Ecuador: Building a Good Life – Sumak Kawsay

The one thing that really stands out about these alternative proposals is that they have emerged from traditionally marginalized groups of people. They invite us to uproot various concepts that have assumed an uncontested status, and called us to question the homogenizing and all-encompassing capitalist structure. They are the voices of other men and women that from their otherness demand that Good Living be built and their ability to put forward ideas be recognized.

Source: La linea del fuego

After renewed criticism on the issue of development, Latin America finds itself going through an interesting process of rediscovery with its roots. On the one hand, the historical tradition of elaborate critical analysis that was previously at risk of being forgotten has not been lost and has made a recovery. On the other hand, new concepts have flourished, especially ideas that come from the ancient Abya Yala people, which have then merged with concepts from other parts of the planet. While a good part of conventional thought on development and even most current criticism are based on a Western understanding of Modernity, the most recent Latin American proposals tend to veer away from those limitations.

Essentially, these proposals recapture key issues that spring from the knowledge of the ancient peoples. The Constitution of Ecuador and Bolivia are the most well-known in their reflection of these ideas; the first presents the idea of “Good Living” or Sumak Kawsay (in Quechua), and the second, “Living Well” or Suma Qamaña (in Aymara). Similar notions (although, not the same) exist in other indigenous cultures, such as the Mapuche in Chile, the Guaraní in Bolivia and Paraguay, the Kuna in Panama, the Achuar in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and in the Mayan tradition in Guatemala and Chiapas (Mexico), among others.

As well as the Abya-Yala world view, there are many other parts of the planet that have, in their philosophical thinking, close approximations to the search for Good Living from a philosophical, inclusive way of thinking. Sumak Kawsay as a culture of life has been acknowledged and practiced, in various ways and under different pseudonyms, in different periods of the distinct regions of Mother Earth. On the other hand, although it is considered one of the pillars of the questionable Western civilization, in this collective effort to rebuild/build a jigsaw of elements that advocate for new ways of organizing life, even elements of Aristotle’s “good life” can be recovered.

Good Living, at the beginning of the 21st Century, is therefore not an original nor new political idea in the Andean countries. Nor are the communities and indigenous people of Abya-Yala the only ones to propose such ideas. Good Living is part of an expansive search for alternative ways of living in the thick of Humanity’s fight for emancipation and life.

A Proposal from the World’s Periphery

Good Living, as the sum of actions conducive to a certain way of life that remains mostly resistant to the long colonial occupation and the effects of its aftermath, is still a valid way of living in many of the indigenous communities that have not been totally absorbed by capitalist modernity or have managed to remain on its margins. Shared knowledge and wisdom within the community, which is what counts, forms the basis from which to imagine and conceive different worlds as a path to change.

In any case, it will always be difficult to prove what ancient knowledge is and what it represents, as this knowledge may not actually be ancient and there is no way of proving it. Cultures are so inherently heterogeneous that it can be unfair to talk about “our” culture as proof of the correctness of one’s statement. In addition, the history of humanity is the history of cultural exchange, and this can also be applied to Latin American indigenous communities. Either way, it is imperative to recover the indigenous communities’ practices and way of life, as they exist now, without idealizing them.

The one thing that really stands out about these alternative proposals is that they have emerged from traditionally marginalized groups of people. They invite us to uproot various concepts that have assumed an uncontested status, and called us to question the homogenizing and all-encompassing capitalist structure.

They are the voices of other men and women that from their otherness demand that Good Living be built and their ability to put forward ideas be recognized.

An Alternative to Development

Since Good Living emerged from non-capitalist indigenous roots, it proposes a vision of the world that is different from Western ideas of hegemonic civilization. It breaks away from anthropocentric capitalist logic based on the philosophy of a dominant civilization, as well as the various “real” socialisms, and their intrinsic contradictions, that have existed until now.

The idea of development that emerged from Western ideas of progress and the development of civilization established a complex series of dichotomies based on dominance: developed-developing, advanced-backward, superior-inferior, centre-periphery, first world-third world…and so the old savage-civilized dichotomy gained new force and was violently introduced into our Abya-Yala more than five centuries ago with the European conquest.

In the context of global forecasts, the dominant structure of civilization today is realized. The institutionalization of the superior-inferior dichotomy led to the emergence of multiple forms of coloniality as ways of justifying and legitimizing inequality: the coloniality of power expressed in the maintenance of the north-south power divide; the coloniality of knowledge that imposes homogenizing Western-thinking with the intention of overriding popular-thinking; the coloniality of being that represses the otherness of the minorities, and, the coloniality of having that attempts to reduce Good Living to consumerism and the belief that those who have more are superior to those who have less.

Such standards of coloniality, valid even in our lifetime, are not just a memory from the past: as an important part of Modernity and Enlightenment, they explain how the world today is organized.

More specifically, all around the world, societies were and still are being reorganized in order to adapt to “development”. Development became humanity’s common destiny: a non-negotiable obligation. To achieve it, for example, the destruction of society and nature is accepted in the name of extractivist accumulation, such as large-scale mining, that was inherited from the colony, even though it reinforces dependency on the external market and global capital.

When the problems started to blunt our faith in development, we began to look for alternatives; we added different endings to distinguish them from what made us uncomfortable, but we carried on along the same lines: economic development, social development, local development, rural development, sustainable development, eco-development, development at a human scale, endogenous development, development with gender-equality, co-development…ultimately, development. Fortunately, even in countries in the Northern-hemisphere, more and more dissatisfied and indignant people are working towards “degrowth” and are searching for other ways of living based on reuniting human beings and Nature.

We know that Good Living is different from development. It is not about applying a set of policies, mechanisms and indicators to emerge from “underdevelopment” and reach that much desired “developed” state. It is a useless task. Let us look at the last few decades: almost all countries in the world have tried to follow the supposed path. How many have achieved it? Very few, assuming the aim is development.

After five centuries of horror and mistakes committed in the name of progress – and development in the last six decades – it is clear that the issue is not one of simply accepting one path or another. The path to development is not the main problem. The difficulty lies in the concept of development.

The world, in general, lives in a “badly developed” state, including industrialized countries. In other words, lifestyle should act as a reference point. Those countries are also the main catalysts of climate change. For the first time in the history of humanity, waste production – the result of all energy conversion and processed material – exceeded the Earth’s capacity to assimilate and recycle, and the speed at which we extracted resources began to exceed production time, putting the reproduction of life at risk. Environmental collapse exposes the diseased relationship between capitalist society and Nature and uncovers the “badly developed” state of the contemporary global system.

In short, the traditional idea of progress based on productivity and one-dimensional development must be urgently dissolved, especially the “mechanistic” approach to economic growth as well as its many other synonyms. However, it is not only about dissolving these ideas; a different approach is necessary, and one that is richer in content and difficulties.

Let us remember that, often, at the knowledge base of indigenous peoples, the concept of development does not exist, which means that in many cases the idea is rejected. To conceive life as a lineal process that establishes an anterior and posterior state, namely developing and developed – a dichotomy that people must move through in order to achieve a state of well being, as occurs in the Western world – does not exist. Nor does the concept of rich and poor, determined by the accumulation or lack of material possessions, exist.

Good Living appears, then, as a category in permanent construction and reproduction. In terms of a holistic approach, one must understand the diversity of elements that condition humans’ thoughts and actions and contribute to the search for Good Living, such as knowledge, codes of ethical and spiritual conduct in relation to our surroundings, human values, and the vision of the future, among others. Good Living, definitively, occupies a central position in indigenous societies’ philosophy of life.

In our era, this ancestral conception of life resembles other world views that try to break away from capitalism (popular environmentalism, Marxism, feminism, etc.). They also emerge from the oppressed and are strengthened by this inclusive perspective.

Rediscovering Nature

Good Living is based on overcoming two dichotomies that have been perversely exacerbated by modernity: human dominance over Nature on the one hand, and exploitation between humans on the other (North-South, city-country, and in general the dominance of hegemonic groups over the majority of exploited people).

Rather than maintaining a separation between Nature and human beings; rather than sustaining a civilization that endangers life, our task becomes one of rediscovery. One must overcome capitalist civilization, which is predatory by nature, unwelcome and unsustainable, and “lives to suffocate life; and suck life from the world”, to put it in the words of the great Ecuadorian philosopher, Bolívar Echeverría. In order to achieve this we must move away from current anthropocentrism towards (socio)biocentrism and vitalism. With its focus on harmony with Nature, with its disapproval of the concept of perpetual accumulation, and with its return to values of use in this regard, Good Living opens doors to alternative ways of life.

To achieve such a radical transformation of civilization, many significant changes need to be made. The de-commercialization of nature is a crucial first step. In short, Good Living moves away from conventional Western ideas of progress and points towards other ways of perceiving life, paying special attention to Nature.

Good Living: A Democratic Challenge

It is clear, therefore, that Good Living is a plural concept (it would be better to say, “good livings” or “good livings together”) that emerges particularly from indigenous communities, without denying the technological advantages of the modern world or possible contributions or knowledge from other cultures that question other assumptions of the dominant modern world. Respect for the sovereignty of communities, for their methods of production and reproduction, and for their territory will provide space for horizontal exchange and interconnectedness that will finally break away from inherited colonial ways of thinking.

To summarize, this complex task – conceptualized in the Constitution of Montecristi – implies learning by unlearning, and learning and relearning at the same time. It is a task that will demand more consensual democracy and more participation, always upon the basis of respect. Nobody can assume the right to own the truth.