The responsible citizens
                of Nabón

Sandra Weiss

from

A community in Ecuador is governed following the principles of "Good Living" – with measurable success.

 “We want to engage the citizens, promote local production and reach decisions at the community level”

It comes from the Andes and has been circulating for some time in Europe also: the concept of “Good Living”. It is based on the worldview of the indigenous cultures of the Andes and has found its way into the new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. In Ecuador there is even a ministry for it, managed by the journalist Freddie Ehlers. He defines the concept as follows: “Good Living means living with awareness, and that permits us to live more happily”, says the 70-year-old in his office in Quito. “This is, first of all, a very personal theme. Yet personal happiness needs surroundings in order to flourish.” And there the politics begins.

The community of Nabón on the southern slope of the Ecuadorian Andes was the first to breathe life into the concept 15 years ago. Around 18,000 people – mestizo, indigenous and white – live in the rural district spread over 668 square kilometres. At the turn of the century Nabón was, according to the census, one of the most backward areas of Ecuador: 93% of the population was poor, children received on average only three years of schooling, and two-thirds of them were undernourished. However, in 2015 the community had reached all the millennium development goals of the UN.

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Change began with the election of the first woman as the head of the community in the year 2000. Amelia Erraez Ordóñez stood the patriarchal and clientelistic political structures on their head. “We have given all the citizens their place in the politics, women also, without displacing the men”, she says. After her two legally permitted periods of office she was replaced by her vice-mayor Magali Quezaba, who has been governing further since 2009 with the same attitude.

 

Three elements are essential for “Good Living”: “Firstly, to understand us as being a community but without hereby disputing the rights of individuals. Secondly, respect for nature and thirdly, spirituality, understanding therefore that everything is connected with everything else”, says the economist Alberto Acosta, one of the thought leaders of the concept.

But how does this function in practice? “We try to engage the citizens, to further the local production and to come to decisions that concern us at the community level,” explains Quezada from the indigenous party Pachakutik. It is not easy to carry this through. Ecuador is extremely hierarchically organised and is very centralised. The bureaucracy between Nabón and Quito sets up not only almost insurmountable hurdles but is also a source of corruption and an impediment to development.

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Change began with the election of the first woman as head of the community in the year 2000.

All decide for themselves where the money should go

“Initially the water shortage was the biggest problem for the farmers,” relates Quezada. “There was no flowing water, and as a child I had to walk almost two kilometres daily to the nearest water point.” Nevertheless, it proved difficult to get money from Quito for the laying of the water pipes. At last, 15 years ago, Swiss development aid stepped in. In a counter-move, the Swiss asked already back then that the population work together with them and engage in the decision-making. For most of the farmers, who could barely read and write, this was a high hurdle – but a stimulus at the same time. “When we had completed the project successfully, we had changed ourselves”, recalls Quezada. “We had become more self-aware and had learned to take control of our destiny ourselves, without waiting for decisions from Quito.”

“We had become more self-aware and had learned to take control of our destiny ourselves, without waiting for decisions from Quito.”

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The mature self-awareness of the inhabitants of Nabón was established institutionally through the participatory budgeting. Every hamlet may itself decide what it wants to do with the budgetary funds provided for investments. “This turns the clientelistic logic of politics on its head,” says Quezada, “namely the attitude ingrained on both sides that politicians give presents to the voters and can thereby count on their votes. It was not simple. First of all, the machos dominated the meetings with their demand for the construction of ceremonial halls – investments which were not absolutely in the interest of the majority. “We then named a technical coordinator who supported the communities in the whole process, and now more sustainable decisions are reached for which all are jointly responsible,” says the mayor.

Rights bring certain duties with them. Citizens may make decisions but must set about the work as well. They are also authorised to carry out the cleaning and maintenance of the new irrigation canals and meeting rooms. The politicians likewise must also adapt. “Every cent that I spend is checked,” says Quezada. “Once,” she recalls, “the community council arbitrarily changed the targets of the budget. The next day 200 people stood in front of the town hall and tore the councillors apart so much that, since then, they have never dared to change even a comma.”

So much co-determination pleases politicians least of all. President Rafael Correa, who gladly promotes Good Living on the international stage, has a hard time dealing with self-aware subjects. Mayor Quezada fights head-on with the transport ministry in Quito because it wants to tear away from her the authority for the asphalted country highway. With this authority the community is kept busy in the best way – for a small fee of around 50 Euro cents per trip for all users. It was resolved at the community level so that it did not burden the pockets of the neighbouring residents overmuch.

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The citizens of Nabón also struggle against the construction of a modern “school of the millennium” with computers, the internet and bi-lingual classes in Spanish and English. This is a favourite project of Correa, who himself has studied in the USA and admires the education system there. “The indigenous people hold on to their intercultural schools that correspond to their philosophy of life and their culture,” says Quezada. This is not so much an opposition to progress but rather the attempt to control progress and to not let themselves be rolled over by it.

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Selling fresh cheese becomes a bureaucratic hurdle race

The regional economy also had difficulties in setting itself up when farmers began to make fresh cheese from their milk and market it in the region. The health ministry demanded a seal of hygienic production for it, starting a bureaucratic hurdle race that the individuals could complete only with the help of the community, which petitioned the appropriate ministries and authorities and exercised political pressure.

Remigio Capelo also had to experience the fact that the market is ungracious and, as a rule, the large oligopolies dictate the rules within it. This farmer produces a delicious digestive from agave juice which he called “chagñarmisqui”. For months he searched for a bottle that was not already patented by the big alcohol producers. To get the food safety standards label the ministry demanded in the first instance the permanent presence of a food chemist in his production shed. This imposition could only be averted by good relations with a functionary.

“There are things that are difficult to measure but of incalculable value,” says the special head of the social department, Gustavo Arrocho from the provincial community of Shiña .

How the effects of Good Living can be measured is so far undecided. The Ecuadorian government is presently trying to produce a catalogue of indicators together with the UN and other countries like Bhutan. Next to the classical data like income, infrastructure and wealth distribution, there are other things like mobility and public local traffic, like green areas per head of population, like the biodiversity or the number of nursing and recreation facilities for children and the elderly which should also be evaluated in this.

 

In 2012 the university of Cuenca measured the progress in Nabón with a “multi-dimensional poverty index”. Even if incomes lay down below the national average – two-thirds of the inhabitants were afterwards assessed as poor –, there have been progressive improvements in the national infrastructure. Close to all the inhabitants have electric power connection and flowing water at their disposal, and two-thirds have waste water connection. All inhabitants in Nabón can read and write,

it is a leader in the production of organic foods, and the mortality rate of mothers was reduced to almost zero because the traditional midwives have resumed their work.

„There are things that are difficult to measure but of incalculable value,” says the special head of the social department, Gustavo Arrocho from the provincial community of Shiña . “We sleep with our doors open, we have clean water, clean air and healthy food.” 15 police are sufficient to keep order in the core community that numbers 7,000 people. Inquiries reveal that almost 90% of both female and male citizens are happy to live in Nabón and look with confidence towards the future.

All inhabitants in Nabón can read and write. Nabón is a regional leader in the production of organic foods. The mortality rate of mothers was reduced to almost zero.

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For the young people especially, a sports complex was set up two blocks away from the town hall. There, for a small fee, people can use an indoor pool, a playing area and an amphitheatre. Cell phone reception in the central square is outstanding and free internet is under consideration.

 

There is also better quality of life in Nabón for those who are not economically productive: children and older people. For example, for Francisco Naula. The 67-year-old can no longer get around so well after a hip operation. Nevertheless, he leaves the community nursing home every morning with his crutches in order to water his vegetable garden and to feed his guinea-pigs, which are traditionally eaten in the Andes and are an important source of protein. “Other thoughts come to me here. It is not good for the brain if one only sits around inactively,” says the widower with a beaming smile, while he calmly weeds his potato field.

Like most farmers, he tills his field in an ecological way. Almost all vegetables as well as fruit, milk and eggs are sold on site; the farmers deliver also to the nursing home and the schools.

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The surpluses are marketed in the nearby city of Cuenca; a few co-operatives produce milk for the large dairy Parmalat or bio-strawberries for the supermarkets in Cuenca. In the meantime, there has also been success in excluding the middlemen who pay the producers far too little in order to increase their own profit margin. ”Self-supplying with ecologically grown foods from the region is an important element of Good Living, because a positive cycle of development is thereby set in motion,” says Quezada. The farm producers have a farmers market and the population is well nourished. The money stays in Nabón.

The farm producers have a farmers market and the population is well nourished. The money stays in Nabón.