The Vivir Bien and Alterity

The vivir bien is a supposedly indigenous concept of ‘living well’ that in fact evolved out of workshops held by a group of La Paz based intellectuals, including Simon Yampara, Javier Medina, Dominque Temple and Jaqueline Michaux, during the nineties. The concept was made public by Medina in a publication of the German Cooperation GTZ in 2001. It has since become phenomenally successful. It is ‘one of the structuring principles of the country’, according to Article Two of the Bolivian Constitution. The National Development Plan, of which it is identified as the core goal, defines it thus: “el Vivir Bien será entendido como el acceso y disfrute de los bienes materiales y de la realización efectiva, subjetiva, intelectual y espiritual, en armonía con la naturaleza y en comunidad con los seres humanos”- “the vivir bien will be understood as the access and enjoyment of the material goods and of subjective intellectual and spiritual fulfilment, in harmony with nature and in community with human beings”. The concept is now used in development discourse up and down the Americas, and championed by astute critics.

In the rendering of key theorist Javier Medina, the concept is elaborated to include the non-separation of nature and culture, of humans from their surrounding landscape, and including the dimensions of the mythic and the sacred. Medina states: “in this model of austerity, equilibrium and sufficiency of good, nothing is excluded, neither the gods nor nature” (“en este modelo de austeridad, equilibrio y suficiencia de lo bueno, nada esta excluido, ni los dioses ni la naturaleza”). Medina’s conception of indigenous thought draws upon Ingold’s concept of landscape.

That the Andean landscape is inhabited by spirits and non-determined by western categories of nature and culture, is something Andean ethnography has widely indicated. The categories of austerity and sufficiency are more controversial. While classic ethnographies of the seventies depict rural communities without the luxuries of capitalism, whether this ‘austerity’ is chosen in the current context of neoliberalism is highly debateable. Where I worked in Kaata, highland Bolivia young people were motivated to go to cities and buy clothes and other commodities. The vivir bien emanates from city based projections positing the indigenous as the ideal ‘alter’ to the city, immune to its temptations, who would choose austerity over abundance, equilibrium over a plasma screen tv.


The original aim of the GTZ workshops was to translate the concept of development in native languages. The treatise of ‘vivir bien’ was translated into Aymara as suma qamaña, which was then claimed to be an indigenous term- Javier Medina (2011) claims that “there is no adequate translation into Spanish for the suma qamaña”. In fact the act of translation is quite the reverse. Alison Spedding had never heard in her Aymara speaking fieldsite the term suma qamana used, and if it had meaning in Aymara, she thought, it might mean something like ‘remaining in the house rather than working’. A team of researchers for a body called the UDAPE studied the state of the Vivir Bien across the nation, working with 21 communities across 14 indigenous language groups. They found that only the leaders of the indigenous communities they worked with were familiar with the term, through the national political discourse. Defining the vivir bien in a meaningful way in order to assess how the rural communities felt about it, the researchers had to return the definitions in the constitution or national development plan, derived from the urban intellectuals, analysing the communities’ well-being according to clearly etic criteria.

The vivir bien is thus created in the city in the image of indigenous peoples. This is a process of mimesis, or imitation, whereby the city apparently copies the countryside, yet in fact transforms it into its ideal other.

One of the defining characteristics of the vivir bien is that it proposes an alternative to neoliberal development. In a 2011 publication on the Vivir Bien, Morales in his introduction defines:

El Vivir Bien como una forma de vida, de relacionamiento con la naturaleza, de complementariedad entre los pueblos es parte de la filosofía y la práctica de los Pueblos Indígenas. Asimismo, no sólo desnuda las causas estructurales de las crisis (alimenticia, climática, económica, energética) que vive nuestro planeta, sino que plantea una profunda crítica al sistema que está devorando a seres humanos y a la naturaleza: el sistema capitalista mundial.

Mientras los Pueblos Indígenas proponen para el mundo el “Vivir Bien”, el capitalismo se basa en el “Vivir Mejor”. Las diferencias son claras: El vivir major significa vivir a costa del otro, explotando al otro, saqueando los recursos naturales, violando a la Madre Tierra, privatizando los servicios básicos; en cambio el Vivir Bien es vivir en solidaridad, en igualdad, en armonía, en complementariedad, en reciprocida

“the vivir bien as a form of life, of relating to nature, of complementarity between peoples is part of the philosophy and practice of the Indigenous Peoples. In this way, it does not only lay bare the structures of the crises (nutrition, climate, economy, energy) which our planet it undergoing, it proposes a profound criticism of the system which is devouring human beings and nature: the world capitalist system.

While the indigenous peoples propose the ‘vivir bien’ for the world, capitalism is based on ‘living better’. The differences are clear: the living better means living at the expense of the other, exploiting the other, depredating natural resources, raping the mother earth, privatising basic services; by contrast the vivir bien is living in solidarity, in equality, in harmony, in complimentarity, in reciprocity”. (Morales, 2011).

The vivir bien is created in the city and then applied to the campo, claiming to be the gaze and critique of these peoples upon capitalism. The vivir bien and capitalism are posited here as opposites, with capitalism defined according to its exploitation of ‘the other’ and of the landscape, and the contrasting harmony of relations of the vivir bien. The other referred to is the indian other, defined here in terms of its exploitation by capitalists. The two are mutually constituting identities.

Contemporary Bolivia is characterised by these relations of alterity between capitalist and Indians, or between the city and the countryside. These are ideal ‘others’ which comprise in reality conflicted and unseparated actors, crossing and re-crossing the imaginary boundary between the two identities. The vivir bien manifesto, through its complex relations of mimesis, provides an opportunity for analysis of the national mood, which brims with ethnic nationalism based on opposition between coloniser/colonised, or white/indigenous, or capitalist/non-capitalist. We see that the city, or its left-wing ideologues, are looking to the indian context to provide an alternative or ‘other’ to neoliberal capitalism. This leads of course to substantial reification of the indian other, the vivir bien imposing a set of conditions of ideal alterity upon rural communities that seldom conform to the reality.

Alterity however is a difficult beast to manage, and my fieldwork indicated it cannot be so neatly deployed. Kaata with its autonomous authorities and subsistence agriculture resembles the ideal ayllu envisioned by these theorists of the vivir bien. Migration to the city however is currently very high, almost ubiquitous among young people. What motivates this movement, according to Kaateños, is desire for commodities, principally clothes. Through donning these clothes, young people can become the western ‘other’.

When I asked Javier Medina of the Vivir Bien about migration, he irritably dismissed it- there has always been migration, he argues, and Andean peasants have always had two or three homes. This may be so but in the current context this migration is perceived as a catastrophe. The sustainability and future of the ayllu community is they consider thrown into jeopardy by the force of the flow of migration and desire for things from the outside. Whilst city white intellectuals look to the indigenous other for salvation, those who have been born into this side of the alterity equation are more likely to be looking towards their other, the west. The vivir bien meets an opposite mimesis emanating from the rural communities that are also in the process of becoming their other, which renders the city gaze, seated in a reality of forty years ago, especially outdated and inaccurate. Working with projected actors’ supposed desires renders the vivir bien ineffective in realising its goals; it has undergone criticism within Bolivia as it existed only as a philosophy and was unable to achieve anything.

In an interview in September 2013, Javier Medina outlined his plans for a scheme in Kaata which would be one of a few laboratories to realise the idea of the Vivir Bien, through the Biocultura program funded by the Swiss Cooperation and Bolivian state. His idea was to create a community tourism scheme. A team will improve the footpaths on the route of the Curva- Pelechuco trek, and build hostals for walkers. When I asked Medina how the project was to differ from normal tourism, he told me that the difference lay in the creation of a local market for sustainable community agriculture, as well as the dynamically egalitarian ethos of the project, creating a meeting of two civilisations, and making young people ‘cultural mediators’. The hostels would use food produced by the villages- there would also be workshops for these villages to improve the food they eat. Market opportunities are rare in the area. The tourist would be treated not as a client who must be right, but as a guest with whom you want to share, in a tourism “mas digno para todos”, more dignified for everyone. Medina sought to encourage young people in the villages to value their indigenous culture through this meeting of civilisations, seeing themselves reflected admiringly in the gaze of the tourists, would learn to combine elements of indigenous and western culture. Simultaneously the western tourists would learn much needed lessons from the villages. This assumption that each side needs to be rebalanced by the other is based in the theory of complementarity. The world is held in balance through the force of ayni, or reciprocity, holding the actors of the landscape, the fields, the community who farm them and exchange with one another, in dynamic relationships of complementarity.

After this discussion I was excited to see what the tourism project would manage to bring to fruition. Medina identified the ethnic split that was for me key to many dynamics, and aimed to create cross cultural- and natural- dialogue and respect. The project also aimed to solve the needs of local producers to find markets. One of the technicians setting up the project, an anthropologist from a Quechua speaking family was an acquaintance from La Paz, and we communicated over the internet from England about the early phases of the set up of the project.

I was thus consulted, via facebook chat, on what ‘traditional dishes’ or platos regionales the villages ought to prepare for the tourists. I replied to the effect that if it was local cuisine being sought, they ought to ask the women there. Very noble, and ethical, replied the technician, but- really– what should the tourists eat? They couldn’t be expected to eat soup every day, as did the villagers. And the preparation methods used in the villages were not hygienic. I replied that I thought the locally grown foods very nourishing, and that I had never been sick from eating in Kaata. Nonetheless, on returning to the communities just as workshops were training community members for the tourism project, I found women being taught to cook in a ‘hygienic’ fashion contradicting many existing practices, and effectively meaning that tourist food would have to be made in a special kitchen outside of the house. A woman had been brought in from Cochabamba to teach the ladies how to cook new meals that would be called their ‘regional dishes’, and an alpaca had been purchased from the upper villages on which the technicians feasted.

I was familiar with food as an area of concern, as when I had first gone to Kaata people were surprised that I could eat the same food as them. This stemmed from the idea that white people were a different sort of being, constituted as such by their foodstuffs. The imposition of separate food regimes, especially with the implication that local food was not clean or interesting enough for tourists, would be bound to deepen existing prejudices and tensions against white people, who have been cast as lordly and deprecating before any of them had even arrived, by the well-meaning technicians from La Paz, who were themselves much impressed at the idea of tourists. Despite Medina’s educated approach, not to mention my own attempts at intervention, culture tends to reproduce itself, in this case meaning that the ends of the project were almost the inverse of its aims, confirming and deepening stereotypes and antagonism across the ethnic divide. I was doubtful the scheme would ever work well enough to support tourists, though if any did come, it seemed the scheme would do little to support local economies, alpacas are already sold at a good price from the upper ayllus.

Furthermore, the scheme was unlikely to work as rather than being proposed by the villages it came from outside them. The technician told me that in some areas there had been little uptake on it, where villages were immersed in profitable cash economies from coca, gold and running black market gasoline, over the border to Peru and thus not particularly interested in this source of embettering revenue, completely laying bare the fallacy of expectations of them as harmonious subsistence farmers immune to the temptations of capitalism. In Kaata, the alcalde in explaining the government’s proposal to the other authorities, said that on the one hand it might be beneficial, and on the other might ruin the village.

The technician had asked me what I considered the villagers should teach tourists- their own suggestions they focus on how local colonists had been burned out of their haciendas were disregarded as rather tactless under the circumstances- and I suggested that their agricultural knowledge, which leads to adaption to climate change, was the most valuable thing to my mind they might impart to western travellers. I had hoped to influence the project towards agri-tourism, with international volunteers learning the sustainable terracing techniques of the villages, and staying in family houses. However these suggestions were not heeded, and rather regarded with alarm by the technician, the idea that westerners could work the fields unthinkable, despite my assurances that there are an increasing number of sustainable agriculture training projects in the UK, and promises to set up connections helping to assure a flow of interested persons.

In fact the dynamics of knowledge worked in a different direction. We had been taken as sample tourists to see the chullpas above the village by an assortment of teenagers and adolescents who were interested in community tourism, with a couple of motherly women along to keep an eye on things. Though obliged to take tourists to the sacred sites, they intended to keep any information as to their nature secret- I had found as an anthropologist that ritual knowledge was zealously guarded from outsiders who were suspected generally of ‘stealing the culture’. Foreigners are largely expected to steal, this being the role of the white capitalist other; in Kaata everyone was convinced that the existing tourists who climbed Akhamani were looking for gold.

On this little expedition to the chullperias, one of the maternal ladies carried lunch for all of us, a total of twenty people, in a huge cooking pot, tied with a cloth on her back. When we got back down the mountain the entire group was submitted to a long and exceedingly dull lecture on how to pack a rucksack correctly, thought to be an essential element in being a tourist guide. That a rucksack should be assumed to be a superior form of carrying apparatus to existing carrying cloths was indicative of the underlying idealization of everything western and deprecation of the indigenous that was turning the project into the inverse of what it had set out to be.

I took my concerns to the headquarters of the Biocultura project in La Paz, outlining the issues to Medina in an email. He was unable to see me himself, being involved numerous projects, though he instructed those running the project to meet with me, and a meeting was called. At which no one turned up. Whilst we tried to reschedule several times, I was never able to actually talk to anyone. I eventually wrote a letter that indicated the scheme was very unlikely to create cross-cultural, non-hierarchical dialogue, tending to confirm stereotypical roles and prejudices. I was unwilling to be another supercilious academic writing a damning critique of a development project.

The dominant projections are again a result of western-indian alterity, in which white outsiders are stereotyped as the ideal other of indian virtues. A narrow view of their tastes, interests and needs hampered the project.

In conclusion the project, as the vivir bien itself, ends up created in the image of indian communities in the city. When this image is projected onto the communities themselves all kinds of discrepancies emerge that make the scheme unworkable. In this case not only the villages defied expectations, but embedded in the practice of the technicians were normative assumptions of the superiority of western culture over indigenous culture. As the city and countryside gaze at each other there is a well-established underlying hierarchy which is hard to shift. There was nothing in the scheme to indicate a reciprocal process of learning, rather, through the vivir bien schemes becoming the urban other which motivated migration is replicated rather than remedied, even accelerated, with technicians imposing western cooking and carrying methods on the villages.

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