Good living, or buen vivir in Spanish – living in harmony with oneself, other members of the community, nature and one’s surroundings – is central to indigenous life.
“Each indigenous community has its own way of interpreting the concept of buen vivir,” says Cecilia Ramírez, a representative of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum and member of the Mixtec community in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. “In my community we talk about banjá, which means ‘being well’ (in the Mixtec language). For us it means continuing with our traditional crops, looking after the land, and safeguarding our language.”
It is also about collective rather than individual welfare. “In my community everyone cooperates and works together when a road or a primary school needs to be repaired,” she explains. “If one uses a service, one has to contribute to its maintenance. We call communal collective work tekia.”
Another aspect of this collective sense of self, according to Ramírez, is how families help each other. “When there’s a religious celebration or a funeral, everyone contributes to the expense. That’s called guesa (in Mixtec) or vuelta de mano (in Spanish).”
“Buen vivir is the integral development of indigenous people, it stems from our daily life and includes a series of social and cultural elements,” says Mayan lawyer Odilia Chavajay, from the municipality of Santa María Visitación, in the department of Sololá, Guatemala.
“It’s a way of life in which we all look after our collective wellbeing rather than the wellbeing of a single person,” she adds, noting however that, “nowadays, only the remotest communities that live far from state paternalism practice this way of life”.
Like the Mixtec in Ramírez’s community, the Mayan people of Santa María Visitación also practice collective work. “When someone doesn’t have a home, the entire community gets involved and a house can be built in one day,” says Chavajay.
She also cites traditional Mayan gastronomy and its emphasis on organic, home-grown products as another example of good living. “Nowadays, there are many products available that are bad for people’s health. However, in isolated communities, people don’t eat canned food,” she says.
As well as living in harmony with oneself, neighbours, and the community, good living also means being in harmony with nature. “The indigenous way of life is based on sustainable development, not on the relentless exploitation of natural resources,” says Gerardo Jumí Tapies, who heads the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI). “Indigenous people have lived in the forest and by the rivers without killing those resources. Those resources are now running out due to the actions of multinational corporations.”
Pedro Calderón, of Bolivia´s Syndicalist Confederation of Intercultural Communities, explains that for South America’s indigenous people, trade is viewed in terms of solidarity and exchange rather than profit, with tropical communities trading oranges and bananas with highland communities for corn, potatoes, okra, and other products.
Achievements and setbacks
During the recent Indigenous Fund Assembly, held in Guatemala City, indigenous representatives reflected on the meaning of buen vivir and unveiled the results of the “System for Monitoring the Protection of Rights and the Promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ Buen Vivir,” which was created during the 2006 summit.
That year, the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, known as “The Indigenous Fund,” a Bolivia-based multilateral aid agency promoting indigenous rights and development, met in Guatemala and agreed to create indicators to measure progress in rights and development among the region’s indigenous people.
Researchers from Mexico’s Centre for Investigation and Superior Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), compiled information from Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico on how governments have complied with international treaties and conventions on indigenous rights, to establish whether legal rights became concrete improvements in the wellbeing of indigenous peoples. Six major areas were assessed: diversity, land rights, self-determination, wellbeing, indigenous development, and participation.
Diversity, for example, was divided into two areas: culture and citizenship, each of which was assessed according to variables relating to rights, such as the state’s recognition of multiculturalism, the protection of indigenous culture, the prohibition of racial and cultural discrimination and the legal recognition of collective rights. There were also variables relating to buen vivir, like the official use of indigenous languages, intercultural education, the expression of traditional cultural practices and the establishment of collective indigenous entities.
The report noted that Bolivia and Ecuador both stand out in terms of legal recognition for indigenous rights, with the approval of new constitutions that incorporate multiculturalism and buen vivir, also known by its Quechua name of sumak kawsay in other indigenous South American communities.
However, in the four countries studied, legal and constitutional rights continue to exist on paper but not in practice. “With regard to the application of indigenous people’s rights,” the document concluded, “a lack of coherence between discourse and practice has been observed.”
“Indigenous people continue to face huge disadvantages in comparison with the rest of the population,” says Luis Contento, vice-president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI). “Indigenous communities have the least access to services and are not allowed to exercise basic rights such as the right to prior consultation.”