Sumak Kawsay as an element of local decolonization in Ecuador

June 18, 2018

Buen Vivir has become a hot topic in the last years. It is present not only in research, but also in politics from local to global levels including the most visible platforms. This could be one explanation for the considerable vagueness and emptiness of the concept - it went through a chain of translations that marginalized the original contents and replaced them with contents deemed relevant by the translators themselves. Therefore, Buen Vivir appears as a proposal of ecologism or post-development related somehow to indigenous peoples. However, some interesting contents are lost this way.

To start with, the translation of Buen Vivir as Good Life or Good Living invisibilizes the fact that Buen Vivir itself is a translation, in the Ecuadorian case, from the Kichwa Alli Kawsay or Sumak Kawsay that refers to, in the first case, an everyday-practice of living well and, in the second case, an ideal of Good Life to be reached by concrete practices. But a concept goes beyond the term with which it is presented. Sumak Kawsay, the version more often used in political documents, is embedded in discourse and politics of the indigenous movement. The indigenous movement in Ecuador, through different organizations, developed a complex discourse with demands that criticize the Eurocentric vision of State and society. Since the 1980s, they proposed a plurinational state with territorial autonomies for indigenous nationalities. In the sense of `unity in diversity´, a pluralistic State would allow different groups of people to live together in the ways each of those people chooses to. The autonomy would be political, legal, economical, educational, etc., breaking with the logic of the European nation-state. In the 1990s, Sumak Kawsay turned into another concept in this complex, furthering the push for autonomy and strengthening the focus on the ability of indigenous peoples to self-determine in their traditional territories.

Therefore, Sumak Kawsay is to be understood as a political concept - it communicates concrete demands in the context of other political concepts, like plurinationality, and is determined by the political organizations that put those concepts forward: the organizations of the indigenous movement of Ecuador. Sumak Kawsay is not simply an "indigenous" concept, even though it and similar concepts may be present in most of the indigenous cultures of the country. It is a product of political struggles and embedded in those struggles. An essentialist reading of this concept strips it of its political background and invisibilizes the struggles of the indigenous organizations.

Sumak Kawsay has a decolonial side - it is radically local, based both on demands of local, communitarian autonomy, and local traditions and beliefs. This means, it goes against unifying, homogenizing and alienating effects of modern society, above all State and capitalism. This side usually disappears in research and political discussions about it. Besides the chain of translations, the difference of logics could be a main reason for that. We -that is, Western academics or political activists- have a hard time to understand a political concept that is based on a worldview full of gods and spirits and that happens in communities, especially if those communities go beyond the human being living there now and include non-human entities and human beings of the past and future. The state is absent or hostile and the teachings of the fathers and mothers are important, because they know how to "live well" in a given region. At the same time, Sumak Kawsay is not simply a rejection of modernity. Other practices and knowledge are respected and -if possible- integrated into the local knowledge of the community. This logic also implies that, when it comes to practices, there is not one Sumak Kawsay. The political concept has a wide array of everyday practices as background. Therefore, it is important to distinguish the political concept Sumak Kawsay, connected to other political concepts, such as autonomy or plurinationality, and other demands, from Sumak Kawsay (or Alli Kawsay, as some draw the distinction) as a practice, to be studied with the means of anthropology. This distinction allows to understand the political concept that is made to be understood in the political arena and therefore works with concepts and ideas already well-known, without necessarily understanding the everyday practice. But this distinction does only work on a first level. From another perspective, the division of political and practical has to be put into question and could be replaced by the distinction of internal and external. Sumak Kawsay as internal concept is an unquestionable part of culture and worldview of the communities. This is what anthropologists could study. Sumak Kawsay as an external concept is a proposal of the relationship between the indigenous community and the non-indigenous population and the nation-state as such. This latter one is a communication with the world and should be taken seriously by everyone, especially researchers.

Sumak Kawsay as such is a decolonial concept because it puts into question the logic of modern society. The separation between human and non-human, the role of territory, and many other problems that are solved in modern thought, receives a quite different treatment from the perspective of Sumak Kawsay. Actually, we could understand it as a political concept that goes against politics (in the sense of an activity based on the distinction between private and public). But that implies a rethinking of our way of understanding things, a way that is profoundly Eurocentric, as the constant essentialization and personalization of Buen Vivir in research papers shows. In this sense, Sumak Kawsay can help us understand racism and exclusion in academia itself.



How to Cite: Altmann, P. (2017). Sumak Kawsay as an Element of Local Decolonization in Ecuador . Latin American Research Review , 52 ( 5 ) , 749–759 . DOI:



About Author(s)

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Philipp Altmann
Philipp Altmann, studies in sociology, cultural anthropology and Spanish philology at the University of Trier and the Autonomous University Madrid (2001-2007). Finished his doctorate in sociology at the Free University of Berlin in 2013 with a work on the decolonial aspects of the discourse of the indigenous movement in Ecuador. Since March 2015, he is Profesor Titular for Sociological Theory at the Universidad Central del Ecuador. Research interests are: indigenous and social movements, decoloniality, identity, social exclusion, systems theory, political sociology, sociology of science.