The symbol of Cusco is not an urban cholita, even if from small towns, nor even less people of higher status, to use terms with a certain scent of the past. Rather it is the rural woman, the one who is seen every day in the city of Cusco in the dress of the “take-a-pictures,” the women and girls who walk around with a llama or lamb begging tourists to take their picture for a tip.
There is a certain reality behind that image, even if it is one facing challenges. According to the last Peruvian census, 45% of the population of the Department of Cusco is rural and, of that a smaller percentage, even though I do not have the exact number, belongs to communities where the classic dress tends to continue. This population is not the majority of Cusco’s people but it continues to be important as a symbol at the same time that the traditional rural communities continue to be important.
These rural communities are less than 1% of the agricultural “producers” according to the most recent census of agriculture (2012), since the vast majority of producers are “natural persons”. While the census does not indicate the number of people included in these communities as producers we can see that the 988 rural communities in Cusco claim 51% of the total land used for agriculture in the department. They continue to be the majority in terms of control over land.
In these highland zones around the city of Cusco the percentage of land used by rural communities grows. For example, in the Province of Cusco that surrounds the capital of the same name, it climbs to 77%. In other highland provinces, such as Paruro, it reaches almost 90% while in the lowlands, such as in the Province of La Convencion, it is just barely less than 24%.
Despite the importance of the rural community, Peru seeks to “modernize” by means of an agricultural advance which is measured in tons of exported product, or in dollar value of external sales. A slogan used to justify this advance is to fight against “rural poverty” understood as monetary income as a measure of social legitimacy of a population.
María Claudia de la Barra reported in Gestión that “rural poverty [in Peru] is almost three times more than that of the urban zone, which produces the highest gap in the region.”
The government seeks to reduce rural poverty. Nevertheless, the model of measuring poverty according to individual incomes while communities continue to exercise a central place in the highland economy, especially in Cusco, because of the land area they control and because of the population they represent creates a strong logical and practical conflict.
It is easy to position the producers who are persons against communities in the analysis of the problem of poverty, given the preference for the first above the second in the dominant political economic model. The recognized researcher Cristóbal Kay recently published an analysis of Latin America in which he observes that neoliberalism, the model of exploitation of natural resources and agricultural exports, is leading to a process of re-concentration of land in fewer hands, both in Peru as well as in other countries.
He argues that the agrarian reforms of the last century which distributed the fields to those who worked them is in a process of reversal because of the pressure of the dominant neoliberal model.
In Cusco, as in the majority of the Peruvian highlands, the communities still have weight even if they are confronting difficulties, such as those of land privatization, to be able to qualify credit and to obtain capital, for management by individual owners, and those of alienation of land, which means its sale or loss due to legal strategies, and their dedication to other uses beyond those decided by the community, wether those are agricultural or involve mining.
Here is the base of the social conflicts that afflict the Peruvian highlands today. As long as their is a discrepancy between the neoliberal model and the communal reality, strong social battles will continue to arise, no matter how nuanced and subtle are the policies for development and reduction of rural poverty in their application to the communities.
To speak of the communities is not just to reference productive entities, comparable of individuals or corporations, it is to speak of something with resonance for regional identity.
The image of the tradition woman of Cusco, with a community identity, has implications for other spheres of the national economy, that is to say tourism if nothing more, and in the self respect of the people of Cusco of any social class, at the same time it opens the door for seeing the social tensions behind it. More than anything else, it demands respect for rural people and their communities.
Cristóbal Kay, the Agrarian Question and the Neoliberal Rural Transformation in Latin America, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, No. 100 (2015) December, pp. 73-83.