New Internationalist

Questing the ayllu

Issue 410

The journey continues to North Potosí – and some surprises.

Every now and again there’s a flash of lightning that illuminates an eerie lunar landscape of partially devoured mountains, of hollowed-out dead and dying mines, and pale greenish slag heaps.

The solitary jeep carries on, through the dark, up the mountain. We’re heading into the region of North Potosí. Way below can be seen the distant twinkling lights of Catavi, a town made famous by the once massive Siglo XX mine.

This is the old heartland of Bolivia’s once-famous tin-mining industry. At its height in the 1970s the state-owned Siglo XX mine employed 5,000. By the mid-1980s, falling tin prices coupled with an aggressive IMF and World Bank-inspired neoliberal economic policy, had made redundant more than 20,000 miners and decimated not only a major industry but a strong political culture of workers’ rights, articulated through the union FST MB.

The mines that remain are mostly small, nonunionized affairs – run by foreign companies or small local groups of subsistence miners. A figure scurries across the road. Then another. These are a third category – ‘owls’ or miners who steal minerals by night.

It’s an ingenious system that’s increasingly relevant in our times of climate change

But the ability to organize and mobilize on a large scale did not die with the big state mines. Ex-miners were a profound influence on the young Evo Morales when he moved from his highland peasant home to the coca-growing region of Cochabamba. And when the Bolivian Government bowed to pressure from the US to eradicate coca production, the powerful resistance from the 60,000-strong coca-growers’ unions was partly thanks to political skills forged in the mines.

Something else was happening: a different political identity was emerging, recasting class struggle into ethnic struggle. The miners were mainly indigenous, but their dominant identity had been as working class trade unionists. Peasant farmers, including coca growers, were also predominantly indigenous but they identified as ‘campesinos’.

From the mid-1980s ‘indigenous’ as a political identity was gaining clarity. ‘We had a new generation of leaders who realized that they were Indian and were discriminated against as Indians,’ recalls Silvia Rivera. Some were quite radical, like Felipe Quispe who led the Katarista movement (named after Túpaj Katari). Bolivia’s current Vice-President, the pro-indigenous Alvaro Garcia Linera, was imprisoned for belonging to one of the few armed groups. But infighting was rife and these groups did not gain mass support.

Indigenous people, the world over, have most reason to resist neoliberalism and imperialism because they are the ones worst affected by it. It is they who lose land, habitat, jobs, culture, even traditional medicines, to multinationals backed by governments espousing freemarket ideology. Between 1997 and 2002 thousands of jobs and an estimated $600 to $900 million in revenue were lost annually to US-mandated coca eradication in Bolivia. The MAS – led by the coca-grower Evo Morales – emerged as the party best equipped to resist neoliberalism and imperialism by fusing a socialist, an indigenous and a nationalist agenda to make a strong popular alliance.

Ancient modernity

With a re-awakened indigenous consciousness came a renewed interest in alternative systems. For thousands of years indigenous Andeans have known how to farm 4,000 metres above sea level, higher than the highest mountain in Europe. At the root of this technical ability lay a social system – the ayllu or indigenous Andean community.

I have come to North Potosí because this is an area where ayllus have survived since pre-Columbian times. Working in a muddy field, along with two other men, is Victor Ara. He’s sowing potatoes. A donkey stands by a stone wall. The sky is darkening. It looks like rain.

Victor is the mallku or elected leader of the ayllu of Layme, at Calacala just outside the town of Uncia. As he’s talking to me a mobile phone falls out from under his bright pink poncho.

This community consists of five families, 42 people in all. Victor points out the different places where the community holds land – on this mountain, in that valley. This ayllu has seven mantas, or areas of cultivation.

It’s all part of an ingenious ancient system that is increasingly relevant to our times of climate change and ecological vulnerability. Each manta is used differently – one for sweet potatoes, one for onions, one for cereals, and so on – depending on its altitude and climatic conditions. Certain types of potatoes can be grown at 4,500 metres, but citrus fruits will not survive above 1,800 metres. The very highest reaches are good for grazing sheep, alpaca, llamas.

This vertical control of production dates back centuries as a means of dealing with extreme, mountainous conditions and fragile, arid soils. The main benefit of the system is that it spreads risk. In communities where the system has broken down into less diverse cultivation, hunger and malnutrition are more common.

Photo: Vanessa Baird
Victor Ara, wearing the rope that indicates his position as mallku, or elected leader of his community. Photo: Vanessa Baird

There are other ways in which the ayllu offers protection. For example, there is no private ownership of land – it all belongs to the community. A family is granted the right to use a plot for three years. It then returns it to the ayllu and the family is granted another plot. This avoids conflicts that may arise due to unequal land ownership and helps protect the production and natural resources of the ayllu.

Since Evo Morales came to power, ayllus have been attracting attention as examples of ‘small government’. There are five here in Uncia, nine in neighbouring Bustillo, and they all enjoy political recognition. Furthermore, for first time in living memory, they have a power and influence that stretches beyond their own small communities. Representatives of the ayllu can now participate in a higher rung of local government, the municipality. In the past, municipal councillors were almost always town or city dwellers and 75 per cent of public resources were spent in urban areas. Nowadays representatives from ayllus are on the council and so are involved in key decisions about how budgets are spent, for example.

Victor is talking about the poor potato harvest, the snow and heavy frosts of recent times. Looking at him and his companions, faces etched with hardship, peasant life still looks tough and precarious. But he is in no doubt that things have got better ‘since Evo’. He mentions the old-age pension, the grants for schoolchildren. But most of all, he beams, ‘we have people from the ayllus in the municipal government. We never had this before. We have equality instead of discrimination.’

Photo: Vanessa Baird
Mayor Rosa Choque: ‘Attitudes are changing, but it’s still not easy for women.’ Photo: Vanessa Baird

An unusual mayor

It’s pelting down by the time we get back to the chilly mountain town of Uncia. Market traders, mainly indigenous women, are quickly covering their stalls under blue plastic sheeting.

I’m waiting for the Mayor of Uncia. There are at least two unusual things about this mayor. One, she is a woman. Two, she is an indigenous peasant woman from an ayllu.

Rosa Choque was elected in 2007, following a corruption scandal involving the incumbent mayor.

‘There are five of us women from the ayllus in the municipality,’ she says. This helps get rural issues on to the municipal agenda. But it also affects the position of women in the ayllu. According to tradition, only men can be elected as ‘authorities’ or leaders, though a woman who is married to an authority is said to share that role with him.

Rosa is single, and so is not eligible. Yet, due to changes brought about by this Government, she can now be the community’s representative outside. Furthermore, as mayor she has considerably more influence than any male leader in her community. The new relationship between the ayllus and the municipalities has therefore given peasant women more equality and a stronger voice both within and outside their communities.

‘Attitudes are changing within the ayllus,’ says Rosa softly, firmly. ‘But it’ s still not easy for women to assume positions of authority because they are not trained for it. Sometimes the women themselves don’t want these positions. They don’t attend meetings or are there one minute and gone the next, to get on with cooking or looking after their children or their animals. In this way they let themselves be discriminated against.’

Modestly, she puts her own achievement down to the fact that she had very supportive parents, especially her late mother. ‘My father was a community leader himself. He gives me a lot of support. He looks after my animals when I cannot do it myself.’

For councillors from the ayllus, getting a grasp of the intricacies of local government is not easy. Sub-mayor Edmundo Janaco Flores, who is also from an ayllu, explains. ‘We have our own community legal system, which we know. But we also have to learn all about these other systems.’

Nations within a nation

The idea of a socially and ethnically inclusive ‘pluricultural state’ is one of the key principles of the new Bolivia. But there is also talk of a ‘pluri-national state’, one that gives greater autonomy or self-government to indigenous groups or ‘nations’. What exactly this means – and how far it should go – is still not altogether clear. Like much in Bolivia today, it’s all part of the ‘process’ of re-founding the nation.

There are obvious problem areas. Take, for example, the indigenous system of communal justice. In the muddy field, ayllu chief Victor Ara had described it to me: ‘For the first offence we just explain, call their attention to what they have done. For the second offence we castigate them with three lashes of the rope. This is symbolic, to cause shame rather than pain. For more grave offences, and where they have had warning, we may expel them from the community. And for very grave offences, there is the death penalty.’

‘Death penalty?’
‘Yes.’
‘What crimes deserve such punishment?’
‘Threatening to kill someone, infidelity, misappropriation of funds…’

Bolivia, like the rest of democratic Latin America, has abandoned the death penalty. Any such killing is treated as murder – indeed, a recent case has been going through the courts.

The communal justice approach to serious crime may not be one of the lessons to be learned from the ayllu. But there are others.

For example, the members of Victor’s ayllu don’t just farm; they also do a bit of mining. There was a mine shaft just near to where we were standing. I couldn’t see anything. ‘That’s because we don’t exploit it. It would pollute land that is used for agriculture.’

Simple as that. Look after the environment and it will look after you. Don’t just rip out everything you can because you can. Apply moderation.

This seems to me like a physical manifestation of an indigenous concept I keep bumping into – suma qamaña or vivir bien – that is, ‘to live well’. Put simply, it means to live in harmony with the community, to share, and to value the natural world.

Back in Uncia, Alex Castillo, who works with the educational organization CIPE, expands: ‘Today the world is dominated by a development model not of “live well” but “live better”. But, better than what? Better than whom? It’s about always trying to do more, to have more. “Live well,” on the other hand, is about having sufficient means to develop in an appropriate way. There are communities here that are fine as they are. Indigenous communities that don’t keep money. They have all their wealth in their animals and if they need anything they sell those.’

‘Live well’ is also about social participation and co-operation. The basis of the indigenous community – whether it’s the Andean ayllu or any other traditional indigenous grouping – is that people help each other. ‘When a family has problems it is often helped by the rest of the community,’ says Alex Castillo.’ If someone is richer, they will become godparents or give a feast. Wealth is for sharing.’

Direct way

The sharing of Bolivia’s natural wealth is a dominant theme today. Under MAS the State has pledged to do this through social programmes. But some indigenous ayllus of North Potosí are finding a rather more direct way. They have expelled private mining companies with concessions in their territory, occupied the mines and started working them collectively. Strictly speaking, this is illegal. According to Bolivian law, land rights cannot apply to what lies beneath the earth’s surface – that belongs to the state.

From a holistic, indigenous viewpoint the distinction makes no sense at all – earth, air, water are all interconnected, and it’s all ‘territory’. However, if the communities form themselves into a ‘co-operative’ then the Government can grant them a concession and they can work the mine legally. It’s a fudge, but it seems to work and communities are regaining control of mines in their own territories. As they are also farming these areas, chances are they will not be wanting to mine in an unsustainable and polluting way.

Such solutions seem a world away from the next stop on this journey. The country’s biggest city and source of the greatest resistance to the idea of creating a new and more equitable Bolivia – Santa Cruz.

Stigma cola – the banning of an indigenous wonder-food

Coca, in its natural leafy form, is possibly the most stigmatized food and medicine the world knows. Medical studies from Harvard University have shown that it has two to three times as much calcium as milk and in a form that is easily absorbed, suggesting possibilities for treating osteoporosis. It helps regulate blood sugar levels, so could help with diabetes and hypoglycaemia. It contains more protein than walnuts and has large amounts of vitamins A and E. It’s also rich in iron and potassium, good for blood and heart health. Used in a poultice, coca leaves offer relief from rheumatism and bone dislocation.

At a more mundane level, it makes flour for baking, tea for drinking, or left in its original leaf form for chewing, which has a mildly stimulating effect, similar to coffee. It could even be made into a fizzy soft drink that Bolivians could make and sell, or chewing gum, toothpaste, cosmetics.

Instead, because it is also the leaf from which the chemical drug cocaine is derived, it’s doomed. Coca is stigmatized and its legal export, from countries like Bolivia or Peru where it grows most abundantly, is restricted to a fraction of its potential. To police this restriction, the US launched coca eradication programmes in Andean countries, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of local peasant farmers. Meanwhile, half of the world’s illegal cocaine continues to be consumed in the US.

Photo: Vanessa Baird
Photo: Vanessa Baird

But coca is not cocaine, any more than natural sugar is vodka. ‘There has been a grave misunderstanding,’ says Professor Silvia Rivera (right), a leading campaigner for coca promotion. ‘I have been chewing coca every day for 30 years and I am a healthy person. I have it in the evening, after a meal – like many people have coffee. It gives natural energy but comes with nutrients.’

The legal global market for this most indigenous product – coca leaves are central to Andean religion and tradition – could be tremendous. Instead, current attitudes, and a UN Protocol prohibiting trade in coca derivatives of any kind, keep it out of health-food shops and stop Bolivians from benefiting legally from their wonder-food.

Ignorance is only part of the problem, though. Up until the 20th century, coca products were widely available in the form of drinks or sweets or anaesthetics. Then, according to Silvia Rivera, ‘a powerful lobby gave Coca-Cola virtual monopoly and use of the name. It was a manoeuvre, a conspiracy to remove from the market an indigenous product.’ Multinational pharmaceutical companies also benefit from the legal limits placed on a crop they also use.

Since coming to power, former coca-grower Evo Morales, whilst declaring war on drug trafficking, has scrapped the USimposed ‘zero-coca’ policy. Coca leaves are back at the heart of Bolivian culture – at the presidential inauguration a little bowl of leaves was placed on each seat. But it may take a while for the rest of the world to catch up.

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