When Evo Morales became Bolivia's first indigenous president, he spoke of 'vivir bien,' a phrase meaning 'good life' or 'to live well.' But can the concept be reconciled with dependence on the oil and gas industries?
Vivir bien relates to two important forces on the rise in Bolivia over the past 20 years. One is a rejection of capitalist economic policy. The other is the strengthening of indigenous organizations expressing what makes their worldviews distinct.
Bolivia is a country of extraordinary natural wealth, from silver and gold to oil and gas. But over hundreds of years, those resources have not translated into prosperity for the Andean nation where more than 60 percent of the population identifies as indigenous and poverty statistics are amongst the highest in South America. President Evo Morales has vowed that his government will benefit the country's poorest citizens by using natural resource wealth to raise them out of poverty, while defending the environment and indigenous rights.
"Vivir bien connotes respect for life. Life means living together and asking, Am I going to live throwing things out of order, am I going to live by force? Or am I going to live in harmony and balance?" said Fernando Huanacuni, an Aymara Indian intellectual who has written extensively on the idea and who works for the government today.
Motto for a government
"Capitalism is the worst enemy of humanity. Capitalism and the senseless development of unlimited industrialization are what destroy the environment," President Morales said during a 2009 interview with the "Democracy Now!" news program.
He added that economic policy must change and luxury consumption must end.
"It's crucial to think of another way of life - in vivir bien, not living better," he said. "Living better comes at the cost of others, and at the cost of the destruction of the environment."
The Morales administration seized on vivir bien, linking it with the government's pro-nationalization economic strategy and strong discourse defending the environment. Vivir bien was written into the country's new constitution and its most important economic policies.
But today many Bolivians say it's still not clear what the government means by vivir bien, and ideas on what constitutes living well are as diverse as Bolivia itself.
Oil, mining, and vivir bien?
During much of the 1980s and 90s, international organizations like the World Bank pushed Bolivia to privatize businesses held by the state. Operations from water service to gas extraction were transferred to private companies in the hope that international investment and a capitalist model would jump-start chronically impoverished Bolivia.
But the country remained poor, and large sectors of society began to associate privatization with the sacking of natural resources during the colonial period, which filled Spain's coffers and left Bolivia with little.
When Morales was elected, he responded by forcing companies to renegotiate oil and gas contracts. That resulted in significantly increased income for the government. Much of the new funds went toward cash transfer programs, locally called "bonos," which provide cash to the elderly, students and mothers with young children.
"The cash transfers are created specifically for the neediest people," explained Ariel Zabala David, director of planning for the ministry of productive development and plural economy. He said the bonos are part of the country's redistributive economic strategy and promote the concept of vivir bien by increasing access to education, healthcare, and economic stability.
Though the amounts range from about $30 to $350 per year (or about 24 to 280 euros), they make a difference in the lives of Bolivia's poor, many of whom earn just a few dollars a day. The government estimates that in 2011, 30 percent of Bolivians received a cash transfer.
Indeed, poverty rates seem to be decreasing and the economy is growing as the government expands oil and gas extraction and mining, which are the foundations of Bolivia's economy and support many bono programs. However, some people argue there is no way to reconcile the concept of vivir bien with extractive industry.
Raúl Prada helped draft Bolivia's 2009 constitution, but today he is an outspoken critic of the government.
"The model for a society of vivir bien is an alternative model to modernity, capitalism and development," he said. "The constitution's model is not an extractive model; the government has chosen to continue the extractive model and to continue the dependent capitalism of Bolivian and Latin American elites, which is a colonial imposition."
Many faces of a good life
The concept of a collective, harmonious well-being is found across many Andean and Amazonian societies, but in practice it means different things for different groups. Additionally, many Bolivians have never heard vivir bien discussed outside political speeches.
On Bolivia's high plains, herds of llamas and sheep forage across the dry and rocky earth. The sky is an extraordinary, brilliant blue, and glacier-capped mountains are strung along the horizon.
Here in the western part of the country, many indigenous people live by farming, tilling their land with teams of cows and harvesting potatoes by hand, as they did hundreds of years ago. Communities often work together, collectively planting, harvesting, and rotating crops.
In the sleepy town of Laja, elderly Miguel Nina and his wife store feed for their cows. For Nina, an Aymara diary farmer who lives by a river polluted by waste from a large upstream city, living well means two things. The first is plenty of clean water so animals and crops can flourish. The second is investment in projects such as wells and tools like tractors, so agricultural production increases.
"It's good that they speak about it, but we want projects to arrive here," the farmer said when asked what the government means by vivir bien. "Then we can raise our diary cows, but as there isn't enough water now we can't live well."
Protecting ancestral land
Yhovani Valdez Cuqui is from the indigenous Quechua Tacana group, who live in Bolivia's eastern Amazon rainforest.
"I think that vivir bien is protecting your land and using it sustainably," he said, "because the great majority of the families and people in the jungle collect their food from what the jungle produces. And in exchange for that, you have to protect the spaces you have."
Valdez Cuqui works in ecotourism. His outlook has been shaped by an ongoing conflict between the government - which wants to build a road through a national park and indigenous territory to link two cities and open markets for farmers - and the indigenous groups that oppose the road.
"As a discourse, they (the government) use vivir bien well, but in reality they attack the places that provide vivir bien," he said. "There are many ways to live life. Depending on where you are, you'll find different ways to live and survive. You can't compare an indigenous person from the lowlands and an indigenous person from the highlands. Our ways of life are different."
The Bolivian constitution recognizes 36 different indigenous languages, most of which are spoken by fairly small groups of people. There are also Bolivians who identify themselves by their city, profession, or by affiliation with a union or peasant organization. Each of those groups has different interests and a different idea of what the good life is.
Those differences make vivir bien mean many things in Bolivia today. It is an approach to redistributing natural resource wealth, a diverse indigenous philosophy, a political discourse, and a possible environmentally focused alternative to capitalism and individualism. It's a multifaceted concept that is still unfolding, but vivir bien has become important to understanding Bolivia's present. It may also play an important role in defining the future.
Author: Sara Shahriari, La Paz, Bolivia / ar
Editor: Helen Whittle