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 creativity 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 SDGs, 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 and activist has put it, ‘[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’ (Eduardo Gudnyas, quoted in The Guardian).

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.

This research network will focus on these issues in collaboration with indigenous communities in the Northeast of Brazil and the Southwest of Colombia; communities that have expressed a degree of criticality towards the SDGs and that want to explore and share their vision of the future with the world. 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.