Cconchas as Indigenous Community Building and Sumaq Kawsay in the Andes

(Re)thinking Alternatives to Development in the Andes.

By Katherin Patricia Tairo-Quispe


Quechua woman cooking on her “cconcha” in Qquehuar community located in Cusco region, Peru. Close to the cconcha is the wood guinea pig hutch because of warm and dry area. Photo source: Katherin P. Tairo-Quispe, 2021.

As a Quechua scholar, I focus on traditional earth ovens, known as cconchas by Quechua people in the Peruvian Andes, asking how they can be understood through the concept of Sumaq Kawsay (Buen Vivir in Spanish, well-being in English). The cconcha not only represents good food and tastes but also the bonds between human and non-humans such as guinea pigs. It serves as a mode of community building and communality by providing a warm environment in the main gathering space. For Quechua families, the sign that the day has begun is the sound of the phukuna, a kind of metal tube used to blow air on the charcoal to light the wood (leña), eucalyptus leaves, or dry grass on fire.

The cconcha represents Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies that foster and reproduce reflexive dialogues, the intimate relationship between land and bodies, and communal reproduction. The cconcha centers the social dynamics that surrounds it, thus embracing the concept of cohabitation with nature while also serving to reproduce a non-western rationality of community. By providing informal spaces to talk and engage, the cconcha fosters “everyday talk” that Kohl & McCutcheon (2014) refer to as kitchen table reflexivity and reproduces bonds of communality. Because these interactions happen in the kitchen space, “where [people] enjoy each other’s company as much as they enjoy the food” (Kohl & McCutcheon, 2014, p. 750), the informal conversations that emerge around the cconcha facilitate confidence between community members. The everyday talk that happens around the cconcha thus serves to reproduce Indigenous epistemologies that challenge dualisms between human and non-humans, while furthering alternative thinking that challenges universal strategies of development.


While western understandings of communality tend to homogenize Indigenous body-land relationships, the cconcha provides a different, non-western, and pluralistic conceptualization of Sumaq Kawsay (well-being) and community reproduction. From this pluralistic perspective, community issues and bonds are maintained and (re)produced via the sociality/kitchen table reflexivity in the informal spaces provided by the cconcha. However, dominant rationalities in planning and international development suggest that such informal spaces should be formalized, under the assumption that “…poor people should be provided, by the state [and I would add international organizations], with formal housing structures… this has been interpreted to mean that informal structures do not constitute acceptable housing, and have to be replaced” (Watson, 2003, p. 396).

This particular quote resonates with the “Cocinas Mejoradas” program implemented by the Peruvian nation-state since the 70s (Servicio Nacional de Capacitación para la Industria de la Construcción SENCICO, 2020). This program, sponsored by NGOs and international agencies such as the German development Agency GIZ, invested in the replacement of cconchas by “clean cookstoves”. The purpose of this program is to “eliminate all fumes from the household” (Amaray: Energía y desarrollo para zonas rurales/Energy and development for rural areas, 2012). I argue that the attempt to eliminate the cconchas reveals the clash of rationalities (Watson, 2003) between Indigenous knowledge production and hegemonic narratives of development mostly seen as universal, rational, and homogeneous.

Quechua woman cooking on her “cconcha” in Molle Molle community located in Apurimac region, Peru. Close to the cconcha are guinea pigs that are fed by vegetables. Photo credit: Katherin P. Tairo-Quispe, 2021.

 This is an outdoor cconcha used mostly when cooking in large quantities. It is useful during a work in the agricultural field (chakra in Quechua). Photo credit: Katherin P. Tairo-Quispe, 2021.


The cconcha opens up a discussion about decolonial alternatives to development grounded in the concept of Sumaq Kawsay. Sumaq Kawsay is challenging to translate into English, as the concept includes classical ideas of quality of life but emphasizes that well-being is only possible within a community (Gudynas, 2011). Sumaq Kawsay also implies “to live in harmony” with Pachamama (Mother Earth), not only with runas (a Quechua word that can be approximated by the western concept of human) but also with all living organisms, of which the human body is one kind (Mignolo, 2011). In this sense, the cconcha is intrinsic to Sumak Kawsay by providing a space that fosters such connections between humans and non-humans. Sumaq Kawsay can also be understood through the expression una vida digna aunque austera (a dignified life, although austere), a conception of life that focuses not on accumulation of material goods but instead on ‘communitarianism’ (Recasens, 2013).

Despite this conceptualization of communitarianism and coexistence, there is a risk that Sumaq Kawsay can become appropriated by the traditional development discourse. Critics of Sumaq Kawsay have argued that the concepts stems from an Andean principle, that it is a utopian notion, and/or that it is primarily a political discourse rather than an alternative development vision. Recently, the notion of Buen Vivir has been adopted in the Constitution of Ecuador and Bolivia as an “Andean philosophy”. In 2008, Ecuador approved a ‘right to nature’, and in 2010 Bolivia approved Suma Qamaña (in Guaraní Indigenous language) as an ethical and moral principle for development (Gudynas, 2011). Thus, Buen Vivir has come to refer to a “utopian alternative with indigenous roots” instead of the ideals, values, and pursuits of Andean communities. The idea of “living better” and “living well” come from mainstream approaches, which assume “that to live better is to accept that some few can be better off than all the rest” (Choquehuanca, Barragan, Albo, Qayum, & Goodale, 2018, p. 646).

However, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui states that “we as indigenous people were and are, above all contemporary beings” in which there is no ‘post’ or ‘pre’; the Indigenous historical view is not linear, rather it moves in cycles and spirals (Rivera Cusicanqui, 2010, p. 54). Ultimately, Sumaq Kawsay can be understood not as a return to the past as a static notion but instead as coexistence between humans (Ayllus-community) and nonhumans within a pluriversal setting. The critical approach to development encapsulated by Sumaq Kawsay must be understood in all its spheres whether as an Andean principle, a utopian notion, and a political discourse. The (re)thinking of classical Eurocentric development theory prompted by Sumak Kawsay opens up possibilities for decolonial alternatives to development grounded on Indigenous knowledges within pluriversal possibilities, thus going beyond the concept of alternative development (Escobar 1995). As a Quechua Indigenous woman and scholar, I argue that Indigenous knowledges challenge discourses of progress through community-based initiatives proposed and led by Indigenous peoples. Therefore, Indigenous principles must be at the core of any socially engaged program and project within Indigenous territories.

A Quechua woman cooking in her cconcha outdoors accompanied by a cat, and chickens. Photo credit: Katherin P. Tairo-Quispe, 2021.


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