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A Disappearing Economy: The Indigenous Economy in The Andes

How we see the world determines how we act.

This article considers the significance of indigenous economic systems in contemporary society. It argues that such systems should be considered in a more systematic way than thus far in considerations of pure romanticism and utopia.

The traditional indigenous economy in the Andes acts in diversity and knowledge that permits the usage and management of that diversity, along with a wide range of strategies. In which it is required to have an appropriate acquaintance of ecological, environmental and cultural conditions. Indigenous communities practice sharing apart from the interdependence and reciprocity that distinguish this economy, mainly in household production, agriculture and subsistence activities.

The Core of The Indigenous Economy in The Andes

The paradigm of the Andean economy lies on the fundamental value of Life Breeding and is considered as a bi-dimensional concept, empirical and symbolic. Preceding to the definition of economy, according to indigenous peoples, is paramount a philosophical reflexion about their worldview and thinking, embodied in the ethical values of indigenous cultures.

The basic allegory of their societies is life, in all its forms, one and multiple, human and animal life, vegetal and spiritual life. Life acts as the central core. The objective of its economic activity is a meta-economic value, due to its final goal does not lie in the augmented capital and power, but to ensure and consolidate the Sumak Kawsay (the good living: in harmony with our communities, ourselves and the co-existence with nature). Differing in how development is defined, seeking for less emphasis on production and consumption and more on human development. Besides, native peoples see humans merely as an integral part of the Pachamama (Mother Earth). Instead of considering an anthropocentric worldview, where the human is the peak of the pyramid and the Pachamama, an object of domination by the human being is abandoned.

Economic features.                                                                  

There is no logic of a progressive linear process, but rather the concept of circularity: the time that is governed by the natural cycles, the movement of the planets and seasonal and agricultural cycles. Its economic rationality is not one of accumulation but of a harmonious relationship with the environment and respectful use of natural resources for the well-being of the entire community. Therefore, in the indigenous economy, the principles of reciprocity, collaboration, sharing, and redistribution apply so that all members of the community have access to the same levels of well-being.

The economic activity to be achieved implies a triple attitude: one technical, one ritual and one ethical. For example, the farmer knows that preceding to a new cultivation of crops, the land should rest to restore its balance after the harvest like a pregnant woman gave birth, while the farmer fertilizes the land to thank the Pachamama for its gifts.

From the indigenous economy to the economy of markets.

The indigenous economy has commenced to lose its traditional nature. At first, the indigenous economy is engaged in a stage of adaptation, trading with the small surpluses of their production destined to self-consumption. Eventually, it begins to rely on the consumption of foreign goods (clothing, food, and even weapons for hunting or territorial control). This creates a need for money, decreasing exchange and barter with other communities. At this stage, the community falls apart and individuals or families independently sell their products for which they must migrate to cities for longer and longer periods. This generates a huge social cost, as the reciprocity system is weakened. The sustainable forms of coexistence with nature disappear (limited hunting, fishing and gathering to what is only necessary for family or communal subsistence), and they leave causing growing differences among families, due to their links with the external world, generating divisions within communities and organizations.

Many indigenous territories have suffered much damage because of the invasion of mining activities, logging, and commercial agriculture. Native people have been forced to resort towards harmful practices affecting the environment due to high growth rates of population. Indigenous peoples always demand the conservation or restoration of their natural resources as a precondition to participate in other development efforts.

How does the indigenous economy influence the preservation of the environment?

Indigenous communities constitute an estimated of 5% of the world’s population. They are considered as the principal guardians of the environment due to their great expertise on ecosystems management. Traditional indigenous territories cover 22% of the earth’s surface and represent the 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. One-third of forests of the entire world, crucial for reducing carbon emissions, are primarily managed by indigenous peoples, families, communities, and farmers.

The ways and means implemented by native people may serve as the understanding of the conservation of natural resources, sustainable agriculture, an economy of subsistence and the co-existence with the environment. They acquire abundant knowledge about the natural resources of their surroundings and adopt methods and techniques of great complexity to manage their habitat in a sustainable manner. Their agricultural practices are resilient to climate change. Throughout the centuries, indigenous peoples have developed agricultural techniques that adapt to extreme environments. Take for example the creation of terraces in the high altitudes of the Andes, which impedes soil erosion, conserves soil, conserves water and reduces the risk of disasters.

Currently, the world depends to a large extent on a small set of staple crops: wheat, rice, potatoes, and corn that signify half of the calories we consume daily. Native alimentation expands their limited food base and diversifies diets, for example highly nutritious aliments such as quinoa, oca, and moringa. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations considers indigenous population invaluable partners in the fight for the eradication of hunger and in the search for solutions to climate change.

What has been disappearing while economics developed?

Most of the contemporary economists have been uninterested or overlooked the importance of land (Pachamama).

The difference in worldviews between humans belonging to the land and the land owned by humans is much profound. For the first worldview, the Pachamama has a spiritual dimension. Thus, people have responsibilities towards the Mother Earth involving practical knowledge and act as a guide.

On the contrary, according to the economist Michel Hudson, the modern economy is mainly dominated by the FIRE sector: Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. Therefore, in most industrialized economies, the inherent feature of development declined the ecological knowledge of the society. Here, economics describes a world in which the main assumptions of the economy of markets consist of individuals seen as driven by self-interest. They connect with each other in competition over scarce resources and their spending is the fuel of the economy.

All in all, we should consider a strategy that articulates the indigenous economy to the market economy, rather than thinking the indigenous economy and the economy of markets as completely opposite. Defining an overlap between the two spheres in which development initiatives can be settled. Initiatives that enhance the comparative advantages of indigenous culture by responding to the demands of the market with a logic of efficiency and economic viability. An intercultural model could be conceived for the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources.


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