February 13, 2013

Buen Vivir: An Indigenous Approach To Modern Development

The first Indigenous Peoples Forum held at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) concluded yesterday, with goals of strengthening the participation of indigenous peoples in achieving poverty alleviation and sustainable development goals at local, national, and international levels. As this conversation on the role of indigenous people and traditional knowledge in agricultural development continues, it is interesting to consider one indigenous philosophy that has taken the lead in promoting an alternative style of development in Latin America. Though the concept of Buen Vivir – Spanish for good living  and translated from the Quechua expression Sumak Kawsay – is hard to define, its foundation is built on promoting harmonious living between people and nature.

While the concept of Buen Vivir is an ancient principle of the Achur and Kichwa tribes of the Andes, the term has a lot in common with the objectives and approach of modern integrated landscape management. Rather than looking at just the interests of one actor, both principles describe a form of development that sees social, cultural, environmental, and economic issues working together and in balance, where none takes precedence over another (as described by leading scholar of the Buen Vivir philosophy, Eduardo Gudynas). Under both landscape management and Buen Vivir, it is only by taking a step back and considering a community perspective that the best possible solution for all stakeholders in the area can be achieved.

Though people may assume that Buen Vivir is just the latest alternative development trend that will fade over time, the amount of influence the philosophy has attained at the highest levels of governance suggests otherwise. The governments of Bolivia and Ecuador have both incorporated elements of Buen Vivir into their constitutions. Consequently, this has influenced both domestic policy, including constitutional guarantees towards biodiversity, natural resources, and food sovereignty, and development practices. Ecuador has also been responsible for sharing the philosophy on a global stage with a panel on the subject at Rio+20. The country is currently working with IFAD on a domestic development project incorporating the ideals of Buen Vivir while following key tenants of integrated landscape management.

 The US$62.9 million, six-year project is currently in its first year and is working with approximately 760,000 indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian people in eight different rural territories around the country. This segment of the population is largely employed in small scale agriculture, either on their own land shares or as migrant workers and day laborers elsewhere. This high reliance on agriculture for income makes this population especially susceptible to both the variable and long-term impacts of climate change. To ensure continued food security, the program is working on long-term initiatives to strengthen the ability of the population to manage soil and ecosystem conservation and water resources at the community level. Additionally, the project is looking for ways to both raise income and diversify revenue streams for land owning farmers and the rural population by investing in business plans from community-based groups, and public-private partnerships.

Though the application of Buen Vivir and integrated landscape approaches in larger development practices is still unfolding, both principles allow for fresh thinking on the subject of sustainable development. In contrast to models that lead to overconsumption of public goods (e.g. land and natural resources), both philosophies stress the importance of being mindful of community interests and perspectives of multiple stakeholders to better ensure adaptation to climate change. As the development community brings more traditional knowledge into its path forward, perhaps the next great leap forward in agricultural development will be rooted in the past.

Photo credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)
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