By Philipp Horn (Lecturer in Urban Studies and Planning & member of SIID Cities)

Buen Vivir – a terminology which originates in indigenous cosmovision (Sumak Kawsay in Kichwa and Suma Qamaña in Aymara) and could be translated into the English term of ‘good living’- has become a prominent feature of decolonial thought across Latin America and beyond. Generally speaking, Buen Vivir promises inclusive and equitable development based on the fundamental tenet that no one can live well if others live badly. According to Eduardo Gudynas, Buen Vivir “helps us see the limits of current development models and it allows us to dream of alternatives that until now have been difficult to fulfil”. 

Such language of alternatives often guides debates in left intellectual circles where Buen Vivir is associated with emancipatory state-led politics and tales of innovation and resistance by historically marginalised communities. Yet, such debates often remain utopian in outlook and fail to consider to what extent and how Buen Vivir is actually translated into current development policies, planning practices and resistance struggles. My research addresses this gap. It critically examines tensions and contradictions between legal discourse and policy practice in Bolivia and Ecuador – two countries that incorporated Buen Vivir as guiding principle within their constitutions and national development plans. 

While discursively grounded in principles such as decolonisation and indigenous cosmovision, the implementation of Buen Vivir in both countries is constrained by colonial continuities and widespread violations of indigenous rights. Such trends are particularly visible in La Paz and Quito – cities that are home to a large indigenous population. Despite a strong indigenous presence, these cities continue to be administered and governed as non-indigenous spaces. To understand why this is the case, it is worthwhile citing Bolivia’s deputy minister of decolonial affairs:

“In cities where modernity has been developed we respect private property and individual rights according to the liberal model. By contrast in rural areas and particularly in our indigenous territories we subordinate individualism to collective indigenous rights.” (Interview undertaken by the author)

This testimony replicates colonial understandings of race, space and rights. The Spanish colonisers conceived of cities as ‘white’ spaces inhabited by Spaniards or people of mixed blood who were granted citizenship rights. In contrast, the countryside was conceived of as indigenous place, home to the ‘non-white’ native population that was denied citizenship and from living in cities but granted relative political autonomy over collective affairs. In my book “Indigenous rights to city: Ethnicity and Urban Planning in Bolivia and Ecuador” I demonstrate how present-day national and city government officials remain guided by such colonial understandings of ethno-spatial relations and, therefore, fail to recognise specific indigenous rights (such as rights to prior consultation, indigenous justice, territorial autonomy, intercultural healthcare and education) within cities. Instead, government authorities simply treat indigenous peoples as ordinary urban residents and, following a liberal model of urban politics, consider them recipients of universal rights to tenure, housing and basic services.

Tensions between progressive rhetoric and business as usual are also visible in other policy sectors and in rural territories. For example, foundational aspirations of Buen Vivir such as the right to nature and environmental justice have been misappropriated to impose again an economic development model which (re)centres around boosting economic growth through (neo)extractivism. Bolivia and Ecuador both intensified natural resource extraction and sold rights for the exploitation of natural resources to a variety of foreign stakeholders, mainly from China and Brazil. These processes produced winners and losers. With more financial resources generated through the expansion of the extractive frontier, both governments invested in physical infrastructure (such as the construction of roads and new towns) and redistribution schemes, thereby significantly contributing to the reduction of extreme poverty in rural and urban territories. At the same time, interventions related to resource extraction and infrastructure provisioning are characterised by the widespread violation of internationally agreed mechanisms on prior and informed consultation as well as national legislation on participation and autonomy. They also result in the displacement of local communities and increasing rural-to-urban migration. 

In this context, local communities are often actively involved in resisting displacement and challenging uneven patterns of economic development. As part of some of these resistance struggles, local communities draw on Buen Vivir discourse to stop governments from auctioning their lands to oil companies and to (re)gain recognition for their rights to territory and rights to nature. This is evident in recent struggles by indigenous Waorani who filed a lawsuit to protect their homes in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. Other resistance struggles, however, centre more on questions of who should control natural resource governance and associated redistribution processes. In other words, resistance struggles do not per se focus on promoting alternatives. They also, and perhaps more often, centre around struggles to participate in and benefit from existing (neo)extractive and capitalist development processes.  

To conclude, findings from Bolivia and Ecuador demonstrate that actually existing alternatives are often partial, fragmented and enmeshed with racist, (post)colonial and capitalist politics. Rather than offering essential and romantic accounts on state-led or community-led alternatives and innovations, I suggest that decolonial and leftist scholarship should confront what Aníbal Quijano would refer to as “coloniality of power” – the social, political, economic and cultural hierarchies that have been established during the colonial conquest, outlived colonialism, and continue until the present. 

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