"Joining the Navy to See the World"

In May 1975, Pedro Shihuango, a 19-year old Quijos Quichua Indian, and two of his friends returned home. As they stepped out of the small plane which irregularly visited Arajuno, an isolated Indian village in Ecuador's Amazonian jungle, their worldliness, and much of their earnings, shone like badges - bright polyester shirts, striped bell-bottomed pants, and leather, platform shoes. Pedro carried a new 5-band portable radio. They had spent about two years working on an African palm plantation and a short while as hotel employees at an oceanside resort.

While the plane prepared to take off, the three maneuvered awkwardly across the mud-spotted airstrip to greet their drably dressed families. The boys spent the next few days either seated in front of Arajuno's only store or strolling from house to house where, to the background blare of Pedro's radio, they described coastal plantations and their adventures there. Shamans asked them if they had ventured near the sea, the acknowledged repository of ancient souls and powerful spirits; the young men claimed that they had sunbathed without fear on the beach at Salinas. Younger boys listened enviously.

Several months later, most Arajuno males trekked off to the provincial capital after hearing rumors that oil exploration companies there were about to hire hundreds of laborers.

Outside employment was not perceived as an aberration by the villagers, even though few migrants sent remittances or accumulated much personal capital. The experiences produced "experiential capital" to be expended as fireside tales long after the boys had reestablished themselves in the village, married, fathered children, and established subsistence plots. That was what was expected. For generations, most adolescent Quichua males had left their villages for a year or more to work in other areas. Fathers told how they had built the road from Santo Domingo to Quininde and seen the violence there when organized black workers balked at wages and working conditions on plantations. Grandfathers, likewise, recounted the times when their labor helped to construct the expanding port city of Guayaquil. And a few great-grandfathers remembered how cacao plantations had dominated the coastal economy until blight destroyed the plants in the early 20th century.

For each period, descriptions of working conditions, bogus contracts, unscrupulous recruiters, and low wages illustrated deplorable abuses. Yet, as each generation ventured into regions where expanding capitalist enterprises exploited a transient Indian labor force, few complained. Economic priorities remained in the home village, where subsistence was guaranteed. Despite regular absences of some village laborers the overall village subsistence economy remained intact, usually produced a surplus, and retained lands in reserve for an expanding population.

Most wage earners eventually returned home to stay. Pedro and his friends were no exceptions. Their leather shoes quickly deteriorated in the jungle and were replaced by more sensible rubber boots. Their bright new clothes soon faded. Each married and established a household in Arajuno.

Migratory labor has formed a key aspect of adolescent development in many Indian communities, particularly where links to the national society and economy have been weak. Such employment obviously influenced Arajuno's economy but did not threaten its cultural security or self-sufficiency.

Likewise, the 1975 sudden, large-scale movement of males seeking employment with oil companies was not an unprecedented, radical shift in economic priorities. From the late 1960s until 1973 foreign companies employed hundreds of Indians and non-Indians as manual laborers to facilitate the completion of seismic surveys in the jungle. The results of these surveys determined future drilling sites. Adult males from Indian villages throughout the jungle were employed by these companies. Periods of employment varied from a few weeks to over two years. But even those who chose to work for an extended period regularly broke their contracts and returned home to clear forest, prepare gardens, or visit their families. Some of the long-term workers accumulated considerable savings, but most of this money was later spent on "luxury" goods such as watches, radios, and corrugated tin roofing material. Those who marched off to investigate employment in 1975 were motivated largely to obtain such goods. No one sought permanent employment.

Thus, temporary migration as wage laborers did not necessarily reflect the dominant economic pattern of the society.

Even those members of a community who remained closely tied to a wage economy for a period (e.g., 1-2 years) did not perceive their labor as serving primarily an economic function. For the adolescents, employment was a means whereby a segment of the population with few responsibilities obtained exotic experiences. They seemed to be "joining the navy to see the world."

Adults with a higher degree of familial responsibility also viewed wage labor as a short-term activity. The Ecuadorian Amazon region, like many areas of tropical lowland Latin America, has been visited by numerous boom-and-bust capitalist ventures. Indians are aware of the cyclical native of such phenomena and therefore take short-term advantage of perceived opportunities without altering their subsistence priorities.

In Ecuador alone, there are about 60,000 forest dwelling Indians living, until recently, in conditions similar to those described for Arajuno - i.e., an ample and secure land base and limited contact with the national society. As long as local land tenure and access to resources are secure, periodic participation in a wage-based economy need not indicate scarcity, penetration by alien economic forces, or culture change.

To illustrate, of the approximately 75 men who left Arajuno in 1975 when employment in oil exploration was announced, all but three returned home within a few days. Employment opportunities existed but the men decided that they could not afford to be away from the land for extended periods. Between 1973 and 1975 government-sponsored development programs and the resultant threats to land tenure had made it impossible for them to undertake such adventures."

In June 1972 a Texaco-Gulf consortium began to pump high-quality petroleum from wells in the northeastern jungle over the Andes to tankers on the Pacific. Within a year Ecuador became South America's second largest petroleum exporter and began to accumulate extensive capital reserves. At the same lime, between 1965 and 1973, real per capita agricultural output declined by 14%. From 1967 to 1972 the value of basic food imports jumped from 15 million to 28 million dollars. Thus, as oil profits raised salaries for the urban middle and upper classes, inflation and food scarcity plagued the urban and rural poor. In 1973, to stem this trend, Ecuador passed new agrarian reform laws which declared that unused, arable land would be expropriated.

During the previous decade the Indians of Arajuno had sought and obtained title to their land - approximately 50 hectares per family. In 1973 they were told that if they failed to cultivate or improve half of their land in five years, it could be expropriated. Slash-and-burn agriculture, the community's source of subsistence, required only about 10 hectares of land per family. But each family was obliged to work at least 25 hectares to retain their land. High transportation costs, low market value, and labor shortages ruled out extensive cash cropping. Cattle raising, however, required less labor and was a highly visible land use system. Moreover, credit for cattle raising was abundant and easily acquired. From 1972 to 1973, the National Development Bank doubled available credit, and over 90% of the loans went to small farmers. By 1974, within two years of government policies and programs, the Indians of Arajuno had converted from subsistence farmers to market-oriented cattlemen.

Consequently, Indians had to clear forest land, plant and maintain pastures, and tend their cattle regularly. A far more regular and generally more intensive labor regime was required of community members, young or old. (Men could hardly allocate sufficient time for hunting and fishing, let alone extended absences for wage earning.) The three adventurers who decided to leave their cattle in the hands of inexperienced families each lost part of their herds. Wages obtained as laborers (about $1.50/day) never offset those losses (cattle were worth between $250 and $400 per head). But even cattle owners who stayed with their herds realized few profits. Inexperience in care and marketing of cattle allowed most to make only their loan payments.

Thus, for the Quichua Indians of Arajuno a lifestyle in which periods of migratory wage labor irregularly interrupted the monotony of a stable subsistence economy ended when, as a result of government regulations, one could only guarantee land tenure through more intensive land use schemes. The Indians acquiesced to national agrarian reform laws and development programs which introduced animals whose size, smell, and appearance they loathed, and whose care sharply reduced time available for other activities. To some national developers, the present, cattle-based economy of Arajuno is preferable to the period when the community's Indian residents were only an occasionally activated cheap labor supply. But for the Indians, who have yet to see any profits from the new economic regime, participation in national development priorities not only reduced the time available for subsistence hunting and fishing but ended the peregrinations which provided much of the stock for household entertainment.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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