#17 sharing
Peter Strack

A Traditional Shareconomy

Indigenous communities in the Andes traditionally manage commons such as water. Their potential is still not exhausted.

The negative effects of climate change are hitting the groups the hardest that already number among the world's poorest and most marginalised. In Latin America, these are often indigenous groups who live in (traditional) societies and depend heavily on natural resources. While certainly not a new problem, it poses the challenge of how to move past simply complaining about climate change and finding solutions. These marginalised groups and their communities should not be simply viewed as victims and relics of traditional societies in need of protection. It is well worth exploring their organisational forms more closely, as these often offer possible approaches.

Traditional water management

The indigenous (Quechua) Quispillaccta community in the highlands of Ayacucho in Peru is a good example. The community manages its own water resources, a process locals refer to as “water care”. It is reviving techniques used in Andean agriculture and still familiar just a few generations ago. The conservation process is integrally associated with community and religious rituals and festivals, which has also led to a re-evaluation of traditional roles in the community. Traditional leaders are involved in the community-wide effort to protect water reserves and their use.
Conserving water reserves requires a number of concrete steps, including cultivating plants and trees to retain water in the soil and working together to construct ponds at high altitudes to catch the increasingly powerful downpours during the rainy season. The ponds allow water to filter through the mountain instead of eroding the soil as run-off. The rainwater later emerges from new mountain springs at lower altitudes where it irrigates the meadows and fields. The Quispillaccta model is bearing fruit and these activities are spreading to neighbouring communities. The public water supply in the city of Ayacucho also benefits (known as positive externalities in economics), raising the question of the extent to which the city can promote these activities.

These compensation payments are replacing development aid that used to flow into Quispillaccta to fund the measures.

Most recently, the citizens of Ayacucho decided to make a small financial contribution to help the mountain communities in the highlands build additional ponds and purchase the materials for reforestation and other conservation methods. These compensation payments are replacing development aid that used to flow into Quispillaccta to fund the measures. The success of this model is based on the fact that water is not viewed as an object of speculation. The payments strengthen the local communities in performing their environmental services and solve the free-loader problem, since the money represents a positive contribution from the members of the overriding ecosystem who are not part of the community actively working to conserve the water. This model has been so successful that the regional government of the neighbouring Ica region recently adopted it as well.

Indigenous government?

While this model is still limited to regional policy in Peru, in neighbouring Bolivia, the national government is actively incorporating indigenous principles. Leading the charge is President Evo Morales who grew up in an Aymaran village and once organized social protests. Morales announced a decolonization of the country, which included declaring indigenous languages official languages, granting the Wiphala flag equal status with the Bolivian flag in 2009, and anchoring the principle of a good life, which is based on indigenous concepts, in the new constitution of the “plurinational state”. Yet even in Bolivia, indigenous community structures have continued to be ignored in favour of centralized development policy.

It is a culture of mutual aid and the exchange of materials, rituals and territory, though the territories need not be contiguous.

The country is home to a number of indigenous communities collectively referred to as the allyus. Their organisational principles and economic and social ties to the external world are similar to the Peruvian Quispillaccta community. Fernando Antezana, sociologist and Director of the Bolivian non-governmental organisation Pusisuyu, describes what characterises these communities: “[Ayllu] is based on an independent territory and shared lineage. It is a culture of mutual aid and the exchange of materials, rituals and territory, though the territories need not be contiguous. The ability of families to earn a living and the conservation of nature have been made possible by the autonomous use of land, water, and forest at different ecological altitudes. (…) Even if families had small fields surrounding their homes, most crops were grown on community land and access was organised collectively. Additionally there was a focus on the preservation of the commons, and of nature in particular. Together the community decided which manta (fields) would be planted and which would be allowed to lie fallow to regenerate. There were also fields used conjointly by more than one community so everyone had access to all ecological zones.”
The ayllu is unique because it is organised according to principles of rotating responsibility, mutual assistance and shared use of products. The structure reflects a traditional form of administering the commons. Yet after agricultural and land reforms, individual property trumps communal property today. Fewer village associations have access to land in different agricultural zones and their dependence on money and the market has risen. The free exchange of knowledge and products (such as seeds) is increasingly being replaced by markets.

Exploring history instead of idealisation

When exploring traditional organisational forms, it is a mistake to simply idealise them. Anthropologist and economist Bernardo Corro Barrientos points out the many different forms allyu has taken over the course of history. The allyus were not a community of equal smallholder farmers under the Incas or the Spanish crown. Community services were not limited to creating the commons (roads, warehouses, terraces). They were also a means of paying taxes (even including working in the mines), initially to the Incas, then to the Spanish crown and its henchmen, and ultimately to large landowners after Bolivia's independence and after 1874 in particular. The agricultural reforms of 1953 struck another blow to the allyus. They favoured family ownership over community ownership and introduced the Sindicato Agrario – a union-like community organisation dominated by men.
Migration increased as well. The Military-Peasant Pact under General René Barrientos' government in the 60s weakened the allyus as did the People's Participation Act in the 90s. While not directly affiliated with the government, the new participation and supervisory committees were still strongly influenced by political parties. They competed with the consensus-oriented decision-making processes of the allyus. All this weakened the connection of the allyus to nature, which in turn devalued the reproduction of their traditional livelihood (the protection of the commons). The intensity of this development differed based on geographical location and degree of dominance.

Allyu and the state today

…“buen vivir”, a concept not only anchored in the Bolivian constitution, but which has also inspired global debate on a “post-growth society”.

Throughout the ages there have also been mostly autonomously governed indigenous communities that base their survival on Andean agriculture. Though they have been unable to prevent the massive deforestation of the Andes, the principles of a life in harmony with nature and human interactions based on reciprocity and respect have survived to the present day. This way of thinking is the foundation of the indigenous principle of “good living” or “buen vivir”, a concept not only anchored in the Bolivian constitution, but which has also inspired global debate on a “post-growth society”. Despite all processes of modernisation, a renaissance of indigenous cultures has been taking place in Bolivia, particularly as a response to neoliberal reforms.

The Bolivian allyus founded a supraregional confederation in 1997, the Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas des Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ, National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu) to represent their interests in a national context. This was a step towards achieving recognition of allyu principles beyond the village level. CONAMAQ is a relatively small stakeholder within the Bolivian indigenous movement. More indigenous peoples are organised into sindicatos that combine union and indigenous organisational structures. And CONAMAQ recently, rather than acting as a grassroots organisation for the movement, it has entered into political party instrumentalization, resulting in a split and the retreat of the independent traditional authorities back to their communities or farmsteads. The new Bolivian constitution for which indigenous President Evo Morales and his MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) party fought so hard does not consistently implement the plurinational state demanded by indigenous organisations. Speaking about large extractivist projects, Fernando Antezana notes: “It is a top-down autonomy in which the indigenous communities are supposed to follow the same governmental rules as every other municipality, rules foreign to their culture. Their control over their territory has even been limited. The money comes from the state. (…) They (...) cannot control the market, they no longer have control over technology, they are more dependent on the impact of climate change and are increasingly less able (…) to follow their own rhythms.”

Is allyu still relevant?

After ongoing protests and street blockades, water management was transferred from the hands of an international corporation back to the community.

Is the allyus actually losing relevance as part of the “Proceso de Cambio” under President Evo Morales, who pledged to strengthen indigenous cultures and the rights of Mother Earth? Fernando Antezana contends that a stronger instrumental relationship to nature has crystallised over time and focus on the state as an institution has increased. On the other hand, Félix Patzi Gonzáles argues that very little information about ayllu structure makes it invisible to the outside world and that indigenous communities are active in geographical and political referential entities depending on the political climate. As mentioned, currently some representatives of the CONAMAQ have withdrawn from the larger political stage. This does not however indicate a fundamental departure from indigenous community concepts. Soon the thunderous cry (“rugir”) of the indigenous masses may again resound in protest. And perhaps current politicians such as Evo Morales might rediscover their indigenous sides, and not just at environmental summits, but also in practice once they come up against the limits of extraactivism. This could take place in both isolated and urban regions, as with the so-called “water war” that took place in Cochabamba in 2000. Unlike in most of the rest of the world, here the privatization of water was successfully prevented. An alliance of smallholder farmers and urban dwellers promoted the explicitly indigenous understanding of water as a gift of nature. After ongoing protests and street blockades, water management was transferred from the hands of an international corporation back to the municipality.

The potential of allyu in modern society

This focus on sufficiency means accepting the “limits of growth” as a means of conserving nature.

Even if allyu organisational forms are often hidden from the public eye, their principles often reverberate well into the cities. Migrants from indigenous communities move to join others of similar background. Fernando Antezana calls this migration pattern an “appropriation of the city by the rural population.” While this does not result in an urban allyu, it does generate close relationships between urban migrants and the rural allyus from which they originate. Antezana sees this as the answer to a risk society. Weakly defined formal social security systems in particular require “creating or strengthening social networks”. Some examples include the election of traditional authorities in the city in isolated instances, or fields planted by communities with the yield going to fund a childcare centre.
What are the advantages of allyu as the organisational basis of Andean agriculture in contrast to other ways of preserving the commons? First, unlike the mancomunidades (associations of municipalities) for example, allyu is not limited to political borders with adjacent municipalities. It is based more on functional socio-ecological connections. Second, it serves as an organisational reservoir of knowledge from experience with the local conditions gathered over centuries. Quispillaccta is just one good example: If the landscape is to be prevented from drying out, water has to be filtered and accompanied by “friendly” plants. So the ponds are never made entirely leak-proof. Concrete is avoided whenever possible, unlike with the previous Rio Cachi development project planned by engineers, where the channels often run dry today. A third advantage is the nature worshipping aspect of allyu. People do not view themselves as the measure of all things, masters of their environment. Instead they see their role as part of the “pacha”. This focus on sufficiency means accepting the “limits of growth” as a means of conserving nature. Respect for other people along with respect for nature conceived of as a living entity lead to increased awareness of functional connections and thus to more appropriate behaviour. Like in any religion, actual daily practice does not always conform to the theoretical postulates. But the potential of the principles and practices of allyu for government policy and community organisation in protecting and using the commons has most certainly not yet been exhausted.

Photo: “Calles de la Paz” by Piero Teardo
20014 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

Related Articles

Hipster’s Hype, Smallholder’s Reality

Due to rising demand, quinoa production and prices skyrocketed in the last few years.

» more

Indigenous People, Native Communities

Preservation of the land is a prerequisite for survival in native communities.

» more

Preserving Our Land

Seed banks are a vital insurance for smallholders’ livelihood. A journey to Santiago Yaitepec shows the need and benefits of local, agricultural self-aid.

» more

Towards the Good Life?

Indigenous groups in Latin America fight for visibility and participation. They could make valuable contributions to the Post-2015 Agenda.

» more