Nature & Buen Vivir in Ecuador: The battle between conservation and extraction

By Jorge Guardiola and Fernando García-Quero

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Graffiti by the Brigada Ramona Parra (Chile).

Graffiti by the Brigada Ramona Parra (Chile).

This post is based on a recent publication entitled, "Buen Vivir (living well) in Ecuador: Community and environmental satisfaction without household material prosperity?" written by Jorge Guardiola and Fernando García-Quero, from Universidad de Granada, España. This paper was published in Ecological Economics (2014, vol 107). It deals with Buen Vivir, which is a concept with academic roots from the beginning of the 21st century, when the indigenous movement became a major social and political factor in Ecuador and Bolivia (Torrez, 2001; Yampara, 2001; Viteri, 2002). The systematization of this process was in the discussions undertaken by social partners on the Bolivian and Ecuadorian Constitutional Assemblies (Bolivia 2006-2009; Ecuador 2007-2008). They were later formalized in the approval of both Constitutions [1]. Since that moment, many research projects and studies have appeared, and Buen Vivir is increasingly becoming an international issue at all levels (Escobar, 2010; Walsh, 2010; Farah and Vasapollo, 2011; Gudynas, 2011; Radcliffe, 2012; Correa, 2013a; Mejido Costoya, 2013; Vanhulst and Beling, 2014).

The common issues identified during this process emphasize that the Buen Vivir philosophy is based on the idea that nature, community, and individuals all share the same material and spiritual dimensions. The wellbeing of the community is considered more important than that of the individual. Communities work to develop their capacities and enrich their knowledge without doing harm to human health or to the environment. Human beings are therefore part of nature and their quality of life depends on all the living things that share this planet with them. Due to the importance of nature, environmental and local progress are two of the fundamental goals of Buen Vivir (see Ecuadorian Constitution, art. 13; art.  333). The indigenous economy emphasizes that all methods of working and production have to be oriented to the local livelihoods, and should not serve for capital gain, accumulation, or surplus. To achieve Buen Vivir, it is essential that there is active participation in community spaces and local institutions (Macas, 2010). In summary, Buen Vivir of the population depends on strengthening participation in the community, improving harmony with nature, and maintaining local food sovereignty.

In Ecuador there are two extremely different viewpoints or conceptions on how to guarantee Buen Vivir. Firstly, the extractive position, which interprets natural resources as tools for its own Buen Vivir conception. Second is the conservationist perspective, which promotes the respect of nature and the search of alternative strategies to maintain Buen Vivir. The extractive view is commonly known as “republican biosocialism” or “socialism of the 21st century,” and reflects the Government’s position (Coraggio, 2007; Páez, 2010; Ramírez, 2010; SEPLANDES, 2010; Falconí y Muñoz, 2012). The conservationist view is prominent in the indigenous movements, opposition political parties, and intellectual circles from Ecuador and abroad. (Dávalos, 2008; Oviedo, 2011; Quijano, 2011; Acosta, 2012; Vega, 2012; Gudynas, 2013).

Extractive development strategies aiming to improve population well-being are focused on economic growth that comes from country ownership of the natural resources. The governments opted for extraction and commercialization of the natural resources in order to ensure fiscal profits for sustained poverty reduction (Correa, 2013b). According to them, economic growth and the massive exploitation of nature are necessary for sustained poverty reduction (Correa, 2012). In theory, the majority of the windfall from Ecuador´s copper exploitation royalties should go to local community projects. President Correa has repeatedly said that his government's environmental policy was necessary “for the country to emerge from underdevelopment and to attend to the poorest.” He stated that they “cannot live as beggars sitting on a sack of gold” (Correa, 2013a). Examples of these policies are the agreements with international companies to carry out the exploitation of natural resources throughout Ecuador. The most famous example is the Yasuni ITT Project, which paved the way for oil exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle of Yasuni National Park[2].

The extractive position believes that there is no inconsistency in extraction, because the first step in reaching Buen Vivir is eliminating poverty and unemployment. They argue that a progressive process of endogenous development is the path towards Ecuadorian wellbeing and that it is necessary to achieve energy sovereignty, food sovereignty, and financial sovereignty within the next 16 or 20 years (SEPLANDES, 2009). Ecuador is still in an early stage build-up phase and needs to strengthen the job market in order to guarantee basic material needs, including those related to food. In this stage, royalties from foreign firms coming from the extraction of raw materials are important to substantially reduce poverty and social exclusion. (SENPLANDES, 2007, 2009, 2013).

The conservationists hold a very critical position towards the extractive vision. Extractive position, also referred to as "neo-progressive extractivism" or "brown socialism”, seeks Buen Vivir through a model of production and mass consumption (Gudynas, 2010; Escobar, 2010, Acosta, 2012). Extractivism maintains conventional emphasis on economic growth, fostering the massive extraction of natural resources as a primary means to achieve what they consider Buen Vivir, while leaving aside the respect for nature and indigenous communities (Acosta, 2011; Cuvi et al, 2013; Gudynas, 2013b). This confrontation is very visible in the Yasuni case. The conservationists argue that the term Buen Vivir is a "stolen word" from the indigenous movement and is misused by the government (Tortosa, 2012).

From the conservationist point of view, Yasuni exploitation has an adverse impact on the well-being of local communities, regardless of where the profits go. According to this view, the Ecuadorian government has to renounce the oil exploitation of Yasuni National Park. This aggression, invasion, and destruction of nature is contradictory to the Buen Vivir principles set out in the Constitution. From a biocentric viewpoint, Buen Vivir adopts a broader concept of community that includes all living things on the planet. Adverse impact on the environment has very negative implications for the individual's own welfare, as human beings belong to nature, not vice-versa. To ensure the preservation and protection of the environment and to respect the inherent value of nature beyond human purpose, it is essential to be permanently connected to the Buen Vivir goals outlined in the Ecuadorian Constitution, that state, among others, that nature is a subject of law (see Ecuadorian Constitution, chapter 7).

Taking this political scenario into consideration in our research, we aim to quantitatively evaluate the influence of Buen Vivir features (particularly nature, participation, and food sovereignty) in the subjective well-being[3] of a rural sample of 1,174 rural households, representative of two cantons in Ecuador (Nabón and Pucará), built in 2012. Our goal is to use happiness measures to account for the hedonic importance that people give to Buen Vivir features, versus the importance of more material and individualist issues, such as household income or being employed. To do so, we use a quantitative method, the ordered logit technique, to create a balance by putting Buen Vivir features on one side and material issues on the other. Environment and community participation variables and domains are found to be important in explaining subjective wellbeing (SWB), as well as other material related variables and domains.

The evidence found in this paper does not suggest to completely switch the balance to the extractive or to the conservative option, but it at least allows to reduce one without the risk of mistake. The importance of Buen Vivir variables and domains in explaining life satisfaction disregards the extractive position, but the importance of material variables and domains does not give full support to the conservative theory alone. In other words, income, employment and the increase of financial satisfaction are necessary for Ecuadorian people to be satisfied with their lives. These results contrast with the fact that descriptive statistics indicate that people are on average quite satisfied despite living in deprivation. This apparently puzzling conclusion may be clarified by this reasoning: people in the sample are in general highly satisfied, probably due to idiosyncratic issues contemplated in the Buen Vivir interpretation, but material achievement plays a role in the differences between individuals.

The political implications are that policy interventions centered on raising income or Buen Vivir alone will be incomplete. Policies that foster Buen Vivir while raising income and employment would succeed; aiming to increase material possibilities while preserving people’s ties to the community and to the land. The results suggest that self-production dependence has a limit in its influence on SWB, and that income may be a necessary driver to diversify goods and services that permit people to satisfy their needs.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank the help from Austin Cloyed for the English corrections made in this post.


Jorge Guardiola is an Associate Professor at the Department of Applied Economics, University of Granada, Spain. Fernando García-Quero is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Applied Economics, University of Granada, Spain.


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[1] The Buen Vivir is dealt with in quite different ways in these two constitutions (Ecuador approved in 2008; Bolivia approved in 2009). For further analysis see Farah and Vasapollo, 2011; Gudynas and Acosta 2011).

[2] The national initiative undertaken by Ecuador titled “Yasuni Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini Initiative” (ITT) had the objective to give up the extracting oil from the Yasuni biosphere reserve in exchange for international Trust Funds. See

[3] Subjective well-being research refers to the study of the reported cognitive evaluation of affective state of the individual. This is also known in the literature as the 'science of happiness'.