Vivir Bien (Living Well): a New Model For Development From Bolivia’s Indigenous Process of Change
Pachamama (Mother Earth)
Under the presidency of Evo Morales, Bolivia has taken a leadership role in the global climate change negotiations. It did so most recently at the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancún, but also hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change (WPCCC) in Cochabamba in April 2010 and spoke out against the Copenhagen Accord at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference. Among the ideas underpinning Bolivia’s principled position — pushing for the most ambitious agreement to tackle climate change and defend “mother earth” (or Pachamama) — is that of vivir bien or “living well”.
Vivir bien is an evolving concept emanating from Latin America’s indigenous peoples. The term translates as sumaq kawsay and suma qamaña in Quechua and Aymara, the two main indigenous languages of the Andes. It brings some common notions from a variety of indigenous peoples, both from the Andean highlands and the Amazon jungle.
In Bolivia some communities still live and organise themselves in pre-capitalist, pre-colonial ways. These are based on communal land systems and crop rotation, on barter and exchange as well as money transactions, and ways of making decisions on the basis of consensus. Their leaders are elected on a rotational basis.
Such modes of life — which have evolved and have been sustained over thousands of years — require a careful balance between members of the community, men and women and within families. To live off the land, it is also necessary to maintain a fine balance between the community and the environment they live in. This means using sufficient natural resources (water, land etc.) to meet people’s needs, while not overproducing in a way that would damage the local eco-system and jeopardise production in the future.
It is the need for balance and harmony that informs vivir bien.
Behaviour that threatens this equilibrium and harmony are rejected. Mass consumption creates imbalances between people — trying to live better than others rather than all living well — and the resulting cost to the environment creates an imbalance between people and nature. Vivir bien also rejects the subordination or exploitation of one group by another – just as subordinating the interests of nature to accommodate our excessive use of fossil fuels and raw materials is also anathema. It involves being able to work and enjoy work; to reject lying and deceit; to maintain a culture of dialogue and communication.
Vivir bien is not exclusive or retrogressive: the values and principles are universal and point the way to an alternative model of development and progress. It does not involve a rejection of technology, rather the use of modern communications (such as mobile phones and the internet) for the benefit of all on a shared basis.
The government of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party in Bolivia is taking these concepts and applying them to national policies, not least in the area of foreign affairs. Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, himself an Aymara, is a key exponent of the philosophy of vivir bien. During a speech at the WPCCC, Choquehuanca also talked about the concept of Tunupa that extends the idea of harmony within communities to peoples across the globe.
Relations between states, he argued, should look for harmony, complementarity, solidarity and reciprocity. The global crises we are now facing – financial, climatic, in energy and food – are the result of a world out of balance. The imbalance is caused by the market-based capitalist development model, which has led to some people being able to live much better than others, denying the majority the chance to live well.
Bolivia’s proposal for the UN climate change negotiations is based on these principles. Commitments to reduce carbon emissions and to stop the process of global warming should be based on the idea of ‘climate debt’. This means assessing the historical responsibility for carbon emissions and placing the greatest burden on those industrialised countries (Europe, North America and Japan) that have emitted most of the carbon in the atmosphere. So, as well as restoring balance between people and the environment, this would also restore balance between nations and allow poor countries to develop, to alleviate poverty, to live well.
Bolivia proposes a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth to protect life and the planet by creating international standards to prevent pollution and environmental damage. The development of a system of human rights without a corresponding system of environmental protection has contributed to the environmental disaster we now face. The creation of international laws for the protection of the planet and its environment would help bring protection of nature into line with the protections afforded to people.
With respect to international trade integration, Bolivia’s proposal is the People’s Trade Treaty (PTT), part of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA). This also follows the principles of vivir bien. The PTT promotes agreements based on complementarity and solidarity that recognise the (often vast) differences between the economies of countries and regions, allowing protection of national industries and companies, including small producers, cooperatives and community enterprises.
The idea is an alternative to the Free Trade Agreements promoted by the US and Europe, which encourage the opening up of markets in which small national companies compete with much larger, more powerful and often subsidised (particularly in the agricultural sector) European and US multinationals. The PTT also calls for the design of policies that specifically protect indigenous peoples and groups and their livelihoods from unfair international competition.
In his speech to the Cochabamba conference, Choquehuanca placed this new development model — based on the concept of vivir bien — in the context of existing political debates. For capitalism, he says, the most important thing is capital, money, profit — creating surplus value — while socialism places man and the satisfaction of necessities at its centre. Vivir bien therefore rejects capitalism which prioritises neither people nor the environment. It corresponds to the values of socialism, but for indigenous peoples, life is the most important value, and with it nature, the environment and the planet. After all, while the planet could happily continue without people, the converse would be plainly impossible.
This article, written by Alex Tilley, Coordinator of the Bolivia Information Forum, first appeared in the magazine Adelante in April 2011.