Buen Vivir and “post-extractivism” in Andean countries: notes on the search for a real alternative to “alternative development”

By Roger Merino Acuna

In the last few years, Buen Vivir has been emerging in Andean countries as an indigenous perspective for development with the potential to be a real alternative to both mainstream and “alternative” development approaches in both theoretical and practical terms.  Buen vivir (Good life), is a notion taken from the cosmology of indigenous peoples of the Andes of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. It is the Spanish translation of the Quechua concept Sumac kawsay and the Aymara concept Suma qamaña. This concept is a fundamental principle of many indigenous cosmologies and expresses a particular way to know (epistemology) and being (ontology) in the world. It presents the indigenous social organisation based on the idea of relationality among human beings and nature in a context of solidarity, communal economy and communal legality.

Buen vivir is starting to be used in constitutions, legislation and policies as a concept which embodies the principles of strong environmental protection, recognition of indigenous collective rights and, more generally, the transformation of the liberal state into a pluri-national state in which indigenous peoples are recognised not as minority groups but as nations. It is particularly significant in the new Constitutions of Bolivia (2009) and Ecuador (2008). The concept also has been travelling to other contexts and being adapted according to specific local arrangements. I observed during my fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon that the concept has now been translated into the language and discourses of the Awajun and Ashaninka, two Amazonian indigenous peoples in Peru that use the term as a political platform for their agenda of self-determination and cultural rights.

As it enters into the policy sphere it is challenging the modernisation and economic growth bias of most Latin American ‘national development policies’. However it also goes beyond the early ‘alternative development’ paradigms based on human development, sustainable development, participatory development and so forth. These approaches are very critical of growth-based development, but they do not criticise its structural conditions and fundamentals, they have a micro-projection through specific local projects that coexist with the most general context of growth-led development.  Moreover, it also addresses the critics of “post development”.  Post-development questioned the foundational paradigm of progress, its pretension of universality, and the way in which “development” as a discourse was constructed to govern those labelled as “underdeveloped” (Escobar, 1992; Esteva and Suri, 1998). But its critics argued that it idealised local communities (Kapoor, 2004), justified the oppression of the groups over the individuals by celebrating cultural relativism (Ziai, 2004), and it presented only a theoretical deconstruction rather than concrete proposals (Neverdeen, 1998).

Buen vivir is emerging in Peru as the basis for politics that promotes an agenda of self-determination, territoriality, environmental regulations, promotion of organic agriculture, intercultural health and education, eco-tourism and so forth. In Bolivia and Ecuador this has been converted into very strong environmental policies and policies for cultural recognition, but its implementation has been very contentious. Extractive activities in these countries have been deepened, generating a lot of tensions between indigenous peoples and the national governments (Bebbington and Humphreys, 2011; Radcliffe, 2012).

Indeed, Buen vivir is not entirely without problems.  The challenge it now faces in being applied is to address the political economy. Andean countries still heavily depend on the extractive industries which are deeply entrenched in terms of their political economy.  This produces competition for resources (agriculture vs. mining), expectations about the gain from the activities, tensions due to threats to the way of life and the environment of many communities, radical transformations of social settings when the projects are implemented and so forth.

In that context, during my fieldwork I found very interesting discussions among NGOs and activists on the project of “post-extractivism” that would seek to address the political economy factors missing in the new political and institutional reforms of Bolivia and Ecuador. In fact, if Buen vivir is going to be implemented beyond simple rhetoric, this is its most urgent challenge.

Post-extractivist strategies do not promote the elimination of all forms of extractivism, but the exploration of paths that allow resizing some sectors in order to do not depend economically on them, and to maintain just those which are really necessary and under acceptable operation conditions (Gudynas, 2011). These strategies cannot be implemented abruptly but must involve a transition.

The post-extractivist project entails proposals for a local and sustainable economy with regional and transnational networks, the necessity of national and international political articulations around the idea of post-extractivist transition, the exploration of new strategies for economic diversification and so forth. What I would like to highlight for now is that it is possible to construct useful articulations between the Buen vivir and the post-extractivist project in order to propose an alternative to the conventional views on development (including “alternative development”). The challenge of this alliance is that its implementation faces a situation where the state and global structures are profoundly embedded in the political economy of extraction, and in addition there is a highly technocratic view of development that disregards social and indigenous organisations in policy-making. A key mechanism that might help to overcome this problem is the notion of interculturality, a subject I will leave for another blog.


Bebbington, A. and Humphreys, D., 2011. An Andean Avatar: Post-Neoliberal and Neoliberal Strategies for Securing the Unobtainable. New Political Economy, 16 (1), pp. 131-145.

Escobar, A., 1992. Imagining a Post-Development Era? Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements. Social Text, 31/32, Third World and Post-Colonial Issues, pp. 20-56.

Esteva, G. and Suri, M., 1998. Beyond development, what?. Development in Practice, 8 (3), pp. 280-296.

Gudynas, E., 2011. Buen Vivir: Today’s tomorrow. Development, 54(4), pp. 441–447.

Kapoor, I., 2004. Hyper-self-reflexive development? Spivak on representing the Third World ‘Other’. Third World Quarterly, 25 (4), pp. 627–647.

Nederveen J., 1998. My Paradigm or Yours? Alternative Development, Post-Development, Reflexive Development. Development and Change, 29, pp. 343-373.

Radcliffe, S., 2012. Development for a postneoliberal era? Sumak kawsay, living well and the limits to decolonisation in Ecuador. Geoforum, 43, pp.. 240–249.

Ziai, A., 2004. The ambivalence of post-development: between reactionary populism and radical democracy, Third World Quarterly, 25 (6), pp. 1045-1060

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