My name is Ale Fernandez. I live in Barcelona, Spain and I'm Chilean and Italian.
I am a web developer, artist and technical researcher.
I've lived in Scotland, Italy, Spain and England and career-wise I am interested in distributed systems and their applications to improvised performance and ecology.

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2/01/2011

10 More minutes: From gift economies to celebration economies

An article by Richard Heinberg, "Economic History in 10 Minutes" which I read the other day, inspired me to look a bit more into more elaborate economies than simply gift/tribal based, that might escape people's thoughts as they search for alternatives to the current (failed?) economic system. 

His article is a good summary of a lot of peak oiler economics although I've heard him and others say these things before lots of times and in different ways. Heinberg points to our  addiction to fossil fuels as the central reason for lots of current problems, and the article treasures hunter gatherer cultures with their gift economies as a possible future or as something to move towards. Doing something in 10 minutes is bound to leave something out. It would be easy to believe, reading his article, that we once were all happy and shared everything, then - boom! - iPods. (He actually says "So letting go of the gift economy was a trade-off for progress—houses, cities, cars, iPods, and all the rest").

After painting a pretty negative picture of the history of money, involving the sin of Usury, Charles Ponzi and Fractional Reserve Banking, leading to the current situation, he then goes on to make a call for more general knowledge of our shared economic history and to say "Is this the end of the story? As society dramatically simplifies itself in the wake of fossil fuel depletion, will we revert to some form of gift economy? Or will we catch and steady ourselves on some intermediate rung on the ladder of economic development?" 

 Well I'd like to take 10 more minutes to talk about a couple of those rungs I happen to know about.

You see, my dad is an economic historian, and also comes from a small Aymara ethnic minority (on my grandmother's side). So I grew up in a house full of books on economics, and in this family of refugees of the Pinochet regime, my only connection with the Aymaras were many pairs of Ojotas (sandals made from recycled tyres), lots of colourful cloths and clothes, memories of a couple of visits to villages like Putre and Codpa in Chile, and a few of the books in between the economics ones, which spoke of Aymara culture and their world view.



One book, "Holocausto al Progreso - Los Aymaras de Tarapacá" fascinates me still, with it's descriptions of preincaic aymara culture. It includes a reconstruction of what life must have been like for a few thousand people, who had adapted from around the 5th century BC up until the arrival of the Incas in the 14th century, to live in a really difficult environment involving the Andes mountains and the most arid desert in the world. And now it's on the internet, for any Spanish speaker to enjoy! This little stretch of Northern Chile, which is now just sea, desert and mountain, then also included some forests, which have since been swallowed by the Atacama desert. Here is a bit of a picture from the book, which I hope can help to show this:


So there were at least 4 distinct climates, and none of them could adequately support a large population on it's own. Living there were fishermen, hunter gatherers, shepherds and farmers. By sharing, these distinct groups made this area incredibly rich and varied. I wish I could have seen it.

Here is a google assisted translation of a few paragraphs of Holocausto al progreso showing this vivid picture, punctuated by community rituals, harvest times and hunting seasons, the building of dwellings, and sharing of produce that couldn't have been accomplished unless people got organised. From around page 99:
A schematic reconstruction of this so varied indigenous economy conjures the following image:
In autumn, i.e. March or April, the shepherds would leave their homes, major residential centers located high in the Cordillera, and their summer grazing grounds at altitudes above 4000m, and make their way towards winter grazing lands, at altitudes from 3000 to 3500 meters, where they occupy shacks and makeshift houses in the open fields.
Part of the male population would then migrate, taking with them a herd of llamas loaded with produce from these high altitudes (dried meat, wool, leather, textiles, quinoa, herbs, salt, animal fat etc.), to lower environments: the agricultural area, where small nuclei of farmers belonging to the same community, and seen as relatives, would have been busy working the fields during the summer, irrigating the terraces, and working and defending the crops against the local animals and birds.
When harvest times drew near, the shepherds would arrive from the mountains to assist in these efforts and in the conservation and storage of agricultural produce. A portion of the produce from the high Cordillera (and possibly even the Altiplano and the eastern valleys: coca and herbs), was provided to supplement the diet of the farmers and after the harvest feasts and ceremonies, the llama herders would take, in return, a part of the agricultural produce (potato, garlic, corn, squash, etc..) to the western lowlands.
In the forests of the longitudinal valley they would stop for a while to gather the fruit of the carob tree and to shepherd the pack animals, using the pods and fruits that this tree produces.
Later, in winter, these well fed shepherds and their herd of animals would cross the desert and coastal mountains and visit the fishermen and hunter gatherers of the coast. The herdsmen would take part in fishing, and in hunting seals whose inflated skins were made into rafts, on these shores devoid of timber. They also participated in shellfish harvesting, in the preservation of these products and in the collection of white guano, which was - along with rotten fish and locally mined saltpeter - a popular fertilizer for the agricultural terraces higher up.
With spring approaching, the herders would prepare for the return trip, leaving behind the rest of the produce they had brought from higher altitudes, and taking sea and coastal produce in exchange.
After another stop in the woods of the Tamarugal they would again help farmers in the foothills by cleaning the irrigation canals, preparing new terraces and sowing new seeds. They would leave there much of the seafood they had brought from the coast and, after the planting season, they would take some produce back to supply the shepherds and the community centers in the Andes.
The shepherds would still be in their winter pastures at this point, but once the herders arrived, they would return to their homes in the mountains,  together with their relatives and join their entire herd, bringing products from the countryside, the coast and sea, as an indispensable supplement to their diet.
So in this way, the faldas del morro or "Hillslope" Aymara culture was able to maintain a much larger population than they could have if all those groups had been independent. The "economic" activities were not seen as travail as contemporary europeans would have called it. They had instead a religious and cultural dimension in which work was seen as celebration, and was indeed punctuated by lots of festivity. This image is a bit out of focus but it shows the calendar of festivals that accompanied this migration for the shepherd communities and the farming ones:




Going back to Heinberg's economic rungs, as we fall down the ladder from fractional reserve banking - I hope we don't forget these creative moments in our economic history, perhaps valuing "economic" migration and the celebration of work, as we adapt to the issues of the new millennium.

2 comments:

amias said...

wow ale , thanks so much for sharing the wisdom of your ancestors. there is evidence of the same kind of activity in england right up until the industrial revolution where migrant workers followed the harvests for work moving from the south to the north and i'd like to think this must have come from similar mutually supportive groups
but don't have the scholarly backup for it other than a few thomas hardy novels.

i particularly liked your acknowledgement of the festival atmosphere of workers , when i visited ladakh and stayed on a farm there we where up at 6 in the morning working the fields merrily singing as we did it , it was hard work but so rewarding and the beer (chang) helped too, nothing like working in the uk.

i look forward to our sustainable future :)

ale said...

Thanks Amias!

I'm sure the celts did lots of that too, moving huge trunks and stones around the english countryside...

I also got to experience a couple of "Vendemmias" in Italy, which is when you go to a farmer's vineyard and spend the day picking grapes for them. There was no money exchanged. You just spent the day there sharing ladders and chatting in the hot sun, avoiding spiders and bees, and the farmers would have these enormous smiles. In return you'd get fed loads of tasty food and wine from the farm. You can also eat lots of grapes as you pick, but you get tired of that pretty fast!

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