Ecuador in the Shadow of the Hacienda Regime
This year, the Highland Support Project has partnered with a collection of Kichwa communities of Chimborazo, Ecuador to bolster the development and implementation of locally directed programs to build Indigenous social capital that counters the continuing structures of dependency created by the hacienda system.
What does that mean?
First we should probably go over a very abridged history of the haciendas in the Ecuadorian highlands, for which I will refer primarily to the article “The Continuity of Hacienda’s Discourses and Practices in the Context of International and National Cooperation” by Dr. Luis Alberto Tuaza Castro, an Indigenous political scholar who lived through the dissolution of the haciendas and currently works as an Indigenous organizer in the Chimborazo region.
The word “hacienda” to a North American, if invoking any imagery at all, probably brings to mind that of of a beautiful colonial style vacation home nestled in rolling hills of picturesque farmland. However, to Indigenous populations throughout South America, and especially the Ecuadorian highlands, that one word encapsulates a more than 300 year history of subjugation and forced labor that in some regions persisted all the way through the 1980s.
The hacienda regime reached the height of its power in 1857 when the government of Ecuador, in place of the previous system of tribute paid by Indigenous tribes, turned over the administration of the Indigenous population to a minority land-owning class of “hacienderos” (plantation owners) to be used as laborers on their haciendas (plantations). The haciendas had existed far prior, existing off forced Indigenous labor, but this decree legally placed the Indigenous population under the control of the hacienderos.
This created, in essence, a network of small states, each with a white or mestizo hacienda boss at the head, managing hundreds of Indigenous families through their mayordomos (mestizo overseers, often family of the boss) and jipus (a select few indigenous subjects given authority and gifts to keep others in line).
While, from an outside perspective, it may seem incredible that such a system could persist without constant resistance, Dr. Tuaza Castro writes, “For the indigenous population subjected to the landed power, it was impossible to imagine a society without haciendas, since life on the hacienda was perceived as a component of the natural order of things. But the hacienda had other connotations, created networks of interdependence, exchange of gifts, use of practices and languages that expressed the full gratitude, oaths of fidelity on the part of the subalterns towards the boss, the mayordomos and jipus.”
Through generations of colonial subjugation, the masters became, in the common imagination, “extraordinary beings, clothed with power, that grant favors and at the same time demand respect. From this perspective, the hacienda was not conceived of by the Indigenous people as an instance of domination, a production unit only, but as a space that guarantees survival, offers favors, rewards those who are faithful to the master, imposes rules on the family and the community... while the owner was considered ‘Tayta amice’ [‘kind father’, a term that was used by the Catholic church to refer to Jesus].” (Tuaza Castro)
This dependent relationship was ingrained so strongly in the Indigenous imagination that even today, many of the older folks who were born into the hacienda regime remember the bosses with a certain nostalgia for “the old life,” seeing them as benevolent providers while relegating blame for abuse and punishments to the overseers. Dr. Tuaza Castro quotes some of them in a recent article on the subject. Manuela Fares remembers: "In the time of harvest, early morning we were up at 4am to pick the fruits, thresh the barley until later than 10pm Never mind the wind, or the cold, or the hunger. You had to do the job, they beat us and gave us more tasks.” While also positing, “The master was not bad, he had his moments of anger, but he always tried to make sure everyone had enough to eat. The bad guys were the mayordomos and the jipus, they punished us."
In the early 1970s, due in great part to leaders from the Catholic church such as Coronel Ambrosio Lasso and Padre Julio Gortaire, Indigenous communities throughout the region began to organize for their rights to form Indigenous communities on the land they worked, independent of the rule of the haciendas.
Attempts at community formation were of course frustrated by the landowner, his mestizo allies and the families of the jipus, at times through violent force, and other times through the sowing of division through loyalist Indigenous workers in the communities who had received special gifts or status under the hacienda regime.
The process of dissolving the haciendas themselves wasn’t really completed until the late 80s, (and in some areas until the early nineties), but the structures of power it had built over the past 300 years were not so easily dispersed.
The power vacuum left by the absence of the haciendas was replaced nominally by democratically elected councils of separate Indigenous communities living on the land of the former haciendas. However, the hierarchy of the hacienderos was not erased from the popular imagination and would soon be filled by another “Tayta amice.”
Throughout the 90s, international development NGOs began arriving en masse to the region, providing financial and organizational support for infrastructure projects, education, and political advancement. However, as Dr. Tuaza Castro points out: “These have improved the community infrastructure, have served to stimulate organizational and political processes, but have not managed to completely combat poverty. This has to do, as I have shown in previous works (Tuaza, 2011), with the fact that the cooperation agendas are designed in a technical way, with an external and compassionate outlook, without a deep analysis of reality and without taking into account the voices of potential beneficiaries. It also has to do with the logic and practices from the world of the haciendas. The beneficiary population of the projects sees the technicians and officials of the cooperation institutions, as it happened in the times of the hacienda, as the new masters who come bringing things, who come to give money, people who for free and for love give gifts, without realizing that behind the good intentions of aid is an organizational scaffolding solidly constructed to capture funds in the name of the poor and the indigenous, and establish the proper functioning of the solidarity market and then generate gratitude.” In this way, NGOs and the Ecuadorian government fill the role of the hacienderos as superior beings clothed with wisdom.
The haciendas were, for Indigenous peoples, not only a place of subjugation and punishment, but also one of survival, in which favors were given in exchange for thanks and loyalty to the master and his mayordomos and jipus. The current role of So many NGOs in the region only reinforces this, Dr. Tuaza Castro says, “these institutions are not seen as cooperative and strategic allies, but rather as necessary benefactors.” Furthermore, the wide variety of organizations filling the role of benefactor has split the loyalty of Indigenous communities, creating many factions and weakened the briefly united Indigenous front.
If development is to truly benefit communities as a whole, it must be directed by communities themselves. The effectiveness of a development project relies on an exchange of knowledge. It must not be a cultural monologue, but rather a cultural dialogue. However, this will not take place if the power structures directing development are the same that have been established for the past 300 years preventing any dialogue.
This post draws directly from the article The Continuity of Hacienda’s Discourses and Practices in the Context of International and National Cooperation by Luis Alberto Tuaza Castro Universidad Nacional de Chimborazo. Here is the link of the article in Spanish. http://societageografica.net/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/TUAZA-CASTRO_Inglese.pdf