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

4 responses to “Conceptual Innovations in Latin American Indigenous Movements

  1. rafael Lindemann

    Dear Giulio,

    Thanks for this great article, but as per usual I have some concerns. First, in the case of Bolivia, the discourse of plurinational state that attributes rights to nature, guided by an indigenous president (Evo Morales) is now very much underminded by the decision to build a road that cuts through a National Park in the Bolivian lowlands. The reason for the construction of this road is mainly to facilitate the invasion of Coca leaf producers in the Bolivian Amazon. The ancestral inhabitants of this land (TIPNIS) are furious, but Morales has propelled a series of populist marches (led by coca producers) that claimed they were the ‘real ‘ indigenous people of the TIPNIS area.

    So, with this road two things are clear. Firstly, Evo Morales has great pressure from the Coca producers (and probably the Cocaine industry) to neglect the pledge of indigenous peoples and their rights as a ‘people’ or ‘nationality’. Secondly, the production of Coca leafs trumps Natures rights. It is clear that more than an Indigenous Aymara who loves Pachamama, Morales is a Coca leaf producer syndacalist.

    The crux of the matter here is that Evo has sided with a strong syndicate (Coca leaf producers) that represents a large community of producers at the expense of a small indigenous population. Plurinationalism is a great idea, but it has underestimated the tensions that arise from respecting the rights a very small indigenous population (such as the TIPNIS that does not amount to more than 2000 individuals) and the utilitarian interest of the nation as a whole. It might be argued that this type of policy does not reflect indigenous movements politics and ethics, particularly because coca producers are not an indigenous group and generally do not comply with the ethos of the ‘buen vivir’. Nevertheless it casts light on inherent tensions that might arise out of this new political paradigm: what happens when the rights of a small indigenous group with a lot of fertile land are infringed to alleviate the misery of a much larger indigenous group that is suffering from drought and poverty in their own land. With the effects of climate change the Bolivian highlands are witnessing ecological changes that compromise their ‘buen vivir’. What will this new political paradigm do when the highlands are no longer apt for production, whilst there is a vast fertile land that is being protected in order to respect the rights of a far smaller population. This amounts to a political philosophy debate. What role does a centralized government have in balancing conflicting interests of different indigenous groups? Should the rights of an indigenous group composed of two million people have the same value and importance than the rights of an indigenous group composed of 100 people? How does the government weigh the instrinsic value of nature against the demands of indigenous peoples? These are hypothetical questions but they might materialize to real decisions that will have to be made.


    • Dear Rafael,

      Thanks for your thought provoking response.

      First of all, what I am talking about is purely at the level of political theory. I am describing ideas which expand democratic thought. My thesis, therefore, is the expansion of democratic theory through a break with past ossified conceptualizations of democracy. The fact that they may be undermined by the governments of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa is not my point here. I am dealing with concepts, not their material manifestations.

      However, you make an excellent point in highlighting an inherent tension within the concept of the “buen vivir”, namely, how can a government which claims to defend the intrinsic value of nature and the livelihoods of indigenous communities balance the greater needs of the population, particularly in the context of the challenges posed by climate change? To this dilemma I can only say that no paradigm will ever be able to accommodate the interests of all stakeholders. And yet, the ethic informing the buen vivir and plurinationality demands a process of popular consultation through the inclusion of all interest groups in a transparent and participatory deliberative process when dealing with social conflicts. Even though the decisions ultimately taken might benefit one interest group over another, at least the buen vivir demands that all should be included in the decision making process as opposed to top-down governmental impositions. It does not resolve the issues but for sure it provides a more legitimate deliberative process than existing ones.

      But most of all, the buen vivir paradigm is useful in rejecting the blackmail posed by Western ideas of economic development; meaning that it is an ethic which rejects the imperative of extracting natural resources at all costs for the sake of annual growth grates to please international markets and supranational financial institutions. The buen vivir paradigm would demand a diversification of the economy as opposed to relying on the extractivist model which inevitably creates the tensions fuelling the hypothetical scenarios you rightly present.

      In conclusion, I agree that in practice these ideas are practically impossible to implement because of domestic, environmental and international pressures. My point though, is that nonetheless they are interesting re-articulations of democratic thought.

      Thanks for reading my work!

  2. Thank you for your post—very thought provoking. I very much enjoyed reading.

    I think I disagree with your continual usage of the word ‘Western’ as a contrast to the indigenous peoples of Latin America. They, in fact, do exist in the Western hemisphere, and I’m not sure why you seem to implicitly exclude them from their geographical homeland.

    You first note that current democratic designs involve short-term incentives, such as winning the next election, which de-values and does not incentivize environmental protections in the long-term. I agree completely, but—if I’m not mistaken—you suggest attitudinal changes, not structural or legal changes in order to address this problem.

    You next advocate the granting of legal standing to environmental elements, but why not animals, as well?

    Third, you state, “..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…” Note that assuming homogeneity and remaining neutral are very different stances. Assuming homogeneity is a positive statement, a positive position; all people here are the same. Neutrality is very different: structurally, there is no accounting for any salient diversity which may exist. While you suggest a change in citizenship status, I am wondering how this change would look legally. Do you have any specific suggestions?

    To wrap up, I generally agree with your criticisms of current conceptions of democracy. However, to constitute a new democratic design or paradigm, I think different structures must be articulated. It seems to me that the suggestions presented merely advocate policy or political culture changes, not institutional, legal, or structural ones (although the citizenship point might rise to such a level).

    • Dear Ryan,

      Thank you for commenting.

      First things first, I used the term “Western” for lack of a better term. I am fully aware of its colonialist and geographically-excluding connotations. Perhaps I should have used the term “political liberalism” or European and Anglo-Saxon democratic theory, but what I was aiming at was that tradition of democratic thought belonging to Europe, Britain and the US…

      Secondly, regarding attitudinal changes and structural change, the literature regarding these themes is quite unclear. While environmental rights and new conceptions of citizenship might actually be manifested in legal codes, and thus have a structural impact, the idea of the “good living” as an alternative idea of development is more of an ethic and does not imply concise structural change.

      Thirdly, animal rights. To my knowledge animal rights are not high up on the agenda of indigenous movements. If they are I imagine they would be included within the idea of legally protecting ecosystems and all living beings within them.

      Thirdly, the architecture of the state. You are right, I admit my mistake and was unclear in my writing: a state assuming the homogeneity of the nation and a state declaring neutrality in regards to its citizens’ affiliations are completely different (and at times mutually excluding) stances. I used “homogeneity of the nation” (wrongly) to indicate that in political liberalism the state conceives of its citizens equally as rights bearing entities. What I was criticising was the tendency of liberalism to not take into consideration the cultural, ethnic or religious background of its citizens.

      Lastly, again I stress that the literature regarding these ideas is vague and often confuses attitudinal change with structural change. Ecuador’s constitution presents all three ideas, but it is also unclear how it should deal with them practically.

      However, the point of my article was solely to highlight a new way of re-articulating liberal democratic theory. I am not making a normative statement on them, nor am I advocating them. My point is that “western” democratic thought should take a cue from other conceptualizations of democracy.

      Thanks for your very informative points,


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