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Ecuador’s tragedy: from "Buen Vivir" to dying badly?

June 4, 2020


by Diana Burgos-Vigna, Associate Professor at CY Cergy Paris University, in the AGORA research centre. Her research focuses mainly on local governance in Latin American cities. 



Bodies left lying in the streets and cardboard coffins piled up will undoubtedly remain among the most terrible images of the pandemic.

With 3,500 deaths and more than 38,000 confirmed cases out of a population of 17 million, Ecuador is one of South America’s countries most affected by COVID 19.


The migratory relationships between Ecuador and Spain or Italy, where more than 500,000 Ecuadorians reside, have contributed to the spread of the virus in a summer period marked by the return of students and migrant workers. The aggregation of the dengue epidemic with COVID 19 may also explain the collapse of health services. Last, in a country where 45% of jobs are in the underground economy, compliance with confinement rules has been difficult.


Nevertheless, Ecuador’s tragedy is surprising. How did this country, which had been promoting Buen Vivir (‘Living well’) for years, manage to let thousands of people die? The overworked hospital sector and the desperation of a helpless population are the opposite of the promises of a government that has been promoting the values of collective development for more than a decade. Furthermore, at a time when scientists around the world are warning us about the relationship between the destruction of nature and epidemics, how can we explain this tragedy in a country which advocates harmony between humanity and the environment? Was the Buen Vivir paradigm just political marketing? The analysis of policies conducted for several years reveals a growing discrepancy between the promises of the official agenda and the programs really implemented.

The Andes, birthplace of the Sumak Kawsay philosophy, or Buen Vivir
The Andes, birthplace of the Sumak Kawsay philosophy, or Buen Vivir
"Buen Vivir" National Plan
"Buen Vivir" National Plan

Let's go back to the origins of this philosophy. Andean culture has been based on cosmos of Indian origin for millennia that put nature first. Known as Sumak Kawsay in Ecuador, or Sumak Qamaña in Bolivia, they have been translated as Buen Vivir. Defined as ‘life in fullness’ or ‘life in harmony’, they deliver a vision of the world where nature is not subordinate to humanity. The earth is Pacha Mama, a foster mother who must be preserved and pampered by those who depend on her. The human being is not forgotten, but it is conceived as being part of this nature. Mutual help, collective work, mutual learning are the central values and any attack on nature also damages the community.


Used by various indigenous movements and progressive political elites in both Andean countries at the end of the 20th century, these world views have been claimed as an alternative to the predominant development model defined as a maldesarrollo (bad development) or a malvivir (bad way of living). With the victory of left parties in South America at the beginning of the 21st century, the philosophy of Buen Vivir has been promoted by the reformers who come to power in Bolivia and Ecuador. It has then been transformed into a political paradigm and integrated into modified Constitutions, which not only recognize multiculturalism, but also grant rights to nature. It is about building the State of ‘Living well’ as evidenced by the Citizen Revolution led by Rafael Correa from 2007 to 2017 and the anti-capitalist and pro-environment speeches of Aymara-born Evo Morales, Head of Bolivia from 2006 to 2019.

School supplies promoting the Buen Vivir
School supplies promoting the Buen Vivir

Did Ecuador succeed in building this society of living well? One of the most problematic aspects is the environment. While Ecuador has properly institutionalized the rights of nature, its degradation has not stopped. Under the guise of a new ideology called "neo-extractivism" claiming to exploit raw materials to redistribute the resources to the population via social benefits, governments have continued to ransack nature. The cancellation of the Yasuni project is emblematic: launched in 2007 to protect the Amazon rainforest, the project's goal was to stop oil extraction in exchange for financial compensation. But it was put on a shelf a few years later because of a lack of commitment from international backers who would finance this innovative program.


Boosted by its recent economic growth, Ecuador has gradually moved away from Andean philosophies. Poverty has been decreasing sincel 2015 while territorial inequalities and environmental damage have increased. In addition, a double dependence has emerged: towards commodities and China, one of the main importers of the country's resources and a major investor in hydrocarbons. Also, in the health department, Buen Vivir policies have not met expectations. The budget for the hospital sector has been cut by 34% in 2018, then by 36% in 2019. The reduction in medical staff did not prevent the government from expelling 400 Cuban doctors in 2019, and the number of corruption cases among hospital executives has soared. Finally, the poverty rate has risen from 21.55% in 2017 to 25% in 2019. It is therefore not surprising that Ecuadorians mobilized massively last fall against the rise in price of hydrocarbons, and now the pandemic hits an already fragile country. The outlook looks bleak: the IMF expects a sharp economic recession for 2020 and CEPAL sees poverty affecting 31% of the population. Inequalities are also set to increase with the decrease in remittances (monetary transfers sent by Ecuadorians abroad) and the fall in the price of oil.


Should we conclude that the Buen Vivir policies have gone wrong? Such an assertion would be hasty. Ecuador has been able to launch promising policies, with the institutional recognition of the rights of nature and cultural diversity, the promotion of an intangible heritage, education and culture for the greatest number and the opening of new spaces for collective expression. These are all elements that will remain key to heal the wounds of Ecuadorian society.

Diana Burgos-Vigna is an Associate Professor at CY Cergy Paris University, in the AGORA research centre. Her research focuses mainly on local governance in Latin American cities. She is the author of several articles on the Equator: