ALMA Reviews Blog: Sumak Kawsay is not Buen Vivir
Javier Cuestas-Caza; Escuela Politécnica Nacional, Ecuador
Published in Alternautas, 2018, VOL. 5, NO. 1, 51–66
www.alternautas.net/s/journalv5i1_2018_final.pdf (article in Issue)
Sumak Kawsay, commonly translated as Buen Vivir (Good Living), has become a central topic in development studies and environmental justice debates. The concept originates in the Indigenous Kichwa language and its Andean cosmovision, which aspires to build a community-oriented and ecologically balanced relationship between society and nature. After decades of Indigenous and environmentalist struggles, Sumak Kawsay became a pillar of the Ecuadorian Constitution in 2008. This historical event was matched by unusual levels of attention from scholars across the globe calling for the abolition of Eurocentric notions of “development”. However, the political auspices of Buen Vivir remain largely unfulfilled. The idea includes the protection of Indigenous rights as well as the recognition of nature as a rights-holder entitled to legal defence against the harmful effects of exploitative economic activities. By drawing on Indigenous principles and practices, Sumak Kawsay – rather than Buen Vivir – offers a unique epistemic point of departure to reflect (and act) upon the colonial legacies of capitalocentric modernity and “green” versions thereof.
This task is easier said than done, however, as suggested insightfully in an article by Javier Cuestas-Caza, a scholar from the Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Ecuador who is making important contributions to this field of debate.
In the article, Cuestas-Caza explains why the Kichwa concept of Sumak Kawsay should not be equated with Buen Vivir. This is more than just a matter of inadequate translation. In fact, Cuestas-Caza shows that Sumak Kawsay has become a multifaceted field of academic and political debate that has much deeper implications than the concept of Buen Vivir. According to the author, there are at least three different groups that shape the meaning of Sumak Kawsay. These include (1) Indigenous-culturalist, (2) post-developmentalist and (3) socialist-statist epistemic communities.
The first, the Indigenous-culturalist community, is closest to the linguistic and ancestral origins of Sumak Kawsay. Through ethnographic research in the Andean highlands of Northern Ecuador, Cuestas-Caza discovered that most Kichwa leaders and intellectuals reject Buen Vivir as an adequate translation for Sumak Kawsay. In Kichwa, the author explains, “sumak” is associated with “plenitude” or “harmony”, while “kawsay” refers to “life”. Hence, Sumak Kawsay actually means “Vida en Plenitud” (Life in Plenitude), which refers to the ideal of leading a harmonious, fulfilled, and hence beautiful life. This is very different from the socio-ecological principles for a post-modern society that critical scholars seek to express when referring to Buen Vivir. These are better captured by the concept of Alli Kawsay, as argued by Cuestas-Caza:
“Alli Kawsay expresses the integrality and aspiration to improve the quality of life in interdependence with the beings of the environment, at the personal level (runa), at the family level (ayllu), at the community level (llakta) and at intercommunity level within a territory” (p. 54).
In the second group, the post-developmentalist epistemic community, Buen Vivir and Sumak Kawsay are used interchangeably, even though they have come to mean different things. But as noted above, Alli Kawsay may in fact be closer to the search for post-modern alternatives to global-capitalist development. In this community, Cuestas-Caza notes, elements of indigeneity are selectively recombined with intellectual programmes ranging from degrowth, ecological economics, ecofeminism, deep ecology and intercultural feminism to post-extractivist postulates. Albeit well-intentioned, these endeavours, often situated in Western universities, fail to acknowledge the cultural assemblies of meaning that underpin Buen Vivir. Hence, this type of engagement with Indigenous knowledge runs the risk of reproducing the very structures of coloniality it aspires to overcome. A closer dialogue between members of the first and second epistemic communities could have fertile ground, as the two share a genuine commitment to critical, decolonial and community-oriented thinking, so the author.
In contrast, Cuestas-Caza sees the greatest problems in the third, socialist-statist epistemic framing of Buen Vivir. In this case, the concept of Sumak Kawsay has been appropriated by political actors (around former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa) to foster a political discourse of self-proclaimed “progressive” and state-run developmentalism. Despite positive signals of change in its initial stages, this political movement ended up outing itself as neither respectful of Indigenous rights nor committed to protecting nature over the long run. In Ecuador, as a result, the perception of Buen Vivir is now linked with a problematic model of socialist-statist development with little to no connection with Indigenous thought. By the same token, this has granted members of the first community a renewed prospect of recasting the terms of the political discussion around nature-society relations from a transcultural perspective.
In conclusion, in addition to clarifying the difference between Sumak Kawsay and Buen Vivir, this article provides a key insight. In essence, Cuestas-Caza is cautioning against the academic reflex to advocate in favour of Indigenous concepts without an accompanying process of dialogic research across epistemic communities. This can lead, on the one hand, to the formation of academic discourses that speak for but not necessarily with the social subjects who potentially co-produce transformative sources of knowledge. On the other hand, this type of endeavour actually undermines the possibility to encounter more suitable landscapes for transformative research, as exemplified by the notion of Alli Kawsay and its relationship with Sumak Kawsay and Buen Vivir.
Reviewed by: Fabricio Rodríguez
Cuestas-Caza, Javier (2018): Sumak Kawsay is not Buen Vivir. In Alternautas 5 (1), pp. 51–66.
Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe