Buen vivir is still a weak international norm that is highly contested within domestic and international policy arenas. Arguments for buen vivir and the rights of nature remain a counter-discourse. The point of this chapter was not to argue that buen vivir has become the dominant development paradigm. The anthropocentric development paradigm remains dominant and is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Rather, the point of this chapter was to show how the rise of a new global idea—buen vivir—is spurring real contestation over international norms and policies regarding sustainable development and humans’ relationship to nature.

While the anthropocentric paradigm remains dominant, it arguably faces its most significant challenge in modern history. Implementing rights of nature as a means for living in harmony with nature is no longer a fringe idea. The range of organizations advocating a new development approach based on this global idea has grown far beyond radical environmental groups and a few leftist Latin American governments. At the 2014 Summit of G77 states and China, heads of state and government collectively expressed their conviction that

to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations, it is necessary to promote harmony with nature and the Earth. ... We understand that sustainable development involves a change in the order of priorities from the generation of material wealth to the satisfaction of human needs in harmony with nature. The excessive orientation towards profit neither respects Mother Earth nor takes into account human needs. ... We call for a holistic, integrated approach to sustainable development . to guide humanity to live in harmony with nature and lead to efforts to restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems. (G77 2014)

Mainstream NGOs, governments, and intergovernmental organizations increasingly invoke this new global idea to challenge traditional approaches to addressing global problems like poverty and climate change. While difficult to measure, the spread of rights of nature laws and advocacy by prominent world leaders suggest this counter-norm is gaining international legitimacy.

Pope Francis’s comments to the UN General Assembly illustrate the normative contestation that now exists and the degree to which buen vivir principles are gaining international legitimacy. The pope spoke on September 25, 2015— the opening day of the World Summit to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Pope Francis invoked buen vivir principles to critique the dominant, anthropocentric, economic development approach and to advocate rights of nature as an urgent and necessary solution to poverty and climate change. Criticizing the “oppressive lending systems” of international financial agencies and the “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity,” the pope stated that

today’s world presents us with . broad sectors which are vulnerable, victims of power badly exercised: for example, the natural environment and the vast ranks of the excluded. These sectors are closely interconnected and made increasingly fragile by dominant political and economic relationships. That is why their rights must be forcefully affirmed, by working to protect the environment and by putting an end to exclusion. First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. ... Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures.[1]

Of course, neither the rights of nature nor sumak kawsay (the Andean indigenous concept translated in Spanish as buen vivir) are new ideas. Both have existed for generations. What is new is the political project of institutionalizing principles and practices associated with buen vivir at the national and international levels. This chapter showed that this political project grew out of local experiments by grassroots actors who used Tungurahua’s IWM reform process as an opportunity to institutionalize a new development model rooted in the principles of sumak kawsay. The fact that international mobilization behind buen vivir and rights of nature emerged out of Ecuador’s experiment is not lost on international actors. Ban Ki-moon’s call for a new development paradigm and the IUCN’s declaration to make rights of nature the basis of its policymaking both cite Ecuador’s institutionalization of buen vivir as an inspiration for their decisions. Despite its many imperfections, Ecuador’s experiment with buen vivir continues to be recognized by advocates within the UN and the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature.

The power of local experiments like that in Tungurahua is that outsiders who are dissatisfied with existing strategies for tackling global problems point to them as “proof of concept” that an alternative is viable (Ansell 2011). They activate their own networks to scale up local experiments internationally. To facilitate international organizing, they package local principles and practices under new meta-concepts with broad appeal. Drawing on local norms and practices, these new global ideas challenge existing thinking about global best practices.

A key lesson of the buen vivir case is that the norms, principles, and practices that inform international debates and strategies for tackling global problems are often forged at the grassroots level. Grassroots actors like campesino farmers, indigenous activists, community organizers, and municipal bureaucrats do not participate personally in international debates or global governance structures. However, they influence both in two ways. First, they guide and implement local experiments, based on local principles and practices, which provide meaning to new global ideas around which new global governance structures form. Second, they initiate the network activation processes that ultimately make these new global ideas salient internationally. This indirect influence is the essence of nodal governance. Through nodal governance, grassroots actors participate in the construction of new global governance systems. While their influence is rarely acknowledged, they too are global governors.

  • [1] The pope’s speech is available at ns-speech-transcript (accessed March 16, 2016).
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