The tradition of dual residency—between city and countryside, or across national borders—has been an important survival strategy, and a source of solidarity, for indigenous communities. But in places like Oaxaca, Mexico and the Bolivian highlands, the practice is now becoming a source of conflict, pitting residents, communities, and social sectors against one another in new forms of economic and political competition.
In Oaxaca, Mexico’s most ethnically diverse state where 75% of the residents live in “extreme poverty,” some 400 indigenous municipalities are governed by a centuries-old system of usos y costumbres (uses and customs). Residents choose their leaders in open, democratic assemblies and are obligated to perform unpaid community service (e.g., as local government officials, policemen, or sanitation workers) on a rotating basis.
These traditions have kept the villages functioning for centuries, even in the face of vast out-migration over the last 40 years, as successive neoliberal governments instituted failed agrarian and trade policies that decimated local peasant economies. With a high percentage of Oaxacan migrants resettling as undocumented workers in southern California, as long as the border was fluid residents could—and did—return periodically to perform their obligatory service, subsidized by their own savings. Migrants retained land, homes, and voting rights in their native villages, keeping relatives and local businesses afloat through remittances and maintaining strong community ties inbetween visits.
This dual residency practice has been radically altered by the militarization of the border and the increase in drug cartel violence along migration routes, which make a return home tantamount to permanent deportation. And with the U.S. economic crisis and the crackdown on undocumented workers, Oaxacan migrants have less money available for travel, remittances, or buying out of their community service obligations.
In Santa Ana del Valle , a Zapotec farming and weaving community just outside the city of Oaxaca that has lost most of its youthful male population to California migration, the economic situation has turned increasingly desperate. Recently, a bitterly divided municipal assembly voted to confiscate the property of any migrant who doesn’t perform community service, or pay a buyout fee of $1,200 per year, which migrant families say they cannot afford. The controversy has pitted remaining villagers against their migrant former neighbors—who, after decades of residency in the U. S., still view themselves as Oaxacans and fear losing their lands and respect in the community where they had hoped to retire.
In Aymara and Quechua communities of the Bolivian highlands, the tradition of dual residency between city and countryside dates back even farther, recalling the ancestral Andean practice of vertical integration between different ecological zones as a strategy for economic survival. In modern times, massive numbers of campesinos expelled from the Altiplano by failed agrarian reform and structural adjustment policies (exacerbated by environmental degradation and climate change) have fueled the rapid growth of major urban centers like La Paz/El Alto.
Like their Mexican counterparts, these urban migrants maintain strong ties with their native rural communities, owning land in the countryside and returning there to grow crops, participate in assemblies, and even maintain leadership positions. Some rural mayors live in El Alto during the week, effectively establishing an urban seat for their Altiplano constituents. These relationships also help to promote indigenous solidarity across rural/urban boundaries. For example, when peasant-led blockades during the 2003-5 “Gas Wars” caused food shortages in El Alto, most Alteños identified with the campo, despite their immediate economic hardship as consumers.
In the run-up to Bolivia’s decennial census, held on November 21, bus terminals in La Paz/El Alto were overwhelmed with residents scrambling to return to their native communities before the mandatory national travel ban kicked in. Local authorities fearing cuts in government funding allocations—which are largely based on population—had threatened to confiscate their lands and houses, cut off services, or impose heavy fines if they did not return for the count. Some rural mayors even hired buses to transport residents from and back to La Paz for free.
Government officials acknowledged that the double residency issue could significantly distort the census findings, and even result in double-counting (since the rural census extended for three days, while the urban count and travel ban was limited to one). Officially, residents were encouraged to be counted in the location where they primarily live and consume services, although they could not be forced to do so. President Evo Morales affirmed  to the nation that he would be counted in La Paz, his primary place of residence since 2006, despite counter-pressures from his native village in Oruro and his coca farming sindicato in the Chapare region of Cochabamba where he maintains land.
Still, the governor of the La Paz department (state) pointedly returned to his native community for the census, declaring that he resided in the city only “circumstantially,” for work. He also urged all departmental natives who had emigrated to other regions, or abroad, to be counted in their communities of origin, to maximize the number of departmental seats in the national Assembly, also based on population. (La Paz is expected to gain 2 seats but the rapidly growing Santa Cruz department in the eastern lowlands will gain 3, at the expense of other western highlands departments which are losing population.)
Bolivia’s powerful social movements were divided on the issue. The three largest campesino federations (representing rural farmers, peasant women, and migrant settlers, respectively) instructed their members  to return to their communities of origin. Urban neighborhood federations like FEJUVE-El Alto, fearing a mass exodus on census day by the city’s largely migrant population, spearheaded a campaign with the local mayor under the slogan, “I am an Alteño at heart, so I will be counted in my city.”
As anthropologist Xavier Albó  has noted, both the census and the government’s resource allocation policies are at fault for failing to adequately recognize the phenomenon of dual residency and its historic economic and political benefits. Fortunately, the Bolivian government seems to agree, and is now considering alternative methodologies  for the distribution of municipal and departmental resources, taking into account such additional measures as poverty, basic needs, food security, environmental conditions, and urban vs. rural inequities. There is also talk of expanding the size of the Assembly to avoid a controversial reallocation of departmental seats. Minimizing political strife ahead of the 2014 presidential election could be a strong motivating factor.
Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s weekly blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (nacla.org/blog/rebel-currents ).