The Indigenous decolonial concept of "Buen Vivir" in Latin America

Buen Vivir (1)

February 6, 2009
By Cecilia Bizerra

Portuguese to Spanish Translation by Blanca Diego.
Spanish to English Translation by Christopher Reid (Decolonial Translation Group).

NOTE: The original article "Sumac Kawsay" was published on the Web site of Foro Social Mundial on 6 February 2009. The Spanish translation by Blanca Diego, "Buen Vivir," was published on the same site on the same day. English translation by Christopher Reid. The French translation by Angélica Montes, "'Bien Vivre', un concept de la pensée décoloniale indigène en Amérique latine," is available at the Web site of le Mouvement des indigènes de la république (MIR).

Perhaps because I am a Brazilian, the first time I heard the expression buen vivir I immediately thought of “buena vida (2),” a term which in our country is used pejoratively to refer to an easy and unconcerned life, one filled with little work, plenty of evening strolls and other luxuries, and zero political consciousness.

I was completely mistaken. Buen vivir means nothing of the sort. On the contrary, according to the indigenous peoples of the Andean region, and the Aymara people in particular (3), buen vivir is a solid principle which means life in harmony and equilibrium between men and women, between different communities and, above all, between human beings and the natural environment of which they are part. In practice, this concept implies knowing how to live in community with others while achieving a minimum degree of equality. It means eliminating prejudice and exploitation between people as well as respecting nature and preserving its equilibrium.

According to this definition, the culture in which we are submerged is utterly devoid of buen vivir. We are in complete disequilibrium with ourselves and with nature when we buy more than we actually need; when, without remorse, we exploit the land, water and even other human beings themselves; when we search for exorbitant profits which, the majority of the time, only benefit one person or a very small group of people.

Technologies continue to improve and every day the comforts and conveniences which these offer are increasing, but only for a few people. Meanwhile, for the majority of people what are increasing are poverty, exploitation, prejudice, competition and individualism. This is the logic of the system in which we live. There can be no doubt that we are not practicing buen vivir.

On the other hand, we hear in the news all the time about the spread of the world financial crisis, the dollar’s falling value, the risk associated with dwindling water resources….In sum, they are continuously reminding us of the failure of the system.

In the face of all of this, it seems ironic to hear indigenous people referred to as ‘savages’ whose way of life is backwards and primitive. How can this be, given that they have always known how to live in community with one another, to produce what is necessary for their survival and to live in harmony with nature and with other living beings; to nourish themselves on fruits, legumes and other vegetables, and to understand better than anyone else the secrets of nature and of natural medicine? Furthermore, they have lived in the Americas for thousands of years in a sustainable manner – though they may not have used precisely this same term – long before the so-called “discovery” of America. Is this really what a savage is?

Recently, at the ninth meeting of the World Social Forum which was held in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, in the city of Belém do Pará, a defense of the concept of buen vivir was presented. For those who were there at the Forum, the participation of indigenous peoples was quite significant, and not just because of the rituals and music which they performed, or for the tattoos on their bodies or their colorful clothing. It was also significant because of the consistency of their discourse and the courage they demonstrated in defending what they believe in: ‘good living’ and ‘living well’.

Sumak kawsay, or buen vivir, is a concept which has already been incorporated into the debates of the Ecuadorean Constituent Assembly. Having recently been approved by voters in a popular referendum, buen vivir is guaranteed in Bolivia’s new constitution. Buen vivir was the hallmark of this World Social Forum. Perhaps it will also be the beginning of a possible new world.


1) TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The literal English translation is “good living,” but it is important to observe that buen vivir is itself an imperfect Spanish approximation of the (indigenous Ecuadorean) Kichwa term, sumak kawsay. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, a similar concept stemming from the Aymara Indian cosmovision and language – suma qamaña – is customarily translated into Spanish as vivir bien, or “living well.” The author, a Brazilian thinking and writing in Portuguese, has opted to utilize the Ecuadorean Kichwa/Spanish terms throughout her article rather than attempt a concrete Portuguese translation of the concept.

2) TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, “(the) good life.”

3) TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Again, to avoid confusion on the part of the lay reader it must be emphasized that sumak kawsay and buen vivir are specifically Ecuadorean Kichwa and Spanish terms, respectively; they are not the actual terms used by the Aymara and Spanish speakers of Bolivia (see translator’s note 1).