Of People, Pride and Potatoes

How international development has helped—and hurt—Andean farming villages

Why should you care, anyway, that the descendants of the greatest empire ever to unite and oppress pre-contact America have been reduced to this? To lives, that is, of relentless toil and constant exploitation, scraping survival from the depleted soil of the Andean subalpine, one mottled potato at a time?

(Here is a hint: Smallshare farmers such as these are the ones who currently feed around 70 percent of humanity.)

Fortunately, Susan Walsh—a development anthropologist and veteran of the foreign aid world, currently executive director of USC Canada—is someone who already cares. In Trojan-Horse Aid: Seeds of Resistance and Resilience in the Bolivian Highlands and Beyond, the question she is out to answer is not why you should too, but rather how people like her ought best to proceed in places like Bolivia.

Trojan-Horse Aid takes us back to 2000, the year Walsh first beheld the red mountains of Potosí in southern Bolivia: cold, arid and altogether moonlike. Latin Americaphiles will know Potosí for the eponymous mountain of silver that helped finance Spain’s conquest of the new world, at an estimated cost of eight million miners’ lives. Many of those victims were indigenous men and women, torn from their agricultural communities and forced into deadly labour. The plata ran out by 1800, and Potosí is now one of the poorest zones in the hemisphere, a cautionary boom-town tale. But the patatas remain. They grow in all their tuberous glory throughout the surrounding highlands, nourishing indigenous communities whose livelihood is far more humble and sustainable than any mineral-based economy will ever be.

Somewhere around here (although Peruvians will argue that “somewhere” lies on their side of the border), the world’s fourth-most important food crop was born. But if you thought potatoes too lustreless a lure for capitalism’s modern conquistadors, think again.

 

Few industries suffer from the duplicity of good intentions like foreign aid. Prior to the Marshall Plan, which arguably remains that industry’s most successful project, the concept did not formally exist beyond the occasional free shipment of arms from big powers to their allies and colonies. Such naked ambition put on a suit and tie when the United States was born, and foreign aid has been slouching from a state of predatory arrogance toward enlightened self-interest ever since. Where it is currently on that spectrum is a subject of endless dispute—watch the 2009 Munk Debate, for instance, to see our own Stephen Lewis mount a passionate defence against Africa’s anti-aid darling Dambisa Moyo, with Lewis pointing out that emergency relief in particular has saved millions of lives threatened by AIDS, earthquakes, famine, floods and other natural disasters. But when it comes to tackling systemic issues such as poverty or environmental degredation, even Lewis must agree that a stubborn problem does persist: all too often, aid seems to help its practitioners more than those on whom it is practised.

Walsh’s eyes are wide open to the pitfalls of her craft, and she opens Trojan-Horse Aid with a brief catalogue gleaned from her pre-Bolivian experience in Africa. High on her list of development sins are tied aid (whereby donor countries force recipients to spend their aid dollars on the donor’s own exports, thankfully now all but abolished), the self-perpetuating logic of big aid agencies, and the divisive effect foreign cash exerts on local communities. But aid’s most corrosive element, says Walsh, is the subtle way it compels recipients to think and act like—to become—their gift-giving benefactors. “How aid is delivered,” Walsh asserts, “can be far more consequential than what is delivered.”

This is a Trojan horse built of hospitals and roads and microloans. In its belly lurks assimilation.

With that in mind, Walsh’s purpose in Bolivia was not to deliver aid but to study it. A research grant allowed her one year “to take a much closer look at local contexts and at the nagging question about who really benefits” when foreign aid hits the ground.

To put a human face on this drama, Walsh zooms us into the province of Chayanta, home to an ethnic subgroup of Quechua-speaking farmers who call themselves the Jalq’a. Although they live in geographic and political isolation, by 2000 some Jalq’a communities had already been working with development agencies for decades; others had only just wheeled the Trojan horse through their gates. That discrepancy made the Jalq’a of Chayanta “ideal for comparative research,” and Walsh ultimately narrows her focus down to two hamlets with 79 families between them: Chimpa Rodeo, where development workers were a familiar sight and where the average family income was $265 in 2000; and Mojón, new to the mixed blessings of the helping hand, where the average family income was no income at all, only $65 of debt.

Walsh did not put just the Jalq’a under a microscope but also the development workers who walked among them. She focuses on the tireless employees of the Instituto Politécnico Tomas Katari, a Bolivian non-governmental organization with local workers and European donors. Despite the undeniable improvements in infrastructure that IPTK has delivered, and the rapport its employees clearly enjoy with the citizens of Chimpa Rodeo and Mojón—some of the workers are themselves indigenous—the NGO was in many ways trapped inside a foreign system of thought. Walsh does a good job capturing the absurdity of illiterate farmers being asked to fill out questionnaires, and other results-based–management fiascos in the realm of traditional knowledge.

Embedding herself with IPTK’s field agents, Walsh rides on their sputtering trucks along the pitted tracks that lead painstakingly to Chimpa Rodeo and Mojón. There, she observes community meetings and the potato-field interactions between development worker and farmer, conducts her own household surveys, and partakes in the occasional alcohol-soaked ceremony (whose charm lessens considerably when she learns that Jalq’a men tend to beat their wives when drunk).

Walsh is on a noble mission, but so is foreign aid itself, and it is not long before Walsh-the-writer starts making the very mistakes that so concern Walsh-the-development-anthropologist. Most painful is the speed with which she breaks her promise not to inflict “another academic account of modern-day imperialism” on her readers. Sentences such as “while we may not be able to link the Jalq’a name to contrasts and opposites in any definitive way, their material culture reveals deep interest in disjunction and juxtaposition” weigh these pages down with the literary lead of academese. Her clinical detachment, a principal bane of the development world, is heavily reinforced by the way she keeps referring to her Jalq’a interlocutors as informants. In any case, she quotes them far less often than she does western academics.

It also seems odd that in an age when professionals of every stripe live among a people before writing about them, Walsh chose instead to rent a house in the nearest city. She acknowledges that doing so sacrificed her “chance to experience first hand and up close the day-to-day character of the host community and its people,” but asks “do outsiders have the right to fall privy to confidential matters and local secrets?” That is a vital question all writers should bear in mind. But discretion does not preclude familiarity; it depends upon it. Besides, one gets the sense that Walsh was more concerned with her own privacy than that of her informants. She asks, “would I like to be in someone else’s fishbowl on a full time basis?” and so leaves us to wonder: What kind of jokes do the Jalq’a tell? Are their teenagers awkward and rebellious like ours? What do they really think about development workers? Do they ever get sick of potatoes?

In other words, we learn everything about the Jalq’a except what they are actually like.

 

Here, for the record, is a short history of development in Chayanta:

In 1952, Bolivia’s government passed the Agrarian Reform Act, thus abolishing the quasifeudal land holdings left over from colonial times. This would have been wonderful if the same act had not simultaneously outlawed the traditional ayllu system of collective land governance by which the Jalq’a kept their culture and ecology intact for centuries. Minifundismo was born: small plots of privately held land grew smaller and smaller as each plot got divided between each new generation of Jalq’a sons. As pressure for farmland ramped up, age-old resilience strategies were increasingly abandoned; fields were no longer left to lie fallow, the soil became exhausted, potato harvests shrank. But then the Green Revolution arrived, foot-soldiered by foreign-funded development agencies like IPTK. The revolutionaries’ weapons were synthetic—fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, herbicides—and genetic. And lest you think of the original potato as a monocrop, bear in mind that here in the cradle of the patata, hundreds—thousands!—of distinct varieties have been selectively bred over the centuries, their diversity a buffer against blight and drought and flood. But urban markets in Bolivia and beyond like their potatoes smooth, unblemished and bland. With a small loan from the local development agency, farmers could purchase the requisite synthetic inputs and monocrop the same fields year after year, earning much more than the old ayllu methods would yield in any given annum. Meanwhile the development agencies were also building health clinics and roads, schools and latrines (note that flush toilets are not the best gift idea in near-desert-like conditions such as Bolivia’s highlands), not to mention organizing the indigenous farmers into a political force of hermanos campesinos whose demands the central government in La Paz might actually have to listen to for the first time since, well, ever.

The cost? First felt in the soil, which after a few years of heavy chemical petting grew so depleted it could no longer produce anything without those chemicals. Meanwhile the market price for patatas fell so low that some farmers gave away their surplus rather than letting middlemen steal their profits. Now the chemicals are getting harder to afford, just as it is getting harder to remember which plants the elders once used as natural pesticides and fertilizers.

The loss of that traditional knowledge is the human cost of development, a loss measured in language, in ceremony, in memory and in pride.

 

Fortunately all is far from lost. The Jalq’a have maintained an encouraging grasp on their traditional expertise, and Walsh portrays them not as victims but as wary agents on a shifting field, working to merge the old ways with the new—itself an old game, as their vivid blend of animist and Catholic ritual reveals. The ayllus may have been outlawed but they never disappeared.

This story, full of paradox, is playing out all across the world. Who can deny that the Green Revolution, like foreign aid itself, saved millions from starvation? Nobody, least of all the Jalq’a, wants to take farming back to the 19th century. But we might bear in mind, as Walsh does, that over the course of the 20th century the world lost more than 75 percent of its crop diversity. Or that here in Canada, the average supermarket spud has lost 57 percent of its vitamin C, 28 percent of its calcium and 100 percent of its vitamin A since the 1950s. In an age where industrial agriculture is often sold as the only way we will ever feed the planet’s coming billions, the lessons Walsh brought home from Bolivia have never been more relevant.

If only they were a little more up to date. The most baffling thing about Trojan-Horse Aid is Walsh’s refusal to tell us what has happened to the Jalq’a in the last 15 years. Neither has she updated her statistics, the vast majority of which date to the 20th century. She did return to Chayanta a few times since 2000, although she says nothing about those trips, and the last chapter includes a few pages describing a one-day dash through Chimpa Rodeo and Mojón in 2011, Walsh’s final visit. Things seem to be vaguely improved, but Walsh has no time to gather specifics. Are the Jalq’a making more money or less? Is the Green Revolution pressing forward, or are the old ayllu systems reasserting their dominance? Or both? Such questions are doubly pressing when you consider the changes Bolivia has undergone since it elected the first indigenous president in the history of the Americas, Evo Morales, in 2005.

I visited La Paz in 2010. My strongest memory is of an indigenous official I interviewed inside the presidential palace, who told me that before 2005, people like him were not even allowed in the building. Now they owned it. That conversation and others like it all gave the strong impression that Morales’s “plurinational” government was serious about its project of granting more autonomy to Bolivia’s indigenous communities.

And yet all Walsh has to say about the matter is “my brief return visits since the first election [of Morales] have not allowed for much more than a gathering of impressions … the few Jalq’a friends I carefully asked for comment about their Indigenous leadership were hesitant to reply.”

Well (sigh), perhaps she will write a sequel.

In the meantime, it would be a shame to let such oversights blot out the important message at the heart of Trojan-Horse Aid. Let’s close with Walsh at her most eloquent, decrying the aid world’s tendency to focus on what the global South lacks, calling instead for her industry to reinforce what people like the Jalq’a already have: the world’s greatest database of ecosystem knowledge, as the pharmaceutical and farming industries know very well. We, the buyers and sellers of that knowledge, have inherited more wealth from the Incan empire’s floral treasures than any mountain of silver and gold will ever yield.

Perhaps, as Walsh suggests, “it is Northern governments who should be thanking Indigenous peoples for the enormous foreign aid they have provided.”