The Hands That Feed Us

September 25, 2007

Llama blood splashes onto the dry soil, spattering the walls of nearby adobe houses. The farmers of Río Palca, an Aymara community in Northern Potosí, are offering a sacrifice to the Pachamama, the earth mother, in the hope that she will revive their parched crops and bring fertility to their land and people.

The October ritual of ñak’araku--the feeding of the earth with animal blood--takes on a special intensity in this highland community where almost the only vegetation is the spiky ch’illa shrub which dots the barren landscape.[1] The potato seed stores, pits dug out of the hard ground, are empty. Women carrying children in shawls on their backs collect water at the only source: a dry river bed where they scrape the mud and wait for a small pool to form.

In the midst of drought and deprivation, the fiesta bursts through with the raucous sound of pan pipes, from musicians who kneel and play beneath a tattered banner. For the villagers of Río Palca, the ritual is less a celebration than a plea to natural forces, their only hope in a constant struggle for survival. Soon they will set off on a two-day pilgrimage to join communities from the surrounding area at the shrine of Panacachi. But first they will eat and drink in the house of their preste, this years’s sponsor who confirms his status as leader by sharing his harvest with the entire community.[2]

For some, native ceremonies are picturesque remnants of the past glory of Andean peoples; others scorn the elaborate rituals as vain superstitions which have no place in a would-be modern society. “If these people are really so poor, why do they waste time and money getting drunk and dancing around?” a La Paz bank cashier complained to me recently. “No wonder they can’t get ahead. What this country needs is hard work and initiative.” Solidarity, reciprocity and sharing of available resources--central features of Bolivia’s indigenous cultures--are values which the dominant society would prefer to dismiss as obsolete.

While the geographical isolation of native communities like Río Palca perpetuates their lack of access to the benefits of modern society, it also helps people maintain ways of life where culture and economy are part of an integrated whole. Peasant farmers tend to opt for minimizing risk, not maximizing profit. Exchange rather than sale of produce is still widespread. Families invest in two things: livestock, which can be sold in an emergency; and the fiesta, which strengthens ethnic identity and bonds of mutual obligation, ensuring group survival.

Bolivia is the most indigenous nation in the Americas: 65% of the population is Aymara or Quechua and 2.5% belongs to some 40 lowland ethnic groups. Almost half are bilingual, learning Spanish after a native mother tongue, while 5% of men and 10% of women speak no Spanish at all.[3] Most indigenous Bolivians live in rural areas in conditions of extreme poverty.

The country’s native majority has been largely ignored by the select group--white, urban and strongly identified with Western values and lifestyles--who have traditionally held political power. “The ‘official’ Bolivia is quite apart from the ‘real’ Bolivia,” comments agrarian economist and left-wing congressional deputy Miguel Urioste. “And the ‘official’ current doesn’t accept that this is an Indian nation.”

A Western-style model such as the New Economic Policy (NEP) has singular effects when imposed on the ‘real’ Bolivia, where almost half the labor force still works on the land and 95% of agricultural producers are peasant farmers.[4] Structural adjustment policies aimed at increasing export income and freeing currency for foreign debt payments postpone basic needs and human rights until some future moment when economic growth will, in theory, start to trickle down to those on the lower rungs of society. But in a country like Bolivia, the “lower rungs” make up most of the social ladder.

“Certain campesino sectors will lose their lands,” admits the Agrarian Reform Commission. “This is an inevitable, if painful, consequence of development.”[5] Antonio Aramayo, director of the rural development center Qhana, is less sanguine. “The government’s idea is to take away their land once and for all and complete the denial of indigenous territorial rights which began with the Conquest.”

Somewhat unjustly termed “subsistence” farmers, peasant families actually produce two thirds of the food supply for the country’s 6.4 million inhabitants.[6] This feat is achieved in the face of daunting obstacles: scant access to credits and modern technology, lack of roads and transportation and harsh climatic conditions, all giving rise to abysmally poor living conditions and low productivity.

Small producers subsidize living standards for the urban population by providing food cheaply, even in the face of increased taxation on the goods they themselves must purchase. Escalating rural transport costs cut into farmers’ already meager profits. Between 1985 and 1987, transport charges rose three times as much as the price of potatoes.[7]

“Our main problem is that our goods sell so cheaply, we can’t compensate labor costs,” explains a farming union leader from the valley province of Mizque. “Instead of getting ahead, we campesinos are getting poorer all the time. Since we don’t have our own transport, we depend on middlemen, and they just say: ‘Your roads are no good, I can hardly get my truck through here. I won’t pay you any more for your produce--take it or leave it.’”

A 1989 United Nations study found that more than half of all Bolivians live in “relative poverty,” with insufficient income to cover their basic needs. A million more suffer “critical poverty,” having so few resources that even when all these are spent on food, they cannot satisfy minimal nutritional requirements. The most impoverished are small farmers and indigenous rural workers.[8]

Eighty per cent of these Bolivians are crowded onto small farms in these altiplano and valley areas which cover only 35% of national territory.[9] Pressure on the land has grown progressively since the 1953 Agrarian Reform, which did away with feudal estates that had kept peasants in semi-slavery, but also further eroded pre-Columbian systems of communal landholding, transforming farmers into small property-owners.[10] Each subsequent generation brought new land divisions, and today most plots are too small to ensure family subsistence from farming alone.

A third of small producers leave their farms for part of each year to work in the cities, coca fields or lowland harvests.[11] Some migrate for seasonal work in neighboring countries. For months on end, some 25,000 families leave the highlands and valleys to work on tropical sugar and cotton plantations.[12] “We are treated worse than animals, crowded together in sheds without decent food or health care,” says César López of the cotton workers.

Recent years have seen a growing exodus of farmers who make permanent homes away from their native communities. The last national census in 1976 found that two thirds of Bolivians lived on the land. Now, the National Population Council estimates it to be closer to one half.[13]

Many migrants move to the Chapare region to the northeast of Cochabamba, where 80% of Bolivia’s coca leaf is grown, most of which ends up as cocaine.[14] “I left my village because there wasn’t anything to eat,” explains Sebastián Felipe, a coca farmer who lives a mile down a muddy rutted path from the Chapare town of Villa Sajta. “Besides, our land was being broken into smaller plots as the number of people in our community grew. I still have a home in my village, but I doubt that I will ever move back there. The land just can’t support my family.” Altiplano campesino union leader Jacinto Huarachi says that half of the two hundred families in his village have left in the past five years, heading either for the city or for the Chapare.

Newcomers push further into the Chapare’s thick undergrowth, as much as 15 miles from the highway. Growers transport their coca on bicycles or on their backs to the roadside where it is sold to middlemen. Other crops can’t compete with coca, not just because of its price but because it produces four yearly harvests, even in poor soils, and is easy to transport. “Because we lack roads and pack animals, we have to carry 60 pounds of bananas about 10 miles to market on our back,” says Celestino Mamani. “There we are paid three bolivianos [about 75 cents] for the bananas. Even when the price is low we get more for coca.”

The coca growers union is the key authority in these areas. “When new colonizers arrive,” explains leader Víctor Jiménez, “the first thing they do is form a local branch which then approaches the regional union for membership.” The union decides everything in the colonization zones, from resolving conflicts to determining the size of plots. “Our local branch organized everyone in the community to build the school and road,” says Jiménez.

Coca growers are now a strategic force in the labor movement, not just in the National Confederation of Peasant Farmers (CSUTCB) but in the Bolivian Workers Confederation (COB), the umbrella organization which unites all workers. Within the CSUTCB, other changes have become apparent since the introduction of the NEP. In the past, peasant demands tended to be global calls for society-wide structural change. Since 1985, demands have become increasingly specific petitions to the state for attention to rural needs. These demands may include as many as 40 separate items, reflecting a steady dispersion and atomization of the campesino movement. They also indicate a certain inability to synthesize essential points which could serve to mobilize the movement and bring real pressure to bear on the government.

“Our petitions are supposed to rally the movement, but in reality, this isn’t happening,” said a campesino leader in a recent forum. “There are no main points which awaken the interest of peasant farmers. And the negotiations involved are so long and wearing. What the movement needs is just two or three concrete issues to organize around. Slogans are no good any more. But I would still say that the union has some power to negotiate with the government.”[15]

The authors of the NEP are by no means optimistic about the prospects for rural development. “Although the adjustment policies and liberalization implemented since August 1985 have been healthy and positive for the economy as a whole,” states a report by the government’s economic analysis unit UDAPE, “these policies have had less clear effects for the agricultural sector...(which) still remains in a state of depression.”[16]

A stroll through the markets of any Bolivian city makes it clear there is no shortage of food on sale. Stores and street stalls are piled high with fruit, a wide range of fresh vegetables, carcasses of meat, cartons of eggs and stack upon stack of packaged, canned and processed goods. But most shoppers will tell you that foreign produce is better and cheaper than Bolivian varieties. Even potatoes, the staple of the highlands and the main crop grown by altiplano farmers, are brought in by the truckload from neighboring Peru.

Urban consumers welcome the impressive array of goods on sale which provides a welcome contrast to the long lines, sparsely laden stalls and empty shelves of 1982-1985. At that time, price controls gave rise to a flourishing contraband trade and subsidized food disappeared over the border to benefit Bolivia’s five neighbors.

To avoid the social tensions generated by such shortages, the NEP lifted controls on many imports and opened the borders to foreign goods, guaranteeing abundant food supplies at prices regulated only by the forces of supply and demand. Prices have been lowered not just by the influx of legally imported goods but by contraband, as increasing numbers of unemployed city dwellers cross the borders to bring back cheaper foreign goods.

Another competitor with campesino producers is so-called humanitarian aid in the form of food donations, mainly from the United States, equivalent to 30% of national agricultural production.[17] Such food aid has effectively lowered agricultural prices still further, especially in the case of wheat. In 1991, 80% of Bolivia’s wheat requirements will be supplied through donations and imports.[18] “By the time we get our harvest in, the price will be rock bottom,” complains a farmer from the Cochabamba valley. “The mills are full of U.S. wheat.”

NEP theoreticians claim they expected Bolivian farming to respond favorably to the injection of “healthy competition” from abroad. But instead of being stimulated to produce more in order to keep pace with the influx of cheap imports, peasant farmers simply back out of the market, unable to compete on such unequal terms.

While national agriculture--already grossly handicapped by lack of technology, infrastructure, investment and credits--is left to fend for itself, Bolivia’s neighbors continue subsidizing their farmers, just as the United States, Canada and Europe do even in the face of immense agricultural surpluses. Economic consultants to the Bolivian government have had to admit the model’s failure to surpass or even maintain previous levels of food production. “There has clearly been a loss in well-being and the country’s food security may be at risk,” states former NEP adviser Juan Antonio Morales. Morales concludes that national borders were opened too suddenly to foreign imports without taking due consideration of Bolivia’s incapacity to compete with subsidized goods produced in more favorable conditions. “Undue emphasis on the aspect of prices,” warns Morales, “can breed neglect of direct ways to stimulate agriculture.” The direct ways he mentions include investment, irrigation, education, roads and access to credit.[19] Even the government’s UDAPE concludes that manipulation of prices and costs alone can have little effect on productivity where agriculture has not yet been modernized.[20]

Such conclusions are somewhat inconvenient, since the NEP rules out the increases in public spending which structural support to agriculture would demand. In 1988, national treasury funds provided only nine million bolivianos ($3.9 million) to the Ministry of Agriculture, equivalent to 0.55% of all resources allocated.[21] One third of the total budget for agriculture was provided by external funding, indicating a corresponding loss of national autonomy in policy making and suggesting that multilateral bankers give it greater priority than the Bolivian government.

A model which promotes food handouts and conspires against production demonstrates a strange logic, quite at odds with indigenous economies and ways of life. After 500 years of domination, the weakness and dependency of the Bolivian state contrast with the strength of the country’s native traditions. Indigenous social organizations have evolved numerous strategies to resist and coexist with the values of a powerful minority. “This is our great wealth,” asserts Antonio Aramayo, director of Qhana. “Our history and culture, which form the starting point for a new society built on the basis of who we really are.”

The continuing vitality of Bolivia’s native peoples was clearly displayed last August when 800 members of ethnic groups from the tropical lowlands marched for 33 days from the cattle town of Trinidad to the administrative capital of La Paz to demand official protection for their native territories, threatened by lumber companies and cattle ranchers. The March for Territory and Dignity culminated in a historic meeting on a mountain pass outside the city between leaders from highland and lowland ethnic cultures. Government promises to sanction the marchers’ territorial rights have, as yet, to be fulfilled. But the march stands out in the year’s events as an affirmation of ethnic strength.

Could the cultural values of indigenous peasant farmers be translated into an alternative model for development? For some institutions that work closely with the rural population, the key for the future lies in building economic strategies to give peasant communities a firmer base on which to mobilize for the defense of their rights. “We used to work much more around organizational issues,” recalls Antonio Aramayo of Qhana. “Now we’re paying more attention to campesino-run economic enterprises which can provide communities with greater security and capacity to negotiate with the model. If you like, it’s a more realistic approach...but deep down, it’s our utopian vision, our belief in new forms of social struggle, which give us life and hope.”

For Guaraní leader Evelio Arambisa, “the themes of land rights, territory, native authorities and economic organization are all tied up with the concept of self-determination. Many indigenous communities already manage their own economies. What we want is autonomy to govern ourselves and define our own economic future.”

Historian Tania Melgar of Trinidad’s coordinating body for solidarity with indigenous groups believes “the alternative of indigenous development does exist, although some are skeptical about this possibility. But we can’t allow such doubts to stand in the way of native peoples in working out their own future. Should there be only one line of national development, or various economic systems within a multinational state? In the end, the people themselves will decide.”

“Indigenous peoples exemplify the rational use of natural resources in the face of ecological damage caused by exploitative business interests,” points out Zulema Lehm of Beni department’s regional development center. “But they also insist that the wealth generated through the different ecosystems must be socially redistributed, a logic which enters into opposition with that of the dominant system of accumulation. What they basically stand for is a reordering of society, and in this sense their proposals represent a political challenge to the model.” It remains to be seen whether this style of development will succeed in penetrating the hard shell of the New Economic Policy.

British writer and researcher Susan Rance is a long-time resident of La Paz.

[1] Ñak’araku is actually the Quechua word for this ritual, which in Aymara is called wilancha. But as Aymara and Quechua communities are often adjacent in this area, ceremonial names tend to overlap.

[2] Such traditional Andean fiestas embody a social mechanism which enables better-off community members to redistribute part of their surplus production. Prestige and authority are won through generosity and commitment to the group, not through personal accumulation or exploitation of the labor of others. For discussion of such indigenous social mechanisms, see: Xavier Albó, Kitula Libermann, Armando Godínez, Francisco Pifarré, Para Comprender las Culturas Rurales en Bolivia (La Paz: Ministerio de Educación y Cultura/CIPCA/UNICEF, 1989); Olivia Harris, Economía Etnica (La Paz: HISBOL, 1987); Dominique Temple, Estructura Comunitaria y Reciprocidad. del Quid-pro-quo Histórico al Economicidio (La Paz: HISBOL/Chitakolla, 1989).

[3] For additional data and discussion of Bolivia’s indigenous population, see: Xavier Albó et al., Para Comprender, p. 18; Consejo Nacional de Población, “INFOPAQ: Paquete Informativo sobre la Población Boliviana” (La Paz, CONAPO, 1989); “Campesinos, the National Majority,” Bolivia Bulletin (La Paz), Vol. 1 No. 2 (March-April 1985), and “Indigenous Peoples of the Eastern Lowlands,” Vol. 3 No. 4, (Aug. 1987).

[4] See “Food and Agriculture,” Bolivia Bulletin, Vol. 1 No. 2; Vol. 4 No. 2 (April, 1988). Agriculture accounts for 22.4% of Bolivia’s gross national product. Alvaro Aguirre Badani, José Luis Pérez Ramírez, Carlos Villegas Quiroga, NPE: Recesión Económica (La Paz: CEDLA, 1990), p. 99.

[5] See “Food and Agriculture.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Juan Antonio Morales, “Impacto de los Ajustes Estructurales en la Agricultura Campesina Boliviana,” in El Impacto de la NPE en el Sector Agropecuario (La Paz:COTESU/MACA/ILDIS, 1990), p. 65.

[8] Proyecto PNUD RLA/86/004, “La Lucha contra la Pobreza en Bolivia: Consideraciones Sectoriales para una Estrategia Nacional” (La Paz: PNUD, April 1989).

[9] For geographical distribution of Bolivia’s population, see CONAPO, “INFOPAQ.”

[10] For a political history of Bolivia from 1952-1982, see James Dunkerley, Rebellion in the Veins, (London: Verso, 1984). On agrarian reform, see chs. 1 and 2.

[11] Miguel Urioste F. de C., Resistencia Campesina: Efectos de la Política Económica Neoliberal del Decreto Supremo 21060 (La Paz: CEDLA, 1989), pp. 44-47.

[12] “Campesinos: the National Majority,” Bolivia Bulletin, Vol. 1 No. 2.

[13] Migration picked up with the 1983-1984 droughts and floods which devastated large areas. Since 1985, the flow has continued, as state policies erode already precarious living standards for farming families. For data on Bolivia’s process of urbanization, see CONAPO, “INFOPAQ.”

[14] The rest of Bolivia’s coca comes from the Yungas region outside La Paz, where the leaf is mainly grown for traditional consumption: chewing, tea or ritual use. Coca’s contribution increased from 8% of the agricultural sector’s net value in 1980 to 19% in 1988. Ibid. p. 100.

[15] Quoted in Miguel Urioste, Resistencia Campesina, p. 138.

[16] Unidad de Análisis de Políticas Económicas (UDAPE), “Análisis del Impacto de las Políticas Macroeconómicas y Factores Externos en el Sector Agrícola,” in El Impacto de la NPE, p. 170.

[17] El Día (Santa Cruz), Jan. 1, 1991.

[18] Presencia (La Paz), Sept. 24, 1990.

[19] Juan Antonio Morales, “Impacto de los Ajustes,” pp. 67-69.

[20] UDAPE, “Análisis del Impacto,” pp. 174-175.

[21] Miguel Urioste, Resistencia Campesina, p. 23.

Tags: Bolivia, Indigenous, racism, campesinos, Coca

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