Buen Vivir: Presenting alternatives to dismantle the capitalist system
FRIDAY FILE: Resisting neoliberal approaches and presenting alternatives, Buen Vivir promotes life and balance among human beings and all living beings so that we co-exist in harmony with nature. AWID spoke to the economist Magdalena León T. from the Latin American Women’s Network for Transforming the Economy (REMTE) about the origins and development of Buen Vivir in Ecuador and what it means for women
By Gabriela De Cicco
‘Buen Vivir ‘or ‘Living Well’ has its origins in the Andean region. It is a vision of pueblos originarios  and it essentially refers to establishing a set of principles for human beings and nature to live together; understanding the former as part of the latter. Buen Vivir takes on different forms and concrete practices according to each society’s context and situation, but it always seeks to reproduce life and living together in a balanced way. This implies re-thinking the ideals imposed by capitalism that set human beings against nature, creating their life conditions at the expense of nature. Instead we need to think about the conditions of life for human beings and societies as inseparable from the conditions of life for nature as a whole, and thus they have to reinforce each other.
AWID: Please tell us about the processes that led to the inclusion of Buen Vivir in the Ecuadorean Constitution
Magdalena León (ML): The Constitutional Assembly (CA) in Ecuador drafted a Constitution that was passed by a referendum in September of 2008. We created a CA with a broad mandate to build new foundations for the country. Our challenge was to re-create the State and we had a very ambitious agenda to change it all. We were able to include Buen Vivir because we were coming from a trajectory of questioning not only neoliberalism but also the capitalist system as a whole at the national and regional levels.
When we envisioned a CA here in Ecuador with radical change as its horizon, we examined not only our own accumulated knowledge but also that of the region in order to identify which key issues were going to be redefined from that horizon. 
AWID: Once included in the Constitution, what were the next steps?
ML: The time of the CA was an extraordinary moment in Ecuador. We were coming from a time of political instability and such tremendous failures in political and economic management on the part of traditional sectors that they were completely discredited, and the whole society was focused on finding alternatives, so it was not difficult to get the new Constitution passed, with the ambitious agenda we had.
At the time of drafting its agenda as a government, Alianza País - the spectrum of organizations and movements now in power - engaged in a very innovative exercise of collective construction, adding other agendas to their own. They collected proposals and alternatives that had not circulated through conventional channels before, even through those of the Left, including the sexual diversity and radical feminist agendas.
In relation to women, even though some groups had a more sectorial, rights-focused vision other groups envisioned a country with a feminist view and not a sectorial agenda. We asked ourselves: what would a proposal to re-create the State, through a feminist lens look like? And somehow we managed to imprint this view into the CA.
AWID: Can you tell us about the feminist vision that had an impact on the new Constitution?
ML: On the one hand, in the Constitutional section on rights there is continuity, affirmation and deepening of those rights but the novelty was in redefining the system under which we were going to live. We supported Buen Vivir strongly, also redefining what is understood as work and its scope and the definitions of the economic system and regime.
Buen Vivir quickly found an echo in our feminist vision because we share the same vision of life and the reproduction of life as the axis, instead of the market. In the previous Constitution, work was understood as formal employment, with other activities seen as informal. We managed to get work re-defined, as any activity that produces goods and services - be it in the market or the public sphere - broadening the scope of the right to work and its correlated rights. All forms of unpaid labour were then recognized, and the care economy was also contemplated, directly or indirectly.
The economic system was transformed from being a socially-oriented free market economy to a social, solidarity economy, considering different ways of organizing production and property.
Here we are not directly speaking about women, or including the term “women” but we are referring to fields that are key to recognizing women as playing a leading role in the economy and decision-making. In the neoliberal phase women were not invisible; we were very visible, but tied to a social agenda, to an anti-poverty agenda and not to an agenda of economic definitions as a whole. That was the leap we took.
AWID: Almost four years after it was included in the Constitution how is the process going and what is the role of the women’s movement?
ML: Before the CA the women’s movement chose to participate in the transformation process, using the opportunity to define where the country was going and how. We had all the spaces available for that but not enough capacity. I have to admit that we would like to have more skills, more possibilities for producing viable proposals and tools that make this great and novel vision viable but we do what we can in this space of co-participation and contribution in public policies.
What is happening in the women’s movement is similar to what happens in other movements at a time of adjusting focus and repositioning. Some are still clinging to their sectorial agendas and fail to see that the new agenda has been able to overcome the sectorial one.
But the reality is that the capitalist system is still hegemonic; sectors embodying economic and political power have been knocked, but they are still here. Change does not happen without contradictions and conflicts - and this is where we are. To what extent has the Constitution been enforced and implemented? This is a long-term agenda and we need to take advantage of this moment and make as many advances as possible before other forces and interests recover.
AWID: As a proposal, does Buen Vivir, apply to both rural and urban areas?
ML: At the Americas Social Forum our compañeras from São Paulo (SP) were saying, “Everything sounds great, but how does Buen Vivir play out in a city like SP?” And we asked them, “Don’t you breathe, consume water, food, energy in SP? There you have the relationships with the basic elements of your life”. This is what Buen Vivir is about, placing the basic elements of life at the centre, their existence, their reproduction, the conditions in which they are produced and how to make them sustainable over time. And this applies to the peasant Mapuche woman working on the land as much as to the high-ranked executive working for a bank, or to their male counterparts. We are speaking of life processes here, of the elements of life, and they are very linked to work. This also implies placing work as the axis of everything. It allows us to bring back the issue of care and women.
Traditional interpretations saw care work was as ugly, horrible and nobody wanted to do it; and historically it was assigned to women as an obligation. But if we consider that all forms of life need to be cared for (human life, nature, water, land) then care becomes a key category and there is no care without work, so our understanding of work changes, not only that of unpaid work but also of work in general. We need to re-value work in all its forms and re-examine how that work is remunerated, besides revisiting other ways of balancing the distribution of that work. Then we can re-think how cities, urban life, and industrial life work. Buen Vivir is not divorced from a re-thinking of how industrial production works.
AWID: At a more regional level, how do you see the alternatives to the prevailing development model? And how could Ecuador cooperate in this?
ML: The recent Summit of Latin America and the Caribbean on Integration and Development (CELAC) is evidence of the exceptional political moment we are living in, but it is also fragile and can be temporary. So Latin American countries like Ecuador, Venezuela or Bolivia have the task of demonstrating that another model is viable and possible.
At the same time, the depth of our changes at the national level are highly dependent on regional dynamics contributing to a change in the balance of power to make it broader and more global. For instance, at the monetary, financial level our dilemmas and problems cannot be solved on a country-by-country basis but need to be solved regionally, and the issue of the new financial architecture is key in this regard. Because regardless of how independent we are in our countries, the degree of dependence of our financial system on the international economic system sets a limit to our aspirations and possibilities if we lack the support and fail to be part of a more regional project that generates guidelines and indications of a different balance of power, making those changes viable.
Translated by Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani and Radhika Chandiramani
 The original name in Quichua and Aymara is Sumak Kawsay o Suma Qamaña (Buen Vivir / Vivir Bien) respectively
 This term refers to indigenous peoples
 After a different and a more difficult political process, in january of 2009, the new Constitution of Bolivia was approved by a referendum and the BV was included it.
 “The Summit of Latin America and the Caribbean on Integration and Development (CELAC) is the only mechanism and the first forum that brings all the independent States of Latin America and the Caribbean together around their own integration and cooperation agenda ... looking for the convergence and complementarity of the regional and sub-regional mechanisms of integration”. (http://www.celac.gob.ve).