Sumak Kawsay and the Sustainable Development Agenda: Critical Debates and Creative Responses from a Latin American Indigenous Perspective


Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

The United Nations Indigenous Peoples Major Group has expressed concerns regarding the ongoing potential for indigenous people's voices to be overlooked in the Sustainable Development Agenda, despite its aspirations to be inclusive (UNIPMG, 2015). The aim of this research network is to challenge these tendencies through an exploration of indigenous perspectives on sustainability and the use of creative means to express alternatives.

'Sumak kawsay' is a Kichwa word meaning 'good living'. It has become hugely prominent in Latin America in recent years, featuring in the Ecuadorean and Bolivian constitutions since 2008 and 2009 respectively. Its basic principles include concern for the environment, peaceful communal living and the reduction of inequalities, both economic and social. While these principles might seem to align well with the discourse of sustainable development as expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals, from the perspective of indigenous communities, sumak kawsay should not be equated with the concept 'development', however sustainable. Instead, it offers a decolonial, post-developmentalist alternative approach to human civilisation and aspirations. As one prominent thinker has put it, '[sumak kawsay] helps us see the limits of current development models and it allows us to dream of alternatives' (Gudnyas).

But sumak kawsay is not a global panacea either. Where it has been mainstreamed in Latin America, indigenous communities tend to feel that it has been usurped and used as a way to foist development upon them by making it sound like their voices are being heard in national fora. It also cannot be assumed that all indigenous communities understand sumak kawsay to mean the same thing, nor that sumak kawsay as understood by indigenous communities will automatically herald a state of perfect harmony and equality.

The research network proposed here will focus on these issues in collaboration with indigenous communities in the Northeast of Brazil and the Southwest of Colombia; communities where there is a manifest appetite to address them. It addresses a gap in extant research on the subject by looking beyond Ecuador and Bolivia's mainstreaming of the concept and by seeking to dream of alternatives beyond the debates about sumak kawsay versus sustainable development. We intend to do this by networking our research across the academic/non-academic divide to pool critical resources, making this process manifest in the form of a multilingual 'affective cartography'. This will consist of a website that is a combination of research with art and activism (artivism) and that seeks to find a more egalitarian, subtle, multi-voiced way for the ideas that come out of the network to be expressed. It is not about fixing, defining or appropriating a given culture or its worldview, but about allowing for the expression of relationships and multiple perspectives, through whatever media seem most appropriate. We will seek to position this digital resource as a point of reference for other indigenous and marginalised communities across Latin America and the Anglophone world.

The activities of the research network are built around on-going in-community events run by project coordinators in Brazil and Colombia, and two main in-community workshops bridging the academic/non-academic research divide. This will be complemented by three international symposia to be held at participating universities in Brazil, Colombia and the UK and open to all network members. The overall emphasis in the proposal on in-community work seeks to ensure that indigenous participants in the network remain the intellectual fulcrum of the project. 

The network will also publish its findings in a special issue of a prestigious peer-reviewed journal and keep a log of its activities through a project website.


The primary non-academic beneficiaries of this research network will be the indigenous communities in the northeast of Brazil (for example, the Kariri-Xocó, the Pankararu, the Tupinambá and the Pataxó-Hã Hã Hãe) and the southwest of Colombia (primarily the Nasa community) with whom we will co-research the relationship of Sumak Kawsay and the Sustainable Development Agenda, and ways for communities to selectively, critically and creatively (re)appropriate these discourses. Nonetheless, the design of our network will also draw in non-academic activists and community members from further afield in Brazil and Colombia, and from other countries in Latin America where the discourse of Sumak Kawsay has been more extensively developed, for example Bolivia and Ecuador. Furthermore, the research agenda is not only of relevance for indigenous or other marginalised communities in Latin America, but seeks to address a topic that is both timely and important for the whole of humanity. We therefore anticipate that mainstream society with a concern for the environment, sustainability and community wellbeing in both Latin America as well as in the UK will benefit from engagement with this project.