Between ideal and reality. challenges in putting good living/buen vivir/sumak kawsay into practice.

Drange, Live Danbolt (2018). 'Between Ideal and Reality. Challenges in putting Good living/Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay into practice.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The purpose of the paper is to examine if the new legislations based on the worldview of the Andean peoples have led to changes in the relation between the State and the indigenous citizens in Bolivia and Ecuador. More specifically, the paper discusses challenges the State and the indigenous citizens face when implementing the new legislation. To what extent do the indigenous citizens experience that the State acts according to the constitutions emphasis on respect for Indigenous rights to sustainable living?

During the last about 30 years, indigenous peoples in Latin America have experienced a major change in their living conditions and in their relation to the nation-states. The ‘celebration’ of the anniversary of the discovery of the Americas in 1992 led to mobilization against 500 years of discrimination and marginalization. “The giant woke” was the title on Vistazo magazine in Quito (1990). Indigenous peoples began to claim their rights in society and from that time onwards, they have experienced capability expansion by educational reforms that introduced intercultural and bilingual education and representatives of the indigenous peoples are elected into governments. The ruling president Evo Morales in Bolivia is Aymara. The Parliaments in both States passed new constitutions based on indigenous worldview called Sumak Kawsay/Buen Vivir, good living, emphasizing decolonisation and multi-nationality. The constitutions are radical in recognizing Indigenous rights, which include territorial autonomy and self-governing entities. They grant recognition of cultural diversity, respect for Mother Earth and sustainable living and commit the government to establish an economic, social and political system oriented towards the realization of good living  (República del Ecuador 2008, Republica de Bolivia 2009). The constitutions were supposed to change the nature of politics (Acosta 2010, Estermann 2006). However, constitutional rights do not guarantee that the State will comply. As Rendón argues about Ecuador: “policy makers are more concerned with how to assimilate indigenous minorities into mainstream society and less with how to promote cultural and linguistic diversity as part of the country’s ethnic composition” (Gómez R. 2013).

Both Bolivia and Ecuador are among countries with people living below poverty line[1]. Indigenous people are often socially, politically, economically, and culturally marginalized and are still among the groupings more severely affected by poverty and human rights abuses[2]. The indigenous population in the Andean countries may to a varying degree be characterized as literate in the UNESCO definition[3]. The Human Development and Capability Approach (HDCA) understands poverty as deprivation in the capability to live a good life and development as capability expansion (Sen 1999). This equals to some extent the Andean way of defining good living (Deneulin 2012).

More specifically, the paper considers tensions between individual rights and the indigenous people’s group rights in Bolivia and Ecuador today and grounds the discussion on two examples of confrontation between the State and local peoples of the Amazon. In both, the case of the oil-rich National Park of Yasuni in Ecuador and the Tipnis highway project through a protected area and Indigenous territories in Bolivia, decisions of the states are affecting the basis of existence for several indigenous ethnic groups (Lalander 2014). As in 1990, indigenous organizations are marching, now claiming respect for the Constitution on environmental and ethnic rights. What happened to the ideal of good living in the real world? Do indigenous peoples experience to have a voice and to be heard when it comes to co-determination in matters that concern their possibility to live a life in accordance with their own needs and interests? How can the capability approach contribute to empowering them in the interaction with the government?

As a researcher, I have worked on different research projects in the countries from the 1990-ties. The paper is based on qualitative research in Ecuador and Bolivia, literature about Andean worldview and Sumak Kawsay, selected literature in The Human Development and Capability Approach (HDCA), basically by Amartya Sen and Séverine Deneulin  and critical reviews of relevant documents, articles and newspapers.

Key words: Andes, Indigenous Peoples, Constitution, literacy, Buen Vivir, HDCA, Tipnis, Yasuni

1990. "Rebelión Indígena: Despierta el Gigante." Vistazo.

Acosta, A. 2010. El Buen Vivir en el camino del post-desarrollo. Una lectura desde la Constitución de Montecristi. Ecuador: Fundación Friedrich Ebert, FES-ILDIS.

Deneulin, Séverine. 2012. Justice and deliberation about the good life: The contribution of Latin American buen vivir social movements to the idea of justice. In Bath Papers in International Development and Well-Being. Bath: Bath: Centre for Development Studies.

Estermann, J. 2006. Filosofía andina: Sabiduría indígena para un mundo nuevo. 2. ed. Vol. 1, Teología y Filosofía Andinas. La Paz: ISEAT.

Gómez R., J. 2013. "Ecuador's Indigenous Cultures: Astride orality and Literacy." In Oral Literature in the Digital Age: Archiving Orality and Connecting with Communities, edited by Mark Turin, Claire Wheeler and Eleanor Wilkinson, 103-120. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

Lalander, Rickard. 2014. "Rights of nature and the indigenous peoples in Bolivia and Ecuador: A Straitjacket for Progressive Development Politics?"  Revista iberoamericana de estudios de desarrollo / Iberoamerican Journal of Development Studies 3 (2):148-173. doi: 10.26754/ojs_ried/ijds.137.

Republica de Bolivia. 2009. Constitución Política del Estado. edited by Congreso Nacional.

República del Ecuador. 2008. Constitución política de la república del Ecuador. Montecristi: Asamblea Nacional Constituyente.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UNESCO. 2006. Literacy for Life. In EFA global monitoring report. Paris: UNESCO Pub.



[2] OHCHR Fact Sheet: Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and the MDGs.

[3] A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his (or her) group and community and also for enabling him (or her) to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his (or her) own and the community’s development (UNESCO 2006, 22).

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