<i>“El Buen Vivir”</i> and the <i>“Laudato Si’”</i>
The FMLN’s recently-held First Congress embraced
“Salvadoran socialism,” as its national project.
It is becoming synonymous with “El Buen Vivir,”
a concept President Sánchez Cerén has been
defining for years as “the name of our destiny.”
This ideal is closely allied with Pope Francis’ encyclical
given the correlations between “El Buen Vivir” and “Laudato Si’,”
which calls upon everyone to “care for our common home.”
In 2012, while a presidential candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén published his book El país que quiero (The country I want), in which he declared that “El Buen Vivir” is “the name of our destiny.”
Forging a new
relationship with Nature
In it he writes that “Great news is spreading through Latin America and the Caribbean: that of ‘El Buen Vivir,’ which means working and struggling for social, economic, political and cultural well-being and a better relationship with Nature, extending to all the capacity to achieve fullness of life. This news invites us to move ahead in building a better country in every aspect of our lives. It is not a matter simply of changing economic structures, substituting alternative systems for neoliberalism and capitalism. It is, instead, a question of changing social relationships, emphasizing greater solidarity and community ideals, forging a new relationship with nature based on respect and harmony, and seeking greater equality in the relationships between men and women. It involves, furthermore, preserving the legacy of indigenous peoples, creating policies that serve the people and enable them to participate actively in decisions affecting them.”
A concept with ancestral roots
“El Buen Vivir” is a concept rooted “in the ancestral cosmic vision of societies such as the Quechuas of Ecuador (Sumak kawsay) or Bolivia’s Aymara (Suma qamaña),” Sánchez wrote. “It has become part of the most recent Constitutions approved in Ecuador and Bolivia, serving as the focal point around which important changes are taking place in these countries.”
Cuban philosopher José Ramón Fabelo Corzo describes Buen Vivir as having emerged as a kind of ideal underlying the harmonious relationship between human beings and nature, and more generally, an alternate decolonizing project when compared to capitalism, which depredates and colonizes lives. This project offers different ways to relate to nature and organize societies.
Buen vivir loosely translates into English as “good living,” although neither this nor other attempts sit well with Eduardo Gudynas, a Uruguayan researcher at the Latin American Center of Social Ecology (CLAES) and a leading scholar on the subject. He explains that it smacks too much of western notions of individual wellbeing or welfare, whereas with buen vivir, “the subject of wellbeing is not the individual, but individuals in the social context of their community and in a unique environmental situation.” In buen vivir, humans are only stewards of the earth
and its resources, with individual rights subordinated to those of communities and nature.
David Choquehuanca, Bolivia’s Minister of Foreign Relations since 2006 and before that a labor activist with the country’s peasant movement, recalls that “from time immemorial we’ve been accustomed to talk to and respect our waters, our sun and our moon, the winds, the cardinal points and all the animals and plants that accompany us on our lands.”
Survivors of genocide
Latin America’s original inhabitants, those who survived the Conquest, have succeeded in secretly keeping their cosmovision alive for more than 500 years. The genocide was physical. According to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, the indigenous population was decimated between 1492 and 1542 due to violence and to illnesses for which they had no natural protection. The numbers were astounding: a million or more in the Isla de Española (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic); four million in Peru; three million in Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles; one million in Castilla de Oro (Colombia’s western region); four million in Mexico’s central region and 200,000 more in Soconusco (today called Chiapas) as well as another 15-20,000 in Veracruz, Michoacán and Jalisco; two million in Naco and other population centers of Honduras; one million in the Caribbean strip that runs from Costa de Perlas, Panamá, to the Gulf of Paria between Venezuela and Trinidad y Tobago; and up to 600,000 in Nicaragua.
The holocaust was also economic. It destroyed the material base of these societies, replacing their ancestral community-based organization of production with the colonial regime based on servitude and slavery. Subsequently, capitalism went on to destroy the cultural and social fabric of indigenous communities as well, stripping them of their cosmovision—itself a term simplistically translated as world view but more properly describing a view of the entire universe understood as an ordered system.
From generation to generation
Against all odds, the continent’s original inhabitants, with great differences among them but with a common cosmic vision, managed to preserve their identity, secretly transmitting from one generation to another that cosmovision and some of the practices that derived from it. It was this that gave them the strength to survive the slavery, servitude, exploitation and oppression as well as the depredation of Nature and their treasures to which they were subjugated for centuries.
Today, the concept of buen vivir has been revived in the heart of the Andes. In the midst of the neoliberal policies enacted in the nineties and the rapidly growing environmental crises, greater awareness of this failure of the development policies and the unsustainability of their governments has led indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador to lift high the banner of “El buen vivir.”
In Ecuador and Bolivia
In 2008, Ecuador’s Constitutional Assembly based their new Constitution on this concept. Bolivia followed suit the very next year.
Ecuador’s Constitution affirms the “Rights of Nature” as being essential rights, not simply as they relate to human beings. It establishes both the development regime (Title VI) and the buen vivir regime (Title VII), defining that the former must be at the service of the latter. The philosophy underlying Bolivia’s Constitution is similar. Its fundamental cornerstone is suma qamaña or “Vivir Bien”: Article 306 affirms that “The Bolivian economic model is plural and is designed to improve the quality of life and el vivir bien.”
In Ecuador, the 2009-2013 National Plan for el buen vivir was drawn up and implemented as a substitute for the former National Development Plans. It laid out the pathway toward “satisfying basic needs, achieving quality of life and dignity in death, loving and being loved, the healthy flowering of all in peace and harmony with Nature and the indefinite prolongation of human cultures. El buen vivir presupposes having free time for contemplation and emancipation and that individuals’ real freedoms, opportunities, capacities and potential will expand and flourish so that what society, the territories and each individual—seen as both a universal and a unique person—value as the objective of a desired life (both materially and subjectively and without producing domination of any type over another individual) can be achieved simultaneously.” The 2013-2017 National Plan for El buen vivir is now being implemented in Ecuador.
Both it and Bolivia have seen improvements in the distribution of wealth and in other important areas. The buen vivir projects have thus defined a strategic course in both countries, albeit one not devoid of contradictions or free of major gaps between word and action.
For better or for worse
The Belgian sociologist and priest, Francois Houtart, believes that most indigenous people on the continent, while not turniing their back on the dynamic [historic] nature of their cultures, do accept input from other thought systems, including those derived from modernity, provided that they aren’t dominated or humiliated in the process.
It’s thus surprising that the Vatican, number one ally of the “conquistadores” of America and historically the enemy of projects designed to improve indigenous peopes’ lives, should have proposed in Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” so many ideas that coincide with el buen vivir.
Today, only roughly half of El Salvador’s population is Catholic. In 1530, Catholic missionaries arrived with the Conquest and the Spaniards’ occupation of the region, and began evangelizizing Central America. After Pedro de Alvarado defeated the Pipils, an indigenous people also known as Cuzcatlecs, who live in western El Salvador, in 1525, Franciscan priests destroyed the images of their gods, got rid of their priests and “offered” the people, for better or worse, a new religious system that was superimposed over their own. Thousands of indigenous people were converted to Catholicism during the three centuries of colonial rule, when El Salvador was a province and a parish of the captaincy general of Guatemala.
A Catholic country “without Indians”
In recent years many Salvadorans have converted to Evangelical or Protestant Christianity imported from the United States. Although 34% of the population has already abandoned Catholicism, it continues to be not only the majority religion, but also the primary cultural and ideological frame of reference. The country officially espouses freedom of religion, but both Catholic and Evangelical religious philosophies still influence public policies in the areas of education and health.
The most recent census by the General Office of Statistics and Census, taken in 2007 when the rightwing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) was still in power, reported that only 0.2% of the population identified itself as “Indian.” The census was sharply criticized for its racist bias and for under-reporting the number of indigenous inhabitants in El Salvador, but it served to show how effectively the Massacre of 1932 decimated what was left of the indigenous population and erased or at least drove underground virtually all traces of their cultures and cosmovisions.
Pope Francis: An ally
The resurgence of indigenous identity In the Andean countries has been expressed since the 1980s in major social movements powerful enough to influence new ways of thinking, make public policies, organize themselves socially and economically and even carve a place for themselves in their country’s Constitution. The indigenous organizations in El Salvador, on the other hand, still have virtually no voice in society at large, although they have taken important steps in the last six years.
Given this scenario in El Salvador, one might ask what other allies President Sánchez Cerén and the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) can enlist to make buen vivir a reality in El Salvador, to convert it into the country’s “destiny.” The reading of “Laudato Si’” leads one to believe that Pope Francis can be an important ally in this undertaking.
Is anthropocentrism responsible?
There are various correlations between “Laudato Si’” and “El buen vivir.” In the past, environmentalists have erred on the side of prioritizing Nature above social concerns, viewing human needs as less pressing than those of Nature. They project an idealistic, romantic concept of life and blame anthropocentrism—the tendency to place humans at the center—for the environmental crisis.
Fabelo Corzo questions whether this “human tendency” to place oneself at the center is detrimental to other forms of life? He asks whether human centrality is historically the cause of our tremendous problems of decoupling from Nature?
He concludes that it isn’t and that it’s erroneous to think that humanity has been at the center of the social organizing of Western capitalism.
“In this world we live in there are nearly 840 million hungry people. Can we say they are at the center of anything?” He argues that Western societies haven’t been anthropocentric because they haven’t seen their function as serving all people.
Fabelo Corzo reframes this contradiction by stating that “capitalist society practically forces all people to be selfish, which is the predominant moral expression in a social system whose organizational focal point
is permanent competition between human beings.” The contradiction lies between a generic interest and an egocentric one, between thinking about the entire human race or only about oneself.
We agree with Pope Francis
“Being ecocentric” is the answer, says Fabelo Corzo. By that he means that embracing the centrality of our surroundings, our “habitat” and concerning ourselves with all of humankind, with the preservation of life rather than only the defense of individual interests is the most complete way to be “anthropocentric.” And this is the very logic underlying el buen vivir.
In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis presents a similar notion: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” He also states that the threat to the environment is not anthropocentrism but rather a case of “misguided anthropocentrism.” He argues that one cannot simply dispense with humanity, but that at the same time “there can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.” In the pope’s view, “we cannot presume to heal our relationship with Nature and the environment without healing all fundamental human relationships.”
The human right to water
The issue of water and our social debt to ensure water to all human beings is of primary importance in the papal encyclical. The struggle to ensure water for all clearly illustrates that the contradiction is not between human beings and Nature but rather between the “haves” and “have nots.”
In 2010 the United Nations Development Program revealed that El Salvador ranks third among the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean with respect to its unequal access to water. At least ten years ago social organizations in the country began presenting bills designed to govern the country’s use of this vital resource with the goal of conserving it, guaranteeing access to all people and avoiding privatization.
In 2012, they got the Legislative Assembly to recognize the fundamental right to water and to an adequate diet by approving a reform to Article 69 of the Constitution with 83 of its 84 votes on the first of a two-legislature approval process for changes of constitutional rank. Unfortunately, the reform wasn’t ratified because ARENA and the National Concertation Party (PCN) withheld their votes in the next legislature. Nor has any water law been approved, not even the one proposed by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.
How can we explain this? What stands in the way are hundreds of powerful interests that exploit water by privatizing it at the expense of low-income residents, depriving them of access to a vital resource for life.
Pope Francis agrees with the basic idea that there is no contradiction between giving human beings a privileged place
on our planet while also respecting and caring for all life forms living on it. The contradiction lies in the injustice of not providing all people the same privileged position. Pope Francis reminds us: “We ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.”
A case in Point: Coca Cola in Nejapa
A clear example just 13 miles outside of the capital is the appropriation since 1999 of the aquifers under Nejapa for use by La Constancia/Sab Miller, the company that produces and distributes Coca Cola in El Salvador.
It takes two liters of water to produce one liter of Coca-Cola, which translates to 39.31 liters per second to supply the 100,000 cases produced each day. The earnings posted by this company are part of over US$6 billion Coca Cola earns globally each year.
According to a 2013 study by El Salvador’s Alliance for Solidarity and the Water Forum, Nejapa’s aquífer will be depleted in 30 years at Constanza/SabMiller’s current exploitation rate. That figure could shrink to 27 years if we take into account the effects of climate change.
While this business flourishes, 40% of the homes in Nejapa lack potable water. Even though they live above a splendid aquifer, thousands of local citizens are forced to buy water for drinking, bathing, cooking and other uses from the tank trucks that come to the communities.
Although “Laudato Si’” is a document concerned primarily with environmental issues, its ecological conception is comprehensive and, as the Pope himself says, clearly incorporates human and social dimensions, requiring us to sit down and think honestly about a society’s living and surviving conditions so as to question our models of development, production and consumption. With that same honesty, El Salvador’s President Sánchez Cerén casts a doubtful eye on these models.
He looks at the different models the country has tried: agro-export, industrialization, import-substitution and neoliberalism, attributing to each model its contribution to the creation of wealth, but at the cost of fostering immense poverty.
He then turns from these doubts to affirmation and his proposal: “A model of vida Buena, with dignity and joy, means banking on a society that overcomes the limited neoliberal goals and seeks to satisfy material needs by promoting an inclusive economic and social model, one that incorporates into the accumulation and redistribution process the actors who have historically been excluded from the capitalist marketplace as well as the
forms of production founded on different principles than the logic of the market.” In the FMLN’s First Congress, held in November, this proposal was given the name “Salvadoran Socialism,” which is becoming synonymous with the project of buen vivir.
National sovereignty is essential for the project of buen vivir. It’s one of the key objectives of the National buen vivir Plan in Ecuador and Sánchez Cerén also explores it fully in his proposal. It’s not hard to understand his reasons for his position. According to economist Salvador Arias, transnational corporations have extracted more than US$5.7 billion from El Salvador in profits and repatriation of capital just between 2008 and 2013. While this figure is huge to a small Central American country, it isn’t at all surprising considering the dynamics of foreign investment.
It reveals the preeminence of Central America’s free trade agreements, most notably the one with the United States (CAFTA) and the Association Agreement with Europe. This dynamic doesn’t permit any new development model, particularly not one in which “the economy is at the service of life and not that life is subservient to the economy,” as proposed by Sánchez Cerén. Nor does that dynamic make it possible to establish a harmonious relationship with Nature, the other axis of his proposal.
Pope Francis’ encyclical shares the points of view proposed by Sánchez Cerén. It affirms that each government should carry out “its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.”
Stones in the shoes of “el buen vivir”
Transforming “Laudato Si’” or “El buen vivir” into reality isn’t at all easy in El Salvador. An example can be found in the Fomilenio 1 and 2 Projects donated by the United States through its Millennium Challenge Corporation.
Ángel Ibarra, El Salvador’s current Deputy Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, aired the situation in 2012: “For us, the TransAmerican Highway from the North was not a project designed to improve living conditions. It was conceived for a geostrategic plan, given that Puerto Cutuco was going to be flourishing by this point.”
According to Ibarra, Fomilenio 1 is a “bloody scar in the middle and lower Lempa River basin. According to the National Territorial Studies Service (SSNET), within a hundred years the river will become a deep ravine” with water flowing only during the rainy season.
Ibarra also mentioned soil use changes, real estate speculation and the destruction of ecosystems as consequences of the highway. The project basically created favorable conditions for the mining industry to take hold in northern El Salvador. Two of those companies have subsequently sued the Salvadoran government for not issuing them exploitation licenses.
El buen vivir?
Fomilenio 2, which got started in September in this year, targets the country’s coastal area, “a quite fragile, deteriorated and endangered zone.” Ibarra warns that developers should “realize that ecosystems are finite and that their capacity to withstand additional burdens needs to be respected. Besides floods and the rising sea level, people living along the coast may experience salinization of their water, the disappearance of the mangroves and the loss of their crops, so the investment needs to be refocused differently than the economistic way it is currently proposed.”
Mauricio Cruz, president of the Sara y Ana Aquaculture Cooperative in the municipality of Jiquilisco, department of Usulután, said they view Fomilenio 2 as a real threat. The cooperative members fear that the tourist projects that take hold in the zone could cause contamination that would reach the estuaries providing water for the tanks the cooperative uses for shrimp cultivation. Among the 62 projects presented to the government by private investors, the one that stands out most is the proposal of the PROMAR business group, whose projects total US$208 million with tourist installations and even a regional airport in the department of La Unión.
In a sarcastic editorial in the rightwing El Diario de Hoy on September 15, jouenalist Karla Hernandez cynically posed the following question to the newspaper’s readers: “Between Fomilenio and “buen vivir,” what do you prefer?” She trusted that the weight of more than a century of dependence on the United States would convince her readers. Her annoyance is quite evident in the text, which began with a denunciation of the recent Declaration of the São Paolo Forum, created in 1990, when progressive and leftwing political parties from Latin America and the Caribbean began meeting to discuss the consequences of the new international setting after the collapse of Eastern European socialism and the adoption of neoliberal economic policies by a majority of the region’s governments . But the contradiction evident in the title of her text is a reality.
United by hope
Pope Francis sees with hope the possibility of a new society because “our openness to others, each of whom is a ‘thou’ capable of knowing, loving and entering into dialogue, remains the source of our nobility as human persons.” Salvador Sánchez Cerén agrees in viewing with hope the implementation of el buen vivir in El Salvador. “The country must keep on moving, continue opening a pathway. Only a few groups and individuals want the country to fail. Few also desire a situation of desperation and hopelessness for our country. We are going to show those people that they are outnumbered by those of us who have faith and hope, that it is possible to build another country, a new country, in which the economic powers are not the ones that will show the way.”
Sánchez Cerén and other FMLN leaders never tire of repeating that the model of a socialist, democratic society being constructed in El Salvador will be made to order for Salvadoran men and women, implying that it will not be some “one size fits all” scheme.
Pope Francis’s Encyclical is an important and unexpected source of support for the project of el buen vivir. It’s also surprising, given that it emanates from the primary center of religious power in the Western world. It is a support that deserves to be welcomed in this tiniest country in the Americas.
Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador