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Bolivia. living a lockdown in Norte-Potosí

December 9, 2020


by Laurence Charlier Zeineddine, Associate Professor in anthropology at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (LISST). She is a specialist in Bolivia and the Andes.


As many other countries, Bolivia did not escape a lockdown in 2020. But what does it mean to be in a lockdown for the Aymara populations of Norte-Potosí who farm on different ecological floors? What are the implications?


In this southern area of the Andes, the members of the agropastoral communities are organized by lineage (ayllus). Their members are related to each other, submit to common authorities (human or not) and share a territory. But it is singular: it has floors. In order to have different crops and deal with weather constraints, the people who live in the region farm on two ecological floors: the High-Plateaus (Puna), between 11 483 and 12 795 feet (tubers, quinoa, barley, beans [photo1]) and the valleys between 7 218 and 11 483 feet (slopes shaped by crop terraces: corn, potato, wheat, peanuts) [photo 2]). A same ethnic group or ayllu therefore simultaneously controls divided territories located in different ecological floors.

Photo 1: The High-Plateaus of Norte-Potosí, sowing potatoes. (Laurence Charlier)
Photo 1: The High-Plateaus of Norte-Potosí, sowing potatoes. (Laurence Charlier)

This cultivation in archipelagos (Murra, 1972)[1] requires seasonal and family organization. In the Norte-Potosí, agriculture in fact oscillates between two seasons: the rainy season (from November to February) and the dry season. Those living in the High-Plateaus therefore go twice a year to the valleys[2] where they have a second home: in May to harvest the corn[3] and in October to sow [Photo 3]. It is however not a good time to leave once the sowing or the reaping is done. Since the agricultural reform (1953), even though a law managing proprietorship stipulates that "the land belongs to those who work it", this work is not enough to give the community a legitimate claim and therefore ownership of the property. It involves participating in responsabilities (political, religious) and obligations relative to the public (road maintenance, repair of the school's roof, etc.). This double zonal farming furthermore requires coming to terms with two different organizational systems: the High-Plateaus are organized by ayllus while the valleys are divided among unions (following the agricultural reform)[4], the union system imposing a fine to those who are absent and do not participate in community responsabilities.

Photo 2: Norte-Potosí valleys (Laurence Charlier).
Photo 2: Norte-Potosí valleys (Laurence Charlier).

In order for the vertical control between the High-Plateaus and the valleys can be maintained, the families divide the tasks among the members. For example, the son can go to the valleys while his parents stay in the High-Plateaus. The families have two homes in each of the two floors, but they choose one of them to be the main housing (for example that is where the children go to school). They must make sure that the house of the main residence is always occupied. The reasons for this are both practical (avoid theft) and symbolic (adverse). Of note also is that this type of floor economy is reinforced with marriage partnerships and by the institution of compadrazgo: in order to get married, a young man from the High-Plateaus will choose a young woman from the valleys and in choosing godparents for their child, the parents will first sollicite a couple from a different ecological floor.

Photo 3: Trail from the Puna to the valleys (Laurence Charlier).
Photo 3: Trail from the Puna to the valleys (Laurence Charlier).

On top of these two floors described above, the Puna and the valleys, there is another one located in the Lowlands[5]. In the 1980s, the closing of the Norte-Potosí mines actually led to a huge migration of the population toward Cochbamba, mainly in the Chaparé province, a humid tropical area suited to farming the cacao leaf. It was the start of the colonization of this Lowlands region by the farmers and miners of the Highlands.


While the men were focused on clearing the lands for agriculture, their spouse and children settled in the suburban areas (Sacaba) of the Chaparé province. From there, people can therefore belong to three communities: one on the Puna, one in the valleys, and finally one in the Chaparé [photo 4]. Sometimes they can cross through three different ecological floors in barely three days. As I was heading to visit my conpadre in the Chaparé during the harvesting of the cacao leaves, he announced that he had to leave the next day. He really had to participate in a meeting in his ayllu on the High-Plateaus[6]. We therefore left the Tropics early in the morning and arrived in the evening at the outskirts of Sacaba, at 8 200 feet, there where my conpadre's wife and children lived. He left them bags of rice and cacao leaves from his harvest, destined to be sold, then left the next day. We arrived at Uncía, at 12 467 feet, after a 7 hour bus ride. My conpadre stayed there ten days then went back down to Sacaba. 


It's in these circumstances that we have to think about the consequences of the lockdown put in place at the national level between March 22 and August 31, 2020[7], forcing members of the family to remain in one place, and so, on only one floor. Its strict adherence would have ended an organizational system that is essential for the social, political and economic life of indigenous groups.

Photo 4: The Lowlands of Chaparé (Laurence Charlier).
Photo 4: The Lowlands of Chaparé (Laurence Charlier).

They did have to wait until the first of September for travel between departments and provinces to be allowed, which meant that it was impossible to do road trips between the High-Plateaus and the valleys (different provinces) and between the High-Plateaus and the Chaparé (different departments). In doing so, the lockdown prevented many households from going to their lands to harvest the potatoes (crops in March and April) and the corn (in May), while depriving many households from the seasonal help of family members  located at Sacaba and in the Chaparé.


The impact of the lockdown is all the more significant that it clamers with the political crisis and the coup that happened at the end of 2019.


In the 2010s, extraregional migrations (toward all regions of Bolivia, Highlands and Lowlands) and regional ones (agropastoral communities toward the suburbs) increased, leading to permanent settlements, no longer seasonal. These changes then had put the vertical control of the ecological floors in danger that in fact were already struggling. However, the 2019 coup made the migrants realize how important it was to exercise a floor economy in order to survive. Indeed, the army was deployed nationally in the cities and suburbs, especially in Cochabamba and at Sacaba, Chaparé's capital. Protesting against the departure of president Evo Morales and the assumption of power of Jeanine Añez, cacao growers (cocaleros) organized a march toward La Paz. They were joined at Sacaba by members of the suburban communities of former cocaleros and members of their families. On November 15, 2019 the protest was blocked by police and military officers armed with assault weapons and at least 9 people were killed by the security forces. Afterwards, control of the area by the army and the police (on land and in the air) made people travel next to impossible.


So long as they worked in the cities of Sacaba and Cochabamba (as a taxi driver, mason, baker, merchant, etc.), North-Potosi migrants were therefore deprived of their economic resources. That's why they converged back to their native community in order to help their parents and make sure their family had the means for self-sufficiency. That was the case for one of my godchildren: he had not been back to the High-Plateaus in the past fifteen years. Several abandonned plots were then cultivated again in 2020.


The lockdown therefore sounded like a tragedy for the Norte-Potosí migrants, depriving them of a seasonal and geographical crop rotational system that is needed for their survival. Their lifeline will probably come from the traditional black market routes which allowed them, despite military presence, to get to the High-Plateaus where their family and community members were confined.

[1] Murra, John Victor, 1975 [1972] Formaciones Políticas y Económicas del Mundo Andino. Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, Lima 

[2] They can get there by foot in five days or by truck in 12 hours.

[3] In the community where I did my research, the families harvested about 2 645 pounds of corn.

[4] La Federación Única Sindical de Trabajadores Campesinos (Originarios) del Norte Potosi brings together the valley farmers vs. the Federación de Ayllus Originarios Indígenas del Norte Potosí of the High Plateaus.

[5] Up until the Spanish colonization, the Aymara groups of the region then controled three floors. The colonial regime led to a division of the indigenous territories. At the regional level, the major section of the territories of the two aymaras Qaraqara and Charka chiefdoms was divided into two colonial provinces at the end of the 1560s. The two chiefdoms also lost their lands in the valleys and Yungas de Cochabamba lowlands.

[6] Meeting on the recent applications of the INRA Bolivian law (Law of the National Office of Agrarian Reform) seeking to make sure all of the country's territory has assigned property titles (titulación).

[7] The March 22 lockdown had been preceded by measures already meant to reduce travel and limit the concentration of people (school and university closures notably). On June 1st, 2020, the lockdown was relaxed until August 31st, but travel between regions and provinces remained forbidden.

[8] Many of the contraband trails are the same as the routes of the old lama caravans that brought the people from the regions of salar (Uyuni, Coipasa and Challapata) to the Cochabamba valleys in order to exchange salt, dried lama meat and quinoa for corn, wheat, vegetables, fruit, cacao and medicinal plants. These same routes are used today for the bizonal cultivation between the High Plateaus and the valleys when people want to travel by foot with the cattle.

Laurence Charlier Zeineddine is an Associate Professor in anthropology at the Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès (LISST). She is a specialist in Bolivia and the Andes. She has published a book in the Institut des Amériques collection "Americas" with the Presses Universitaires de Rennes "L’Homme-proie. Infortunes et prédation dans les Andes boliviennes". For the past 20 years, she has done research among the aymaras communities of Norte-Potosí. After working on the legacy processes and the relationship to archeological remains, she is now focused on the study of the living and the relationship to stone.