Thomas Leatherman


Deep History of Coloniality and Persistent Poverty in the Southern Andes


As a biocultural anthropologist who has worked on issues relating poverty, inequality, and health one region of the southern Peruvian Andes my usual framing of the roots of inequality has been to point to (but not examine in any depth) the deep history of 500 years of exploitation of land and people. In framing modern Andean economies and health within a structural violence approach that links history, political economy and biology (Farmer 2001) and demands an analysis that is both geographically broad and historically deep, my efforts at historical depth have been largely focused on a 20th century history of agrarian reform, armed conflict and recent rural development. Our goal is this essay is to begin to track the roots of inequality in greater historical depth focusing initially and especially on the colonial period and the dominating institution of the colonial mita; forced labor conscription through which Spanish administrators extracted labor to work in the silver mines of Potosi and mercury mines of Huancavelica.  We ask how this protracted process (1573 – 1812) contributed to later economy and society, including persistent poverty in the central and southern Andean highlands. Yet we problematize this history and a teleological view of persistent effects of the mita not as one long unfolding continuous process and rather one framed by contingent discontinuities; the mita and its effects changed over time in part due to its own practice and especially due to response of conscripted populations.


Our point of departure is an argument proposed by Harvard economist Melissa Dell (2010) that persistent effects of the mita can explain contemporary poverty and inequality today in the southern Peruvian Andes.  She argues that in zones directly impacted by the mita modern day household consumption is reduced by 30%, that 5% more of the children are stunted (low height for age; evidence of chronic undernutrition associated with poverty), and that the majority of households are relegated to subsistence farming largely disconnected to markets. Using available data from the Spanish Empire and Peruvian Republic she argues that the mita’s influence has persisted through its impacts on land tenure and public goods provision.  Her explanation is that districts participating in the mita had fewer large landholdings with secure tenure (and economic influence) who could solicit public goods from the state (such as roads and educational infrastructure) and that they subsequently remained more removed from regional and national economic networks; hence remained relatively under-developed and impoverished. She performs a regression discontinuity analysis comparing regions that were part of the mita compared to others with similar populations and production features.  While there are interesting insights in her economic history, much is missed in both the internal transformation of the mita during its 240 year history and especially during the subsequent 200 years since Peruvian independence. Other important processes that served to shape inequalities in the region include, for example: 1) the rapid expansion of haciendas as the southern Andes were drawn into a global wool export economy; 2) an agrarian reform that benefitted some but further disenfranchised many local inhabitants; 3) a protracted civil war between the revolutionary forces of Sendero Luminoso and the Peruvian state; and 4) a more recent set of rural development strategies supported by the state and NGOs.  So while we critique Dell for insufficient attention to these later historical events and the changing dimensions of mita itself during the colonial period, we want to engage her question and analysis to ask how the colonial policies and practices of the mita might have implications for modern Andean economies and societies. We wish to examine how the mita and local responses might have contributed to a whole set of cultural features of Andean society and might have shaped more recent historical processes listed above (hacienda expansion, agrarian reform, conflict). The primary location of concern is an area of southern Peru within the zones of Dell’s analysis; the District of Nuñoa in the Department of Puno whose residents participated in the Potosi mita. We hope to contrast this with a second area in Huancavelica which was the site of the other major mita for mercury mining.

The Colonial Mita and Indigenous Populations

The colonial mita was a system of forced labor tax imposed by Viceroy Toledo in the second half of the 16th century to provide workers for the silver mines in Potosi and mercury mines in Huancavelica. At one point the mines of Potosi provided approximately 70% of the worlds silver, and by 1650 Potosi itself reached a population of around 160,000 inhabitants making it one of the largest cities in the western hemisphere. Silver from Potosí and other colonial Spanish American mines made possible the rise of a global economy, based in significant ways on the trade by Europe of American silver for silks, spices and other Asian goods. As Perivuan sociologist Anıbal Quijano put it, “Latin America was the original space of the emergence of modern/colonial capitalism; it marked its founding moment.” (cited in Escobar 2010). This entailed a coloniality of power that imposed categories of race and labor, and while not taken up explicitly here will hopefully be explored in an extended essay.

The impacts of the mita were extensive and constitute potentially powerful but unclear persistent effects on modern Andean society and economy. I mention several below which we will develop further in our extended essay.

  1. In order to implement an efficient system of taxing labor based on populations, well-established dispersed ayllus (historically traditional communities) were forced into reducciones (concentrated settlements). Former systems of production in which ayllus worked lands in different production zones at different altitudes along the Andean escarpment (what Andean ethno-historian John Murra called “Andean verticality”) was disrupted, forever changing ecologies of production and economies of exchange. In this shift, some have argued for a colonial transformation in the very notion of ayllu – as an historically traditional form of indigenous settlement around kin or fictive kin lineage and linked to a specific area often by spiritual links between community and mountain apus (dieties). Gose for example argues that the idea of ayllu as more or less fixed in space through local mountain dieties was in fact a response to colonial impositions affecting ancestor worship in the form of mummies.
  2. The demographic cost of conquest and colonization was immense. Andean populations that had been greatly depopulated (between 50-70%) from diseases introduced by Europeans and from the violence of the conquest were further pressured demographically by forced labor. David Cook estimates that there was a 90% reduction by 1620.

The human cost of the mita was immense in both Potosi and Huancavelica mitas. The journey to Potosi often took months and the work there was arduous with which to maintain sustenance inadequate to cover basic needs. In Huancavelica the costs were even greater; workers experienced frequent cave ins and were directly exposed to the poisonous mercury and the Huancavelica mines were known as the “mines of death”. As part of the institutionalization of labor tribute indigenous ayllus were reformed into concentrated settlements (reducciones) which were easier to administer. One in seven adult males (18-50 years) were obliged to serve as a mitayo in the mines. The nature of this service and its impact changed over time. For example, men traveled to Potosi often in arduous journeys of several months and increasingly brought female partners and other family members who worked in Potosi to help provide subsistence not met through wages and provisions. The work was strenuous and dangerous and increasingly became based in a quota system so that terms of service were based on levels of individual production; and this made family help even more essential to provide food and other basic needs, and at times to share the burden of work in the mine.  While at times some families developed businesses and accumulated some wealth, and took up permanent residence in Potosi, many others returned home in poorer physical and economic conditions.  The impacts to local communities of losing such a large portion of male labor impacted local production. Some accounts speak of towns with only women, children and the elderly.  Accessing non-family labor to replace absent males in reciprocal exchanges (ayni) were also impacted since the absent laborer might return weakened or sick and unable to repay the work. Women’s work and obligation were increased both as support of mining in Potosi and also in terms of carrying out household production activities in communities of origin.  In addition, as mentioned below, not only were communities depopulated by demographic collapse but by purposeful abandonment.

3) Another major impact was in the form of shifting ethnic identity, community affiliation and promotion of wage labor. The desire to escape the forced labor tax led many to abandon communities of origin, either by never returning to the community after the period of mita labor or deserting their communities entirely to escape labor tax in the first place. This meant they abandoned their communal rights to land, their herds, and the systems of social relations and reciprocity that shaped daily life and production. It entailed a status shift from originario to  forastero (emigrant) who would seek to join other communities or place themselves in service as colonos to a large private estate (hacienda).  In many areas (e.g., Cuzco region) forasteros  came to compose half the populations.  As a case in point from the District of Nuñoa – the site of my ongoing research –  David Garrett cites the “staggering burden” of the Potosi mita on Nuñoa; 90 workers and 2907 pesos from its 2 moities.  He notes that Nuñoa was an important town in the 16th century; one of few cited on 1574 map of Diego Mendez, and that local priest in 1689 spoke of its former grandeur, but how by that time almost all of the inhabitants were forasteros. Others from the local Andean populations adopted the status of yanacona, claiming no community of origin and rather often traced their roots to urban zones. These individuals were more strongly articulated into the Spanish labor market through wage work or other arrangements, and often had an ambiguous ethnic identity as a more ‘acculturated’ indian.

Discussion and Questions

Andean ethnographers cite many features as iconic elements of Andean society and culture. Examples include:  1) kin based ayllus in which residents are linked together by kin or fictive kin lineages, and linked to place through connection to dieties that dwell in the mountains.

2) Social relations and production systems characterized by cooperation, complementarity and reciprocity. While these features have changed over time they are often understood as evidence of a pre-conquest Andean society, economy and cosmology.  Yet what does it mean that places and peoples were so fluid and changing in character is response to impositions of colonial processes? In what ways might modern systems of production and exchange, notions of community, land sovereignty, reciprocity and other elements of Andean society be as much products of colonial practices as much as pre-conquest social formations?  In the period since conquest and leading up to the present how have the contingencies of the colonial past helped shape later histories of hacienda expansion, agrarian reform, conflicts and a present period in which many communities have renewed access to land systematically denied to them over the past centuries.  Finally, what does this mean for inequalities and health and the future of Andean society?

Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

We are interested in exploring processes that shape both labor relations and perceptions of environments (and humans place in and relationship to their environment) in the longue duree. The more specific context is resource extraction (e.g., mining) in the Andes (colonial mita) and/or Amazon (e.g., gold mining) in South America. For example, the colonial mita (labor tax used in colonial times to provide labor for silver and mercury mines) was shaped by pre-colonial Incaic forms of tribute and the impacts are still felt today. Peoples notions of environment and sovereignty have shaped processes of resource extraction (both engagement in and resistance to extraction) across time. I say “we” because any project would be done in collaboration with student/colleagues. My interest are primarily about history, political-economy, and health.

Provisional sketch of essay:

Format would be book chapter. Topic in general is how colonial processes in Peru that were built on and transformed pre-colonial economies and social relations have ramifications today.  One potential topic is to explore the colonial “mita” that extracted forced labor for work in silver and mercury mines. Some economic historians argue it has shaped both post-colonial and current economies.  For sure it caused radical shifts in social relationships, in relationships to land, and perhaps notions of how people view land (as a living thing). Today in some parts of the Andes, but not others, activists use indigenous cosmologies use a kind of spiritual ecology argument to resist mining activities. Another potential topic (and perhaps in connection with the mita and mining) – is how Amazonian groups have a notion of themselves in relations to the land that shapes their engagement in and resistance to gold mining. These notions are in part pre-colonial and in part have been reshaped through centuries of outside efforts of resource extraction and also more recent incursions of evangelical religious groups.

Like I said I am still more ground in specific historical and economic relationship and their effects on living people today. Projects would entail working with student collaborators one of whom is completing a dissertation on mercury mining during colonial and post-colonial period and with strong interests in ethno-history. He works on technical and archeological aspects, on ethno-history, and on issues like the Black Legend.  The other student is currently developing a dissertation project around forms of resource extraction in the Amazon.