Racial property – From colonial theft to indigenous reparation in Bolivia

Mareike Winchell (Anthropologue – Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago)

Mareike Winchell présente ici une partie de ses travaux sur les enjeux relatifs au foncier en Bolivie, entre passé et présent. Un billet qui entre en écho avec la parution récente de l’ouvrage collectif Le foncier rural dans les pays du Sud.

Land, and its conversion into private property, is a classic topic of social scientific study. In 1842, a young Karl Marx published a newspaper article challenging new legal codes that secured private property while dispensing with what he termed the customary rights of the poor. While an earlier penal code allowed for the gathering of fruit, berries, and dry wood in areas peasants did not formally own, new laws criminalized such practices, in this way eradicating the “excessive humanity” of the earlier code. Like John Locke, Marx was attentive to property not just as land but as a way that people come to place themselves in the world through their labor. But while Locke celebrated that conversion as a way to “improve” land through greater productive value, Marx lamented the emptying out of both nature and humanity as each are reduced to sheer utility. Against the dehumanizing risks of commodification, anthropologists like Marcel Mauss, Nancy Munn, Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch, Olivia Harris, and David Graeber have highlighted the endurance of alternate exchange relations and more robust ideas of accountability and obligation, asking how such relations can complicate the enclosure of people and things in modern capitalism.

These questions assumed new, more complicated, meanings in modern colonialism, which strove to make people into commodities (through transatlantic slavery) and then later to undo that commodification through emancipation and citizenship rights. However, as scholars Saidiya Hartman, Cheryl Harris, and Brenna Bhandar have shown, this process did not displace property so much as lodge it more firmly within people. Self-possession—the idea that one owns and controls one’s body and mind much like one is thought to control one’s own property—became the key standard against which to judge the formerly colonized, and their readiness for modern citizenship. Where such possession was deemed lacking, such as when Indigenous populations did not cultivate land in ways that could be recognized by a Lockean model of agricultural improvement or where they remained vulnerable to the power and violence of overlords, colonists argued they should be rightfully dispossessed of land and, in cases of plantations and encomiendas, remain the property of other human owners (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 – The shadowy interior of a former hacienda estate. Coils of barbed-wire are stored in the corner, and cinder blocks have been placed in a circle for contemporary farmers’ coca-chewing breaks or pikchados (Author photo).

In this post, I look at the ways that this history of property haunts twenty-first century projects of Indigenous justice. Drawing from ethnography I carried out with agrarian reform officials in the Latin American country of Bolivia, I argue that requirements of titled property continue to carry connotations that exceed the issue of land ownership, reaching rather into older questions of self-possession and readiness for modern citizenship. As I seek to demonstrate, these connotations remain deeply racialized: for reformers it is through the revelation of modern property that peasants can be made citizens and, through this shift, leave behind an oppressive past based on their racialized subjection as forced laborers. But this conversion is not smooth, and—recalling Marx—the installing of property can also elicit new injuries as it allows people in positions of economic power to shirk the obligations that have traditionally been associated with wealth.

Ruben Arpasi and I met in his airy office on the fourth floor of the Institúto Nacional de Reforma Agrarian (INRA) headquarters in Cochabamba, Bolivia. A lawyer by training, Mr. Arpasi was in his 30s and came from a rural Quechua background. Behind him, the windows opened upon a dusty expanse of dry hills and ochre-colored adobe settlements. We were discussing INRA efforts to “regularize” (sanear) landby distributing new property titles. “Peasants,” Mr. Arpasi noted, “don’t use documents to account for property.” This caused “irregularities” in land use, limiting the government’s ability to help farmers who suffered crop failures from frost or blight. To help in cases like these, Mr. Arpasi insisted, “The land has to have its identification document just like people do.”

It was November 2011 and titling programs were underway across the nation. In the preceding years, peasant and Indigenous associations had demanded that the state make good on longstanding promises to address land encroachment and property dispossession. In particular, land titles promised to remedy the injustices of earlier Indigenous indenture in Mestizo-owned agrarian estates (haciendas) (Figure 2). As Mr. Arpasi put it, “With private property rights, you regularize (sanear) a parcel.” Land with a valid title is saneada (regularized), or free of conflict. Its opposite, untitled land, could instead conceal repressive features rooted in the earlier hacienda system, such as labor bondage. And while often imagined to belong to a distant past, bonded labor in Bolivia lasted until 1953, with some farmers recalling unpaid labor as late as 1986.

Fig. 2 – Enumerated parcels on a 1940s-era cartographic survey map show the land worked by each hacienda laborer. The 1953 Agrarian Reform promised to make these lands the titled property of each laborer. In the present, this situation produces a landscape defined by the uneasy coexistence of descendants of both earlier hacienda laborers and masters (Author photo).

Mr. Arpasi laid out the problem: “These are conflicts that have continued for years and years and nobody resolved them. For example, in some places people still do not touch the master’s lands even though he left years ago. Only after we arrive and tell them that the land is theirs now, will they use the lands. If not, they say, ‘How could I? This belongs to the master.’ They respect this.” By contrast, under INRA stipulations, land must have a sole owner and property boundaries should be delimited and mutually exclusive. Yet, Mr. Arpasi noted, “you go and ask a local where his land is, and another person points to the same land. The two are owners. For this reason, we are regulating and perfecting.”

For reform officials like Mr. Arpasi, titles arose as crucial mechanisms for disrupting servile agrarian orders through the implementation of alienable property. By distributing land titles, state initiatives like these sought to imbue rural Indigenous peasants with racialized benefits that had previously been reserved for White and Mestizo (Spanish and Indigenous descendant) populations. This supplies key insight into what I call “racial property”—how earlier histories of racial violence mediate contemporary land regimes, as well as state efforts to remedy the injustices that maintain their grip in servitude’s wake.

In what follows, I take up the Bolivian case of land titling to address property’s centrality for colonial governance but also, subsequently, as a method for disrupting abiding racial hierarchies—including unpaid labor and informal land use practices. I approach this problem anthropologically as a question of ownership over land as well as of the broader political connotations attached to formal land rights. However, I also describe the unforeseen consequences of such efforts: in making reparation a matter of formalized land rights, such policies also weakened rural Indigenous claims on Mestizo bosses and landowners. In rural provinces like Ayopaya, where I carried out my research, debts for past labor violence infused everyday relationships. This complicated reformers’ more idealistic expectations that inherited racial injustices could be addressed, or resolved, through land titles alone.

The promise of property: From dispossession to reparation

I would like here to address several threads that arose in my conversation with Mr. Arpasi to show ethical disagreements about how to remedy violent labor pasts, a theme that I explore at length in a recently published book (After Servitude: Elusive Property and the Ethics of Kinship in Bolivia). When we met, Mr. Arpasi implied that property had to be “accounted for” using paper titles, a practice that—he claimed—was not widespread among Bolivian campesinos or peasants. The accounting he envisioned would prevent overlapping regimes of ownership, such as in the example of a plot of land that legally belonged to an Indigenous peasant but was widely perceived to “still” belong to the hacienda master (Figure 3). Property titles sought to enclose space in order to newly delimit time.

Fig. 3 – Abandoned equipment located outside a building on a Mestizo-owned farm in Ayopaya that was previously an agricultural hacienda estate (Author photo).

In provinces like Ayopaya, these efforts confronted noteworthy opposition. In fact, the dueling claims that Mr. Arpasi referenced were not of absent law so much than of competing accounting systems. Mestizo landowners and peasant communities continued to rely upon colonial land titles rather than those distributed by 20th century reform governments. Additionally, many Quechua farmers opposed land formalization as it limited community leaders’ ability to address pressing community needs resulting from blight or drought by redistributing land that had been abandoned when its owners left the area to farm coca or to sell gasoline in another part of the country. The state, in this vision, was not an absolute or innocent arbiter of land (Figure 4).

Fig. 4 – The ruins of a former hacienda residence situated in Ayopaya’s inter-Andean valleys in central. Residents often described the dry, crumbling landscape as a result of the agricultural overuse of soil during the period of hacienda labor (Author photo).

Indigenous residents addressed abiding social and economic vulnerabilities related to earlier racial violence not only through appeals to the state for land rights but also through informal practices of land gifting, material aid, religious sponsorship, and kinship (e.g. godparenting). While imperfect, these practices are nonetheless instructive insofar that they make history a matter of everyday relationships. The vision of historical accountability that emerges out of these practices unsteadies a smug sense of White innocence to the past, one affirmed by arguments that reparation should be left to the state.

As economic historians have shown, modern property emerged within broader efforts to topple European feudalism and landed monarchic and ecclesiastic church hierarchies. This operated less as a displacement of mastery that its reinsertion at the level of the individual. A model of self-possession paved the way for juridical notions of the willing transfer of one’s sovereignty to the state. Because native populations did not hold private property (nor “improve” it in ways that colonists could recognize), colonizers argued, their land and labor could be rightfully appropriated. Hence, legal ideas of property promised new liberties but they also facilitated the alienability and transfer of liberty to another subject, such as through regimes of slavery and labor servitude.

After the abolition of forced labor and slavery, governments in Latin America, as in the United States, made property the pinnacle of efforts to reverse dispossession; land rights, labor contracts, and marriage rights supplied a key legal means for the formerly enslaved to reclaim ownership and thereby become “masters” of their own bodies and labor (Figure 5). The formerly enslaved were expected to achieve liberty and overcome subjection through the extension and refashioning of colonial logics of property and contract, rather than their dismantling. As I now discuss, in the postcolonial era such processes of affording rights through land ownership elicited erosions to competing traditions both of land use and of racialized accountability to colonial history more broadly.

Fig. 5 – In cases of illiteracy, hacienda laborers’ fingerprints were used in lieu of signatures in mid-twentieth century legal documents to confirm peasants’ support for the 1953 Agrarian Reform and subsequent hacienda land redistribution. (Author photo).

Property’s disavowals: Reparation as vernacular ethic

In contemporary Bolivia, such unmitigated faith in land formalization as a path to liberty continues to carry risks. To highlight several of them, I would like to end by turning to the case of René Cruz, the Mestizo owner of a gold mine in Ayopaya who had purchased the mine in 2006 and evaded state land redistribution requirements by forming a nominal “collective” with his cousins in 2010. As we shall see, René took issue with Indigenous workers’ expectations that he supply rides, meat, and sponsor events in the countryside (Figure 6). Indigenous community members perceived these practices as expressions of Mestizo efforts to make amends for the systems of racial hierarchy on which mining economies were built. This case points to the possibilities, but also pushback, facing reparation as a vernacular historical ethic.

Fig. 6 – A worker stands under the corrugated tin roof of a mineral processing plant for antimony and gold in Ayopaya (Author photo).

As he sipped whiskey in the living room of his housing quarters at the mine in 2011, my tape recorder perched on the coffee table, René discussed “problems” plaguing the mine. Leaning forward, hands clasped, he explained, “Look—the times change, and I’m all for them changing, but I am not okay with people walking all over you and violating your rights. Because I did not do anything to them. I did not enslave them. I pay taxes. I am legally established. It is ridiculous that because I work in this region they think they have a right to climb up and travel in my truck. After all, I’m the one who pays them. Yet, I’m supposed to be at their service.”

René cast aid relations between bosses and workers as a “violation of rights” that went too far in reversing the terms of earlier servitude, echoing critics of affirmative action policy in the United States. Taking issue with vernacular ideals of aid-based accounting, René invoked his unmitigated rights as a citizen (“I pay taxes”) and to ownership (“I am legally established”). In doing so, he rejected the idea that bosses like him should bear responsibility for Mestizos’ benefit from indentured Indigenous labor in the region. Here as elsewhere, equal rights offered a shield against demands for historical answerability for racial oppression.

In a national climate of Indigenous protest against private mine ownership and for resource sovereignty, René’s refusal of these relationships deeply offended workers and Indigenous neighbors. Facing increased union scrutiny, worker strikes, and eventually a legal case, René was forced to flee the countryside. A land title alone meant little in the face of vernacular orientations to land and history, ones that did not see ownership as an outcome of formal property rights alone. Despite its ubiquity as a legal instrument both of dispossession and reparation, rural communities did not treat property as an absolute answer to the problem of racial injustice.

Disputes like these illuminate the disavowals that are sanctioned under the guise of titled property, but they also raise a broader set of questions: What would it mean to take on reparation as more than a bureaucratic formality? What kind of historical accounting is thinkable when we suspend the premise that property formalization closes off debts incurred by earlier racial economies, and injustices? To whom are we, and our contemporary textures of profit and pleasure, beholden?

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