Building Blocks for Feminist Foreign Policy – Indigenous Concept of Sumak Kawsay
Date: August 4, 2023
Building Blocks for Feminist Foreign Policy: Indigenous Concept of Sumak Kawsay
By Kirthi Jayakumar
July 17, 2023 – For a foreign policy to be feminist, it is important to move away from violent, extractive, capitalist, heteropatriarchal practices. Cultivating feminist futures cannot be possible without investing time and energy in cultivating feminist practices, thought processes, and approaches mindfully in the present. This looks like learning from community-led wisdom and knowledge that has formed a part of the lived experiences of feminist foreign policies across the majority world.
One such practice is Sumak Kawsay, a concept rooted in the worldview of the Quechua people of the Andes.
Defined by scholar Eduardo Gudynas, it refers to a community-centric, ecologically balanced, and culturally sensitive approach to life. Sumak Kawsay is the diametric opposite of the extractive ways of capitalism, and centres the value of coexistence in diversity, in harmony with nature, and in oneness with and within community.
Unlike “well-being,” which is centred on the individual oftentimes at the cost of the community, the subject of Sumak Kawsay, in Gudynas’ words is “the individual in the social context of their community and in a unique environmental situation.” The concept finds resonance with the belief systems of the Aymara and Guarani people of Bolivia, the Quichua of Ecuador, Achuar of Ecuadorian Amazon, Guna of Panama, and the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina. It was adopted by the government of Ecuador, under the Spanish name, Buen Vivir. In essence, it refers to the “ideal and beautiful fulfilment of the planet.”
Shifting away from extractivism
Capitalism and market economics prioritize extractivism and occupation – the appropriation of resources by the wealthy few in pursuit of profiteering, which goes hand-in-glove with divorcing the individual from the collective, and prioritizing individual rights. Moving away from this, Sumak Kawsay calls for prioritizing the rights of communities and nature over those of individuals. It considers humans a part of Mother Earth. It comprises five key pillars:
– There is no life without knowledge or wisdom
– We all come from Mother Earth
– Life is healthy
– Life is collective
– We all have an aspiration or a dream
In the Andean conception, it implies striking a balance between feeling well and thinking well, which ultimately results in doing well. It is based on relationality, reciprocity, and connection.
According to the concept, individual human beings are not owners of the earth and its resources, but are only stewards. In Gudynas’ words, this approach acknowledges that the environment and human capital are not interchangeable in the way capital is. In effect, it is also important to keep market thinking at bay, for it is unacceptable to think of education as an investment, but rather as a route to enlightenment. In Sumak Kawsay’s call for putting a stop to endless capital accumulation, it becomes a powerful alternative to what we know as “development” today. Indigenous communities have made use of the principle to define and affirm an alternative to capitalism, in line with cosmological, holistic, and political dimensions.
Building Feminist Foreign Policies on the Foundation of Sumak Kawsay
Political economy helps unpack the nexus between production and trade, and the law and the government. Since the inception of the contemporary world order with the Westphalian system and the advent of colonization, states have been built on the foundations of extractivism. Colonies were depleted with the extraction and export of their resources by colonial powers, and their economies were dumped with mass produced goods at astronomical prices.
With the end of World Wars II, cocacolonization took over, with liberal politics and capitalistic economies establishing overconsumption and extractivism as the norm. These approaches also came to define international relations and foreign policy.
Shifting away from the extractivist format of engagement at the international level, feminist foreign policies should strive to learn and practice the value system professed by Sumak Kawsay. Gudynas notes that Sumak Kawsay “helps us see the limits of current development models and it allows us to dream of alternatives that until now have been difficult to fulfil.” He also identifies eight core ideas for the concept:
– Creating space to share critiques of development
– Uplifting ethical outlooks grounded in values
– Centring decolonization
– Fostering intercultural dialogue
– Denying the nature-society binary
– Rejecting manipulative and instrumental rationalities
– Rejecting linear understandings of progress
– Expressing feelings and affections.
What would a feminist foreign policy informed by Sumak Kawsay look like?
Sumak Kawsay is inherently related to the notions of interculturalism and decolonization – and they do not exclude other kinds of world visions.  A Feminist Foreign Policy built on the value of Sumak Kawsay would look like acknowledging and dismantling the violent ways in which humankind interacts with, extracts from, and harms the environment and its own species.
As Cesar Augusto Baldi noted, Sumak Kawsay calls for “…an entire way of life: (a) a community as a form of basic social organization; (b) a form of political organization, which comprises internal authorities, regulation of those authorities, the resolution of internal conflicts, and the creation of deliberative bodies; (c) an economic model, which stems from the tenet that everything is a part of nature (human beings, land, water, air, animals, rocks, etc.). It is therefore a civilizing project that goes against the principle of dominating nature and people and exploiting resources to the point of exhaustion.”
States must strive toward reducing mindless consumption and waste generation, and prioritize protecting the environment from damage in the course of extraction, and the production and transport of goods across borders. States must also strive to prioritize the local, rather than the global. Grass-roots level production and consumption should be normalized – over exporting produce native to a region just to fulfil an exotic food fetish instead of feeding the communities that have historically depended on such produce. Sumak Kawsay also paves the way to interrogate our approach to outer space, especially as our colonial, extractivist ways are now inching toward the moon and asteroid belt.
Most forms of systemic and structural violence continue to prioritize the anthropocentric approach – a facet that has led us to normalize multiple ways of divisiveness and discrimination. Feminist foreign policies should strive for coherence, prioritize peace, and work toward dismantling the deeply divisive systems we have normalized. Sumak Kawsay offers guidance in this direction – and its continued practice in the face of violent interruptions by colonialism and capitalism only affirms its tremendous value.
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