Bolivia Table of Contents

Rural Society

Rural society reflected the complex history that communities experienced during the past several centuries. Hacienda expansion, mining, and land reform affected regions and the communities within them differently. The uneven impact of national political and economic developments combined with ethnic diversity and ecological complexity to create a highly variegated social landscape. The contrasts between communities that had been free Indian settlements and those that had been dominated by a hacienda persisted into the land-reform era. Regions with a lengthy history of commercial farming differed from those geared primarily to subsistence agriculture. Finally, a basic cleavage existed between haciendas of the densely populated Quechua and Aymara settlements in the Altiplano, valleys, and Yungas and plantations of the mestizo Oriente.

Historically, Quechua and Aymara settlements were organized either as haciendas, with a resident labor force of peons who owed labor to the landowner, or as free communities. Social and economic differences characterized both types of settlements. On the haciendas, residents received different-sized plots of land in return for varying amounts of service. The holdings of former peons reflected these initial inequities, as well as different levels of success in the decades following land reform. Free communities distinguished two or three different categories of members. Those descended from the original villagers had full access to and security of land tenure. Others who came as landless laborers in the nineteenth century generally had less land and less security. Still others were landless and relied on the ties of kinship or ritual kinship and an ingrained community ethos about sharing to gain access to a field. If surplus land existed, the landless generally could obtain a plot for nominal rent.

Hacienda owners were casualties of the land reform. The wealthiest left Bolivia or moved to La Paz. Many owners of medium-sized haciendas moved to a provincial town and entered commerce. In some regions, land reform proved to be merely the final in a series of economic reversals that had begun decades earlier. In Cochabamba, for example, hacienda owners had faced the combined problems of estate fragmentation, a contracting market, and a well-organized and militant peasantry since the turn of the century. For them land reform was the coup de grace.

In other regions, land reform had a very minimal impact. Haciendas in the lowlands, the mid-sized haciendas of Monteagudo in Chuquisaca Department, and the vineyards of the Cinti Valley, also in Chuquisaca Department, were generally spared. Santa Cruz lacked the large, well-organized Indian population of the Altiplano, valleys, and Yungas. Landholders there not only escaped land reform but also received the benefits of government development plans for the lowlands. Their major problem was securing an adequate (and adequately docile) labor force. They hired local subsistence farmers when possible and contracted with labor recruiters who toured Aymara and Quechua settlements hiring laborers for the sugarcane and cotton harvests.

In regions of limited hacienda expansion, preconquest settlement and land-use patterns sometimes persisted. Individual extended kin-groups known as ayllus tried to gain access to the resources of as many different ecological zones as possible. During the Inca era, ayllus maintained permanent resident colonies in each of the three natural regions, creating what anthropologist John V. Murra has termed a "vertical archipelago." These colonies ensured the Incas access to the varied products of plateau pasture and field, transitional zones, valleys, and tropics.

Peasants in the Altiplano, valleys, and Yungas preferred dispersed plots within a single natural region as well; in addition, some cultivated scattered plots in different regions. Such land-use strategies served as a hedge against the considerable uncertainty of farming in the Andes. Planting small amounts of a crop in a variety of different locations ensured against total loss in such unpredictable localized disasters as hail and frost. In addition, these agricultural practices took full advantage of the extreme variation in environment within even short distances.

The pattern persisted despite the upheavals of the colonial, postindependence, and modern eras. Under land-reform legislation, a kin-group's lowland holdings could be declared "haciendas" and made liable to expropriation. Development specialists frequently saw this mode of land use, scattering small plots at considerable distances from one another, as an impediment to agricultural production and economic development. Nonetheless, Andean peasants resisted efforts to consolidate their landholdings and acted to maintain their dispersed and diversified plots wherever possible. In the late 1970s, anthropologists found ayllus in northern Potosí Department farming roughly the same territory they had held in the sixteenth century. The territory used by these ayllus encompassed regions from the high plateau to semitropical valley bottoms. The distance from the highest pastures to the lowest fields was more than 100 kilometers and as much as 2,000 meters in altitude. It took two weeks with fully loaded llamas to traverse the territory. Households had access to the products of each region either by producing or by exchanging them with kin.

The typical pattern of exchange saw llama herders loading their pack animals after harvest and traveling to the valley bottoms. Even households that did not have formal control of plots in other regions would spend a good part of the year in different territories. This seasonal movement gave all inhabitants a detailed, extensive knowledge of the habitats their territory encompassed.

Before 1952 most villages shared little sense of community with neighboring groups or the nation as a whole. Political participation, especially in Indian communities, was negligible; powerful outsiders--mestizos or whites--mediated links to the larger society. In either case, the community itself remained a largely self-sufficient, nonmonetary society with the nuclear family as the basic social unit. Strong kinship and ritual kinship ties contributed to social cohesion, but little additional community solidarity existed. A family's existence centered on its lands and a complex system of community work and fiesta obligations.

The reforms in the 1950s brought extensive changes to Aymara and Quechua communities. Agrarian reform and universal suffrage meant more than simply transferring land titles, eliminating onerous work obligations, or conferring voting rights. Many of these reforms had already been reiterated in every legal and constitutional change since the time of Simón Bolívar Palacio, who began the postindependence era with decrees calling for distribution of land to landless Indians, equality for all, and the end of compulsory labor. The changes of the 1950s fundamentally altered Indians' relationship to the larger society. Political and economic links to town, city, and nation no longer remained the exclusive monopoly of mestizos and whites. Increasingly, Indians themselves served as their own intermediaries and power brokers.

Overall, the postrevolutionary period from the 1950s to the 1980s did much to erode the isolation of rural society; peasants came into contact with national society in ways unanticipated by an earlier generation. Improvements in communications (radios) and transportation (roads) made peasants aware of alternatives. Before the 1952 Revolution, only a few peasant products had been sold through mestizo intermediaries or hacendados. The revolutionary reforms generated an explosion of markets and of marketing networks. In some regions, mestizo intermediaries still played a prominent role; indeed, many former hacendados became intermediaries when they lost their lands. In many areas, however, marketing became a career for Indian and chola women.

Increasing population pressure in the Altiplano and expanding economic opportunities elsewhere led to large-scale migration. Migrants' experience with the world beyond the hacienda gave villagers a new and very different connection with national society. Educational opportunities increased dramatically at every level. Traditionally, hacienda owners had done everything possible to limit their laborers' access to schools. Some even expelled peons who dared to send their children to school. Increased educational opportunities for young Indians expanded their options for earning a living. Like migrants (and the educated were frequently those who migrated), these individuals became a resource for their families and communities. So, too, did the increasing numbers of young men serving in the military.

The rise of peasant organizations and administrative reforms meant job opportunities on the local level. Peasant organizations offered many individuals a springboard to improve their own status at the same time that they gave communities some control over local affairs. These developments sharpened factionalism among communities. Neighboring settlements, which might have had little interest in each other's existence a decade earlier, for example, found themselves vying to be designated as the canton seat. Land reform made ex-hacienda peons and Indians in neighboring free communities rivals for haciendas acquired in the twentieth century.

Factionalism within communities sharpened as well. The various hamlets making up a single settlement often found little besides the community's school and fiestas as points of common interest. Marriages between various hamlets were a valuable link, as in- laws could serve as go-betweens in disputes.

Consensus formed the basis of community decision making; strong disagreement meant that a decision had to be postponed or participants would seek another solution. In order to resolve pressing business, communities sometimes scheduled meetings at times that were inconvenient to opponents. The strong-minded could boycott meetings and refuse to comply with community decisions. Households that felt deeply about a project would sometimes go ahead and begin work in the hope that the recalcitrant would eventually follow suit. Such community-wide projects as road improvements and school buildings often existed in varying stages of completion, waiting for needed funds or for disinterested parties to finish their portion of the work. Villages were reluctant to involve outside authorities to pressure dissenters into compliance.

The reforms of the 1950s highlighted the need for a knowledge of Spanish as communities increased their dealings with the government. Migrants who returned to their home communities during the 1950s and 1960s having learned Spanish played a more prominent role in community affairs. As most communities resolved disputes stemming from land reform, however, the volume of dealings with the national government declined. An older pattern of leadership reasserted itself, and seniority and success in the fiesta system again emerged as major criteria in selecting leaders. The fiesta system in its classic form consisted of a hierarchy of civil and religious offices, each of which entailed specific duties (cargos) and obligations. An individual gained prestige through completion of the cargos and upon finishing the entire hierarchy became a respected community elder. The most prominent offices were those where an individual assumed the sponsorship of a community fiesta celebrating a Roman Catholic feast or saint's day.

The organization of fiestas varied. Mestizo sponsors could canvass their settlements for donations, which limited their own financial outlays. In Indian communities, where the sponsor bore most of the cost, the fiesta required a major financial sacrifice. In one survey, sponsors of major community fiestas spent from 12 to 80 percent of their cash income from the sale of agricultural products to discharge their fiesta responsibilities. On the whole, however, communities spent much less than they had before agrarian reform. Fiestas also required an enormous expenditure of time, as sponsors began planning for the most prominent fiestas years in advance.

The fiesta was a forum for the acceptable display of wealth and socioeconomic status. An individual gained significantly in prestige and standing by sponsoring the major fiestas. Friends and relatives often helped by offering food, drinks, and money. Those who provided the assistance could expect similar help when they assumed a comparable office. Gifts were recorded in written form, and participants had a strong obligation to reciprocate.

The late 1970s and 1980s were not easy for rural Bolivians. The peasant-military alliance that had been forged in the 1960s ended in 1974 with the bloody repression of a peasant demonstration. In general, the turnstile governments of the late 1970s and early 1980s were unsympathetic to peasants. Economic stabilization packages exacted a heavy toll. The generally difficult economic situation of the 1980s curtailed nonfarm employment at the same time that increasing population put pressure on land.

Urban Society
The Working Class

The Upper Class
The Middle Class
Family and Kin

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress