Sumac Kawsay/Buen Vivir

Perhaps because I am a Brazilian, the first time I heard the expression “buen vivir,”1 I immediately thought of “boa vida,”2 a term which in our country is used pejoratively to refer to an easy, tranquil, and carefree life: no work, plenty of evening strolls, luxury at the expense of others, and zero political consciousness.

I was completely mistaken. Buen vivir means nothing of the sort. On the contrary, according to the indigenous peoples of the Andean region, and the Aymara people in particular,3 buen vivir is a powerful principle which means life in harmony and equilibrium between men and women, between different communities, and, above all, between human beings and the natural environment of which they are part. In practice, this concept implies knowing how to live in community with others while achieving the minimum conditions for equality. It means eliminating prejudice and exploitation between people as well as respecting nature and preserving its equilibrium.

According to this definition, the culture in which we are submerged is utterly devoid of buen vivir. We are in complete disequilibrium with ourselves and with nature when we buy more than we actually need; when, without remorse, we exploit the land, water, and even other human beings themselves; when we seek exorbitant profits which, most of the time, only benefit one person or a very small group of people.

Technology advances, and the comfort it brings increases, every day, but only for a few people. Meanwhile, for the majority of people, what are increasing are poverty, exploitation, prejudice, competition, and individualism. That is the logic of the system in which we live. There can be no doubt that we are not practicing buen vivir.

On the other hand, we hear in the news all the time about the aggravation of the world financial crisis, the falling dollar, the stock market trading the riches that still exit, global warming, the risk of dwindling water resources. . . . In sum, we are continuously reminded of the failure of the system.

In the face of all of this, it is ironic to hear indigenous people referred to as ‘savages’ whose way of life is backward and primitive. How can this be, given that they have always known how to live in community with one another, to produce just enough for their survival, and to live in harmony with nature and with other living beings; to nourish themselves on fruits, legumes, and other vegetables, and to understand better than anyone else the secrets of the forest and of natural medicine? Furthermore, they had already lived in the Americas for thousands of years in a sustainable manner—without knowing the term “sustainability”—long before the so-called “discovery” of America. Is this really what a savage is?

At the ninth meeting of the World Social Forum, which was held in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, in the city of Belém do Pará, a defense of the concept of buen vivir was rightly presented. For those who were there at the Forum, the participation of indigenous peoples made a big difference, and not just because of the rituals and music which they performed, or for the tattoos on their bodies or their red skin or their colorful clothing. It was also significant because of the consistency of their discourse and the courage they demonstrated in defending what they believe in: buen vivir, living well.

Sumak kawsay, or buen vivir, is a concept which has already been incorporated into the debate of the Ecuadorean Constituent Assembly. Buen vivir is guaranteed in Bolivia’s new constitution, recently approved by a referendum. Buen vivir was the hallmark of this World Social Forum. Perhaps it will also be the beginning of a possible new world.

1 Translator’s Note: The literal English translation of buen vivir is “good living,” but it is important to note that buen vivir is itself an imperfect Spanish approximation of the (Ecuadorean) Kichwa term, sumak kawsay. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, a similar concept stemming from the Aymara Indian cosmovision and language—suma qamaña—is customarily translated into Spanish as vivir bien, or “living well.” The author, a Brazilian thinking and writing in Portuguese, has opted to utilize the Ecuadorean Kichwa/Spanish terms throughout her article rather than attempt a concrete Portuguese translation of the concept.

2 Translator’s Note: Literally, “(the) good life.”

3 Translator’s Note: Again, to avoid confusion on the part of the lay reader it must be emphasized that sumak kawsay and buen vivir are specifically Ecuadorean Kichwa and Spanish terms, respectively; they are not the actual terms used by the Aymara and Spanish speakers of Bolivia (see translator’s note 1).

The original article “Sumac Kawsay” was published on the Web site of Foro Social Mundial on 6 February 2009. The Spanish translation by Blanca Diego, “Buen Vivir,” was published on the same site on the same day. English translation by Christopher Reid. The French translation by Angélica Montes, “‘Bien Vivre’, un concept de la pensée décoloniale indigène en Amérique latine,” is available at the Web site of le Mouvement des indigènes de la république (MIR).