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Andean region: “Living well”

NewsNotes, January-February 2009

In recent years, indigenous peoples of the Andean region have joined together to provide an incredible example of self-organizing, forming concrete proposals and achieving the political power to implement those proposals.

In 2006, several indigenous organizations formed the Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas (CAOI, or Andean Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations), which has actively formed unity among and between the various indigenous communities in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Chile and Argentina.

At a presentation at the Americas Social Forum in October 2008, Roberto Espinoza, a coordinator of the coalition, presented the common vision of sumak kawsay (Quechua for living well), or living with harmony between people and Earth. He said that there is a growing unity behind these proposals and they are successfully implementing parts in different countries, especially Bolivia and Ecuador. He listed key aspects of “living well”:

  • Any project that will affect the lives of a community must first obtain the free, prior and informed consent of that community. The current situation of transnational corporations being given rights from governments to exploit land without notifying local communities must stop.
  • The precautionary principle, which maintains the right of communities and governments to refuse the use of a new technology or product until it has been scientifically proven to be safe, must continue to be upheld. With this, the burden of proof falls on those presenting the new product. Many bilateral and multilateral trade agreements reverse the logic of this principle, making it governments’ responsibility to first scientifically prove that a product or technology if unsafe in order to ban, or limit, its use.
  • The concept of reciprocity should be better developed and used. Communities should encourage joint work projects, mutual help exchanges, bartering boards and other forms of exchange between people that do not require money.
  • Natural resources should not be commoditized.
  • Knowledge should be decolonized. Patents and copyrights that restrict access to and use of ideas are counterproductive and illogical. No one “owns” an idea. All ideas are based on previous knowledge and therefore can not be claimed as the product of one person or corporation. Numerous alternative methods for assuring the production of new ideas already exist and should be used. See for more details on alternatives to patents.
  • Humanity needs to change its aim from creating a globalized economy to creating a multitude of localized economies where the production and consumption of goods, especially food, will take place in the same area. Local economies are more responsive to average citizens while a global economy can only be influenced by huge power blocs.
  • Water should be considered a human right. No business should be able to deny basic amounts of water to anyone and governments have an important role in guaranteeing universal access to water.
  • We need to deepen spiritualities that link humans with the Earth and that instill a sense of awe and respect for the Earth and all the living communities in it.

Espinoza continued with two concrete political proposals that the different Andean indigenous communities are trying to implement in their respective countries: the plurinational state and autonomy.

The newly approved constitution of Ecuador and soon to be approved constitution of Bolivia both contain this concept that “allows for governments and institutions to be as diverse as the people in the country.” It includes both collective and individual rights and aims to socialize power, decentralizing it to community levels. Espinoza related the skepticism many indigenous communities have for political parties. They aim to create structures that will bring about a more direct democracy than representative democracy.

Connected to plurinationalism is the implementation of various types of autonomies. Bolivia and Ecuador are beginning to codify autonomous governing structures at regional, indigenous, state and even neighborhood levels.

Benita Simón, a Maya delegate from Guatemala, summed up well what sumak kawsay means when she said, “Good living for us is also taking the position of moving from actions of resistance to actions that allow us to take back power.”

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