively increased public investment while the private (national and foreign) sector simply reaped its profits without reinvesting and the micro-business, peasant and indigenous sector was relegated to a role as recipients of some public welfare programs.
Where could our efforts have been directed? Toward ensuring that the new economy be centered precisely on the peasant and indigenous economy and small-scale local economies. Toward ensuring a real redistribution of the wealth concentrated in the hands of the financial, extractivist and agro-industrial sectors. To do this it was fundamental to go back and redistribute the property of the big landlords, to regulate private banking more effectively and gradually bring it under state ownership, to make more efficient use of the resources of the extractive industries in order to promote projects that would help us escape extractivism, and to promote the strengthening of the local and communitarian economies and small and medium business owners through strengthening their capacity for self-management and complementarity.
The true potential of countries like Bolivia is in agro-ecology, agro-forestry, the strengthening of food sovereignty based on the indigenous and peasant communities. In that perspective the fundamental role of the state should not be to create communitarian enterprises from above but to empower the networks of production, exchange, credit, traditional knowledges and innovation at the local level and with the active participation of the local actors. But what predominated was not the strengthening of the communitarian social fabric but the production of dazzling and showy works that would have immediate demonstrative impact. Ecological production free of transgenics was left to the speeches while in the deeds the consumption of agro-toxins and glyphosates was increased in the country during the last decade.
The promotion of mega-infrastructure projects, mega-dams, and nuclear research centers is part of an obsolete model of capitalist development from the last century. Far from trying to proceed by way of this “modernity,” which is beginning to be abandoned by the countries of the North themselves, it is necessary to leap over stages and to take advantage of the most recent advances in science from a communitarian, social and not privatizing perspective. That means looking to community, family and municipal solar and wind energy to transform Bolivians from mere consumers of electrical energy into producers of electricity.
The empowerment of communities must include benefiting from ancestral practices and knowledges and combining them with the most recent technological advances provided that they help to re-establish equilibrium with nature and strengthen human communities. Renewable energies are not in themselves a solution to the systemic crisis since they can also be used to displace populations, gain control over resources and reconfigure capitalism.
The experience of the last decade clearly shows that a plural economy can only be achieved if the domination of capital is overcome. This is not done through making anticapitalist speeches but by taking effective measures in opposition to the finance capital that is the backbone of capitalism. If measures are not taken to dismantle big business, the other components of the plural economy will always be marginalized and ignored.
Placing local and community production in the center does not mean abandoning or setting aside state enterprises and public services which, by their very nature, can best be managed and provided at the state and national level. This applies, for example, to banking or essential public services like education, health care and telecommunications that must be universal in nature. However, such state undertakings and public services should be accompanied by effective mechanisms for citizen participation in order to avoid their bureaucratization and corruption, and be adapted to the realities experienced in each region.
We have always criticized the expression “export or die,” which was coined by the neoliberal governments. However, the “progressive” governments have fallen for the same dynamic. The production they favour is one that produces foreign exchange, so they allow the big agribusiness corporations to export GMO-produced soy or accept a free-trade treaty with the European Union in order to promote banana exports.
In the Vivir Bien framework, the objective is to generate greater resilience in the local and national economies faced with the vagaries of the crisis-ridden global economy. It is not a question of abandoning exports but of ensuring that the economy does not revolve around the export of a handful of products. The goal is to be more sovereign, strengthening the local human communities and ecosystems of the Earth.
Free-trade agreements have a distinct logic. They force countries, industries and companies that are completely unequal to compete as if they were equal. In such conditions the winners will always be the transnational corporations, the big agribusiness interests and the most powerful sectors of finance capital. The free-trade rules of the World Trade Organization, the regional and bilateral free-trade treaties, undermine the possibility of building a society of Vivir Bien because they privilege the big corporations to the prejudice of the small producer.
The experience of the last decade shows us that it is not sufficient to reject or overturn the free-trade treaties; it is necessary to advance by implementing measures to control foreign trade, to achieve a [state] monopoly over foreign trade and effective control of smuggling. Without the application of this type of measures, competition from transnational production and contraband will manage to undermine local, community and national economies as has occurred under the so-called progressive governments.
In the present global economy it is not possible to achieve full import substitution in one country. The small economies will always be more dependent on imports. Accordingly, it is very important to regulate imports to ensure that foreign exchange is not oriented to excessive consumption and is instead directed to items that are essential to the strengthening of the local economies.
This objective cannot be achieved only through mechanisms to control foreign trade but requires as well the effective promotion of cultural patterns of sustainable consumption. Under the progressive governments the income of sectors of the population has improved, but the same practices of consumption and waste of capitalist societies have continued.
To be nature
The slogan sembrar el petróleo [“sow the oil”], that is, to promote more extractivism in order to diversify the economy, embraced by President Correa, is an illusion. Just as alcoholism cannot be overcome by ingesting more alcohol, extractivism cannot be overcome by promoting more extractivism.
In dependent capitalist countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, the struggle against extractivism becomes extremely difficult through the articulation of the logic of capital and the logic of power. Extractivism is the quickest way to obtain dollars, and that is essential for retaining governmental power. Thus extractivism creates a perverse addiction that undermines the efforts at diversification of the economy and construction of Vivir Bien. In Bolivia today everyone is more addicted to the rent derived from hydrocarbons: the central and departmental governments, municipalities, universities, armed forces, indigenous leaders and the general population.
To break with this addiction it is necessary to recognize, first, that it exists. If, in Bolivia’s case, a fraction of the billions of dollars in public funds invested in oil and gas exploration were invested in solar energy and community wind power, not only could we satisfy the entire national demand but we could also envisage exporting clean electrical energy instead of continuing to sell fossil fuels that further climate warming.
The same can be said in relation to deforestation. Instead of drawing up plans for reforestation, which is extremely costly, takes too long to yield results, has uncertain outcomes, and will never compensate for the wealth and biodiversity of the native forests we have destroyed, what should be done is to learn from the indigenous communities that live in coexistence with the forest, and promote agroforestry initiatives. The argument that without deforestation we cannot guarantee the food security of Bolivians is a false one. According to official statistics, since 2001 more than 8.6 million hectares have been deforested, while the total area of the country that is under cultivation has increased by only 3.5 million hectares, of which 1.9 million hectares are devoted to industrial agriculture, predominantly soy for export (1.2 million hectares).
The reason why the rights of nature have remained on paper up to now is that the progressive governments have no desire for authorities that effectively limit their extractivist projects. The rights of nature and of Mother Earth require autonomous mechanisms and regulations to reduce and punish the constant violations that are committed against ecosystems, and above all to promote the restoration and recovery of those areas that have been affected.
The nationalization of natural resources like oil does not mean that they can be exploited to the last drop. State ownership of polluting or consumerist industries does not convert them into clean and sustainable enterprises. The experience of the last decade teaches us that it is not enough to nationalize or statize the means of production (mines, oil and gas deposits, etc.); it is necessary to transformer them and replace them with other means that allow the flourishing of more just and equitable ecosocieties.
As was stated in the People’s Agreement drafted and adopted in the first World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, it is productivism, and not just capitalism, that must be overcome:
“The Soviet experience has shown us that a predatory production system with devastating conditions that make life similar to that of capitalism was possible with other ownership relationships. The alternatives must lead to a profound transformation of civilization. Without this profound transformation, it will not be possible to continue life on planet Earth. Humanity is faced with a huge dilemma: continue down the road of capitalism, patriarchy, Progress and death, or embark on the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”
Full cultural diversity
One of the greatest strengths of the changes that have occurred under the progressive governments has to do with the recognition of cultural diversity. In Bolivia’s case, the concept of a Plurinational State is an achievement that, if applied to the realities of other countries, can be of assistance in the coexistence of different nationalities and nations within the same territory. Other very important advances are the recognition of native languages, the requirement that civil servants speak at least two languages (Castellano and an indigenous language), recognition of the indigenous autonomies and the native indigenous campesino justice system.
However, many of those propositions have remained only in the Constitution and some laws, and in reality have encountered major problems in their implementation. In Bolivia, of the twelve municipalities that opted in 2009 to be indigenous autonomies only one has managed to complete the entire legal process for becoming an indigenous autonomy. The law has been characterized as “an obstacle race” by the indigenous communities and the Tierras Comunitarias de Origen. There has been no effective policy under the indigenous central government for encouraging the constitution of indigenous autonomies that are self-governing, exercising communitarian democracy without political parties, and with the right to be consulted concerning proposals for the exploitation of natural resources in their territories.
Indigenous law has been recognized but restricted to the communities, the regular justice system having de facto supremacy over indigenous justice. There is little recognition of the great contribution that could be made through the establishment of a more flexible justice system that is free of charge, respectful of nature and seeks resolution of disputes through participative consensus.
In constitutional and legal terms there have been important advances in gender equity and the participation of women in government and the parliament. A set of norms has been adopted in relation to land, equality of opportunities, violence against women, maternal breast-feeding, women’s health, job security for mothers, retirement, etc. These are an advance in legal terms. The proportion of women in the National Assembly, municipal councils, the cabinet and other governmental bodies is among the highest in the world.
However, Bolivia still has a long way to go in breaking from patriarchal customs and prejudices. And the latter are reinforced by a series of male chauvinist practices and images based on expressions, jokes and valuations that issue from the central core of the government, which is still essentially made up of men.
The patriarchal order located in the family, communal and state structures survives and is reproduced in multiple forms which sometimes go unnoticed. Chauvinist jokes and comments by senior officials are not answered by ministers and members of the Assembly, and instead are sometimes justified. The greater presence of women in positions of political responsibility has not been translated into actions aimed at dis-establishing power relationships that reproduce the subordination and oppression of women. Discriminatory stereotypes and cultural patterns persist and are fueled by the conduct of the most influential men.
The model of production and redistribution of wealth to the detriment of women, the role of men and women in household labour, the separation between public and private life have not been substantially affected. Women’s autonomy over their bodies and their right to decide whether they will have children remain restricted, and violence against women, sometimes resulting in their death, continues to be an everyday reality.
In its original conception, Vivir Bien did not emphasize the subject of depatriarchalization at the level of the family, society and the state. However, it is clear that this is an essential component in advancing toward a society of equilibrium between all human beings and with nature.
Vivir Bien postulates respect, equilibrium and complementarity among the different parts of the whole. However, what we have seen in the progressive governments has been an attempt by the Executive to monopolize and control the other powers. The defeat of the most recalcitrant expressions of the neoliberal right has not translated into a relaunching of a vigorous democracy in which the parliamentarians propose, criticize and adopt rules based on their own criteria or those of their constituents. What we have seen instead is the replacement of neoliberal democracy by a democracy of hand raisers that simply follow the instructions of the central government.
In Bolivia the Executive has adopted manners and skills for controlling the major organs of justice, ensuring that proposals as novel as the election of judges in the most important positions of a judicial nature remain devalued and discredited. Likewise, the participation and social control established in the new Constitution have remained on paper.
Without a real and effective democracy it is not possible to advance in the self-management, self-determination and empowerment of the communities and social organizations that are essential to Vivir Bien. The exercise of democracy entails limiting the power of the powerful and the state itself. If the central government instrumentalizes popular participation, coopts the social organizations and controls the various powers of the state, the construction of a real democracy is crippled. This democracy is a key piece in the construction of Vivir Bien at the level of a country or a region because any government and people are going to make mistakes in the construction of a new ecosociety, and the only way to detect those mistakes, correct them and re-imagine new paths is with the collaboration of everyone.
The experience of this decade shows us clearly that Vivir Bien is not possible in a single country in the context of a global economy that is capitalist, productivist, patriarchal and anthropocentric. If this vision is to advance and thrive, a key element is its articulation and complementarity with other similar processes in other countries. This process cannot be limited to the promotion of agreements for integration that do not follow the rules of free trade, nor can it exist merely at the level of states or governments. One of the biggest shortcomings of the last decade was probably the failure of alliances of social and indigenous movements to develop independently of the progressive governments. Looking back, the global justice movement in Latin America, instead of becoming stronger, was weakened by its inability to articulate its own independent vision of change. It confused its utopias with the political plans of the progressive governments and lost its capacity to criticize and to dream.
If the processes of transformation are to flourish, they need to expand beyond the national borders and into the countries that now colonize the planet in different forms. Without that dissemination to the crucial centers of global power, the processes of change will end up isolating themselves and losing vitality until they have repudiated the very principles and values that once gave birth to them.
To that extent the future of Vivir Bien largely depends on the recovery, reconstruction and empowerment of other visions that to varying degrees point toward the same objective in the different continents of the planet. Vivir Bien is possible only through complementarity with and feedback from other systemic alternatives.
 Pablo Mamani Ramírez, “Qamir qamaña: dureza de ‘estar estando’ y dulzura de ‘ser siendo,’ in Ivonne Farah H. and Luciano Vasapollo (ed.), Vivir bien: ¿Paradigma no capitalista? (CIDES-UMSA, 2011), pp. 65-75.
 Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, “Pachakuti: los horizontes históricos del colonialismo interno,” in Violencias (re) encubiertas en Bolivia (La Paz, 2010), pp. 39-63. English translation published by NACLA as “Aymara Past, Aymara Future.”
 The decline was even sharper than Solón indicates, as it occurred in little more than a decade. “The growing Andean nation's 2001 census showed that 62 percent, or 3.14 million, of the population over 15 years old identified as part of an indigenous group, while according to new data that figure has fallen to roughly 40 percent, or 2.8 million.” (Indian Country, “Where Have All the Indigenous Gone? Bolivia Sees 20 Percent Drop.”) – Tr.
 Garcia Linera, “Fue un error no liderar el pedido autonómico,” interview in El Deber, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, 21 January 2007, quoted by Pablo Stefanoni in “L’Indianisation du nationalisme ou la refondation permanente de la Bolivie,” in the journal Alternatives Sud published by CETRI: “La Bolivie d’Evo. Démocratique, indianiste et socialiste?,” Vol XVI -2009/3, Louvain-la-Neuve. See Eric Toussaint, “Is Bolivia heading for Andean-Amazonian capitalism?,” http://www.cadtm.org/Is-Bolivia-heading-for-Andean.
 TCOs: native community lands, one of the two territorial entities eligible under the Constitution to establish an indigenous autonomy, the other being a municipality with an indigenous majority. – Translator