Eric is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research looks at different forms of economic development intervention in Andean Peru’s Colca Valley – from small-scale NGO investments to mining and extractivism – and investigates how they intersect with local conceptions of indigeneity, sustainability, and permanence.
What happens when an Andean family finds gold on its land? Upon my return to the Colca Valley village of Yanque, in Peru’s southern Andes, last year after attending a conference in the United States, my host father Ricardo Flores cautiously approached me. “We may have found some gold on Leonora’s estancia, way up there by Tayta Mismi.” He said this quietly, so as to keep the information a secret.
Because of Yanque’s densely gridded configuration of homes—each of which is the node of a local family’s “archipelago” of properties for dwelling, grazing animals, and growing crops (Murra 1972)—any talk of gold had to be hushed. Property lines aren’t always clear, and this applies both to the horizontal and—as we’ll see just below—vertical dimensions of land. Now, it was certainly clear to the Flores family. Leonora’s birthplace was close to the estancia property, located several kilometers from Tayta (Lord) Mismi, a mountain peak (Apu) that is the village’s main water source and thus a hugely important ritual site. Her family’s alpacas had grazed on that land. But the family did not yet have the documentation to prove it. And based on the Flores’ past experiences with Peruvian bureaucracy, this made the land vulnerable: anybody with better access to experts could easily make a claim to the property.
That was not the main source of urgency for the Flores family, however. Buenaventura, one of Peru’s largest mining enterprises, had been frantically buying up large expanses of land in the area and showed no signs of slowing down. According to the property map that David, one of the Flores’ sons-in-law, drew with marker on a large piece of graph paper (papelote) as he led an October family meeting at the Flores home on how to go about extracting gold from this land, their property was almost completely surrounded. Given the enterprise’s intimacy with state authorities, which have license to claim subsoil rights and set the terms of prior consultation, the estancia was sure to be seized soon if the family did not act.
The global land rush has been particularly pronounced in Peru, whose mineral resources have been largely responsible for the country’s astronomical aggregate growth. Copper, silver, and gold have made Peru the fastest-growing nation in South America for most of the previous decade. Of course, aggregate growth does not tell the whole story, and wealth accumulation from mining profits has disproportionately benefited elites, tracing familiar historical lines of inequality. These elements’ importance for Peru’s growth has also been a source of ambivalence and anxiety, for mining is a perfect example of completely unsustainable development. During the portion of my fieldwork that I spent in the Peruvian cities of Lima and Arequipa, endless academic and NGO conferences were held to address the worry about what will happen to Peru after the mining boom. 2013 and 2014 saw a flurry of books published with titles like “What can be done about Peru?” (Ghezzi and Gallardo 2013). When Lima hosted the 2014 UN conference on global climate change, one of the chants animating the event’s main protest, the People’s Climate March, was this: “There is gold! There is copper! The people are still poor!” (“Hay oro! Hay cobre! El pueblo sigue pobre!”)
Tania Murray Li, in her recent piece “What is Land?”, asks: “why the rush?” (2014: 594). The idea of a land “rush,” Li writes, entails “a sudden, hyped interest in a resource because of its newly enhanced value…Do it now before others spot the value, and profit margins decrease.” For the Flores family in Yanque, Buenaventura was the reason to rush. A second reason to rush was a distinct source of pressure: many of the Flores men, manual laborers and, in one case, an entrepreneur who had just shuttered his video game café business, were unemployed. If Leonora’s estancia really did have gold in its depths, this was the time to find it: mineral prosperity stood to save family members from intense economic desperation.
They snapped into action. They are, at present, engaged in a costly race against time to formalize their property title, constitute the family as an enterprise, and fulfill the other bureaucratic rituals necessary for convincing authorities that they are legitimately entitled to mine the property, against the specter of the state’s usufruct rights and Buenaventura’s profound political advantage.
So this was the Flores family’s first task: get the necessary documents in order. In theory, we can see how land titles serve as protective devices. The Andes and, much more intensely, the Amazonian region of Peru, have seen an “epidemic” of illegal artisanal mining, whose practitioners tend not to meet state regulations or undergo the inspections necessary to be cleared for an extractive activity that poses high risks to substantial parcels of land. These artisanal miners also risk invading territories that belong to others who are often politically weaker than them, and subsequently destroying those territories. If a land title can offer protection, the quest for this protection is another story: state bureaucracy is a significantly more difficult structural obstacle for a small family whose members have limited schooling and even more limited political capital than it is for a large mining corporation.
The Flores family is simultaneously racing to render the site investable by seeking a different kind of permission: the land’s. This permission can be attained through the pago a la tierra (offering to the earth), a ritual fundamental to life in much of the Andes which involves an elaborate process of breathing on and burning, in a highly regulated way, an assemblage of materials including coca leaves and an alpaca fetus. For this ritual, and in order to work the land, a constant supply of chicha (fermented maize and barley) also had to nourish the land, as well as its workers, and making chicha was itself a labor-intensive activity requiring days of preparation. On another of David’s papelotes at the Flores family meeting was a budget, which contained a category he labeled “investments.” Investments here did not only include machinery, the costs of copying and processing documents, gasoline for the truck, and food costs. It also included each of those ritual elements essential to any kind of labor that uses the land to cultivate prosperity.
This second set of tasks was key for rendering the land investable on the family’s—and the land’s—own terms. The consequences of failing to conduct the pago or doing it wrong could be grave, ranging from simply finding no gold to deadly accidents and bad luck on the site and beyond. Even before finalizing the title (something which has yet to happen), Flores family members had made a number of trips to the site lasting up to several days, where they excavated samples for laboratory analysis to attain a better sense of how much gold might be awaiting them. During those trips, they also had to make the place habitable. This means that in a much more mundane way, rendering land investable at the supra-terranean level also has directly to do with transforming the property into a livable space. Labor was required to cook both the chicha and enough food to last each work trip, and to keep the small shelter adequately warm in hostile cold conditions at what was an extremely high altitude. When I accompanied them to the site in January, our project for the day was to re-thatch the small shelter’s old rooftop in preparation for longer stays.
So let’s return to the fundamental discussion question we are each addressing here: What is land? Yes, it is a source of supplies and nutrition, the ground beneath our feet, a commodity, a place, a space, and even that small site on which physical occupation by one person excludes physical occupation by another (Li 2014). But it is also an animated environment, a spirit, a kind of political actor (De la Cadena 2010). The earth and the ground were specifically described as a mother during many rituals I was able to observe in Colca. A patient nurturer and a protector, yes, but also a being personified as somebody who can get hungry and angry and wreak destruction when displeased.
Beyond the simple opposition between “state”/“official”/“secular” and “local”/“spiritual” registers of legitimation, the Flores’ urgent race to render land investable brings multivalent ontologies and ethics into the space of explicit acknowledgment and valuation. And making these things explicit, all together and at once, is not only a common feature of ritual as an interactional genre. This is also a strategy for not leaving anything out, for covering all the bases and pulling out all the stops. In this effort, the Flores family challenges Buenaventura, the state, and just as importantly, the whims of the land itself by recruiting, engaging, and framing on their own terms—while always careful not to resist outright—that which our panel organizers have called “the capitalist-centric framing of rendering land investable.”
De la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond Politics. Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 334-370.
Ghezzi, Piero and José Gallardo. 2013. ¿Qué se puede hacer con el Perú? Ideas para sostener el crecimiento económico en el largo plazo. Lima: Universidad del Pacífico/PUCP
Li, Tania Murray. 2014. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 39(4): 589-602.
Murra, John V. 1972. “El ‘control vertical’ de un máximo de pisos ecológicos en la economía de las sociedades andinas” (pp. 427-476). In Iñigo Ortiz de Zúñiga (1967-1972), Visita de la provincia de León de Huánuco en 1562. Vol. 2. John V. Murra (ed.). Huánuco: Universidad Nacional Hermilio Valdizán.
 All names have been changed to minimize the risk of this post revealing the owners of a property that may have gold on it. Note that “Flores,” which is my anonymizing substitute for a Quechua-language surname, is one of the most widely shared surnames of Spanish origin in Peru.
 This piece in The Economist describes Peru’s “Asian-style” growth between 2003-2013, and describes the instability of subjection to a “commodity lottery”: http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21610305-colombia-overtakes-peru-become-regions-fastest-growing-big-economy-passing