The concept of buen vivir represents an alternative to the concept of development. It is a concept of collective well-being, which stems both from the postcolonial critique of development and from the worldviews of indigenos peoples of the Andean region. Buen vivir (or vivir bien) is a context-specific ethical perspective on good living with respect towards life and nature as its core value. In this perspective, nature is seen as a subject instead of an object, and the community is made up of all living beings instead of only humans. The discourse on buen vivir can be seen as a reaction against commodification. Principles of life can not be reduced to mere economic gain, as other forms of signification and value are more crucial. At the core of buen vivir are also the rights of communities to their traditional ways of living.
The Argentine postcolonial scholar Walter Mignolo talks about the pluriversal possibilities of local, communal identities to live in harmony instead of competition. Contrary to development thought, which aims to transform the life-worlds of others, buen vivir pertains to the possibility of the coexistence of many different worlds. Many indigenous peoples for example in the Andean region were once excluded from the colonial government and the modern society. In terms of power relations, they have been deemed inferior; yet they have survived and remained partly independent and autonomous in respect to the modern capitalist society. For Mignolo, buen vivir represents a potential path to radical decolonial alternatives. "The revolution is not announced for next week. However, it is an undeniable and unstoppable decolonial epistemic, political, economic, and ethical march to the future."
All of the indigenous languages in the Andean region have their own concepts of good living (buen vivir). The Quechuan concept of sumak kawsay means the 'fullness of communal life in harmony with other people and the environment'. The Aymaran concept of suma qumaña is close in meaning to the Quechuan concept but not identical to it. In fact, buen vivir is a sort of an umbrella term and a multicultural platform for dialogue, with room for different viewpoints that reveal their full meaning only in their own social and environmental contexts. This is why the concept is so hard to translate; it would always require seeking expressions from each local language and culture. On the other hand, when the concept of buen vivir is referred to as such an umbrella term, translating it for example into English or Finnish may lose some dimensions essential to its formation, and thus lessen its decolonizing power.
The global attention given to the concept of buen vivir is partly due to the adoption of buen vivir (or vivir bien in Bolivia) in the political programmes of the progressive governments of Ecuador and Bolivia in 2008 and 2009, respectively. The countries have also incorporated the principles of buen vivir into their renewed constitutions. This entails the ratification of the rights of Mother Nature (Pachamama) in the constitution. Thus, the philosophy of buen vivir has flowed from social movements into the language and goals of the new governments as well. This can be considered a major accomplishment. However, the critique the concept has faced often stems from the way it has been applied in official governmental programmes and objectives. Some critics claim that in governmental use the concept has often been diluted to either mean the Western concept of human development or just to replace the concept of development. At the same time, these governments have advanced major development projects and the mining industry, which, according to indigenous peoples, is in complete contradiction with buen vivir. Nevertheless, entering the principles of buen vivir and the rights of Mother Nature into the constitution does enable a stronger challenging of the legitimacy and legality of major projects.
Indigenous movements have produced new kind of alternative globalisation. One factor in this is the fact that the accelerating accumulation of resources occurs mainly on indigenous peoples' regions. More important than that, however, is that new kinds of alternatives are built through the worldviews of indigenous peoples that fundamentally challenge the growth-oriented economic thought.
Walter Mignolo: The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Duke University Press, 2011