Buen Vivir – What is the meaning of good living?

Today’s post comes from Graham Collins, an Ecuador Fellow with Global Citizen Year, a premier global bridge year program designed to unleash the potential of the next generation of young Americans as authentic leaders and effective agents of change. This is the start of our new Partnership Program, so stay tuned for more posts for GCY fellows! 

As a young person, full of ambition and desirous of being an agent of positive change, I went into my bridge year with hopes of making a few small and tangible impacts in my community near the Northwestern coast of Ecuador. When I set off, I was aware that I would not change the world in some grand and glamorous way. More than desiring to help, I held hopes of coming to a greater understanding about Buen Vivir, or “Good living.”

A relationship with a coworker that I have developed while working for the Junta Parroquial de Mindo has challenged me. In order to be able to support his family, Daniel has another job in a local restaurant, chef for the Restaurante de Las Cascadas. He hops from work to work for nearly 70 hours per week in total. Daniel has been content even with his excessive work. In time, however, the inadequate income created problems in his family. Daniel’s jobs simply cannot support his wife and two daughters. Last week, his wife told him to move out. The change in Daniel is tremendous. He does not have the proper job that he was promised. More so, without family, there is no good living. He has to leave his home for a new city with better job prospects.

With the current policy and enactment situation, Ecuador cannot create the infrastructure for providing all the guarantees of the Constitution of Good living: Sumak Kawsay, or having physical and spiritual needs satisfied. Rights to education, health, food, water, and housing are of the utmost concern. “Work is a right and a social duty, as well as an economic right, source of personal fulfillment and the basis for the economy.” The people expect from their government full respect, a decent life, fair pay, and freedom to choose their job. But, it’s not happening. One small business owner told me, “The concept of Buen Vivir is excellent, but it isn’t happening. The young people aren’t taking this seriously, and life is not improving for us as was promised.” Government programs generally help the middle class, while the lower class individuals and the extreme poor are struggling more than ever.

The focus of the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador is returning to and maintaining Good Living for the Ecuadorian people. Positive progress is difficult, if not impossible, to define. Contentions between improvement and destruction, however, create more complicated questions. Ecuador can continue to export oil and farm shrimp while destroying a mega-diverse environment that houses more species of plants and animals than any comparable land mass. These activities contribute greatly to the nation’s GDP, theoretically increasing quality of life for the general population. Yet, the degradation of the earth damages our habitat, our health, and our future prospects.

Thousands are impacted by the contamination of various water sources due to the extraction of these resources: cancer rates are unbelievably and incidents of birth defects have become commonplace in many regions.  Where is the balance between the necessary exploitation of natural resources and the desire to preserve nature and be sustainable?

The inadequate economy of Ecuador has forced apart Daniel’s family and taken away the possibility for Good Living for them all. Many families have been torn apart as the able bodied go out in search of work. The global economic crisis has led to a significant decrease in tourism, and new legal policies are changing the face of the oil, banana, and shrimp industries, the three main exports.  Staring at the challenges to Buen Vivir, I ask myself some hard questions.

How can you justify denying economic development, even if it causes environmental decline and isn’t sustainable, when people are unable to provide for their families? Should not basic human rights and security for the citizens of Ecuador hold greater importance than biodiversity? Is preserving the earth’s abundance of plants and animals for the future more important than the needs and challenges we are facing now?

Without a doubt, I desire to conserve nature. I rejoice that over 20% of the total land area of Ecuador is currently natural reserve, maintaining vast biodiversity. I recognize the abhorrent history of petroleum drilling in Ecuador. However, I have a hard time watching billions of dollars go towards preservation while witnessing the apparent need of so many here. Should we pursue more intense exploitation of natural resources in order to provide more people with the possibility of Buen Vivir?

It causes me great pain to say this, but I say yes. After seeing what sort of a toll the economy is taking on working class families such as Daniel’s, I think the focus needs to be on growth rather than conservation. We must mine for minerals, build wells for oil, destroy forests for farming, and degrade the environment in acts of dubious morality for the economic stimulus to provide the infrastructure necessary for Buen Vivir to become a reality for all.

1 Comment

  • Graham, that is a super insightful piece! It really shows that you are getting a mature and realistic viewpoint on how things operate in Ecuador. It definitely brings up some very challenging questions, as you yourself said. :)

    I think you are right in how some current long-term projects need to be sacrificed for more immediate needs, but I would offer one caveat. At which point does growth go too far, and the balance need to be brought back to conservation? I do agree with prioritizing growth over conservation right now because of the reasons you brought up, but when will someone realize that the boundaries have been stepped over and you are already past the point of no return? Somethings do need to be saved right now, otherwise they will be lost forever.

    I might recommend, in addition to you plan for growth RIGHT NOW over conservation, a mentality in finding a balance between the two. To not entirely devote resources to one project over the other, but try to strike a balance that achieves long term goals while meeting the current realities of the Ecuadorian people.

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