Monthly Archives: March 2012

Conceptual Innovations in Latin American Indigenous Movements

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

What can new political concepts advanced by indigenous movements teach the Western tradition of democratic theory?

As the undeliverable promises of social democracy gave way to the irrational exuberance of the neoliberal consensus, western liberal democracies today are struggling to present a new paradigm of governance capable of facing the challenges of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the BRIC countries continue to grow (in both geo-political and economic influence) thanks to a recipe of state-led capitalism and, in some cases, outright authoritarianism.  In this context, the West finds itself at an apparent impasse: how can it preserve the democratic values and freedoms which it purports to represent while remaining globally competitive?

Unsurprisingly, western democracies have increasingly traded in their cherished democratic values for security and economic growth. The primacy accorded to the War on Terror and to budget-deficit reduction through austerity measures bears testament to this. Of particular concern, however, is how this chronic state of emergency has stifled innovation in democratic thought within the West, impeding new ideas and concepts from presenting interesting alternatives to an unsustainable status quo. With the notable exception of the Occupy movements, there appears to be a dangerous lack of interest in how to re-articulate democracy in the light of twenty-first century challenges.

Not the same can be said for Latin America however. In fact, the indigenous struggles of countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador have expanded democratic thought in innovative and interesting directions. Throughout the past decade, these struggles have radically changed the political panorama of the region, forcing governments to listen to the demands of some of the most neglected and excluded people in the world.

Although the demands of indigenous movements have not yet crystallized into tangible social change for their countries, within the field of political theory they have brought notable conceptual innovation. Three important ideas have been produced by indigenous political thought which simultaneously demand a break with -and imply an expansion of- the Western tradition of democratic theory.

The first concept is called “El Buen Vivir”, or “Good Living”. This idea, which in Quechua language is referred to as Sumak Kawsay, is understood as an alternative paradigm of development. For indigenous movements, both the Marxist and neoliberal governments of the past have depended on the callous exploitation of natural resources to fuel their projects of modernization. Large-scale mining in the high Andes and oil drilling in the Amazon are but two examples of how “modernization” and “development” have degraded the ancestral homelands  and destroyed the livelihoods of communities which previously lived in relative harmony with their natural surroundings.

The Sumak Kawsay therefore presents an idea of development founded on the harmonious relationship between society, the economy and the environment. It is informed by a principle of economic sustainability opposed to a regime dependent on short term profits. As such, it demands that nature be not conceived solely as capital or private property but as a patrimony: we inherit our natural resources and have a duty as citizens to nourish, use and protect them so as to pass them on to future generations. There is thus a principle of intergenerational justice involved[1].

Central to the concept of Sumak Kawsay, therefore, is the rupture from the western model of development based on the emancipatory promise of societies guided by the invisible hand of rational markets. Contrarily, it draws inspiration from the solidarity and communitarian economies of indigenous communities which stress cooperation and associativism over competition and rugged individualism[2].

The second conceptual innovation presented by indigenous movements is the idea of environmental rights. Although not a new concept, they were the first in the world to enshrine them within national legal orders, both in Bolivia and Ecuador.  The idea of giving rights to nature implies another radical break from the juridical tradition informing western democratic thought. In fact, it demands that we cease giving value to nature based on its instrumental use to us as humans (i.e. the uses we can put it to for production purposes in a market economy) and recognize its intrinsic value in virtue of its existence.

Recognizing environmental rights forces us to reconsider our anthropocentric stance vis-à-vis nature. Protecting the collective rights of ecosystems to exist and regenerate provides an innovative juridical framework with which to reverse the ecological damage caused by an extractivist paradigm of development[3].

The third conceptual innovation is referred to as plurinationality. Both Ecuador and Bolivia are countries with very diverse societies consisting of a plethora of ethnic groups. This diversity was never truly represented, but rather excluded by the practices of a western architecture of the state which assumed the homogeneity of the nation. Traditionally, the liberal state tends to remain neutral with respects to social plurality and conceives of its citizens solely as rights bearing individuals. Not recognizing the diverse ethnic groups and their respective demands allowed for the wholesale exclusion of the indigent and the different from policy making and political participation.

The concept of plurinationality seeks to reverse this process by changing the architecture of the liberal state. What it demands is not the homogenization of social plurality within a universal liberal understanding of citizenship, but rather the recognition of difference as the basis for a new configuration of citizenship. The plurinational state explicitly recognizes the diversity of its citizens; it actively promotes an intercultural dialogue, and provides platforms of mediation amongst them[4].

These three ideas radically question the Western understandings of development, the legal standing of nature, and what constitutes citizenship, respectively. They are, however, also expanding democratic theory by exposing the Eurocentric, anthropocentric and liberal bias that Western thought projects onto its alleged universal understanding of democracy. Precisely through a rupture with fundamental concepts of the Western model was indigenous political thought able to imagine new legal instruments and a new democratic ethic founded on the principles of environmental sustainability and collective rights.

The examples presented here allow us to see that Western democratic thought, once capable of shedding its particular liberal biases, is indeed free to expand in new and different directions. Such an expansion is critical in this historical moment as basic democratic tenets are being increasingly sacrificed in the name of a perpetual state of exception. Democratic theory should not give in to the false choices presented by the logics of crisis; rather, like indigenous movements, it should begin to reinvent itself by overcoming its liberal ideological limitations.


  • Galeano, E. 2009, “La Naturaleza no es Muda” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Derechos de la Naturaleza: el futuro es ahora. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Gudynas, E. 2009 “Seis puntos clave en ambiente y desarrollo” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. El Buen Vivir: una vía para el desarollo. Abya Yala: Quito
  • Ramírez, R., Navarrete R. Seeds of “Good Living” in Ecuador? New Left Project. Available @
  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa 2009, “Las Paradojas de Nuestro Tiempo y la Plurinacionalidad” in Acosta A. & Martínez, E. Plurinacionalidad: democracia en la diversidad. Abya Yala: Quito

[1] Gudynas 2009

[2] Ramirez & Navarrete

[3] Galeano 2009

[4] Santos 2009


Filed under Democratic Theory, Development, Environmental Rights, Environmentalism, Indigenous, Latin America, liberalism, political economy