“¡Esa gente mata!” “Those people kill!” So exclaimed the middle-aged restaurant owner as she peered at me with alarm through her thick glasses. She obviously did not think very highly of the people who lived in the village down the hill from this small town where I was staying. Shaking her head with dismay, she recalled that when she was eight years old, violence had flared up between different sections of that village. After the fighting, bodies were brought up on trucks. The army even came in to restore order.
I was hardly surprised to hear her anecdote. I already knew that I had walked into a hornets’ nest. The restaurant owner’s concern was largely because I had just cleared up the mystery of why, the previous morning, I had disappeared suddenly out the door, leaving behind my glasses, book, and a half-eaten plate of eggs and potatoes. My archæologist girlfriend had just phoned unexpectedly—fortunately the reception happened to work at that moment, despite the frequent power outages—to say that I had to rustle up a vehicle and driver at once. She and her team were working down on the outskirts of the village, and had just heard a sinister voice booming over one of the loudspeakers. In a mix of Spanish and Quechua, it was urging the locals to assemble at the schoolhouse gate and march over to expel the team by force.
It was an anxious twenty minute ride down the appallingly bad dirt road, complete with phone calls about who had taken refuge where and whether the mob had materialised yet.
The summer finds me back in highland Peru, a bit over an hour’s drive away from Pomatambo, the village I have written about a few times on FPR. As any good traditionalist knows, villages have personalities. Pomatambo has a genuine warmth about it, with many of the old small decencies intact. Its couple of hundred inhabitants help each other with everything from harvests to housebuilding, and have always been generous and open to us when we have visited. Communities like it across the Andes have much worth preserving in the way of the old virtues and a sense of belonging. They have also been rightly suspicious of the modern excesses of state and market, and have usually had a feisty attachment to their own independence. There is much here in the highlands that Porchers should admire. Indeed, part of the reason I am in Peru again is to talk about just what these villages have to offer the world, since the Spanish translation of my book about Pomatambo recently came out. What I argued has generally had a sympathetic ear in these parts.
So what ironies of fate converged that morning, such that a mob was about to come out on a march against us?
As I said, villages have personalities. And this other village, the site of my girlfriend’s dig, is, as the sheriff of the district remarked, very different from Pomatambo. I shall not venture its name here, out of respect for the many decent people who do live in it. It is bigger than Pomatambo, with a couple of thousand inhabitants. It also has, unbeknownst to us before this summer, quite a reputation for ferocity.
On previous shorter visits, in 2009 and 2010, almost everyone had been quite amiable. A couple of small-scale village meetings had welcomed the prospect of an excavation several months long. The village has a distinguished history, as the site of a colonial-era textile workshop and prison that brought together different ethnic groups and paved the way for some important revolts. Many, including the local amateur historian, were eager to see more details of this colourful past unearthed.
The first rumblings of trouble came a month ago, about the time the official permission to excavate was being processed in Lima. Apparently, some people in the upper section of the village had been building a new adobe meeting hall, and in the process had been taking mud from, and slowly demolishing, a ceremonially important hill centuries old. Word got around, and in the heavy-handed fashion that is often the habit of bureaucrats, an injunction swiftly came down from the authority in charge of protecting historic sites. Understandably, some resentment surged up against anything resembling archæology.
To everyone who heard this turn of events, it seemed quite minor. These were legitimate worries that in any other community would be cleared up in due course, once it was shown that a few holes in the ground on unused land would have no impact on anyone’s daily life. And a couple of weeks ago, another meeting with most of the village leaders still made everything look unproblematic.
The first wave of ferocity hit us at a village general assembly last Sunday. We had been added to the agenda to allow some informative speeches and a rubber-stamp expression of support for the project. As a purely legal matter, the permission from Lima cleared the way to go ahead, but the meeting was an expression of respect and a way to bring everyone firmly on board and clear up any lingering concerns from the uphill neighbourhood. In its fourth hour, the assembly turned to us. Some leaders spoke for us. Others, from uphill and who had not bothered to come to any previous gatherings, spoke loudly against. Tempers flared. Of the five percent or so of villagers who had bothered to turn up at the assembly, most were from uphill, the carefully mobilised family and friends of the discontented. And the three or four malcontents in chief obviously had much more on their minds that any concrete interests at stake. The atmosphere gradually came to resemble that of a mass rally as they accused us of plotting, in sinister fashion, to privatise village land and turn it over to mining companies. It came to light later that one of the ringleaders had also been spreading rumours that we have a long history of sacking ruins in other villages and scurrying off with gold under cover of darkness.
The next morning, a couple of more well-disposed village leaders sought us out to smoothe things over. They let us know that the dig could start in the more welcoming parts of the village, while leaving time for tempers uphill to calm down. Little did we expect that the next day there would be incitement to violence over the loudspeakers, leading to a visit by the police chief and prosecutor to warn the culprits, then the destruction of one pit with pickaxes in the night.
In the long run, I suspect this will turn out to be a tempest in a teacup. The conventional wisdom has it that highland tempers settle after a while, and that compromises worked out behind the scenes often resolve matters.
But the peculiarities of this village stand out in many ways. It is unlike anything I have seen elsewhere in the highlands, with some ghastly layers of dysfunctionality lurking behind the ferocity that gets whipped up from time to time. And perhaps the oddest thing about it is that much of what got stirred up against us is peculiarly modern. I might expect elders in a very traditional community to have misgivings about outsiders, or to greet any project with suspicion by default. They would have my sympathies. And if mining companies or privatisers really were coming into the village, then I would be slapping the malcontents on the back as they did battle with them.
But as we have peeled back what has been going on here beneath the surface, something far less healthy has been coming to light. For one thing, the village leaders who pretend to regard us as the devil incarnate are hardly elderly and traditional. Their average age is in the early thirties, with rather more education than one might expect. More importantly, it turns out that most of them either already are being prosecuted for embezzlement of village funds or are about to be.
That there is corruption in much of rural Peru, I do not doubt. Nor is it surprising that violence is a readier resort here than in, say, Denmark. But in this village, things rise to a new level. Here, we are well on the way to South Chicago, West Baltimore, or the less fortunate countries of Africa: bloody violence, mafia-like cronyism, and a pattern of money vanishing into the pockets of those in office.
I use the term “in office” loosely. Anyone sympathetic to genuine local democracy, in the spirit of the Porch, would raise an obvious question on hearing about such dysfunctionality. Why do the silent majority of decent villagers put up with it? They are not, as in China, under the thumb of officials appointed from above with little recourse. Ostensibly, they could do something about it. Yet it turns out that local elections are, to put it charitably, a rather informal affair. Apparently none of the present officeholders are duly certified by the regional government, and I have heard from multiple sources that a proper vote was not held. Most offices seem to rotate among the same cabal that is stirring up violence against us. Unsurprisingly, the community loudspeakers are attached to their houses and used only for purposes that fit their agenda. Genuine local democracy is about content that genuinely reflects the will of the locals. Without forms that are guaranteed by some actors outside the process, such content cannot be properly expressed. It is as the ancients knew: a polity functions best with a constitution drawn up by a lawgiver above the interests that will fight for power within it.
This is perhaps an easy problem to solve. It would not take much for the state, despite its incapacities, merely to ensure every couple of years that a vote really is a vote. Outside actors are also to blame for a good deal of the embezzlement that has happened. Tens of thousands of dollars have gone missing, most of it funds from NGOs to support everything from tree planting to a primitive guesthouse. It has been able to go missing because the grantors, often institutions from countries where accounting is respectably tight, are very lax about supervision here. It would impinge not a whit on local autonomy to insist that whatever choices are made about the use of funds, those choices be transparent and that those making them bear responsibility. Traditional communities usually have firm ethical standards based on personal knowledge of what is going on. A village elder collecting money for the annual festival is too visible to get away with much. When other actors come on the scene and money starts flowing in more obscure ways, something else needs to be added. Here, one of the best things generous donors could do is impart tight accounting practices. Otherwise, we have the situation the provincial prosecutor described as we bounced over the road back to his headquarters: public money is considered nobody’s money, and thus free for the taking.
It also makes a difference where the money comes from and how it flows. These highland villages are poor enough that outside generosity, whether public or private, is much needed. But a peculiar perversity comes about when so much of local life comes to depend on attaching oneself to such sources of income. Civil society is weaker in this village than in much of highland Peru, and certainly weaker than what I have seen across the border in Bolivia. When people generate income themselves for common purposes, or at least participate in doing so, they feel more ownership over how it is used. The only real civil society I have seen in this village is the evangelical church, whose members seem to have withdrawn into their own world, probably in part because the local political scene looks so bleak. With weak civil society, the centre of gravity shifts to political officeholders and others who wheedle their way into being the agents of outside funders. Pockets get filled and needs go unmet. The dirt road down to the village is the worst I have seen in the province. I often wonder if the vehicles taking us down it will survive the scrapes and clunks and other dire noises I hear from underneath. But apparently money was offered to pave it a year or two ago. The local leaders refused it because they would not be administering it themselves—and, based on past experience, pocketing half of it.
This dependence on patronage is likely to worsen, as a populist president is about to come into office here in Peru. His brother is already being investigated for making unauthorised fishing and tourism deals with interests in Russia. But the problem has to do also with how we think about the basis of strong communities. Here, I think those of us on the Porch can run into some unhelpful temptations. A defence of place is often crucial. But some of the pathologies in this village are due, I would argue, to too narrow a focus on place and territory. Power and loyalty that is purely territorial, as here, becomes monovalent and plays into the hands of thugs and opportunists. It breeds resignation among ordinary people. Ultimately, there is very little here in the way of civil society and well-grounded economic activity that cuts across local territories and thus chastens local powerholders. I do not refer to the rootless economic flows that cause other problems in our time. The kinds of strong economic and voluntary networks that are lacking here need only range across the same district, to undercut those with one hand in the till and the other on the loudspeaker button. To build those networks requires a conscious middle ground, between too shrill a defence of “here” and too anæmic an enthusiasm for “nowhere.”
Everything I have said so far has to do with structures. Because they channel power, they allow local mafias to hold such influence against the best interests of most residents. But in the end we have to come back to intent and outlook. Structure made possible the mob incitement of the last few days, but it does little to explain why we became the target. I suppose we were a convenient distraction from the fact that another item on the agenda at the village assembly was more accounts that could not be reconciled. And the sort of benefits that this dig could bring to the community—such as donations of some educational materials to the school, or in the long run more tourism based on the history of the area—are also by their nature hard for the embezzlers to skim off.
But outlook and priorities do matter in another way. One of the themes that has come up often on the Porch, though somewhere behind a defence of place, is the importance of the past. We are shaped not only by where we are, but also by the legacy of past generations. One would think that, in a largely traditional community like this one, a project to unearth more of its past would be welcome. The written history of the area shows that much of that past is inspiring, filled with battles against real injustice. And to be sure, among some of the older generation, we have had just the response one would expect. But there are other trends pushing toward a much more short term view of who these people are and what they want. The fairly young firebrand leaders are part of a generation that is recognisably different. They have watched plenty of unsavoury global media over the years. And anyone who has spent time in the Andes of late will know what I mean when I say that they fit the image of the sullen and oppositional youth. Continuity with the past means little to them, by all indications. Thus they do things like dig mud out of an historic ceremonial site, and even smash old stone graves with tractors. And for all the finger-pointing about our alleged digging for gold, I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the destruction had to do with what might glitter in the rubble.
Part of this is a generational shift. The young generally care less about the past. They hold office as part of an ambition to move up in the world, not because they wish to be respected figures within the community of a lifetime. Most members of this village mafia have had their eyes on district- or provincial-level office for a while, with all the fevered playing to the crowd that that implies. But part of this disregard for the past is also due to the very flat nature of Andean society. This is a culture that was decapitated with the Conquest centuries ago. Since then, it has never had an aristocracy or gentry rooted in the history of the place. The soul of the Spanish-descended large landowners was on another continent, not here. And the sense of the past that the village elders have is selective, by and large. On the one hand, they have a vague sense of a glorious but lost Inka civilisation. On the other, they cling to the memories and customs of their ancestors two or three generations back. But there is not the strong sense of stewardship of the remnants of history that tends to be more the province of a leisured class with a longer term view of itself. Without this ethos of stewardship to push back, it is hardly surprising that the young firebrands are allowed to destroy structures that date back centuries.
How this unfolds in coming weeks remains to be seen. On the community landscape, such as it is, there is much to be done to make it more likely that cooler heads prevail. In any event, I promise another instalment.