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Sumak Kawsay in Ecuador – Ecologies of Good Living within Cosmological Limits to Growth

Sign pointing to the production site of Licor de Chahuarmishqui Don Capelo in Nabón county, Azuay. (C) Katharina Richter

In June 2021, SLAS awarded me a £500 Postgraduate Research Support Grant to translate my PhD fieldwork chapter into Spanish. I’m a Politics PhD Candidate at Goldsmiths, and my thesis connects degrowth and Buen Vivir/ sumak kawsay (BV/sk; Good Living). It explores how the social movements and theoretical approaches that stand behind those two concepts conceptualise what it means to live well within ecological and social boundaries. More than that, it aims to establish inter-epistemic dialogues between the two. The lessons that arise for degrowth are in line with recent developments in its literature. Those include a growing concern with decolonisation, a nascent focus on non-economistic conceptualisations of human-nature relationships, and cultural politics. The PhD addresses those areas and intervenes in the recently reignited limits to growth debate. The latter juxtaposes external, physical limits, with internal, morally constructed limits to growth. My thesis proposes a third notion: cosmological limits to growth. In doing so, my arguments highlight the importance of cultural change in accompanying socioecological transition processes.

These arguments are based on a three-month research stay in Ecuador in early 2020. Though cut short by the pandemic, I was able to gain insights into how communities construct their own versions of BV/sk in practice. I conducted in-depth interviews with 15 social leaders, community members and politicians. Additionally, I was invited to take part in and observe field trips, public meetings, and municipal, nongovernmental and indigenous assemblies. For example, I attended and documented the 25-year anniversary assembly of DECOIN (Organización para la Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag). I was also able to participate in the CONFENAIE’s 3rd Women’s Assembly of the Ecuadorian Amazon in Puyo and Unión Base. The fieldwork findings contribute to BV/sk scholarship and provide recommendations for future research.

First, they contextualise the political trajectory of BV/sk. Second, I argue that the political economy of BV/sk is based on the production of affective abundance, that is, spiritual and material wellbeing through relational justice. Third, I propose a hybridisation between decolonial feminisms and BV/sk to strengthen the latter’s gender analysis. Fourth, I suggest that the political ontology of BV/sk leads to the recognition of cosmological limits to (development-as-)growth. Politically, these can be enshrined in rights of nature. Culturally, the thesis intervenes in the limits to growth debate I’ve described.

The fieldwork chapter translation enables me to send the chapter to my participants for comments. It also allows me to disseminate my findings to social movements, communities and scholars in Ecuador and beyond. Translation therefore addresses patterns of epistemic extractivism and contributes to decolonising academic research. As such, I am grateful for SLAS’s support.

Katharina Richter

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