Ecuador: Sumak Kawsay As A Way Of Life


By Luis Ángel Saavedra

Understanding the indigenous worldview involves questioning how we are traditional taught to face life. For example, knowing how to differentiate between “living better,” the basis of Western development, and “good living,” or what is called “sumac kawsay” in kichwa.

“Living better” is a Western paradigm that implies progress and the accumulation of wealth. This concept varies with a group’s social-economic status. For the poor, it will mean access to better quality of life, a legitimate goal. However, for the elite, living better means obtaining more goods and power, while the middle class strives to attain the elite’s standard of living.


On the other hand, good living [Sumak Kawsay, or Sumaq Qamaña in Aymara] in the indigenous world “implies a way of living that is ethical, restrained, [that] takes from nature only what is necessary for life, without endangering [nature’s] rights since nature is considered a living Mother,” said Gerónimo Yantalema, an indigenous member of Ecuador’s National Assembly.

Indeed, while the harmony between the laws of nature and collective rights can satisfy individual rights, the fulfillment of individual rights, with their particularities in size and depth, do not always guarantee the existence of collective rights, nor the laws of nature.

An economy of solidarity

There are several examples of good living practices implemented for decades in Ecuador, like in Salinas, a town in the desert of Bolivar province, in Ecuador’s central highlands.

In the 1970s, it was only one of hundreds of indigenous communities buried in extreme poverty. Four decades later, Salinas is full of community businesses run under a common brand: “El Salinerito.”

It started with small-scale dairy production in the rectory and a booth at the market in the country’s capital of Quito. The idea was to produce communally, linking the factory with small indigenous and campesino milk producers. While early on there was support from international cooperation organizations, today there are 22 partners in a cheese production cooperative.

“El Salinerito” is not only a true business consortium that produces milk, pizza, wild mushrooms, chocolates, candies, textiles and handicrafts. It also has a small sugar mill as well as fish farming activities. It also markets other agricultural products and has established a network of solidarity economy encouraging new projects, training other communities and participating in financial consortiums and marketing networks.

Revenues are reinvested in new social projects that benefit the entire community.

“The whole town of El Salinerito, we are all part of the production, marketing, and benefits. We started this before the concept of good living was out there and we can say that we are practicing good living,” said one of the founders and current administrator, Alonso Vargas.

In the central province of Cotopaxi sits another village, Tigua, that like Salinas encourages community production, but based on indigenous art and culture.

“My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandparents painted on sheepskin, as our ancestors did. They painted the history and traditions of the communities of Tigua, and when it began to sell, all of the communities began to sell as well, and now our art is known worldwide,” says Siza Toaquiza, a young painter and popular singer who belongs to the third generation of so-called “Tigua painters”.

Tigua is another example of communal production and closeness to mother earth. And the international success of the art has not changed its traditions. On the contrary, it has made new generations of indigenous people no longer think of migrating, and highlights the opportunities community living provides.

“My father, Alfredo Toaquiza, is known internationally as an indigenous painter and is president of the Society of Artists of Tigua, but he still lives in the town because he also works in agriculture, since we ourselves produce our food, both for the family and the community, because that´s good living: taking advantage of everything the land gives us, but not letting that change who we are,” said Siza Toaquiza, who at age 19 is a leader in indigenous popular music.

Prioritize the collective

Applying this indigenous worldview in the Western world would give primacy to the collective and solve some problems that are a result of Western development model, such as transportation.

Prioritizing public transportation and limiting the production of private cars would reduce pollution levels, save natural resources, and lead to a redefinition of the automotive industry and a reconfiguration of road plans; it would help level the balance of payments between wealthy countries and developing ones, freeing up funds for investments more consistent with good living life, such as health and education. It would also reduce noise, making cities more inviting.

Similarly, the communal structure that has allowed the survival of indigenous peoples can be applied in the design of community neighborhoods.

According to Javier Alvarado, head of the National Confederation of Ecuadorian Neighborhoods, or CONBADE, “government programs should look at the neighborhoods’ ability to provide goods, like food and clothing for nearby schools, to delegate management of resources such as water, and to implement community market systems.”
CONBADE has a national proposal for the creation of community governments in urban slums, which would encourage investment in social programs through coordination between local officials and neighborhood representatives.

In terms of technological development, by linking it to benefit the human being, this will prevent the accumulation of power and capital that is based on knowledge appropriation and hijacking.

“Knowledge is collective and access to it is free. The idea of patent registration is alien to the indigenous world, particularly since it involves the appropriation of something that belongs to the group,” said Assemblyman Yantalema.

These and other practical applications to life in our society involve a shift in mindset, because Sumak Kauwsay — rather than an economic model — is a proposed cultural transformation. It means rethinking the ways of survival and once again embracing the communal model as a life principle.

Latinamerica Press

Latinamerica Press is a product of Comunicaciones Aliadas, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Lima, Peru, specializing in the production of information and analysis about events across Latin America and the Caribbean with a focus on rights, while strengthening the communications skills of local social leaders.

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