Ecuador’s Buen Vivir: The Untold Narrative

Over ten years have passed, and the indigenist, alternative development goal established in 2008 by the Ecuadorian government, and the slew of policies and projects that came from that, have not yielded fruit; looking back, with hindsight 2020, it is clear that a big reason for this failure is due to the government’s inability, or unwillingness, to incorporate the country’s historic and often conscious dependency on extractive practices into the narrative. The long-term goal, introduced with the passing of a new constitution based on the concept of El Buen Vivir (Good Living), was to create “a new form of social coexistence, based on diversity and harmony with nature.” Thus, borrowing decolonial ideas, they constitutionally reframed humanity’s relationship with nature to one of interdependence in rejection of the anthropocentric notion which has been the commonly accepted norm in the modern era. However, if anything, in the past ten years the country has turned more towards extractivist practices than ever before, leading to multiple ecological disasters even when looking at this year alone.

When the goal was first established the government of President Correa unveiled a myriad of targeted projects and policy initiatives, formulated through a process of backtracing, all the while building a very specific narrative of a petrostate brought to the brick of ruin by external neocolonial forces, pushing to rise from its own ashes as an antithesis to neoliberal ideals in order to develop in a better, more moral, way. A good example of this narrative in action is President Correa’s speech near the beginning of his presidency, when he justified his decision to default on the $3.2 billion debt stemming from the 2012 and 2030 global bonds by arguing that the debt was illegally contracted. In it he said “I cannot allow a debt that is clearly immoral and illegitimate to continue to be paid…debts should be paid, but not fraud… We know well who we are up against – against real monsters who did not hesitate to try to crush the country.

This narrative, built around the idea of an exploited country, did not take into consideration the, often, conscious actions taken by previous presidents which created the disparate power-relationship Ecuador had with not only the West but with many of its neighbors as well as the reliance on extractive practices given that the matrix of production in the country revolves entirely around oil. Neither Correa, nor the current President Lenin Moreno, have ever spoken in detail, for example, about the way in which the national debt, development and environmental degradation have been deeply interconnected since the 1970s. This was when the first oil boom in Ecuador allowed the government to subsidize national infrastructure programs through loans which the state was subsequently unable to repay due to the steep drop in oil prices in the 80s and the ever-increasing interest rates on said loans. They have also seemingly forgotten about the decision on the part of President Mahuad to dollarize the country in 1999, which has brough with it many complex problems, the most glaringly visible one being the fact that Ecuador cannot control its inflation nor other aspects of its monetary policy, meaning that it cannot control the prices in the country. These are just two examples of the many forgotten pieces of history which affect the country’s current reality and thus affect the type of policies necessary to meet the state’s stated goal.

While the state recognized that it was necessary to change the matrix of production – meaning end the country’s dependency on oil drilling and other extractive practices – it did not provide a realistic plan as to how to achieve that. The narrative constructed by the two most recent governments in Ecuador have not considered the past events where, due to reasons ranging from corruption to a need for state liquidity, multiple presidents have set up a structure in which the different extractive industries have not evolved beyond the raw extraction and exportation of petroleum, gas, etc., where there is no control over the cost of any product produced and then exported, and there is little international credibility which has forced the country to borrow from sources with high interest rates that often come with other strings attached.

This markovian – or ahistorical – narrative, thus, serves as a poor frame of reference from which to backtrace and consequently impedes the state from creating effective policies or projects given that it does not consider the embedded structural issues. While admirable in paper, and clever enough to strike at people’s passions, the government’s current development plans are too removed from reality. The national discourse must evolve by critically examining that which the state spouses as reality; the citizenry must hold the state to a higher standard if there is to be a realistic policy plan to garner change.

Nicole Gonzalez is an Ecuadorian-American MA student at the Graduate Institute (IHEID). Her passion lies in learning and teaching, and she is committed to continuing the work of asking deeper questions and listening to those voices that are currently in the margins for the inclusive development of society. In terms of research, her region of interest is Latin America, and she is most interested in the areas of economic development, indigenism, the materiality of nature and its effects on policy formulation. After her masters, she is looking to pursue a PhD, to further her studies.

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