Culture and economy: the case of the milk market in The Northern Andes of Ecuador (1)

Publication: Ethnology

Publication Date: 01-JAN-06

Author: Ferraro, Emilia

COPYRIGHT 2006 University of Pittsburgh, Department of Anthropology

In a Quichua area of Ecuador milk marketing has traditionally been in the hands of nonindigenous people. In recent years the market has come into the hands of indigenous people, who use their kin relations to take it from mestizo intermediaries. The changes in the economy are paralleled by sociocuitural changes in the villages, and in notions of what constitute the economy, fair transactions, and market relationships. There is no sharp division between market and traditional exchanges; rather, market exchanges are understood in terms of traditional reciprocity. (Ecuador, market exchange, reciprocity, structural adjustments)

For almost three decades, there has been anthropological interest in market systems considered as empirical entities (e.g., Plattner 1985) or as conceptual categories (e.g., Dilley 1992; Carrier 1997, 2002; Carrier and Miller 1998). The topic is critically important for Latin America, where the 1990s have witnessed the domination of neoliberal philosophy and its emphasis on a free market as the basis for the development of national economies. An extreme example of this philosophy is Ecuador's currency, which has been officially substituted by the US dollar.

This article shows with an ethnography of the milk market in a Quichua area of the Northern Andes of Ecuador, that changes in the economy are paralleled with changes in the culture of the villages. The commercialization of milk in this area has traditionally been in the hands of nonindigenous mestizo people, but with economic conditions changing in recent years this market has come into the hands of indigenous people, who used their kin relations to take it over from mestizo intermediaries.

Rather than having a rupture with the past, there is a continuation of local ways of conceiving the economy in terms of fair transactions and proper relationships. Unlike much of the literature on the Andes and other regions of the world, there is no sharp division between market and traditional exchanges; rather, market exchanges are understood in the language of traditional reciprocity. This article contributes to the debate in anthropology and development scholarship on concepts and functions of markets, and to the growing awareness among scholars from different disciplines that "much Western thinking about the economy is problematic and heavily ideological and so merits careful scrutiny" (Carrier 2002:126).


The ethnographic area lies in the parish of Olmedo, in the inter-Andean valley delimited by the Cayambe volcano to the east and by the slopes of the Mojanda mountain to the west, at an altitude between 2800 and 3400 miles above sea level. The climate is Andean, with temperatures ranging between 5[degrees] and 22[degrees] C throughout the year, dropping sharply at higher altitudes and at night. Most of the area falls below 3100 miles above sea level. This ecological zone has heavy showers in the rainy season, prolonged droughts in the dry season, chill dry winds, and frosts that threaten crops. At lower elevations, potatoes are primarily raised, along with maize and broad beans, while in the higher areas wheat, and especially barley, are grown. The area above 3200 miles above sea level (the Paramo) has traditionally been used for cattle grazing.

From colonial times until 1908, the area was a vast hacienda owned in turn by several Catholic religious orders, and based on a system of debt peonage in which indigenous peasants received the use of small plots of land and small sums of cash that they had to repay in labor (Guerrero 1991; Ferraro 2000a, 2000b). In 1908 the Government of Ecuador expropriated all church properties; the area was divided into five smaller haciendas managed by a Government Agency that rented land and, as before, was based on peonage labor (Crespi 1968; Guerrero 1991; Ferraro 2000a, 2004a). The Agrarian Reform aimed to redistribute the land more equitably to the indigenous people but did not fully succeed. The big landowners managed to keep the best land for themselves, but a group was formed by peasants who managed to buy the land freed by the Reform. This resulted in a differentiation among the peasantry (Muratorio 1980; Furche 1988; Guerrero 1991; Martinez 1995a; Ferraro 2000a, 2004a). The haciendas were taken by the state and the land distributed among the resident peasants and peasant co-operatives created specifically for this purpose. The co-operatives became a further means of discrimination among the peasants, since those who were not members of a co-operative were denied access to the land. Once the co-operatives achieved their main aim--to buy the land from the state--its members divided the land and other co-operative resources and assets among themselves, and in the 1990s the co-operatives were dissolved (Ferraro 1992, 2000a; Haubert 1990; Martinez 1994, 1995a; Breton 1997).

A result of the Agrarian Reform has been a greater concentration of the most productive lands in the hands of the landowners, while the indigenous ex-peons received the least productive plots at higher elevations. These plots are further divided into minifundios (small plots) that are intensively farmed for subsistence and, therefor, are progressively deteriorating.

Indigenous and mestizo people reside in the parish of Olmedo. Relations between the two groups are strained, as each feels superior to the other. In socio-economic terms, this division is determined above all by the level of control over basic resources such as land, pasture, and cattle, and by the level of engagement in the national society.

Mestizos live mainly in the parish seat, Olmedo, a small town established in the 1930s by nonindigenous landless workers of the nearby hacienda. They were apegados (lit. "stuck on"), people granted permission to reside on a small plot of land belonging to other families (Guerrero 1991). Until the Agrarian Reform took place, the town was economically and administratively dependent on the hacienda, whose center was established in Pesillo, the largest indigenous village of the area, giving Pesillanos cause to feel superior to mestizos (Ferraro 2000a). On the other hand, mestizos consider indigenous people to be ignorant and stupid, citing as evidence their inability to trade. Mestizos, anxious to establish a clear difference between themselves and indigenous...