Buen vivir: Can the ‘good life’ deliver environmental harmony?

Nations are coming round to the idea that nature has rights but implementation is proving challenging, writes David Humphreys
<p>Laguna Hedionda, a saline lake in Bolivia famous for migratory species of pink and white flamingos (Image by&nbsp;Borja Garc&iacute;a de Sola Fern&aacute;ndez)</p>

Laguna Hedionda, a saline lake in Bolivia famous for migratory species of pink and white flamingos (Image by Borja García de Sola Fernández)

Buen vivir is the idea that an alternative to economic globalisation exists that is based on “the good life”. Not to be confused with a standard of living defined in monetary or economic terms, the idea includes a spiritual component and a notion of community in which harmony between people – and between people and nature – is integral to social life and economic activity.

It is similar to China’s “ecological civilization”, a government slogan that promotes sustainable development and living in harmony with nature. Buen vivir goes a step further though and enshrines the rights of nature in the face of attacks from business and government.

The idea of buen vivir is growing in popularity, especially in Ecuador and Bolivia where it articulates a language of resistance to the negative social and economic effects of economic growth and corporate capitalism.

Closely allied to the idea is the belief in rights of nature. This is deeply embedded in Andean culture, and relates to the notion of Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, an Andean goddess who sustains life on Earth. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to include rights of nature in its constitution.

Article 71 reads: “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes. All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature.”

It also contains the phrase "sumak kawsay", an old Quechua expression corresponding with buen vivir that may be translated as “good way of living”.

In Bolivia, the legislature passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010. It recognises the rights to life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to pollution free living.

In both countries individuals and groups can take action through the courts to uphold and protect the rights of nature where they have been violated.

Just rhetoric?

Critics argue that the commitment to buen vivir and rights of nature in Ecuador and Bolivia is more rhetorical than substantial. After all, the two countries remain wedded to top down extractivist models of economic development that see “nature’s rights” violated on a daily basis.

One recent example is the Ecuadorean government’s decision in December to close Acción Ecológica, a Quito-based non-governmental organisation that for 30 years has sought to defend land rights and protect the Amazon from environmental degradation.

The order to dissolve it followed a complaint by Chinese mining company Explorocobres (EXSA). The government has accused the NGO of publishing social media posts encouraging violent protests and the disruption of the company’s operations. In mobilising opposition to copper mining projects in the province of Morona Santiago, Ecuador’s ministry of the interior concluded that the NGO was no longer acting in accordance with its founding principles.

In its appeal against the order, Acción Ecológica has claimed that it was upholding the principles of buen vivir and the rights of nature, enshrined in Ecuador’s constitution.

Despite this setback, proponents for the ideas argue that it is early days and progress will take time. In legal terms, the ideas are new within jurisprudence so there is no established body of case law. However, the emphasis on buen vivir and rights of nature indicates that Ecuador and Bolivia are serious about pursuing a genuinely indigenous model of development rather than one determined by external investors.

With varying success, both countries have sought to weaken dependence on international economic institutions, in particular by withdrawing from the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a body created by the World Bank to adjudicate disputes between transnational investors and host governments. The ICSID has been accused of favouring foreign investors at the expense of host countries. Bolivia was the first country in the world to withdraw from ICSID in 2007, with Ecuador the second in 2010.

In fact, both President Rafael Correa in Ecuador and President Evo Morales in Bolivia have acted to increase the share of tax revenues from oil and mining corporations operating domestically. Correa has renegotiated some contracts with oil companies over revenue-sharing and has issued a decree increasing the state’s share of profits. Similarly in Bolivia, Morales has demanded that foreign firms increase the share of the profits they pay to the state and has redistributed surpluses from the hydrocarbon and mining industries to poorer sections of society.

Both nations are also seeking to redefine sovereignty. Since Correa came to power in Ecuador and Morales in Bolivia, the notion of plurinationalism has become more important in each country. The plurinational state is not to be confused with the multinational state (such as the United Kingdom and Switzerland). Plurinationalism, rather, embodies a new form of sovereignty in which the traditional sovereignty of the state co-exists with indigenous ideas of nation and self-determination.

International recognition

The growing popularity of Earth jurisprudence is not limited to Latin America. Its proponents argue the idea that nature is comprised of objects is a false premise of mainstream legal systems that treat the environment as a resource that is subject to property rights.

They argue for the subjectification, as opposed to the objectification, of nature. This means treating nature, its ecosystems and species as subjects with their own rights, in much the way that liberal democracies treat people as subject citizens with rights.

This idea has gained some recognition at the sub-state level in the United States. For example, two public authorities in Pennsylvania (Tamaqua Borough County and Pittsburgh) have passed ordinances recognising the rights of nature.

Non-state recognition of these rights also extends beyond Latin America’s borders and such groups as Acción Ecológica. In 2012, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), which is composed of governments and civil society organisations, adopted Resolution 100: “Incorporation of the Rights of Nature as the organizational focal point in IUCN’s decision making”. This calls for nature’s rights to become a “fundamental and absolute key element for planning, action and assessment” for the organisation.

In 2009, Bolivian president Evo Morales declared at the United Nations General Assembly in New York that “Mother Earth is now, finally, having her rights recognized”. A motion he had proposed, that 22 April be designated International Mother Earth Day, was passed without a vote by the General Assembly.

Bolivia and Ecuador have played a central role in bringing the rights of nature to global attention and enshrining them in law. The next challenge for these countries is to ensure that they are upheld.