Indigenous Knowledge Returning to Nature


‘Buen Vivir’ wasn’t something I’d heard of until a lecturer of mine, who seems to spend most of his time in Latin America, denoted an hour to the philosophy last term. As he began to explain, it immediately caught my attention. The term is indicative of a movement which focuses on holistic ‘good living’. Economic, material, social and spiritual ‘good living’. In general it reflects a social movement and philosophy in Indigenous Latin America, particularly Ecuador, that places ideas of community, sustainability and oneness with the environment and citizens, before economic growth and power. You don’t need to look far, especially here in South- East Asia, to understand that our magical and mysterious planet Earth has become simply a site of exploitation rather than an entity we seek to work with, protect and live in harmony with.  And so, it is possible Indigenous forms of knowledge may hold the key to revolutionizing the West’s relationship with planet Earth. The Goddess of the Andes ‘Pachamama’ roughly translates in English to ‘Mother Earth’. She is respected, she is loved, she is honored. Like many others who are keen to redirect our global future away from mindless destruction, I feel it is vital we discuss alternative political, economic and social systems functioning across the world right now, which may contribute to lifting us from our thoughtless profiteering from the land that see’s forests and ecosystems eradicated, and the vitality and life of planet earth reduced to concrete, plastic and pollution.


Below is an essay of mine and I share it not because it is good, but because I think everyone should have access to such knowledge, and that the general public should start thinking about these important things.  I believe that through spreading knowledge to those who haven’t attended university to study such things like I have, minds can be influenced and ignited to start their own lines of research and interests in areas which otherwise they may not have thought about. So if you wish to learn about some of the positives and negatives of learning from Indigenous knowledge and culture, you’re welcomed to read the essay below, or check out the following link in which Gudynas introduces you to the key ideas.

If not, let this brief note on ‘Buen Vivir’ , or ‘the good life’, flow into your minds and day-to-day lives. Begin to question how changing your relationship with the planet from one which views it as an object that can be taken advantage of, to one that treats it as an entity with it’s own rights that need protecting like they so often do in Indigenous cultures throughout the world, can help contribute towards protecting our beautiful planet. Earth is our provider and our home, but also the very reason we breathe and rise each day. There has never been a more important time to start caring and talking about it.

Note: the aim of the essay below was to focus on bringing to light the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives to development which are not focused on economic growth and ‘business as usual’ type strategies:

It is surprising that ‘Buen Vivir’, a short phrase, encapsulates so much about the changing implications of International Development. As mentioned by Gudynas (2011, 2012), the term, and varying forms of indigenous knowledge from Latin America such as ‘Sumak Kawsay’, are indicative of ‘living well’ which has multiple consequences when it is applied to development theory. It is argued by some, that the characteristics of such indigenous forms of knowledge, provide the perfect antidote to the neo-liberal, capitalist agendas of modernisation theory, by bringing to life concepts which move towards community, environmental protection and acceptance of different ontological understandings of the world (Gudynas, 2011). Whilst undoubtedly indigenous modes of knowledge do provide the vital opportunity for new, ‘alternatives to development’ (Escobar, 1992) to make headway against the ever-powerful capitalisation of the global South, questions can be raised concerning the dangers of holding indigenous communities up on a pedestal. Contrary to common understandings, their realities are often far more complex than they appear (Killick, 2018) and the productiveness of their strategies, not always as impactful as they seem.

To begin with, shining a light on the ontological difference between Indigenous and Eurocentric modes-of-thought, reveals much about new approaches to development such as Sumac Kawsay and Buen Vivir in Latin America, and how they may contribute to spread of a non-dualistic cosmology. As Quijano (2007, p.177) claims, nearly all known cultures apart from those in the ‘west’ believe that every cosmic vision, every image and all systematic production of knowledge is associated with a perspective of totality”. According to Escobar et al (2012, p. 28), such ways-of-being which reject notions of rationalism and Cartesian science, have the potential to ‘denaturalize the hegemonic dualisms on which the liberal order is founded’. The difference in these cosmologies is made evident through the occurrence of Indigenous communities recognising that ‘animals, plants, ecosystems or spirits have will and feelings’ (Gudynas, 2011, p.445), whilst western visions arguably see humans, society, nature and the planet as separate beings. It is potentially this philosophical discourse which allows the neo-liberal agenda to utilise and exploit that which is apart from one’s body. It could therefore be suggested that implementing political discourse which takes on, and accepts different ontological perspectives, like that of Buen Vivir, may contribute to a move away from understanding globality as modernity, towards globality as a pluriverse (Escobar, 2012). This ultimately takes into account diverse and fluid ways of being in the world, instead of pushing one lineage of ‘development as progress’ which the neo-liberal agenda has done for so long.

Expanding further, as Macy (2007, 17 p. 140) states ‘life on our planet is in trouble’. Since the neo-liberal period, it is no secret that natural resources have become easily commodified and circulated, and the environment a site of contested valuation (Davidov, 2012). It is argued by some then, that approaches to development, birthed in the indigenous world, provide the opportunity for a new relationship with Mother Earth, or ‘Pacha Mama’ as it is called by the Quechua and Aymara, to be born. By seeing ‘Pacha Mama’ as an entity with rights, and not a site for exploitation by providing the necessary holt to climate destruction that left-leaning development discourses push for. According to Killick (2018) in 2008 the Ecuadorian constitution introduced Article 71 which recognised the rights of nature. The article states that Pacha Mama, ‘where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence, and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary process’ (Killick, 2018, p. 4). This article is thus indicative of the sense of connection to external world expressed in indigenous communities and in politics based on notions of Buen Vivir. As development processes arguably continue on a ‘business as usual’ trajectory towards modernisation, which is impacting environments across the globe, it is could be suggested that such ways of thinking about the world, as part of, and not separate from ourselves, may offer an a more-eco-friendly alternative to development which  deconstructs of the cultural base of development (Gudynas, 2011), and ultimately allows a return to the nature from which modernised-western society has broadly become so disconnected.

Furthermore, Buen Vivir’s’ focus on community has in some cases, positively impacted the economic sphere through grass-roots entrepreneurial initiatives, which aim to address a plurality of needs (Giovannini, 2015). As mentioned by Huanacuni (2010), Buen Vivir principles such as well-being are discussed in context of a community, unlike the individualistic conception in the West. Community enterprises, situated in a social and solidarity style economy have the capacity to build new social and labour relationships whilst reaping multiple economic, social and personal benefits for those involved (Coraggio, 2011). So, not only do such community programs which erupt from indigenous knowledge move development towards a bottom-up, instead of top-down economic approach which is an exciting alternative to neo-liberalism, but it is possible the inclusivity of such approaches ultimately prevents existing inequalities from being reproduced (Coraggio, 2011). Therefore such ‘Indigenous’ alternatives hold the potential to be appropriated across communities throughout the world, aligning with post-development agendas which look to transgress away from growth-centred development, to more holistic, anthropocentric approaches which focus on the human, and not simply growth of the economy.

Despite the fact that much can be taken from alternatives to development originating in the indigenous world, political, social and individual systems, ways-of-being and thinking amongst indigenous people are, as Killick (2018) would argue, far more complex than some care to allow. Holding Indigenous peoples and their political, and social approaches concerning ‘Buen Vivir’, up on a pedestal, allows the space for misinformed and inaccurate assumptions to be made about the multiplicity of realities experienced in Latin America, and other indigenous communities around the world. As Smith (2001.p 429) stated the Machiguenga from Peru ‘show surprisingly little concern about resource sustainability and do not appear to manage their resources” (Smith 2001:429). Killick (2018) noted that rather than ensuring their surroundings were preserved, Ashaninka people are more focused on reaching political and social equality in the present moment. It can be suggested here then that western and South-American elitist approaches which view indigenous knowledge as inherently good, may perpetuate a neo-colonialist perspective from which a return to viewing indigenous as the nobel savage occurs (Killick, 2018). With Naess (1989) bringing to light the fact that radical environmental postures, particularly ecological and biocentric approaches commonly push for the introduction of ‘Buen Vivir’ rather than classical development, the possibility arises that the conception is more based on a reflection of the wants of the post-colonial development theorists, and not on the corporeal truths of indigenous life.

Too, as the anthropology of development comes to the fore, and a culturally relative perspective attempts to evade possibilities that something seemingly so powerful in breaking down harmful dualisms of western culture could become yet another projection of the West’s yearning for a singular type of future world, which even eco-socialist style movements cling to, question’s regarding the practicality of moving towards a stragegic plan such as ‘Buen Vivir’  can be raised. Evidence suggests such programs may have limitations in solving larger scale, global issues such as poverty (Killick, 2018). Mentioned by Powell (2014) ‘Ecuador’s implementation of ‘Buen Vivir’ has been disappointingly contradictory to its constitutional proclamations’ (Powell, 2014, p 75) which suggests that without systematic, political and global support, any benefits which could be reaped from such philosophies and political movements will be prevented, also hindering its ability to efficiently solve large scale development issues. It is perhaps in it’s philosophy where it thrives, yet in its practicality and corporeality where it falls short of what progressive, development theorists in the West, imagine it to be indicative of.

So, as the lights dim down on the Amazonian rainforest as President Bolsonaro of Brazil sides with the ministries of agriculture in Brazil, giving the go-ahead for the Amazon to grow in its role in the global economy, it is perhaps becoming more necessary than ever for human relationships with their environment to change. Alternatives to development, birthed in the indigenous world, offer a vital new way of looking at future trajectories of development around the world. By bringing to light ontological differences, and a more pluriversal approach, approaches like ‘Buen Vivir’ hold the possibility for western ideals, expectations and understandings of the world to be turned around, and development issues, to be broken down and evaluated. Despite this, failure to engage directly with the lives of indigenous may risk incorrect assumptions being drawn about their cosmological realities in which they find themselves, jeopardising the western movement to away from colonial-like relations with the global south. Moreover, without wider political support, and a multiplicity of development ideas coming together, the good which can be found in indigenous principles of the ‘good life’, may not be reaped. By bringing community and non-dualist ways of thought to the fore, indigenous approaches successfully undermine neo-liberal, capitalist notions of modernisation, growth and separation. It can be concluded then, that a global shift towards a world where the Earth, nature and all its life and inhabitants win the fight against modernisation, may be met more quickly, and efficiently with the use of the holistic, and meaningful principles of indigenous knowledge rooted in the ‘good life’.


Coraggio, 2011 La Economía social como vía para otro desarrollo social Economía Social y Solidaria: El Trabajo Antes que el Capital Quito Ediciones Abya-Yala (pg. 43-68)

Davidov, V.(2012) “Saving Nature or Performing Sovereignty? Ecuador’s Initiative to ‘Keep Oil in the Ground.’” Anthropology Today 28(3): 12-15.

Gudynas, E (2011) Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow (4), (441-447) Society for International Development 1011-6370/

Escobar, A. (1992). Culture, Practice and Politics: Anthropology and the study of social movements. Critique of Anthropology, 12(4), 395-432.

Escobar ,A (2012), Preface, Encountering Development Princeton University Press Oxford

Giovannini M (2015) Indigenous community enterprises in Chiapas: a vehicle for buen vivir?, Community Development Journal, Volume 50, Issue 1, 1 January Pages 71–87,

Huanacuni (2010) Buen Vivir/Vivir Bien: Filosofía, Políticas, Estrategias y Experiencias Regionales Andinas Lima, Peru CAOI Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas

Killick, E (2018) Extractive relations: natural resource use, indigenous peoples and environmental protection in Peru.Bulletin of Latin American Research. ISSN 0261-3050

Macy (2007) World as Lover, World as Self, Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal Parallax Press

Naess, A (1989) Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Quijano, A. 2007. Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. Cultural Studies. 21(2): 168-178. [originally published in 1999]

Powell, E. (2014) Ecuador’s Buen Vivir: A lasting development paradigm shift?, Tulane University.

Smith,(2001) Are Indigenous People Conservationists? Preliminary Results from the Machiguenga of the Peruvian Amazon. Rationality and Society, 13(4):429- 461.

#environment #ecofriendly #internationaldevelopment #indigneousknowlege #economics #growth #holisticliving #nature #travel #sustainability #motherearth #spirituality #connection #planet #gaia #compassion #pachamama

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