Incorporating Buen Vivir into the UN System

When it comes to promoting buen vivir within international policy forums, states play a leading role in the transnational governance network due to their privileged position in this arena. The Ecuadorian and Bolivian governments have led efforts to incorporate buen vivir principles—including rights for nature— into the UN system in order to alter international discourse and policy regarding the environment and development. This is not surprising given the strength of the domestic buen vivir networks in these countries and the framing of buen vivir in opposition to neoliberalism.

As early as 2008, Ecuador’s government argued in UN forums that the UN’s development approach, and specifically the Millennium Development Goals, should be redefined to reflect the principles of buen vivir, which it defined in English as “well-being” and “living in harmony with nature” (Ecuador Permanent Mission to the United Nations 2008). There were several parts to Ecuador’s strategy for displacing the dominant development frame. One was to frame the right to live within a healthy environment as a human right, making the rights of nature “a prerequisite to recognizing human rights” and buen vivir a strategy for improving human rights.[1] A second component was to link human rights and development by arguing that both sought to improve people’s well-being (buen vivir). These arguments presented buen vivir as an effective way to incorporate human rights into national development strategies, which would, in turn, help governments achieve the Millennium Development Goals. In 2010, this framing led the UN Human Rights Office to help Ecuador’s government develop and distribute a manual for replicating internationally Ecuador’s plan for buen vivir as a model alternative development path (UN High Commissioner on Human Rights 2010). The manual was piloted in the water and sanitation sector—fitting, given the defining role IWM reform played in Ecuador’s buen vivir project.

Transnational organizing around buen vivir and the rights of nature quickly became intertwined with climate change. In 2010, reacting to failed climate change efforts in Copenhagen, over 35,000 people from 140 nations attended a World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Attendees adopted the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, which mirror the rights of nature granted in Ecuador’s Constitution and later in Bolivian law. The Declaration’s description of Mother Earth reflects the Andean indigenous worldview of nature as Pachamama (Mother Earth), the “source of life” and “well-being.”[2] The Declaration also expresses the principles of buen vivir and the requirements for living in “harmony with Mother Earth.” Echoing the arguments of Ecuador’s government, the preamble affirms that defending the rights of nature is necessary to guarantee human rights, “and that there are existing cultures, practices and laws that do so” (a thinly veiled call to follow Ecuador’s and Bolivia’s lead). Failing to do so puts “life as we know it today at risk through phenomena like climate change.” Bolivian President Evo Morales strongly advocated this idea in international climate change negotiations. At the 2010 UN climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico, he called for the UN to adopt a universal declaration of rights of nature, saying:

In past decades, the United Nations approved human rights, then civil rights, economic and political rights, and finally a few years ago indigenous rights. In this new century, it is time to debate and discuss rights of Mother Earth.[3]

While the UN has yet to adopt a universal declaration of the rights of nature, the transnational buen vivir network did establish a platform within the UN General Assembly for advancing buen vivir. In 2009, the Ecuadorian and Bolivian governments initiated intergovernmental negotiations on the principles of “Harmony with Nature.” This led to several resolutions requiring the UN Secretary General to issue annual reports on Harmony with Nature and establishing annual Interactive Dialogues of the General Assembly on Harmony with Nature. The dialogues are held on April 22, traditionally known as Earth Day. In 2009, the General Assembly proclaimed this International Mother Earth Day, acknowledging the Andean indigenous norms guiding the principles of Harmony with Nature. At the dialogues, governments discuss strategies for realizing “sustainable development in harmony with nature” and sharing national experiences on criteria and indicators for measuring sustainable development in harmony with nature. Each year, Ecuador’s National Plan for Buen Vivir has been presented as a roadmap for participants (Ecuadorian Permanent Mission to the UN 2012). To share information and promote the idea, the UN established a website dedicated to “Harmony with Nature.”11

Seeking to build on the momentum provided by these events, proponents of buen vivir mobilized at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20), where they advocated making buen vivir and rights of nature “the foundation of sustainability.” Sympathetic governments, led by Ecuador and Bolivia, pushed to incorporate buen vivir and rights of nature into the discussion at the Rio+20 summit. Ecuador had laid the groundwork the previous February, when Environment Ministers from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) met in Quito to develop a common platform in advance of the summit. At Ecuador’s urging, CELAC members committed “to discussing [at the Rio+20 summit] a universal declaration of the rights of nature as an instrument for achieving buen vivir” (CELAC 2012). At the summit, Ecuador, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Paraguay together called for the UN to include the rights of nature in the final agreement. While this did not occur, Ecuadorian delegates did place buen vivir within the agreed upon outcomes by insisting on the inclusion of Article 39 in the final document. Articles 39-40 state,

We recognize that the planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home and that Mother Earth is a common expression in a number of countries and regions and we note that some countries recognize the rights of nature in the context of the promotion of sustainable development.

We are convinced that in order to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environment needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature. We call for holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development which will guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem. (United Nations 2012)

While governments negotiated at the official summit, civil society groups organized a parallel People’s Summit Rio+20. Among other things, the People’s Summit was used to expand the rights of nature network and plan campaigns to promote buen vivir and rights of nature as an alternative to neoliberal development policies. Dissatisfied with the outcome of the formal summit, members of the People’s Summit issued their own report, Another Future is Possible.[4] The report articulates an alternative vision of sustainable development rooted in buen vivir. The following passage is representative of the language used, and illustrates the influence of buen vivir on the development approach advocated:

The urgent, yet feasible and necessary, task of searching for a new civilization path at the dawn of the twenty-first century is that ofbuilding a system capable of transitioning from a patriarchal order that enslaves nature and is founded on a reductionist and separatist vision of the relationships between nature and human beings to a system capable ofreestablishing complex and harmonious relationships between the two, integrating them into the extensive cycle of Mother Earth. ... [T]he new economic and regulatory systems ... must be capable of strengthening the rights and respect of all beings comprising Mother Earth, whatever their own cultures, traditions and customs may be. Therefore, dealing with the measure and articulation of human wellbeing in economic systems means dealing inseparably with the wellbeing of Mother Earth, now and for future generations. It is for this reason that we propose the re-appreciation of the knowledge, wisdom and ancestral practices of indigenous peoples, affirmed in the experience of a wellbeing rooted in the concept of “Living Well,” to the peoples of the world. (Another Future is Possible, 29-30)

One effect of transnational mobilization around buen vivir is that the language of buen vivir now permeates the UN system. In addition to climate change and sustainable development conference documents, buen vivir language pervades the strategic plan for implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity, issued at the 2010 Conference of Parties. This plan is entitled “Living in Harmony with Nature" and envisions “a world living in harmony with nature” where “by 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people.”[5] The resolution adopted at the 2013 UN Forum on Forests similarly calls for policies that “guide humanity towards living in harmony with nature.”[6] Buen vivir principles also inform the conceptual framework guiding the work program for the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, adopted in 2013 (UNEP 2013). Similar language pervades UN General Assembly and Secretary General reports (described in the next section).

  • [1] This idea is contained in Ecuador’s Constitution and is frequently raised by Ecuadorian diplomats in international forums (e.g., United Nations 2013b).
  • [2] (accessed June 20, 2016).
  • [3] “President Morales speaking at COP16 in Cancun” World People's Conference on ClimateChange and the Rights of Mother Earth, website, (accessed March 18, 2016).
  • [4] Available online at (accessed March 13, 2016).
  • [5] Article 11. Available online at (accessedMarch 16, 2016).
  • [6] Article 18d. Available online at (accessed March 18, 2016).
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