Coping with Austerity in Highland Bolivia


By almost any reckoning, Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. More than half the population comprises Quechua- and Aymara-speaking people, of whom the majority are peasant farmers in the altiplano (high Andean plateau) and intra-Andean valleys. Although they produce most of the domestic food supply, they are among the most undernourished people in the country.

The Quechua and Aymara are descended from unique civilizations that evolved in the Andean highlands over several millennia before the sixteenth century Spanish invasion. Once under Spanish domination, they stopped developing new civilizations and instead devised strategies to survive the centuries of oppression which followed. In the early 1950s. Bolivia became the first Andean country to abolish its semi-feudal hacienda system. Nevertheless, urban-based mestizo elites have since maintained their preponderant economic and political power, and indigenous peasants have continued to face a daunting array of threats to their economic livelihood and cultural integrity.

The semi-arid landscape of Canton Yura, in southern Bolivia's Potosí Department, is reminiscent of the southwestern United States: expanses of sandy scrub land are interspersed with rock outcroppings and discrete pastures fed by streams from surrounding largely barren escarpments. Sixty miles from Potosí city, the region's only highway - an unpaved, deeply rutted road - approaches the Yura River and winds through Pecataya, a community of Aymara-speaking peasants.

Virtually all the cultivation here - mainly corn, potatoes and broad beans - is on small, family plots located within a few hundred yards of the river. Amid this forbidding landscape, more than two miles above sea level, agricultural subsistence is clearly a tenuous enterprise. Most families have less than two acres of land.

"Sometimes we are able to grow enough to sell in other communities, to try to cover our production expenses," Pedro Cabrera, speaking in Spanish, told a visitor. "But never enough to send out to the big markets. We do not have enough fertile lands. Our economic level is getting worse and worse."

Several years of drought, which destroyed most of the crops in Pecataya, ended late last year with good rains. But in January, an unseasonable frost brought further crop losses.

"We do have some crops this year," said another man, "but we have never had enough water for irrigation."

The level of the Yura River has dropped significantly over the past few years, but not just because of erratic rainfall. A new power plant, built primarily to serve a nearby mine, draws its water from an intake upstream from Pecataya. To those who can afford it, the plant supplies electricity - an amenity that is rare in rural Bolivia, and somewhat anomalous in a community struggling just to feed itself. There's little doubt that the people of Pecataya would gladly trade their access to electricity for the technical assistance and irrigation equipment they need to expand their acreage to the sandy slopes above the river.

Traditional Adaptations

Short of land and water, imperiled by a harsh climate, Pecataya exemplifies the precarious nature of agriculture in the Bolivian highlands. But natural forces alone do not account for the vulnerability of these peasants. Pre-colonial societies prospered at even higher, seemingly more prohibitive altitudes. These societies' resilience depended partly on their ability to develop food crops adapted to the demanding climate; and partly on the systems they evolved for exchanging food and other products among the diverse ecological zones on the mountain slopes. (In the grasslands above 13,000 ft., herding llamas, sheep and other livestock is the main form of subsistence. At somewhat lower elevations, cultivation of potatoes and other native crops is limited largely to the spring and summer rainy period; frost severely limits dry season agriculture the rest of the year.)

In Potosí and many other regions, this exchange took place through allyus - extended kinship groups that controlled lands scattered from the altiplano to the warmer, more fertile lowlands. For example, highlanders could obtain wood and vegetables from their peers in the valley in return for wool and dried meat.

These traditional, diversified landholding patterns - which provided some protection from the sorts of climatic vagaries which have beset Pecataya - were disrupted during the colonial era. To facilitate tax collection and religious conversion, Spanish authorities forced indigenous peoples out of their dispersed settlements and into "communities" that could be more easily controlled. Even today, many of the indigenous peasants in highland Bolivia live in "communidades originales" that date from this resettlement program.

The best lands in the highlands, meanwhile, were taken over by Spanish and mestizo elites as haciendas. Peasants who lived in these latifundia were required to perform unpaid labor - in the owner's fields and household - in exchange for the "right" to farm small subsistence plots. This system prevailed until 1952, with hacienda owners profiting from the sale of food and wool to cities and mining centers.


A national agrarian reform followed Bolivia's 1952 revolution and redistributed the estate lands to resident peasants. But in redressing some of the old inequities in the highlands, the reform created new ones and failed to address some of the most critical needs of peasant farmers.

Typically, families received titles to several dispersed plots of land which were generally too small to make mechanization feasible - even if the farmers could afford to buy tractors or other equipment (which most of them could not, given the lack of available credit). Over the years, these holdings and other marginal plots have been further subdivided through inheritance. As a result, a reform program that was praised 30 years ago for abolishing the latifundia is widely criticized nowadays for the proliferation of relatively unproductive minifundia - such as those in Pecataya.

Meanwhile, government pricing policies tended to favor consumers in urban areas and mining centers at the expense of peasant producers. Large-scale imports of basic grains - principally wheat, in the form of US food aid - undercut domestic production. (Bolivia's domestic wheat production has declined over the past 10 years, while wheat imports have increased more than six-fold.) Government investments in agriculture went preponderantly to large commercial farms in the eastern lowlands producing cotton and sugar cane.

Over the past few years, growing numbers of indigenous peasants from Potosí and other highland regions have migrated to the eastern lowlands to work as field laborers on commercial farms around Santa Cruz, or as coca processors in tropical Chapare. (Leaving the land to work in the mines is no longer an option since the mining industry has declined. In any event, a coca processor can earn $30, the equivalent of a miner's monthly salary, in just three nights' work.)

From the point of view of the country's current leadership, a rise in the number of landless rural laborers isn't an entirely bad thing. Minifundia are seen as an impediment to agricultural "modernization". In the prevailing climate of laissez-faire capitalism, "modernization" means promoting medium- and large-scale commercial enterprises that rely on landless workers to produce goods for domestic sale and export. Earlier this year, the president of the National Council for Agrarian Reform told an interviewer:

[It] is necessary to create a proletarian class because if we give all the campesinos in the country a plot of one or two hectares, the whole country will be converted into a nation of minifundia…

Yet small landholders produce about 70 percent of the food grown in Bolivia, according to a recent UN study.

"If it weren't for the peasants and the miners, there would be absolutely nothing," said Lucila Morales, a leader of the national Federation of Peasant Women. "We are the ones who work the land. We are the producers, and we are the ones who support the cities."

Nevertheless, more than three-fourths of Bolivia's rural population draw incomes too low to meet their basic dietary needs. According to a 1981 survey by the National Institute of Food and Nutrition, 50 percent of the children under 5 (and 62 percent in the altiplano) suffer from chronic malnutrition. A 1978 survey showed the infant mortality rate among the Quechua and Aymara to be roughly double that for the population, largely urban, whose primary language is Spanish.


When asked about health care in the former hacienda of Chullchunghani, a peasant farmer had a starkly simple answer. The nearest clinic was three miles away, he said, and treatment cost money.

"Some of us don't have money to pay for the doctor's care," he explained. "If there is money we will always get better. If there is no money, we will always die."

Low income was a common complaint in Chullchunghani, a Quechua community of dispersed, mud-brick homesteads high in an upper valley (elevation 10,100 ft.) east of Cochabamba city. The problem here was not so much a shortage of land - most families own more than five hectares - but rather, declining terms of trade for their produce.

Market Economy

As recently as 50 years ago, highland residents in more isolated areas were able to produce or obtain through barter most of what they needed. But in the past three decades, they've grown increasingly dependent on markets, both as producers and consumers. They have little control over the prices they get for their produce; and to get their crops to market, they're dependent on truck-owning intermediaries who tend to buy cheap and sell dear. Prices at the farm-gate for potatoes - Chullchunghani's major staple, both as food and cash crop - have not kept pace with other prices in the marketplace.

"Potatoes are selling very cheap, and what we get for them is not enough to take care of the needs of the family or anything," said Celestino Arnez. "What we get is just barely enough to buy the fertilizers, insecticides. When we cannot afford clothing, we have to sell our sheep or our cows."

Under the 1953 land reform, Chullchunghani's best lands were divided among 25 resident families. As the population grew and new settlers arrived, more marginal lands were brought into cultivation. (Today there are 89 families, each with individual holdings.) People like Arnez have come to rely increasingly on chemical fertilizer to maintain adequate yields. But because chemical fertilizer is imported, it costs Arnez more with each devaluation of Bolivia's currency. Meanwhile, in the market in Cochabamba, his potatoes are sold to urban consumers at roughly twice the price he obtains for them.

"The peasant works, and sells his product," said Hortencio Arnez, Celestino's cousin. "Then he goes to the city to buy what he needs, and when he gets there, he realizes that he does not have enough money to buy a kilo of sugar."

Small-Scale Irrigation

Although peasants in Chullchunghani may feel powerless to affect prices, they have managed to gain more control over one critical resource: water.

After a severe drought in 1982-1983 destroyed most of their potato crop, they started building a stone dam on a community-owned waterway above the valley. The resulting reservoir, they hoped, would provide insurance against future water shortages.

But the design was faulty; the dam leaked and they abandoned the project. Then in 1984, with technical and material assistance from Oxfam America, they resumed the work under supervision from engineers. It took them a year and a half to complete the dam and four miles of attendant irrigation canals.

When Oxfam America staff visited Chullchunghani last March, near the end of the annual rainy season, the reservoir was full. Just below one of the canals, Celestino Arnez was plowing a fallow half-hectare plot. He and other farmers in Chullchunghani were preparing for the first time to grow crops during the dry season: not just potatoes, but assorted vegetables and forage crops like alfalfa and barley.

"One reason peasants don't get any profits out of traditional crops is that the markets are saturated with these products," said Orlando Soriano, a Quechua-speaking agronomist who is helping to coordinate the irrigation project. "But if we change to other crops, the peasants would have a greater opportunity of getting better incomes. We could also increase the dairy cattle, sheep and so forth. That is precisely what we want to achieve by introducing diversification."

Ayo Ayo

Another form of economic diversification was being planned in Ayo Ayo, an Aymara town south of La Paz on the windswept altiplano. There, in one wing of what used to be the residence of a local hacendado, peasants from surrounding communities were building a communal sewing workshop.

A primary goal of the project was to supplement the meager incomes of peasant women by establishing a small-scale clothing-manufacturing business. The workshop was still months away from completion, but already its economic prospects were open to question. When they proposed the project in 1984, the women had hoped to produce polleras (pleated skirts). But since then, as Bolivia's economic crisis worsened, real incomes had diminished as did the market for polleras. In addition, the workshop would have to compete with the cheap polleras urban sweatshops turned out. Because the government had lifted restrictions on imports, additional competition would come from abroad. (The import liberalization was part of a national economic austerity program imposed in August 1985, which included spending cutbacks, salary freezes and the elimination of subsidies.)

Still, the peasants in Ayo Ayo expressed hope that by producing children's clothes as well as polleras, and by promoting them as locally made, they would be able to find a market among the 50,000 people who live in the area. As one of the women's husbands pointed out: "It will make a difference for people to know that the clothes were made here."


Indeed, much of what one finds in Bolivian markets nowadays - both manufactured goods and assorted foods ranging from fruits and vegetables to macaroni - is imported. Many of the foods from Chile and Argentina are low-priced in part because they're produced by farmers who benefit from the sorts of subsidies which are denied Bolivians under the current austerity program.

"We are getting onions, carrots, potatoes, from all these other countries, since there are free imports," said Lucila Morales, who is coordinating the Ayo Ayo project. "This really hurts our production, because the imported products are much cheaper than the local production, it has benefited urban consumers. They no longer have to contend with food shortage in city markets.


People in Ayo Ayo and other rural communities tend to have ambivalent attitudes towards cities. On one hand, the city serves as a market for their crops and as a place to find occasional wage labor. But the city is also a seat of alien political and economic power, a mestizo bastion of European culture which derides them as "backward" or patronizes them as "folkloric" anachronisms. The discrimination isn't just racial and socioeconomic, but cultural as well.

"In the city, from the moment we get on a colectivo [bus], we women wearing polleras get dirty looks," said Morales. "They think women wearing polleras should stay in the fields."

In the streets of Bolivian cities like Potosí and Cochabamba, peasant men working as porters - carrying enormous bundles on their backs - are a common sight. Their rural origins are obvious from their chullos (knitted caps), hand-woven clothes and Quechua speech - indigenous trappings that their urbanized employers, whose ancestry may be equally "Indian," have long since forsaken.

In the face of mestizo dominance, rural people nevertheless have ways - often, through peasant unions - of bringing pressure on the ruling elites. Among the techniques in Bolivia is the highway blockade: Peasants simply cut off the transport of all food to the cities. People in Ayo Ayo, for example, recall the blockade of La Paz in 1979, a 10-day protest of government policy.

Perhaps the most famous blockade of all was organized by one of Ayo Ayo's own. Tupaj Katari, a the Spanish in 1781, kept La Paz under siege for six months before he was finally defeated and executed. Today, a statute of Tupaj Katari stands in Ayo Ayo's plaza.

But memorials to indigenous leaders are a rare sight in Bolivian cities. The statues in the parks and the portraits hanging, on schoolroom walls, are typically of Bolivar, Sucre and other national heroes of Spanish descent.

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