Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Minga the Communal Work Tradition of Bolivia

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Minga the Communal Work Tradition of Bolivia

Article excerpt

The rhythmic thud, thud, thud of women pounding meat and yucca in aged wooden mortars, the staggered thud-smack of girls beating clothes clean in the lake's shallows, and the tssst, tssst, tssst of machetes slicing knuckled cane--these early-morning sounds sing across rust-colored dirt. It is not yet full light; the Bolivian sun only peeks through the forest of a thousand species. Above, the leaves of the tropical oak filter the light and a hundred birdsongs.

The new morning overwhelms our senses. Women chattering, the light of the cookfire, and our anticipation of the coming day had allowed me no sleep. The cup of dark, sweet coffee is welcome. A minga is about to begin. The minga is an ancient tradition--a communal workday to help someone in need. In the Bolivian lowlands, mingas feed families, build communities, and strengthen a region. The concept is inseparable from the legends and livelihoods of Bolivia's native peoples: the Chiquitano, Guarayo, Guarani, Quechua, Monkox, and others. Near a logging road tying western Brazil to eastern Bolivia lies the Chiquitano village of San Juancito. After working here for nearly a year, this is our first chance to participate in a minga.

A visit to the Chiquitano village of San Juancito reveals a time-honored custom of helping others

Forty people, one from each family in the village, sit on knee-high stumps and hand-hewn mahogany benches. We fill ourselves with the meat, chicha (see sidebar), and humor necessary for the day's labor. Jose Barrequi, a carpenter and farmer, has organized this minga. He explains that today we will turn jungle into a clean parcel of farmland for the village women's cooperative. By the time their tomatoes hang heavy, San Juancito will have a bus twice weekly to the regional market and will be a little closer to realizing a dream: "My idea of development," says Barrequi, "is that everyone eats more than once a day."

Birth of a Tradition ...............

The minga communal work tradition comes in whispers from a time well before the Spanish conquered by sanction, by sickness, and by sword. Upon their 17th-century arrival to what is now Bolivia, Jesuit missionaries found the minga a common practice among the native peoples. The Jesuit manner of "civilization" twisted the practice into an unpaid labor system, forcing native people to work parish fields and build a vast network of mission churches. According to Bartomeu Melia, a Spanish anthropologist, the manipulation destroyed the communal work ethic of native groups like the Guarani. Even so, memory of the tradition held strong among other peoples, and the minga quietly flourished from the altiplano to the Amazon. Today, in the Andes of the lost Incas, it is called minka, in the dry, scrubby Chaco of the southern lowlands, motiro.

The practice was born of necessity in villages like San Juancito an isolated subsistence-farming community where small parcels yield limited crops of corn, plantains, and yucca, and hunting and fishing provide much of the meat. Money is rare, saved for tools, medicines, and other basics. The tradition's currency of reciprocated responsibility creates a safety net for all who struggle with their work. "If you have a pig, corn, and yucca, you can throw a minga. The entire community comes to help," explains Mario Barrequi. He is Jose's brother and a community leader. "If someone invites you to a minga, you go," he explains. "One day, they will come to yours."

The work of each session vanes, but the workday passes today in San Juancito as it has for generations: it is a party. Euphoric and full of patasca (traditional smoky pork soup), we saunter over to a 30-foot toborochi tree at the forest's edge. A sinewy young man with a broad smile drives his ax blade deep into the trunk. Men and women work and tease side-by-side. Some swing machetes with one hand, using a stick in the other to find the blade's range. With exacting precision, they lake dew-wet foliage, stubborn brush, and ravenous briars. …

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