Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Quality of Life from the South, Local Knowledge, Socio-Ecological Relationships, and Citizen Participation in Times of Global Climate Change

Written By

Jorge Rojas Hernández and Javier Lastra Bravo

Submitted: 14 January 2019 Reviewed: 01 August 2019 Published: 29 August 2019

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.88953

From the Edited Volume

Quality of Life - Biopsychosocial Perspectives

Edited by Floriana Irtelli, Federico Durbano and Simon George Taukeni

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The quality of life in the South is coping with several problems and tensions that require solution: poverty, socio-territorial and climatic inequalities, lack of scientific and technological development, corruption, migration, lack of access to services, obsolescence of public institutions, and low citizen’s participation in the social affairs. There is a global crisis of the Anthropocene’s development model. Currently, this context explains multiple mobilizations such as social, environmental, gender, ethnic, working class, and student ones in the South, especially in Latin America. The mobilizations tend to deepen to the extent that the underlying problems are not solved with due urgency, depth, and focus on the human dignity. However, most people and communities value, practice, and aspire to improve their levels of quality of life. This is based on experiences and traditions—such as Living Well—that they have cultivated, beyond the empire of colonizing forces and based on common goods that have learned in a closer relationship with nature. In the South, there is cultural diversity, good coexistence practices, cooperative traditions, food quality, and biodiversity that are the bases for deepening the dreaming quality of life.


  • quality of life
  • public policies
  • local knowledge
  • Buen Vivir
  • climate change

1. Introduction: quality of life in the South

Quality of life is a relatively new topic in theoretical discussion and the application of public policies in modern societies. As societies progressed in the industrial age, especially in developed countries, particularly in Europe, quality of life began to take on importance in coexistence. Indeed, the crisis of industrialism—supported by the Enlightenment ideology of progress—highlighted the environmental and health problems brought about by this essentially economic growth. Mass production for mass consumption began to be questioned due to its socio-environmental impacts. In this context, which favored the emergence of a new citizen consciousness, the discussion began on the need for a paradigm shift—from a socio-ecopredatory growth paradigm to sustainable development that includes social, economic, and environmental dimensions, with a sort of utopian balance among these components. Indeed, in the late 1960s, the capitalist system was shaken by the emergence of new citizen movements bearing new subjectivities, principles, and values, which fought for and demanded social, cultural, and political changes, an equation not at all easy to solve. Globalization processes have weakened the role of the nation state and thus have diminished the role of politics in the society. The global economy, businesses, and multinational corporations dominate the stage and aggressively expand their interests with little regard for limits on growth and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources imposed by climate change.

Despite it all, quality of life has advanced as a result of the struggles of workers, professionals, women, young people, boys, girls, and indigenous peoples. Naturally, a fundamental quality of life paradigm would profoundly question the neoliberal development model and policies predominant in many countries and continents. It would also question the environmental policies of the Anthropocene Era that threatens biodiversity and the survival of the planet.

It should be noted that there is no universal definition of quality of life that is valid for everyone. Europe was the continent that advanced fastest in defining it, establishing key concepts, criteria, and indicators that are applicable and thus verifiable. This process began in the early 1970s and deepened and sharpened over the following decades, as established in this chapter. In addition, the advancing development of societies around the world led to the emergence of new areas and dimensions of quality of life, which as a result of the same process became more complex and multifaceted. Of course, there are still millions of people around the world in a daily struggle for survival, who neither know of nor enjoy even a basic quality of life, including adequate, safe, quality food, a roof, decent work, rights, landscape access, and good human coexistence. Inequalities of all types help make poverty and the vulnerable state in which a significant part of the world population survives invisibly. Latin America and the Caribbean, along with a significant part of the population of Africa and Asia and the new poor of developed countries (the so-called “losers” of globalization), suffer daily through this unbearable reality of unfulfilled dreams and desires.

In any case, at this point in the development of the modern society and humanity, the idea of quality of life has taken its place as a development parameter and legitimate aspiration of the people. Advances in science, technology, information, and knowledge, as well as intercommunication on social networks, have contributed to increasing subjective and collective demands for continuous quality of life improvements. A society with greater awareness of its rights constantly aspires to live better.

In the South, there is a multicultural variety of good practices; indigenous communities; rural and Andean communities; cooperative work traditions; cultures that value quality food; biodiversity, and the landscape; and historical legacies and epistemological narratives that serve as the basis for continuing to construct and deepen quality of life.


2. Historical context and meaning of quality of life

Quality of life is a concept that emerged in the 1960s as a critic of the conception of development and well-being as necessary products of economic growth. Such criticism had already been expressed by various authors in the early twentieth century, but it was during the post-World War II era that this perception and the related debate deepened. Later—within the framework of the post-development discussion—the Enlightenment idea of “progress” would even be questioned. Influential modern thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and part of the twentieth century thought and spread the idea that progress—now supported by science and technology—would be an uninterrupted, continuous process, but they were wrong ([1], p. 27). Progress advances and retreats over time in modern societies in accordance with the era, class interests, and social groups and the way in which social, political, and environmental conflicts are resolved. In addition, progress does not benefit all sectors of the society equally. Inequality is an ever-present phenomenon that accompanies the development of capitalist societies [1]. It is an inherent, intrinsic characteristic of the system of domination that varies and transforms as societies advance.

Industrialization has produced not only consumer goods and progress but also pollution problems, occupational illnesses, the stress of modern life, exploitation of ecosystems, human communication problems, and various forms of repression of freedom in its multiple expressions [1]. Industrialization has tended to standardize lifestyles, hemming in the individual and limiting or impeding personal fulfillment, with long days of alienated work to achieve a livelihood that enables the consumption of perishable and durable goods. The value of the relaxed, happy life does not figure in the culture or the paradigm of economic growth policy or the ideology of so-called progress ([1], p. 27).

Against this backdrop, heavy, deep criticisms of the development model emerged that encompassed even the so-called real socialisms, not considered as genuine alternatives for human and social development ([1], p. 27). Malaise took hold in the consciousness of citizens. In 1964 Herbert Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man [2]. A representative of critical social theory, in this work, which had a great impact in intellectual and youth circles, the author addressed the totalitarian trends or traits of advanced societies. According to Marcuse, the system would create false needs through mass media, advertising, and the integration of workers into the industrialized consumption society ([1], p. 27). The system would function with a strong dose of individualism. Societies would be controlling, containing social change without opposing it. The industrial society would operate one-dimensionally, without spaces for exercising criticism, real democracy, and human freedom.

Thus, quality of life arose as a reform of advanced industrial society, aiming to improve the living conditions of the general population. It exists within the framework of the establishment of the so-called welfare state that developed in European countries in particular, with lower-quality peripheral expressions in the most industrialized and politically advanced Latin American countries ([1], p. 28). It was introduced as a way of quantitatively measuring development amid the growing complexity of the social structure and measuring the impacts of state intervention in economic, social, political, and cultural matters.

Quality of life aims to be a universal, scientific system of measuring the satisfaction of human needs in developed countries [1]. From the beginning there has been a debate on the quantitative and qualitative parameters of quality of life. This debate has been particularly relevant in the creation of objective and subjective social quality-of-life indicators. The objective indicators would be measurable, while the subjective indicators would be intangible and vary according to individual perception. Over time, subjective human needs have taken on increasing importance.

In 1970 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launched a program to create social quality of life indicators in order to measure social well-being, a result of political concern for social matters ([1], p. 28). In 1973 the OECD defined eight areas of concern: (1) health, (2) personal development through the acquisition of knowledge (education), (3) employment and quality of life at work, (4) free time and leisure, (5) available goods and services, (6) physical environment, (7) personal safety and the administration of justice, and (8) participation in collective life ([3], p. 74).

Other quality-of-life models have also been developed in Europe. For example, Germany created the “SPES System of Social Indicators,” which measures both objective and subjective needs, as well as the evolution of personal well-being ([1], p. 28). Well-being surveys are occasionally conducted, data from which are presented to the public via reports. The Universities of Frankfurt and Mannheim, with financing provided by Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), investigated and created the System of Social Indicators in 1972. They selected 10 areas, subdivided into 196 indicators. The areas are: (1) population, (2) social status and mobility, (3) employment and work conditions, (4) income and income distribution, (5) consumption, (6) transportation, (7) housing, (8) health, (9) education, and (10) participation ([3], p. 91).

In 1982 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development defined a list of social indicators based on 15 social concerns broken down into 33 indicators (Table 1) [4].

Social concernIndicator
Life span
Life in good health
  • Life expectancy

  • Perinatal mortality rate

  • Temporary disability

  • Permanent disability

Education and acquisition of knowledge
Use of educational opportunities
Acquisition of knowledge
  • Regular schooling

  • Adult education

  • Functional literacy rate

Employment and quality of work life
Access to employment
  • Unemployment rate

  • Involuntary part-time work

  • Discouraged workers

  • Average work duration

  • Commute time

  • Yearly paid vacations

  • Atypical schedules

  • Salary distributions

  • Fatal work accidents

  • Workplace hazards

Free time and leisure
Use of time
  • Free time

  • Free time activities

Ability to acquire goods and services
  • Income distributions

  • Low incomes

  • Material deprivation

  • Asset distribution

Physical environment
Housing conditions
Access to services
Environmental nuisances
  • Housing, interior space

  • Access to outdoor space

  • Basic elements of comfort

  • Proximity to certain services

  • Exposure to air pollution

  • Noise exposure

Social environment
Social integration
  • Suicide rate

Personal safety
Risk exposure
Threat perception
  • Fatal physical injuries

  • Severe physical injuries

  • Personal safety fears

Table 1.

OECD list of social indicators.

Source: OECD [4].

These quality-of-life indicators obviously cannot be automatically replicated in Latin America. Nonetheless, in recent decades there have been frequent discussions on quality of life in Latin America between governments and research centers. In this context, Latin American countries can use these indicators as an important reference framework for guiding public policies, as it occurs in Europe and in other developed countries. It is understood that these social indicators are not mere conventional constructs, but rather that they contain exhaustive specifications and forms of measurement and influence the creation and application of public policies in the countries in which they are used ([1], p. 30).

In Latin American countries, these social concerns are of the utmost interest to citizens but are still in the early stages—although with different emphases—in the public sphere as a result of the implementation of neoliberal policies in basic areas of social life such as education, health, and social security ([1], p. 30). In other areas such as work and housing, there is a lack of regulations and public control that would guarantee quality, for instance, work quality. Social housing, meanwhile, does not conform to human interior space requirements or due access to the natural landscape. In addition, free time is practically nonexistent. “Free time,” indispensable for the exercise of liberty and personal fulfillment, is consumed by long workdays and endless commutes in megacities thrown into disarray by transport or is spent in various survival occupations. Life expectancy has increased considerably, but its quality has improved little. Likewise, social integration continues to suffer, with high levels of socio-territorial segregation and inequality [1].

In short, quality of life is certainly a fundamental concept but the one that has yet to be delved into and implemented in our societies. There must be advances in public policy and citizen awareness. Civic malaise resulting from abuses in various areas of social life, services, and consumption in general constitutes signs of exhaustion and a crisis of the neoliberal model that fosters great expectations—quality of education, health, social security, salaries, housing, pollution-free environments, etc.—that cannot be met due to the inequitable distribution of assets and the lack of citizen participation and social inclusion.


3. Environmental problems, climate change, and quality of life

Climate change is the most severe, complex environmental problem affecting the planet and facing humanity in the twenty-first century. For thousands of years, the temperature remained at a global average that enabled the existence of humans and diverse species in a state of interdependence with ecosystem biodiversity. Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, there has been increasing temperature alteration as a result of global warming caused by increases in carbon dioxide emissions from the fossil energy mix that has dominated the Anthropocene Era [5] in which we live. Indeed, we went from an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 280 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial age (reference date: 1750) to nearly 400 ppm in 2015, with an ensuing increase in the Earth’s average temperature.

Life has historically existed and reproduced—and been made possible—in a regulated and, to a certain extent, autoregulated system of interdependent relationships among living, dynamic ecosystems that constantly transform, especially upon reaching points or moments of saturation of a given stage of contradictory development tensions. The human being is only one of its inhabitants, which, distinguished from other species by the use of reason—particularly in the modern age—intervenes in and violently alters movements of reproductive energy in the biosphere, the diverse macrohabitat that houses and enables life, which human activity has brought past its limits of vulnerability.

Human beings have pushed the planet’s ability to autoregulate to its limit. The damage has been so great that even if resource extraction, deforestation, food production, and air and ocean pollution ceased, the Earth would take more than a thousand years to recover from the damage that has been done to date ([6], p. 24). This situation reflects the complex moment in which humanity finds itself, in which it is urgent to implement policies to correct and halt the historical consequences of our exploitation of the Earth; these policies must focus on improving quality of life through an approach that considers the environmental and human spheres in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the severe damage done to date. Along the same lines, Lovelock [6] indicates the need for a coordinated international effort and a carefully planned project that takes charge of the consequences of environmental exploitation and implements new policies that allow past actions to be corrected, for example, replacement of fossil fuels with purer, renewable sources of energy.

Scientific research in recent decades, especially IPCC reports, which systematize and interpret thousands of international studies, have predicted and sounded the alarm about increases in greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on temperature and ocean-level increases and precipitation decreases in various parts of the Earth, as well as the intensification and frequent appearance of extreme climate phenomena such as droughts, heat and cold waves, intense rains, floods, fires, and landslides caused by torrential rain, along with more frequent and intense hurricanes. Extreme events are increasingly frequent and affect the whole world, especially Latin America and the Caribbean, degrading and threatening the quality of life of vast sectors of the population.

Various regions, towns, and countries have been affected lately by long, severe droughts. Such is the case with the State of São Paulo in Brazil, with 41 million inhabitants. Marcelo Cardoso, a representative of the Alliance for Water, an organization of ecologists that emerged amid the water crisis that affects many towns in Brazil, particularly the State of São Paolo, describes the water stress drama that affects thousands of urban families; thus: “Water is intimately linked to personal dignity. When one cannot wash herself, go to the bathroom, or take care of her children, she panics.” ([7], p. 31).

Water scarcity is a consequence of climate change, which, in the case of Brazil, has been exacerbated by the devastation of the Amazon rainforest to make way for soy and livestock. Indeed, the highly economically important agroindustry consumes almost 70% of the country’s water, transferring approximately 112 billion liters of freshwater abroad each year. It is known that the Amazon produces a large amount of moisture; currently 18% of the Amazon is logged and 29% degraded ([7], p. 32). Similarly, various Latin American countries are subjected to extreme events such as droughts or drastic decreases in precipitation, including Chile (10 years of megadroughts), Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Central American countries, as are the Andes region and Latin America in general. For instance, the United Nations considers Chile and Mexico vulnerable to climate change because they meet seven of the nine requirements to be declared as such.

In this context, it is heartening that the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [8], which brought together representatives of 195 nations in Paris, reached an accord that could partially halt the irreversible advance of global climate change. Indeed, the Paris Accords of December 2015 heed some of the warnings of scientists and open doors to the promotion of renewable energy, highlighting the need to generate resilience capacities in developing countries through environmental education and knowledge and technology transfer and obligating developed countries to contribute financial resources to support the mitigation and adaptation policies of the developing countries most affected by climate change. The accords compel the protection of the most vulnerable sectors of the population, the poor, and ecosystems and emerge as a means of reducing the greenhouse effect by implementing policies to reduce global gas emissions: “Recognizing that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and emphasizing the need for urgency in addressing climate change.” ([8], p. 2).

One of the most debated topics in prior conferences and in the Conference of the Parties in Paris was the provision of resources to grapple with climate change mitigation and adaptation processes, especially in the developing countries most vulnerable to extreme events. The conference adapted financial measures that will hopefully be met and actually contribute to halting climate change. The measures include: “... prior to 2025 the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement shall set a new collective quantified goal from a floor of USD 100 billion per year, taking into account the needs and priorities of developing countries” ([8], p. 9). Similarly, “Developed country Parties shall provide financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation in continuation of their existing obligations under the Convention” ([8], p. 31).

To conclude the accords, the Conference of Parties expressed its concern regarding the food supply, which is severely threatened by the effects of climate change around the world: “Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.” ([8], p. 24).

Finally, the Conference of Parties in Paris highlighted the universal nature of the problem and impact of climate change—almost as if it were an attribute of humanity or the age itself—and thus the need to adopt adaptation measures while taking into account and respecting the human rights of indigenous communities, local communities, women, and vulnerable groups: “Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.” ([8], p. 23).

As we have shown, although the accords are very necessary, in practice they have arrived too late. For decades governments have turned a blind eye to studies, and the clear warnings of scientists and groups of ecologists seriously worried about the climate change problem and its consequences for economic activity, quality of life, and the protection of the planet.

There is thus an urgent need to implement new processes and accords among international organizations committed to fighting and mitigating climate change, with concern for the quality of life not only of the current population but also of future generations.

The environment affects and determines the circumstances of societal and individual life. All people need and deserve to live in healthy environments free of pollution and danger. Unfortunately, the current landscape is a long way from providing these ecosystem services: underdeveloped countries are disadvantaged in terms of environmental conditions and poverty, with enormous effects on the quality of life of their inhabitants. Thus, thought must be given to sustainable, socio-ecological development with consciousness, focused on diminishing the effects of the environmental crisis currently affecting the planet and quality of life. We believe that climate change is very important when debating and studying quality of life, as it is a determining factor in the future of humanity.


4. Quality of life in the South: the Latin American debate

The topic of quality of life arose much later in the Latin American debate, specifically in the post-dictatorship period in the 1980s, during which a profound re-democratization process unfolded, allowing the emergence of new social movements that were also concerned with improving quality of life, reviving past axioms on social matters. They included new union, environmental, human rights, student, women’s, and ethical movements. Amid this period of democratization and social effervescence, concern for quality of life and its improvement in Latin American countries arose and developed.

The Latin American debate on quality of life is currently closely tied to the need to overcome high levels of inequality, vulnerability, and poverty, which exist in practically every country. According to poverty data measured in Latin America between 2010 and 2014 [9] by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), while inequality in the region continues to grow, poverty and extreme poverty levels are decreasing.

This poverty reduction process has made relative improvements in most countries in the region, which have been accompanied by an improvement in quality of life compared to the prior situation. Indeed, the poverty gap in the analyzed period decreased at high annual rates and fell faster than the poverty rate in countries such as Uruguay (−15.9%), Peru (−12.3%), Chile (−10.5%), Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Colombia, and Bolivia (a drop of between about 8 and 10%) ([9], p. 20). Meanwhile, poverty severity decreased in the same countries to an annual equivalent rate of between 9 and 14% ([9], p. 20).

While the data demonstrate that poverty has decreased, wealth distribution indices have indicated increasing inequality, which could be explained by the current globalization process—along with the implementation of neoliberal privatization policies—which has accelerated the global and regional trend of increasingly uneven wealth distribution, the most acute manifestation of which is in Latin America, translating into new segments of the population being excluded from the basic conditions and services and thus having a lower quality of life. Although it is true that certain resources are scarce and superexploited around the world, the exclusion processes are neither explained nor justified by this scarcity, but rather by wealth and asset accumulation favored by an instrumental rationale that hegemonizes the actions of capital and private interests, the media, and the most influential political class in the world.

Ulrich Beck portrayed the new global reality early on as the dawning of the second modernity, which he identifies and defines as a difficult-to-govern “world risk society.” He maintains that control problems can lead to a state of “organized irresponsibility” regarding the risks affecting the planet: “… the new prominence of risk connects, on the one hand, individual autonomy and insecurity in the labor market and in gender relations, and, on the other hand, the sweeping influence of scientific and technological change. World risk society opens public discourse and social science to the challenges of ecological crisis, which, as we now know, are global, local, and personal at one and the same time. Nor is this all. In the ‘global age,’ the theme of risk unites many otherwise disparate areas of new transnational politics with the question of cosmopolitan democracy: with the new political economy of uncertainty, financial markets, transcultural conflicts over food and other products (BSE), emerging ‘risk communities,’ and, last but not least, the anarchy of international relations. Personal biographies as well as world politics are getting ‘risky’ in the global world of manufactured uncertainties.” [10].

This risk in the global society is undoubtedly among the important subjective factors that influence quality-of-life indices and individual perceptions. Nonetheless, poor segments of the population have developed new abilities to survive in a flexible, unstable, inequitable, unprotected, rootless, and fractured world, seeking with their own actions to mitigate their hardship and improve their quality of life in the short and long term. Many of their actions remain in the sphere of precariousness and instability, although some manage to establish themselves over time, blazing trails of progress and hope.

As we have mentioned, income distribution in most Latin American countries—and around the world—has deteriorated. In neoliberalism income distribution and redistribution are forbidden words, taboos, simply unnecessary: “… the collapse of collective redistribution claims (and more generally, the replacement of the criteria of social justice by those of respect for difference reduced to cultural distinction) and the growth of inequality running wild are intimately related. There is nothing incidental about this coincidence. Setting claims for recognition free from their redistributive content allows the growing supply of individual anxiety and fear generated by the precariousness of ‘liquid modern’ life to be channeled away from the political area – the sole territory where it could crystallize into redemptive action and therefore be dealt with radically – by blocking its social sources.” [11].

Development as such must overcome the narrow concept of “growth” or “productivism” based only on economic or income factors in order to encompass a more holistic vision linked to socio-environmental protection and promotion of quality of life, that is, quality of life not associated with the unlimited accumulation of wealth and assets. Material goods are necessary and essential in life, but equally indispensable are intangible values related to freedom, democracy, the landscape, beauty, culture, solidarity, human coexistence, friendship, and participation. Here the idea of a sustainable development model based on ethical environmental and human values such as respect for nature and its own laws of conservation and reproduction; respect for human rights; respect for freedom; guaranteed equal access to education, health, infrastructure, and recreation; and the right to democratically participate and decide fundamental public matters of concern to subjects and citizens comes into play.

Stable, decent, and quality work is undoubtedly an important determining factor in improving quality of life, as well as a central element of social sustainability. Precarious or unstable work destroys the identity of the individual who does it, transforming it into a mere provider of daily sustenance, something disposable, replaceable, and expendable, negatively affecting psychological well-being and quality of life. By contrast, quality work generates social security, stability, and peace. Work that adds value, in which highly-qualified workers enjoy autonomy and make decisions, as exists in developed countries [12], fosters the subjectivity of the individual, increases quality of life, and advances social progress. Latin America currently presents high levels of unemployment and loss of centeredness and work meaning. Workdays have lengthened, and prevailing poverty means that more than one job is required. Most of the population cannot sustain itself on flexible and precarious work. As André Gorz expresses it well, “We are leaving work-based society behind without replacing it by any other form. Each of us is aware, emotionally and intellectually, that we are potentially unemployed, potentially under-employed, potentially insecure or temporary workers, potential ‘part-timers” [13]. Work has become a “scarce” good, necessitating a rethinking of it. A new concept of work is required, redefining it as, for example, community and environmental activities of social value and meaning that undoubtedly improve quality of life.

Another important aspect related to quality of life, which has not been taken into consideration in traditional theory, is the human need for landscapes and green areas. Studies carried out by Jorge Rojas [14] between 2001 and 2003 demonstrate the importance of the landscape—a fundamental element in the organization and sustenance of the daily lives of citizens—in quality of life. Our sense of belongingness to the nature manifests itself in our desire to return to it, in some manner of attraction to the natural landscape. This is also influenced by the worldviews of indigenous peoples of Latin America. The close relationships between indigenous communities and their territories and landscapes have influenced the rest of the Latin American society. Thus, we deem the need for landscapes and their relationships with individuals important to mention as a central aspect of quality of life.

Nonetheless, poor people generally lack quality landscapes and green areas. They live not only in crowded conditions but also amid rough, degraded, polluted, barren, and dirty landscapes. Poor landscapes make people sick, depress them, and infect them with their vulnerability. Therefore, every human needs a territory in which to settle, put down roots, create a story, reproduce, and build hopes. Where the social groups that inhabit it, through social practices and the set of social relationships in the territory, take ownership of the space, making it part of their identity and uniqueness [15], in this space, there is a confluence of the basic elements of the social identity of the community and the historical elements of the common past and the community’s worldview. However, in Latin America there have been severe externalities, negatively affecting natural systems, territories, landscapes, and quality of life. Even so, in most Latin American countries, there is enough space to allow each person, family, and community access to adequate territorial sustenance, thereby improving quality of life.

Citizen participation is another substantial factor in individual quality of life and modern society, as in the current modern society those who do not participate remain on the margins of life and events and ultimately the margins of society. From a quality-of-life perspective, participation cannot be limited—as it is often understood in our countries—to the mere act of keeping informed of the decisions that will change some important aspect of our daily existence (whether a megaproject, a constitutional change, an educational reform, the installation of a dump near a residential area, etc.). Participation in a modern sense entails citizen involvement, the ability of people (individually and collectively) to decide and influence the social, political, and cultural matters that will affect and shape life in the society. This means broadening and deepening democracy, respecting the people and cultural diversity, and strengthening regions and social organizations. We are still far from establishing a fully democratic system that allows and ensures citizen participation. Elections are a minimum modality of democracy. In developed countries, there has recently been discussion on the “democratization of democracy” [16], a concept that indicates structural and paradigm changes regarding the components and characteristics of the first modernity. It also involves the behavior and role of the people and the active exercise of citizenship, which is still far from occurring in Latin America.


5. New criteria for the study of quality of life: social baseline—a tool for the defense of the common

As we have seen, today there are various aspects of quality of life; it appears necessary to us to create an instrument with which these aspects can be analyzed and the quality of life of individuals protected amid interventions such as the development of projects. Taking international experiences into account, the social baseline can be understood as a tool that allows a deep assessment of the community affected by an intervention and encompasses the set of factors and dimensions that make up and shape quality of life [1]. A project should not worsen current quality-of-life conditions, as it tends to occur. Rather, it should improve the living conditions of the community, which rarely happens. It is known that in general every project or intervention alters social life. It can do so positively or negatively, and the alterations can be of very diverse sorts. They depend on personal perceptions, which must be considered and respected. Perceptions can be studied and measured with scientific precision.

Social baseline means being aware of and understanding the system that makes up individual quality of life, spanning the productive, social, cultural, and interpersonal aspects of the community ([1], p. 25). It does not mean, as it often occurs in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), that only some general socioeconomic characteristics are described in order to subsequently deduce possible social impacts, which the consultants responsible for the sociocultural studies tend to minimize ([1], p. 25). Only deep knowledge of the human habitat in all its systemic complexity and interdependence with the nature that surrounds it allows the projected social impacts of an energy megaproject or other such development on the human community to be analyzed.

In an investigation that we carried out in Patagonia related to the possible impact of the HidroAysen megaproject on community values, we were able to establish that in the Cochrane community, for example, one of the main fears regarding the project was that the arrival of outside workers, without families, would disrupt the good customs, values, and traditions of the community ([1], p. 25). The construction of dams, according to the people of Cochrane, would bring money, prostitution, corruption, and crime, which would affect their community life based on trust, respect, and neighborliness. Trust is a fundamental value that has been present throughout the difficult history of the settlement and (isolated) subsistence of the Aysén Region. It has allowed the formation of social networks and friendships and the organization of communities based on solidarity and mutual support, indispensable values in geographic regions isolated from the rest of the country and, in a sense, abandoned by the government, as has been the case with the Chilean Patagonia, as various investigations have shown [1].

As EIAs discuss the baseline of the natural system, a social baseline that describes the impacts that implementation of a project would have on the basic makeup of neighboring communities, taking into account the various aspects of quality of life, should also be considered. Indeed, a community has history, organization, culture, traditions, social practices, modes of action and interaction, norms and values that regulate it, and desires and aspirations to improve individual and collective living conditions. Society, furthermore, is not a mere statistical data point, but rather a dynamic, changing reality in a continuous process of transformation that must be taken into account if a foreign body is to be added to its history, landscape, and daily life [1].

A social baseline in a study should include the following aspects or indicators ([1], p. 26):

  • Human development index of the community. Developed by the UNPD, it includes (i) income level, (ii) schooling level, and (iii) life expectancy. This index can be complemented by the Gini coefficient or index, which measures income distribution levels.

  • Quality-of-life system of the community: social support networks, levels of trust/distrust, internal cohesion, sense of social well-being, subjective perception of quality of life, and urban landscape. It can be measured using surveys/interviews or other instruments.

  • Access to facilities and infrastructure: health, streetlights, drinking water network, schools, public transport, commerce, recreation areas, playgrounds, etc. Municipalities have these data.

  • Level of basic needs fulfillment: food/nutrition, housing, health, sanitary services, heating, clothing, etc.

  • Employment quality, unemployment, poverty, and inequality levels.

  • Levels of territorial segregation/integration, neighborhood violence, and safety.

  • Human load carriage levels of the territory/area or region and transregional justice.

  • Level of community identity and sense of belongingness to its area and surroundings.

  • Local knowledge [17]. It is represented by local knowledge and practices related to production, ecosystems, medicinal plants, indigenous food systems, climate change adaptation strategies, the philosophy of “Buen Vivir,” and quality of daily life.

These criteria are relatively broad and not intended to be the only criteria or exclude others that could eventually be added or integrated, but they are basic and necessary to consider in a social baseline ([1], p. 26). However, they can be hierarchized, establishing which of them could be more important in a given study. As a structuring perspective, the hierarchization must consider the commons, all that which from an ontological perspective makes up the socionatural and cultural foundation that sustains human life. There are already data on some aspects and indicators in the public system such as the Human Development Index or Gini index, as well as data on infrastructure, access to basic services, employment and unemployment, and age structure of the population ([1], p. 27). But quantitative and qualitative studies must be done in order to obtain other information, for example, to measure quality of life, spatial segregation, and levels of territorial inequity regarding interregional human load, identity, and sense of belongingness.


6. Distributive territorial transregional justice and improvement of quality of life: human love and understanding

Territories are made up of ecosystems of various natures and levels of vulnerability, with given productive potentials, ecosystem capacities, and abilities to assimilate human activities. Therefore, it is unfair for some regions to be repeatedly loaded by environmental and social externalities to the point of saturation or existential collapse, worsening the quality of life of their inhabitants [1]. Regions or towns are frequently overloaded due to their comparative advantages in terms of natural resources (rivers, for instance) and levels of poverty and social exploitation, with little capacity for action or negotiation with businesses or public institutions. There are many examples: the HidroAysen project in Chile, hydroelectric projects and deforestation in the Amazon, and mining projects in Mexico and Peru, among others. In general, the local community becomes “enchanted” by job creation and promises to install a cutting-edge technology. But the promises tend to fade over time, with the local community left bearing new externalities added to its already diminished quality of life and deteriorated environment.

Transregional justice means weighing the cost-benefit perception of the entire region, with specific focus on quality of life ([1], p. 14). Often there is a perception that “only other regions or the producer or distributor will benefit” or that a region will be harmed by a polluting project that was not accepted by another region. For example, the groups that criticized HidroAysen rightly argued that the ecosystems of the Patagonia would be affected and that the electricity would be produced especially to meet the energy demands of mining operations in the North of the country [1].

Therefore, transregional justice should be a fundamental criterion for assessing an investment project with territorial and social impacts. In other words, a balance among regions must be fostered, avoiding overloading one region or town with environmental or social liabilities, in order to maintain quality of life levels in all regions. It means seeing to an equitable distribution of benefits and liabilities and supporting the most economically and socially depressed communities with benefits.

For Sergio Boisier, a territorial planning expert, development requires the deployment of the endogenic planning capacities of a territory: “First, endogeny means a growing capacity for autonomy for the territory to make its own development choices, choosing, for example, a style consistent with its traditions or culture, or simply a collectively ‘invented’ mode of development. This growing autonomy is completely inseparable from a similarly growing decentralization process, which leads to the conclusion that well-understood development is necessarily decentralized.” ([18], p. 102).

Boisier defines four planes that must be articulated and strengthened as a condition of endogenous development. The second plane refers to the “growing capacity of the territory to appropriate a portion of the economic surplus generated there for local reinvestment” in order to ensure sustainable development and diversify the material base of the territory, making it less vulnerable to economic fluctuations [18]. The third plane “means that the territory must have a capacity for generating innovations that cause structural changes therein, not only an increase in scale. This assumes the existence of a local science and technology system…” The fourth plane “means the existence of a territorial culture that generates an identity that connects the collective being to the territory” ([18], pp. 102, 103).

So-called procedural justice must be incorporated into transnational justice. There are often inconsistencies between different levels of regulations. In Latin America, in Chile, for example, it may—and does—happen that a project is rejected by a regional agency and approved by a national one [1]. This occurs due to the prevailing centralism. Centralism in decision-making impedes more independent and sustainable regional development. For justice to be applied, neither a declaration of principles nor the mere existence of legal standards is sufficient. Nor is a declaration of respect for human dignity or a certain social empathy for those affected by a given project enough ([1], p. 33).

Indeed, many economic interventions are carried out with contempt for social groups, especially when they are poor or have “traditional” ways of life that are not considered “modern,” as occurred with the construction of hydroelectric centers in Mapuche territories in the Upper Biobío in the Biobío Region. This is frequently the case with megaprojects that intervene in the ancestral territories of indigenous communities in Latin America. Thus, author Nussbaum rightly states that for justice to be effective it must be accompanied by real webs of feelings that intrinsically entail the mutual understanding of the human quality of the subjects participating in a social process strained by interests and suffused with fair aspirations [1]: “Respect on its own is cold and inert, insufficient to overcome the bad tendencies that lead human beings to tyrannize over one another. Disgust denies fundamental human dignity to groups of people, portraying them as mere animals. Consequently, respect grounded in the idea of human dignity will prove impotent to include all citizens on terms of quality unless it is nourished by imaginative engagement with the lives of others and by an inner grasp of their full and equal humanity.” “Love, then, matters for justice – especially when justice is incomplete and an aspiration (as in all real nations), but even in an achieved society of human beings, were such to exist.” ([19], p. 459).


7. Citizen participation, democracy, and quality of life

Citizen participation is the modern democratic mechanism that ultimately grants social legitimacy to any project that intervenes in a territory and affects the quality of life of the community, as generally occurs. Citizen participation must be included in all stages of the planning process. Participation currently has great legitimacy in a society, as it is a method of building cities and societies and developing with a conception and perspective of social inclusion ([1], p. 34).

Nonetheless, the liberal conception of citizen participation is quite restrictive, as it refers only to legal-formal characteristics: “The emphasis liberalism puts on the reclaiming of citizen rights is to the detriment of responsibilities, which, except for obeying laws and paying taxes, are scarcely mentioned. This gives the liberal conception of citizenship a marked legal-formal character, which is why it is considered a weak citizenship. The existence of citizen rights is a necessary but insufficient condition for citizenship. The liberal conception represents an impoverished version of citizenship, in which citizens are reduced to passive bearers of rights, whose freedom consists of being able to pursue their individual interests (or conceptions of a good life).” ([20], p. 123).

Similarly, Fierro states: “From a communitarian perspective, citizenship entails both individual rights and social responsibilities, with a better balance between the two important to attain. Only then will an individual achieve full citizenship, as it entails a strong moral commitment” ([20], p. 124). For real citizen participation to exist, it must be considered early and organized throughout the development and decision-making process of a given project.

Participation first requires public will, in the sense of wanting and facilitating it, which is not always an assumption during the creation of a project. It also requires substantive legal backing and provisions that make it obligatory and clearly define its course. Participation goes hand in hand with trust-building, which means explaining the true environmental and social implications of the project to the public ([1], p. 34).

There are often asymmetries among actors in citizen participation processes, which obviously complicate decision-making, harming the general public, which will endure the externalities. Asymmetries refer to different levels of organization and negotiating capabilities, different economic capacities, different levels of access to the local and national authorities that will make the final decision (influence and lobbying capacity), and different levels of professional capacity to understand the technical designs of projects and procedural codes, in short, different access to information and limited professional advice ([1], p. 35).

This discrepancy must be considered at the beginning of the process and remediated as much as possible. Approving a project without citizen participation means building a future social conflict: “Critiques of liberal democracy (citizens exercise sovereignty by voting) have led to the emergence of various alternative models, including social democracy (which aspires to greater levels of socioeconomic equality), deliberative democracy (which emphasizes the importance of the deliberation process in public debate and the public use of reason), participatory democracy (which stresses the creation of new forms of direct participation in decision-making, including public hearings, referenda, plebiscites and electronic inquiries) and republican democracy (which revives the concept of freedom as self-determination and not non-domination).” ([20], pp. 302, 303).

Most Latin American countries still have low-intensity democratic systems. Dictatorships violently denied and destroyed the forms of popular representation achieved by various countries in the twentieth century [1]. Nowadays progress toward better forms of democracy is slow and complicated. Demands for social inclusion are the best indication of the political and social reality; that is, social exclusion continues to be a serious problem in practically every country. The same holds true for participation, which is cast as a political demand. It is also an indication of the existence of traditional structures of domination and organization of power. Much remains to be done to progress to forms of social, deliberative, participatory, or republican democracy. There is a lack of political will among the groups in power and, more important, a need to better organize and strengthen civil society. There is also a need for real civic development, which is in a state of emergency. Developed countries, especially in Europe, underwent long, complex processes of social, political, and cultural struggle in order to achieve better levels of social and participatory democracy, which is constantly exposed to dangers and threats of destabilization, as is currently the case with tensions resulting from discussions on immigration and the emergence in various countries of far-right movements and parties, known as “right-wing populists,” which threaten democracy, social rights, and freedoms won by peoples who have fought for their emancipation ([1], p. 35).

A more direct, civic, and participatory democracy creates conditions consistent with the current development of people’s subjectivity and, supported by a more informed society provided with greater and better knowledge and communication systems, undoubtedly contributes to improving the quality of life of the population to the extent that it has access to these new qualities of the globalized modern world.


8. Traditional knowledge on quality of life: Buen Vivir as alternative to development

The traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and their communities, which have survived the passage of time and modernity, is of great importance in Latin America. Some of this traditional knowledge is closely related to the understanding of quality of life, including the Küme Mogen concept of the Mapuche people, Sumak Kawsay of the Quechua peoples, Suma Qamaña of the Aymara peoples, and Ñamde reko of the Guaraní [21, 22, 23, 24]. All these concepts can be seen as manifestations of the ideas of Buen Vivir (which roughly translates as “good living”) that have been addressed theoretically by Acosta and Gudynas, although Buen Vivir ideas are a current topic for various intellectual groups in Latin America, who gather ancestral ideas to grapple with development by rethinking it as a development focused on quality of life and the environment.

Buen Vivir is not a completely settled concept, as it is in a constant process of updating, incorporating ideas from indigenous groups and their traditional knowledge, the citizenry, and Latin American academia. A review of the literature indicates that its basic precepts are sustainable living, justice, democracy, a solidary, community economy, reciprocity, and the combination of different logics of production and work, fostering the appreciation of ancestral practices and knowledge and complementarity rather than competition as the foundation of the economic and production model.

The concept of Buen Vivir bursts into Latin American political discourse, public policies, and academic debate more than a decade ago. It has also been incorporated into the constitutions of Bolivia (2009) and Ecuador (2008). It bears mentioning that while the two constitutional systems have similarities, the Ecuadorian constitution presents Buen Vivir as a set of rights, while the Bolivian document presents it more as a fundamental ethic to take into consideration. Likewise, various processes and realities went into the creation of the concept; for example, the Bolivian discussion on Suma Qamaña was driven by the hard work of indigenous communities and indigenous intellectuals such as Simón Yampara, while in Ecuador the discussion was led mainly by the economist Alberto Acosta.

The concept of Buen Vivir appeared in the political sphere in the late 1990s, drawing on the Buen Vivir culture of indigenous origins [17, 25, 26]. It has been shaped by both global and local discourses, focusing on the search for post-development alternatives rooted in indigenous and citizen discourses in Latin America.

As we have stated, Buen Vivir is centered on a critic of development, putting forth the idea that the social and the ecological overlap and are mutually related, thus taking on equal importance [27, 28, 29]. It is therefore considered a biocentric position, in which natural elements have intrinsic value: “They are, therefore, subjects. It is precisely this position that allowed the rights of nature to be recognized in the new constitution of Ecuador” ([28], p. 8). The foregoing undoubtedly has many implications, since, when developing legal proposals, the defense of the rights of nature must be taken into consideration.

Thus, Buen Vivir is a pluralistic concept [22, 28], a conceptual platform for understanding the world, and, in the case of indigenous people, a worldview consistent with each specific national and community context. Therefore, it could be said that there are various “Buen Vivires” specific to local situations. As Eduardo Gudynas puts it: “As Buen Vivir is pluralistic, it could be stated that any indigenous position, or any critique of development, is a synonym of Buen Vivir.” ([28], p. 9).

In keeping with the idea of the pluralistic nature of Buen Vivir, the concept has recently been used extensively in the discourse of Mapuche political organizations who have revived the ancestral idea of Küme Mogen, linking it to environmental and territorial problems in the Araucanía region. Through Küme Mogen, the Mapuche people offer an alternative to development from a perspective of “sustainability with identity,” through which it is sought to implement an alternative guided by principles of balance and human harmony with the environment, thereby displacing western assumptions on the environment viewed in terms of the needs of man. Thus, the concept of Küme Mogen guides action by promoting values of respect and the Mapuche moral code Ad Mapu, which regulates good relations and reciprocity among all the elements of nature, whether animals, trees, rivers, plants, or rocks. The guiding element through which the practices of Küme Mogen is articulated is based on the principle of “duality/transgression,” which is present in many American indigenous cultures, and “constitutes a public subsystem of the Mapuche religion, open to the non-Mapuche world, to preserve nature and sustainably use the resources of their territory” ([30], p. 94).


9. Ontology of the commons and quality of life

Good and efficient participation requires a guarantee of transparency, great clarity, and information on the process a project will follow, its objectives, contents, costs, impacts, deadlines, and means of citizen participation, as well as the careful establishment of real possibilities for neighboring communities to influence its course [1, 31].

Social experience indicates that communities affected by interventions in their territories generally react and base their arguments on the defense of their individual and collective interests ([1], p. 36). They defend their heritage of common goods, whether water, an ecosystem, a landscape, clean air, a wetland, traditional crops, forms of coexistence, or local cultures. Thus, for a consultation system to be truly democratic and generate conditions for dialog and possible consensus, transparency regarding interests, common heritage, and the motivations of the actors participating in the project proves essential [1]. Concealing the underlying interests and motivations is detrimental to project acceptance. And the interests are not entirely rational; they also involve experiences and emotional expressions: “… more deeply, the public culture needs to be nourished and sustained by something that lies deep in the human heart and taps its most powerful sentiments, including both passion and humor. Without these, the public culture remains wafer-thin and passionless, without the ability to motivate people to make any sacrifice of their personal self-interest for the sake of the common good.” ([19], pp. 61, 62).

Another important aspect to consider in a project is the possibility of creating added value for regions. Many projects merely extract raw materials without adding value; such projects keep regions poor, turning them into mere suppliers of cheap natural resources. By contrast, development projects that add value contribute to personal development (through the demand for qualified personnel) and that of the region/town through value chain momentum, the creation of knowledge and technology, and the improvement of trade. Along with adding value to what it produces, a project must also consider the identity of the town or region. It is known that some projects degrade or even destroy regional identity. The identity of a region is closely related to its ecological, productive, social, and cultural history. Identity unites a region and strengthens its inhabitants’ sense of belongingness to and respect for its ecological and human habitats. And identity has an irreplaceable and immense value, as it nourishes the social and individual life of the community [1].

Before the appearance of private property and the capitalist mode of production, communities occupied territories with a vision, culture, and practices based on the commons or the common good [1]. “Commons im Pluriversum” (the common in various worlds), in Escobar’s words, takes on an ontological character [32]. The ontology of the commons bases its philosophy on a world or various worlds with common senses and belongings that serve as a foundation for and enable the emergence of human life within the framework of a habitable and interdependent natural habitat [1]. Thus: “the emergence of ‘the common’ as a political rallying cry initially grew out of dispersed social and cultural struggles against the capitalist order and the entrepreneurial state. As the central term use to denote an alternative to neoliberalism, the common became the effective principle for struggles and movements, that, over the past two decades, have resisted the dynamics of capital and given rise to original forms of activism and discourse. In order words, the common is far from a purely conceptual invention: the common is rather the concrete product of social movements and various schools of thought dedicated to opposing the dominant tendency of our era, namely the extension of private appropriation into every sphere of our societies, out cultures and out very lives.” ([33], p. 21).

This ontological view of the world based on sharing inalienable common goods (alienable goods would have been inconceivable) prevailed for thousands of years until the arrival of capitalism—along with private accumulation—as a mode of production and construction of social life and culture took hold of the modernization processes of the Modern Age and buried the ancient traditions of ecological life still present in indigenous communities and local coexistence practices beneath a culture of trade. Defending local identity is not easy. Amid the globalizing trends in motion today, it means going against the flow, as argued by studies by noted thinkers such as Zygmunt Bauman and Edgar Morin: “With globalization, identity becomes a heated matter. All the landmarks are canceled, biographies become jigsaw puzzles whose solutions are difficult and mutable. However, the problem is not the single pieces of this mosaic, but the way they fit in with each other.” ([34], p. 104) “Identity, let us be clear about it, is a ‘hotly contested concept.’ Whenever you hear that word, you can be sure that there is a battle going on. A battlefield is identity’s natural home. Identity comes to life only in the tumult of battle; it falls asleep and silent the moment the noise of the battle dies down. Cutting both ways cannot therefore be avoided. It can perhaps be wished away (and commonly is, by philosophers striving for logical elegance), but it cannot be thought away, and even less can it be done away with in human practice. ‘Identity’ is a simultaneous struggle against dissolution and fragmentation; an intention to devour and at the same time a stout refusal to be eaten…” ([34], pp. 163, 164).

Globalization tends to “devour” the local and disintegrate and fragment what remains of community life and culture to subject it to standardizing “technoeconomic” logics, as analyzed by Morin [35]. Nonetheless, the local does not disappear. It moves and endures in the appreciation of the commons, which unites, creates, and gives a sense and feelings of belongingness to a living human community in constant transformation.

The Latin American scientific community can make a significant contribution to the addition of value to the productive, social, and ecological life of the region [14]. Added value is urgently needed to overcome the region’s considerable delay and advance toward sustainable development and improve the quality of life of its population. Creative capacities exist in all countries and areas. The defense of water—a vital resource—for instance, and natural resources in general in times of fierce global competition and irreversible climate change, is the only way to guarantee the construction of a truly sustainable ecosocial order. To this end, we must think less linearly and more circularly in order to sync the movement of the planet’s ecosystem components with the complex movements of human life in the biosphere. In truth, everything is a common good, as even that which is paradoxically called “private” is the result of interactions of common goods and values.



I especially appreciate the financial support you have provided me, and that made possible the elaboration, translation, and editing of this chapter, to the Water Research Center for Agriculture and Mining (CRHIAM), Conicyt/Fondap/15130015 of the Universidad de Concepción, Chile, and Interdisciplinary Research Center of Excellence ( +5641 2661758).


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Written By

Jorge Rojas Hernández and Javier Lastra Bravo

Submitted: 14 January 2019 Reviewed: 01 August 2019 Published: 29 August 2019