The Economics of Pastoralism: Study on Current Practices in South America

By Westreicher, Carlos Andaluz; Merega, Juan Luis et al. | Nomadic Peoples, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Economics of Pastoralism: Study on Current Practices in South America


Westreicher, Carlos Andaluz, Merega, Juan Luis, Palmili, Gabriel, Nomadic Peoples


Abstract

Transhumance is the regular movement of herds between fixed points to exploit seasonal availability of pastures. This is precisely the system presently employed in the South American Andes, using a vertical movement, usually between established points and linked through routes that sometimes are very ancient and mostly related to the herding of camelids (llama, alpaca, vicufia and guanaco).

Pastoralist activities in South America are present in four countries, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru. In Argentina and Chile pastoralism occupies marginal areas, and its economic relevance lies in its capacity to fill economic niches (goat herding in northern Chile and southern Argentina; camelid herding in northern Argentina). Bolivia and Peru are, for historical, cultural and geographical reasons, in the heart of South American pastoralism and the importance of pastoralist activities is especially significant to both of these countries' economies.

Keywords: pastoralism, South America, transhumance, llama, vicufia

Transhumant Pastoralism in South America--General Features

Pastoralism, the use of extensive grazing in rangelands for livestock production, is a key production system in the world's drylands. However, throughout much of its long history, its reputation has been unflattering, its practitioners marginalised by sedentary cultivators and urban dwellers. Pastoral societies have risen and fallen, fragmented into isolated families or sometimes world-spanning empires; their demise is regularly announced, often in the face of contrary evidence of their persistence. Of course, pastoral groups in South America are no exception.

Transhumance is the regular movement of herds between fixed points to exploit seasonally available pastures. This is precisely the case in the South American Andes, where pastoralists move vertically, usually between established points which are linked through routes that sometimes are very ancient. There is a strong association between vertical movements and precipitation; in higher-rainfall zones the presence of dependable forage is not a problem, so herders can afford to develop permanent connections to particular sites, for example by building houses. Horizontal transhumance is more opportunistic, with movement between fixed sites developing over a few years, occasionally disrupted by climatic, economic or political forces.

In South America, transhumant pastoralists often have a permanent homestead and base at which the older members of the community remain throughout the year. Transhumance is also associated with the production of some crops, primarily for herders' own use rather than for the market. In many temperate regions, where snow is likely to block animals' access to pasture, haymaking is an important component of the system.

In the Andes, indigenous pastoralism was virtually ignored until the 1960s and, initially, the herding of South American camelids (llama, alpaca, vicufia and guanaco) was erroneously considered to be a borrowing from European traditions. Andean pastoralism is now known to be ancient. Information about the origins of pastoralism in the Andes remains sketchy, though. The domestication of the llama and alpaca appears to have developed from earlier hunting specialization. Hunters who followed the movements of herds of wild animals between seasonally available pastures shifted to a pattern of transhumance.

There is valid evidence for the importance of pastoralism in the Inca Empire, and even before. The herding of camelids was crucial in terms of food, clothing and transportation. The incorporation of the Andes into the Spanish Empire had a number of impacts on indigenous pastoral populations. The introduction of European diseases, warfare and the disruption of native systems of production caused massive depopulation. European animals, particularly sheep, cattle and goats, were introduced into formerly agricultural lands.

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