Do what is right. Rosa Parks Henceforth, our country should be the universe. Flora Tristan True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. Whenever you are in doubt, recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man. Gandhi *

Document Database

Subscribe to the newsletter
Join us on FacebookFollow us on Twitter
Document Database



Retrieving and Valuing Other Ethical Pillars: The Concept of Buen Vivir*

Table of contents

• Kachkaniraqmi: “We are here, we are still”
• Overcoming extreme and facile views
• Origins of originality
• Essential principles
• Materiality of life
• Qhapac Ñan
• Buen Vivir

*The literal English translation is “good living,” but it is important to observe that buen vivir is itself an
imperfect Spanish approximation of the indigenous 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.”

We are entering the current critical historical juncture with the encouraging finding of
peoples’ resistance and proposals. The ancient cultures of the various peoples of Asia,
Oceania, Africa, and Latin America have constantly challenged, in practice and in theory,
the conceptions of the allegedly linear and upward historical course of development of
humankind characteristic of Eurocentric, and then North American modernity, which had
condemned them, as outdated remains of the archaic and as survival of the backward, to
inexorable improvement or extinction.

In this paradox of what is supposedly archaic and backward in theory but emerges
empirically with stubborn novelty and validity, there is at stake part of humankind’s current need to design new forms of knowledge and understanding that can question the
pillars of hegemonic civilization, now in crisis, and make it possible to deconstruct and
surmount them. This crisis, multiple and comprehensive, is generating objective material
conditions that make it possible to see as current and pressing the alternative knowledge
of other cultures that had emerged in parallel, separate, and distinct forms, and that had
become highly developed. Although there existed in them relations of domination and
conflict, they were of a very different nature from those of Western Europe and the United
States, and these were secondary to social-regulation principles that combined
social and environmental justice in support of harmony and balance in the world and the

Overcoming various complex epistemological difficulties, awareness of these realities is
growing, and this awareness can no longer be easily underestimated. Humankind is aware,
for example, of the crucial objective fact that the major reservoirs of biodiversity on the
planet have been conserved by several of these peoples called “barbarians” and
“uncivilized,” despite and against the “civilized” scientific progress of the modern West,
which almost certainly would have exterminated those reserves of life if it could have got
hold of them. Furthermore, while the original peoples were able through their resistance to
conserve this treasure of vital hope for all humankind, at the same time the modern
civilized West created the atomic, chemical, and bacteriological horrors that could
exterminate all human life, or at least damage it irreversibly.

Generating the conditions to facilitate this movement of epistemological and ethical
decolonization to retrieve in a useful way the cultural heritages of the peoples of the world
is a theoretical task of prime political significance that is already underway, but still
insufficient, and to which efforts should be devoted, aware of the fact that these new or
renewed ethical approaches are to be necessarily incorporated into the process of
transition and improvement of civilization that began between the end of the twentieth
century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

Kachkaniraqmi: “We are here, we are still”

The specific case of the Andean culture in Latin America is not just about the current
existence of more than 1,600 Andean communities just in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia living
in productive and cultural autonomy; it is not even about the relevant presence, despite
their systematic genocide, of South American indigenous peoples, who are currently 60%
of the population in Bolivia, 35% in Ecuador, with at least 400 different and distinct peoples
in all the countries of the continent today. This is a much more widespread, deep, and
growing process involving all societies.

Against two centuries of “rationalization,” “modernization,” “urbanization,” and other similar
processes, fully sanctioned by the academy, sociology, and economics, Buen Vivir or
Living Well, Sumac Kawsay in Kichwa, and Suma Qamaña in Aymara, a profound ethical
principle of the ancient Andean culture, was brought to the United Nations debate by at
least three South American presidents at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and in
an unprecedented event in history, the new Political Constitution of the Plurinational State
of Bolivia (2008) raised it, along with other ancient Andean principles, to constitutional
status (Article 8.I).

This has not been a contingent, but rather recurrent, cyclical, and permanent throughout the
history of Andean countries. This persistence of the ancient Andean culture presents a
paradox: the supposedly “outdated,” “archaic,” “primitive,” “backward,” and “retrograde” are
actually generating the new, the renewal, and even the revolutionary. However, in
opposition to this actually existing practice of societies and peoples, the global chains of
mass media, controlled by hegemonic, violent, and dominant world powers, convey
analyses of these situations marked by deep coloniality and racism, where they are
classified as “political backwardness,” “populism,” “indigenous fundamentalism,” etc.
Beyond the intentions of domination behind the media, this lack of understanding shows
how the different members of humankind are still insufficiently able to understand one
another from a conceptual point of view and be related in diversity.

However, it is precisely the radically different nature, often in opposition to hegemonic
culture, of the Andean culture in general and of Buen Vivir in particular that enables and
explains their ability to contribute literally “from elsewhere,” from other logics and
paradigms, to overcome the current crisis of the hegemonic civilization paradigm.

Overcoming Extreme and Facile Views

Rebuilding the Andean culture and specifying Buen Vivir is a difficult and complex task, with
no final conclusions in all its details, but a task that needs to be done, at least for some of
its fundamental elements, which are vital to understand the difficulties and implications of
the present times. This requires overcoming the difficulties of the prejudice that theoretically
views the Andean culture as a “repetition of the same,” a particular case of the supposedly
universal laws of all humankind. Or the opposite case, which tries to portray it as a kind of
perfect “paradise” with no relations of domination and conflict. It thus avoids the hard work
of rebuilding and rigorously recognizing a reality that is neither one nor the other, but
different, with relations of domination and conflict, but which are unprecedented and original
and cannot be reduced to those that are supposedly universal.

Reacting to its violent denial and historical disqualification, there are some who idealize the
past, the Andean culture in this case, which is foreign and contrary to authentic, rigorous,
and useful reconstruction efforts, and sometimes serves as a basis for a totalitarian
indigenist vision that promotes racism and even seeks an exclusive and sectarian position
of privilege in a new hierarchical structure of relationships to other peoples and social

Already in the course of the twentieth century, a misleading debate had taken place on the
existence of an alleged “Inca socialism.” This debate was more artificial than real, and was
upheld by politicians rather than social-science research, politicians all from the perspective
of colonialism. This was a debate, we might say, among the colonized, among those who
wanted to see a repetition of the European monarchy, and those who wanted to see a
socialism that, as a “model,” was also a European product, all of them blind to what was
unprecedented and what was original, to what there really was. Ironically, the very concept
of “Inca socialism” was conceived by a right-wing conservative reactionary, the French
lawyer Louis Baudin, who from a few historical elements coinciding with European socialist
discourse identified the social order administered by the Incas with “socialism,” as many did
likewise with the European “empire and monarchy.” This identification of a complex and
unique reality with a European historical model on the basis of just a few external and
formal matching elements is the typical mechanism of epistemic colonialism. Paradoxically,
Boudin, when he wrote and published in French his famous book A Socialist Empire: The
Incas of Peru in 1928, sought to identify modern European socialism with the supposed
“enslaving socialism” of the Incas and thus discredit both “socialisms” as inherently
oppressive and criminal. However, the popularity of the title of the book, as superficially
written as it was misunderstood, triggered a more ideological than serious and systematic
debate between the “demonizing” or “idealizing” interpretations, both colonial, of the

Efforts must be redoubled to facilitate this historical task of decolonizing knowledge,
unlearning coloniality, giving our original peoples their place as an “other,” different
generator of legitimate and useful knowledge, in essential horizontal dialog with modern
Western knowledge. We need to find other ways of understanding of “others,” enable their
description and analysis as what they were and in fact are, beyond the traps of
universalism and denial on the one hand, and those of idealism and justification on the
other. This requirement of epistemological decolonization goes beyond the Manichean
polarity of the demonization or fetishism of ancient and different cultures, in this case the
Andean culture, in order to build a more real and useful, though more complex and difficult
form of knowledge in the broad and uneven terrain that lies between these extreme and
facile views.

Origins of Originality

If Buen Vivir is an ethical approach in its essential meaning, it is important to note at the
outset that it is not fully finished or undisputed, far from it. On the contrary, it is in a process
of plural, complex, and controversial construction. Hence, to be understood in a useful way,
it requires knowing the deep and essential contexts of the ancient Andean culture, of which
Buen Vivir is fruit and expression.

“Andean” comes from “Andes,” the name given to the mountain range that is millions of
years old and runs down the South American continent from Venezuela and Colombia in
the north to Antarctica in the south. The origin of “Andes” is in the ancient Aymara Qhatir
Qullo Qullo, “mountain that is illuminated” (by sunrise and sunset), which the Spaniards
reduced to “Qhatir,” later castilianized to “Antis,” and finally to “Andes.” It is an endless
mountain range, the longest in the world, 7,500 kilometers long, with an average of 4,000
meters above sea level, higher than 6,000 meters in many places. It acts as the symbolic
spine of the continent, ubiquitous, diverse, and common, from north to south, from ocean
to ocean, connecting all the countries one way or another, melting in current Peru and
Bolivia with Amazonia under a strong Andean-Amazonian identity. It is a privileged natural
astrological observatory and the setting of permanent and cyclical earthquake movements
with inevitable mythical, spiritual, and religious consequences for the peoples who have
lived there for thousands of years. The first surprising social and state orders arose around
the Andes, covering large areas of several of the current South American countries.

There is no serious evidence of the arrival of human beings in America after the so-called
“Bering Strait” closed, that had joined North America and Europe by its freezing eleven
thousand years ago. Neither is there any strong evidence to conclude that the American
peoples had contact with peoples of other continents before the arrival of Europeans in the
fifteenth century, other than in any case fleeting exceptions, such as the Viking exploration
of North America in the tenth century and evidence of Chinese exploration in Latin America
six decades before the arrival of Europeans. As a result of the isolation of America and its
populations of any meaningful contact with populations from other continents of the globe,
from about eleven thousand years ago, human beings developed unique and irreplicable
interaction with the specific astrological, geographical, climatic, and zoological elements of
the region, a different, sociocultural evolution, parallel and independent of those developed
in other parts of the planet. This consequently led to equally unique and irreplicable social
orders and cultural structures. This is the basis of the originality, of the unprecedented
nature of so-called American prehistory, to the point that its study does not use the
traditional periodization of prehistory or the methodology used in other parts of the world,
but other specific periods that are suited for the archaeological reality of the continent.

In the exact same way, the early civilizations of America developed in isolation, in parallel
but independently of the rest of the planet for thousands of years. This is the concrete,
material, structural, historical reason why American realities, and specifically the Andean
culture, cannot be really understood when they are studied and interpreted with ideas and
methods born in other realities for which they were meant.

The periodization specifically suited and most agreed upon for the purpose of its study and
understanding comprises three major pan-Andean horizons, i.e. state social orders
covering territories of several of today’s South American countries: Early (Chavin),
Intermediate (Tiawanaku) and Late (Tahuantinsuyo). However, they are not correlative and
consecutive; they are interrupted by interspersed periods of prevailing fragmentation in
many social orders of regional and local nature, limited to small portions of territory. They
are called the two major local “intermissions.” Consistent with the basic principles of
flexibility and adaptation that inspire all Andean cultures and communities, these horizons
and intermissions were due to periods of increased ice in the Andean mountains, which
displaced large populations and required as a mechanism for adaptation the complex and
contradictory formation of social orders that, while being state-run, hierarchical, and
including relations of domination and conflict, retained the fundamental principles of large-scale
reciprocity and community social redistribution, and a harmonious balance with the

Underlying these alternately pan-Andean and local historical cycles, there is a permanent
cultural continuity that was sustained and accumulated over thousands of years, under
various political forms, by hundreds of different Andean peoples. This underlying continuity
and accumulation made it possible to develop a high level of astrology applied to
agriculture, mathematics, geometry, architecture, hydraulics, communication symbolism,
and cultural knowledge. The specific form of the Tahuantinsuyo, the last pan-Andean cycle
under the administration of the Incas, is only a small and final part of this millennial
continuity and accumulation, and this was the one that the European invaders came upon.

Essential Principles

JPEG - 78.9 kb

A large movement of counter-colonial research and recovery of these cultures and history,
both from the Andean peoples themselves and from academia and politics, since at least
the early twentieth century, is providing thorough and useful views of these realities and
knowledge. We get from them a very essential description of their more substantial
content, which makes it possible to contextualize and understand much of the current
civilization approach of Buen Vivir. This includes insistence regarding the complex extra
effort that will be required to view and understand through another paradigm many of its
concepts, which are strange or inconceivable through the hegemonic paradigm.

The Andean world is a living world, a being world. A world where everything is always
present, everything is natural and immanent. There is no separation between the abstract
and the real, which means that symbols and names are as real and material as any other
being. The past and the future exist only in the present, for the present and by the present,
they are current. It is cyclical time, non-circular, non-repetitive, but renovated, always with
cosmic and telluric variations. In the Tahuantinsuyo period, according to early Spanish
chroniclers, people ignored their age in the Western terms of number of years. In contrast,
they were classified by age cycles in relation to their productive capacity, from babies,
uaua / llullac uarmi uaua, to the elderly, rocto macho / punoc paya. In Runa Simi, the
“general,” but neither official or exclusive common language of the Tahuantinsuyo, derived
from Kichwa, all life-cycle categories were distinguished in the feminine and masculine, a
symbolic distinction in language that is currently the banner of the struggle for gender
equality in the Western world, especially in the Spanish language.

Its fundamental core of order was the agricultural-astrological dynamics, that is, the people
maintained a deep observation of astrological cycles as directly related to the agricultural
cycles and maintained harmony with them. This was a systematic way of knowing and
doing, accumulated over thousands of years, which was intended to maintain and increase
the flow of life, balances, reciprocity and the conversation among all beings. This is
apparent in numerous and magnificent ritual and technological complexes devoted
precisely to essential agricultural-astrological knowledge in hundreds of places in South
America, which are evidence of the precise and profound astrological-agricultural
knowledge that merged in sacralized harmony with the flow and reproduction of life.

Based on this thorough knowledge, they conceived a living, revitalizing, and steadily flowing
world, with cycles that, while permanent, are not necessarily equal, where there is room for
the unexpected, the unusual, and the contradictory, taken with ease and familiarity,
“digested,” incorporated into the logic and dynamics of things. This happened, for example,
with the Catholic religion, the central figures of which, Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints,
were “digested” in the living Andean world as persons in the community of huacas (spiritual
beings), and as such they became part of ceremonies, parties, conversations, and
reciprocities, together with the ancient huacas, the apus (mountain spirits), the potato, etc.

Unlike modern Western thinking, this world, this nature and this environment are not an
“object” with which the human subject is related, but a world that is itself a subject. In more
straightforward terms, it is a living being, a person, where everything that constitutes it is
itself subject, living being and person, including soil, water, rocks, mountains, mists, rains,
stars, ancestors, huacas (spiritual beings), and of course human beings, animals, and
plants. This is shown by the so-called “Tello Obelisk,” a huanca (symbolic stone) found in
northern Peru, corresponding to the pan-Andean Chavin culture of 4,000 years ago. In it, all
beings, humans, animals, plants, mountains, waters, stars, etc., have eyes, ears and mouth;
they are living beings that reciprocate and talk. This brings about a consequence that
radically separates Andean thought from modern Western thought: culture, understood by
definition as any symbolic or material production of the human being, is here a dimension
of everything in the world. A stone has culture, as does a river, a llama, and human beings.

Unlike in the modern West, there is no standardization: no land, no plant, no stone, no river,
no rain, no wind is the same as any other, each llama or alpaca, each plant is a person
distinct from any other, in profound and comprehensive relation and conversation. There is
nothing outside of the evident, and anything “supernatural” is inconceivable: the huacas
(present spirits) are part of the real and living world, just like everything else. Andean
societies were an indivisible and integrated whole of the social, political, economic, and
spiritual dimensions. Living beings in the Andean world may be divided into three types of
communities: the human communities, a complex diversity of hundreds of ethnic groups,
community, local and state orders; the communities of the Sallqa or nature (Pachamama),
and the community of the huacas or spiritual presences ancestors, apus — or spirits of the
mountain, stars, etc.

The local, regional ethnic, immediate place where the three communities were related on a
daily basis was the Ayllu, fundamental source of life and harmony, which remained
essential, below and beyond the pan-Andean state orders, their violence and dominations,
and which so far had managed to resist and “digest” the Spanish encomiendas and
reductions, the haciendas, cooperatives, and transnational companies of the republics,
showing an unbeatable vitality, with more than 1,600 Andean communities in South

The essential relationship that keeps the world together is the incompleteness, equivalence,
and reciprocity of all beings. In sharp contrast with modern Western thinking, although there
are relations of domination and conflict between human beings —certainly limited by
inviolable principles of “social rights”— human beings as a whole community have no
status of superiority over the other beings in the Andean world. They are as incomplete
and as equivalent as everyone else, so it is essential for them to relate on equal terms with
everyone else. Everyone else needs the human being equally. In the Andean world there is
no place, it is not possible to conceive relations of domination and exclusion, or of
superiority of any being over others, whether human beings or “gods,” as in the Western
Judeo-Christian biblical Genesis. The three communities need, reciprocate, and talk with
each other. The human community, for example, observes, respects harmony, asks the
mountain if it is possible to dig an irrigation canal or a terrace on its side for crops. The
community of huacas does not only benefit the human community by providing agricultural
cycles, it also needs it; hence, human beings, for example, help the sun with the ritual of
giving it chicha when it “is weaker” at the end of winter, and there are even “gardens
planted with corn for the star.” Reciprocally, they give thanks to Pachamama every time
they drink some liquid, throwing a little to the ground (chaya). These are rituals that modern
Western eyes misinterpret as “worship” of the sun and the earth, but they are forms of
reciprocity and conversation between the human community and the community of huacas.

Materiality of Life

Refuting in a practical and historical manner the bias that caricatures the concern for the
environment as a position to not intervene or use technology to obtain products from
nature, Andean cultures and communities have made massive, intensive, extensive, and
highly technological use of the environment, in full harmony and balance with it, achieving
greater food production than that which is obtained in the same areas today, through
hundreds of thousands of miles of agricultural andenes and terraces, water systems, dams,
underground canals, and artificial ponds, built on steep mountain slopes and high plains.

They kept their huge production in thousands of collcas (storage units), where for
conservation they took advantage of climate factors, winds, sand, and altitude, to keep
food, clothing, wicker, etc. fresh and insect-free. They added the intensive use of navigation
and fishing, with testimonies stating that they had “one hundred thousand rafts in the sea”
(early chronicler Pedro Pizarro, in María Rostworowski, 1988). The breeding of Andean
camelid livestock reached enormous proportions and raised the general living standard,
with the wool, leather and meat of llamas, also used for transportation, and their dry
manure as fuel, and the fine wool of alpacas and vicuñas, which were hunted, shorn, and
released to their natural habitat in order to not reduce their numbers. There were intensive
barter exchanges based on established equivalences, since the currency or the market in
the sense that we know them today did not exist, although there was the expertise of
many trades, such as fishermen, livestock farmers, goldsmiths, potters, weavers, servants
of the huaca cult, astrologers, administrators, accountants, and many others, including the
so-called “merchants,” a kind of distributors, agents of trade in products. Their monumental
and extended architecture, based on the expertise of thousands of years and the massive
work in mitas (shifts), was landscape-oriented, and they located the structures in harmony
and identified with the environment, such as Machu Pichu and hundreds of other stunning
locations throughout South America.

They combined various forms of ownership, with predominance of the ayllu, the regional
ethnic community property, which owned lands, water, and grassland, often distributed in
different ecological zones, distant up to one day’s journey vertically in the Andes, so that
every ayllu could thus have the greatest variety of agricultural and livestock products.
Following the Andean highlands, from the coast to the mountains and forests, the
microclimates and the geographical agricultural or pastoral conditions varied strikingly, and
the Andean peoples were able to get the most of all of them, with flexibility for adaptation.
There was limited transhumance, establishment of colonies and enclaves, and the
combination among them of “fixed” and “seasonal” or “shift-based” villages. While
“Redistribution” was a mechanism of vertical sharing, “Reciprocity” was horizontal; both
adopted numerous, varied, and complex forms along the Andes as the essential form of
social relationships, even over and in interaction with relations of conflict and domination.

In each ayllu, any common man had a tupu of land, and with each new child his plot was
increased. The tupu, a measure of surface area, was of relative extension, it varied with
the time and effort required to travel it. For example, if the tupu had to be climbed, it was
larger than if it was flat. It also varied with soil quality: for example, it was larger, if the land
needed more rest, etc. It was a unit of measurement centered on equivalence and
harmony, always enough for food and a good life. They could thus generate surpluses that,
in a complex system of reciprocity and redistribution, spared those cultures from
experiencing poverty, and it was the inalienable duty of the ruling sectors to guarantee
minimum social rights for all. The Spaniards were amazed in their first contacts by the
general state of good health, nutrition, and clothing of the population. Even the individuals
who for whatever reason were not and would not be materially productive any longer, the
elderly, persons with some disability, the sick, etc., could perform activities tailored to their
circumstances: to convey experience, look after livestock, wind wool, etc., being in every
case the responsibility of the community, so they were taken care of, such that they had
no needs. Testimonies of the early Spanish chroniclers show the level of welfare achieved.
In Chucuito, present-day Peru, for example, a common man could have a thousand heads
of camels (Report of the visit of Garci Diez de San Miguel in 1567 to the province of
Chuchito); today it is one of the country’s poorest areas.

Qhapac Ñan

An extraordinary symbolic and social force, as well as permanence and currency, are
displayed by the Qhapaq Ñan, the network of tunnels, roads, bridges, ladders, terraces,
tambos (kind of inns or lodges) and collcas (storage units) of the Tahuantinsuyo. It
represented 20,000 years of accumulated works of the various Andean peoples. Each
regional ethnic community was responsible for its construction and maintenance, during the
periods of prevalence of this form of government; the state was equally responsible,
through the design and implementation of major works in working mitas (shifts), when the
pan-Andean federations prevailed.

“Qhapac Ñan” is usually translated as “Inca Road” because it was administered by the
Incas when the European conquerors arrived. However, it means more exactly “Road of
the Qhapac” or “Road of the Qhapackuna,” builders and walkers of this road. “K`apakk”
means “exact, accurate, fair.” While “Kkh`apakk” means “sacred.” It is then the “Road of the
Righteous” or the “Path of Wisdom.” Under the last Inca administration, it was about 6,000
kilometers long from Colombia to the Maule region in Chile, and 30,000 square kilometers
of surface area were connected, including various ecological zones, in coasts, mountains
and forests, up to 5,000 meters high.

In the Qhapaq Ñan, though there was a common general language, the Runa Simi, derived
from the Kichwa as a synthesis of several languages, all the different languages and
cultures of hundreds of different peoples were preserved. Because in the Tahuantinsuyo,
unlike the parallel European dynamics, the predominant trend was that the cultures of
subordinated peoples, even after being defeated in violent conflicts, were kept and entered
intact as part of the pan-Andean state order.

An expression of the sense of proportions and harmony of the Andean society, in the
Tahuantinsuyo, the Qhapac Ñan included at certain intervals, which could be of variable
size (Tupu) according to the difficulty of moving through it, a Thampu or Tambo. These
where places that had “everything for life,” arranged at a certain distance that varied
according to the effort needed to travel it, so that all travelers could rest, drink, eat, and
practice spiritual reciprocity with the huacas. The Spaniards frequently built their churches
on these places in order to break the previous spirituality violently and impose the new
Catholic religion.

As it generally happens with ancient cultures, the material and cultural wealth of the
Qhapac Ñan is still unraveling, overcoming centuries of neglect and colonialist contempt.
Many of the spiritual meanings of its design, for example, are being seriously explored by
specialized researchers. Such is the case of the “mathematical geodesic alignment” of its
roads, buildings, star observatories, and cities, in angles and diagonal straight lines, in exact
proportion of distances and reference to the axial tilt of the planet, with deep scientific and
spiritual implications. An example of this process is the new Constitution of the Plurinational
State of Bolivia of 2008, where “the State adopts and promotes as ethical-moral principles
of the plural society: . . . qhapaj ñan (noble road or life)” (art. 8.1).

Currently, the states of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile, which are
joined by the Qhapac Ñan, are promoting its declaration as cultural heritage of humankind
by 2011. This is the purpose of the “Qhapaq Ñan Project,” which had recorded until 2004, 65
watersheds and 735 archaeological sites, and had identified 16,000 communities. It thus
represents the material and symbolic evidence that the integration of South America is
objectively necessary and entirely possible, as complementary to the wealth of difference
and diversity, and in full harmony with the environment.

Buen Vivir

In short, the Andean world can be summed up as one where there were relations of
domination and conflict, but where these were still rigorously subjected to superior deeply
rooted principles of harmony and balance (Allin Kawsay). In them, human beings see
themselves as nothing more than a part, equivalent to other parts of the cosmic universal
whole and in a relation of reciprocity with it, a fundamental breaking-off from
anthropocentrism, presently hegemonic and in crisis. Its structures and relations of power,
domination, and conflict were immanently limited by an indisputable and inviolable common
ethical minimum, which in fact rendered poverty and assault on nature literally unthinkable;
these were imported by the Europeans and caused so much astonishment and
incomprehension among the original inhabitants, such as the unknown firearms and the
invaders’ deadly plagues.

This self-limitation, deeply refined as an essential truth, as both social and cosmic ethics, is
opposed to the understanding of development as endless accumulation of material
economic productivity, which is still prevalent today and has led the planet and the species
to confront risks and threats of catastrophic magnitude, as well as the rising material and
symbolic inequalities that fuel endless conflicts and strains at local, national, regional, and
global levels. And it is the core of the Buen Vivir approach that has emerged in the last
decade as a significant contribution to the new pillars of civilization from Latin America, as
a result of the combination of ancient Andean knowledge and renewed critical, intellectual,
and academic thinking, which is certainly filled with nuances and even internal controversies
of multiple natures.

Although its most well-known expressions refer to the “Sumak kawsay” of the Kichwa of
Ecuador and Peru today, and the “Suma Qamaña” of the Aymara of the present Bolivia,
similar expressions are found in the “Ñandereko” of the Guarani, the “Shiir waras” of the
Ashuar, the “Küme mongen” of the Mapuche, and in virtually all indigenous peoples, not
only in Latin America, but in all ancient cultures of the world, which does not free the
approach from internal controversies about the real extent and forms of relating among the
indigenous peoples. This highlights its plural and open, even mestizo nature, when it
connects with the new emancipation thinking, which is actually introduced by the concept
of Buen Vivir, in the sense that it fails to define itself with absolute detail, nor does this
appear to be its vocation, but does show a clear and strong set of values, ways of thinking
and feeling human beings, nature, and the cosmos. Taking the ancient Andean culture as its
historical source, it appears with renewed intellectual force and political sense as relevant
input for new civilization pillars.

Its distinguishable core can be essentially synthesized in a holistic and cosmic view, of
respect and horizontal coexistence with nature, of search for social justice and full
multicultural respect. In particular, it emphasizes a radical understanding of well-being and
development that requires self-limitation and restraint as opposed to unlimited production
and irresponsible and unsustainable waste. From deep community contents it gives very
limited importance to individual consumption and ownership, but grants a crucial place to
the inclusion of all and the harmony of feelings. This view sees and feels human beings and
the world that integrates them organically with the entire universe, in contrast to the
hegemonic anthropocentrism of Western capitalist modernity. This has led some
intellectuals to characterize it as “biocentric,” “bioequalitarian” or “bioenvironmental.”

Appropriated by various social sectors and incorporated in many ways to new governance
proposals, from new legislation to new ways of conceptualizing the economy and relations
with the environment, it opens strong discussions about possible specific historical
realizations, which can lead to alternative forms of society, superseding and replacing the
hegemonic system. This is the challenge posed to Buen Vivir in the realization of its
principles for political projects, government plans, public policies, and new non-conventional
and viable forms of economic organization at all scales, with the difficulties and risks that
this involves. This is happening powerfully in countries like the Republic of Ecuador and the
Plurinational State of Bolivia.

This is a process in flow and in dialog, necessarily multiple and plural, which converges in
turn to a broader flow and dialog, at the scale of a community of human destiny, together
with numerous other contributions of so many rich ancient cultures, as well as the
emancipation thinking emerging in the West that, taking the best elements of modernity, is
nourished by the most advanced current knowledge and thinking and creates
unprecedented ethical proposals that, considering our present urgencies, are also
contributing to the formation of new pillars of civilization for the community of human


sgmdigital; Germà


World Governance Index
Proposal Papers
Dossiers and Documents
Document Database
Home Page
About Us
Front Page