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Latin America Abeja Dispatch


...And We'll Put the Mini-Mall Over There, Where Those Alpaca are Grazing

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The children call out to us as they walk by on their way to school, "Hola, Abeja! Hola, Kavitha! Habla Ingles!" They want to hear the strange sound of English and try to imitate it. So we talk. If only they could understand! We laugh at what the people here in Quispillaccta might think if they were whisked away from this traditional Andean community and dropped into parts of our everyday life - perhaps a K-Mart Superstore, a Rave, or a twenty-screen movie theatre.

Can you imagine a mall replacing a field full of these fuzzy, cute llamas?
To people in many parts of the world, the United States is envied for its wealth and power. We have created a standard by which the rest of the world is measured. Words like "development," "modernization," and "urbanization" have, for decades, been the buzzwords of politicians, NGO's (Non-Governmental Organizations), and foreign aid projects like the Peace Corps. Even the Maoist guerrilla group, the Sendero Luminoso (or "Shining Path"), which waged an armed insurgence against the government here in the 1980's, called for "development" of the rural villages as a way to create equality. For decades, educated people have come to rural villages in Peru and around the world with grand plans to help. They build roads, bridges, canals, houses, and teach English, modern farming techniques, and any number of other humanitarian projects designed to raise the standard of living. Despite these good intentions, many people are beginning to question them. Are these things really what is best for the communities they are supposed to help? Is "modernization" breaking up communities and therefore lowering the quality of life? Who gets to decide what is best for rural people with little education or understanding of the "modern" world? There are no easy answers to these questions, but lots of opinions.

Luckily, many indigenous people have been able to maintain their traditional way of life

The poverty of the Andean people around Ayacucho made it ripe for the birth of the Sendero Luminoso (see the team dispatch). Many people warned me about the great poverty I would see in the highlands, but instead I unexpectedly found healthy, happy people with a strong sense of family and community. WHAT!? This is poverty? It is unlike the poverty I have seen in the US and Guatemala. Yet, families here have very little money, and are often the targets for development projects. Despite the lack of money, the villagers here own lots of land for growing a wide variety of organic fruits, grains, and vegetables. They also raise sheep, alpaca, and cows for wool, meat, and milk. All these things would cost a fortune in the United States. However, their abundance is limited, without many choices that money often brings. They live in adobe houses without electricity or phones. Even though they have the blessings of good health, a beautiful environment, healthy food, and clothes from handspun wool, these are their limited lives, which are not necessarily their choice. Is that fair? Living here among the villagers of Quispillaccta, I sometimes get a paternalistic feeling, knowing all the evil and ugliness of the "modern" world that I know and I want to shield them. Paternal means "fatherly," and we all know how annoying it is when your parents try to "protect" you from the "big, bad world." Still, I know that it is not my place to "protect" these people, even if I could. Though I do have more formal education than most Quispillacctans, they are very intelligent people, with probably a greater understanding as to what their community needs. Yet, despite the romantic beauty of a simple lifestyle, a close family, and small community without electricity, cars, phones, and the "rat race," I would not want to live like this forever. I yearn to travel, go for a ride on my mountain bike, and dine out for sushi. So who am I to tell these people that they should not want what I've got?

Concrete skeletons are not all that remain of so called
The government has imposed many failed "development" projects on the people of Quispillaccta. They jokingly refer to them as "the Archeology of Development," because they sit, useless and crumbling, like the ancient cities we have been visiting. If only tourists would come to visit these concrete archeological sites the way they visit Macchu Pichu, Quispillaccta would become rich! Unfortunately, concrete skeletons are not all that remain of these development projects. The canal, for instance, brought a large influx of workers from elsewhere in Peru, as well as gave jobs to locals for seven years. The money brought by these jobs created permanent changes in society. Purchasing consumer goods, such as cookies, soft drinks, and candies replaced the bartering system. Litter became a problem. The ayllus (extended families) and the traditional work agreements such as ayni and minka were weakened as individualism grew stronger. One man said, "Money took the place of the cousin in the minka (traditional family work system)." From this project, people grew accustomed to this higher level of consumerism. And, when it ended, they found they had monetary "needs" that they didn't have before, with no local jobs from which to earn money. Unlike the Native Americans in the US and Guatemala, these indigenous people have been able to retain their ancestral lands along with their traditional way of life. They are in a unique position, being able to choose, to some degree, the aspects of the modern world they want to accept into their villages. Still, in order to make conscious decisions, the community will have to work together and rely on good information. One thing I have noticed is that most of their images of the "modern world" are pretty skewed. For example, they think that, in America, everyone is rich and white, with numerous large houses and fancy cars. They are surprised to learn that we, too, share the world's poverty, but also have diversity and different ethnicities. Where are these people getting their information, you may ask? Mostly, it comes from media images and corporations trying to sell them things like cleaning products and agricultural chemicals and tools. With most of their information coming from sources who have a vested interest in modernizing these villages, with the hopes of creating a new market for their goods, how are these small communities going to make well informed decisions?

I wish I could give you the magic answer to all these questions, but it is not that easy. All cultures change through time with exposure to new and perhaps more powerful cultures. The Chavín fell under the influence of the Moche, who became influenced by Wari, who slowly lost favor to the Chimu and others, who all became part of the great Inca Empire, only to be conquered by the Spaniards. Now here comes this consumer culture of media and multinational corporations, with the United States as its poster child. That is how history works, with cultures blending or disappearing.

I hope that the people of Quispillaccta have learned from me to appreciate the gifts that they have and not to embrace everything "modern" and "American" as heaven-sent. In the "developed" world we too can learn a lot from these ancient cultures. As you know, our culture is also changing. And, we have the power to make choices that decide where it is headed. What do you think about "modernization" of indigenous cultures? It is for the better or worse? Send me an e-mail and tell me your opinions and concerns on this extremely important subject.

Abeja
 
 

Kevin - Temple O' Temple! Make Our Garden Grow!
Shawn - Dry Land is Not a Myth!
Kevin - Help! Call 911! Identity Crisis in Peru!
Kavitha - There's a Guerrilla in the House: The Sendero Luminoso in Peru's Central Highlands
Team - The Dark Side of the Shining Path
 
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