Prehispanic 2.0: Latin America’s Peer-to-Peer Roots

Top image: Ministério da Cultura Brasil. This post, written by Bernardo Gutiérrez, describes a number of traditional practices originating in Latin America’s indigenous cultures, which find their mirrors in the modern P2P community. Cross-posted from Yorukubu.

The sharing economy is on the rise. Crowdsourcing (the externalization of process to multitudes working online) is on the lips of every guru. Crowdfunding, or collective financing, is making its mark in areas like culture. The P2P Society, as presented by respected figures like Yochai Benkler and Michel Bauwens, is more horizontal and participatory, goes beyond strictly economic returns, and may be the light at the tunnel of oppressive, dark capitalism.

The commons, the common good and common resources are all the rage; co-working is no longer a passing fad, but a real thing. Of course, there are those who’ll only give credit to these new practices/realities when they’re recommended by a Silicon Valley icon, and only if they’re accompanied by an English name.

Here’s the paradox: Words like “the commons” already exist in Spanish, and have existed since Antonio Nebrija published the first Spanish dictionary in 1492. And, surprise: If we look at Pre-Columbian American traditions, we can see that the indigenous people were already practicing forms of crowdfunding, crowdsourcing and other 2.0-era participatory dynamics. The arrival of African peoples, with their strong collective traditions, also turned America (particularly Latin America) into a spectacular commons-based territory. Pre-capitalist America was as cool and chic and 2.0 as it gets, right? And it still is. The native peoples anticipated the much-touted sharing economy by a few centuries. While the current global crisis pushes capitalism towards an irreversible mutation, our vision of a post-capitalist future is remarkably similar to the pre-capitalist origins of indigenous America.

A warning to skeptics: I’ve cooked up a quick overview of some of the terms and collaborative practices of Latin America’s indigenous communities. Anyone can remix this or complete the list as they like; without a doubt, it’s just an approximation.

Tequio: Tequio is a very popular type of work for collective benefit in the Zapotec culture. Community members contribute materials or labor to carry out construction work for the community. This could take the form of a school, a well, or a road. An individual can never be the sole beneficiary of tequio. It has a touch of crowdsourcing, a little crowdfunding and a lot of commons built into it. Tequio is still practiced in some Mexican States. In the State of Oaxaca, tequio is protected by state law. There are other terms for similar practices such as “gozona” or “a mano vuelta” (changed hands) labor.

Potlach: Indigenous tribes in the Pacific Northwest carried out an exchange ritual that is, in practice, identical to the peer-to-peer file sharing of the Digital Age. Potlach, as used by the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Kwakiutl peoples was P2P through and through. Potlatch isn’t exactly barter. The communities distributed food (principally seal meat and salmon) and wealth to other tribes that hadn’t had a plentiful season. Here’s an important detail: some European colonizers became remarkably rich thanks to potlatching. The same as those superstar artists who, according to some studies, benefit from file sharing amongst users, even though some insist on calling it piracy.


Photo credit: subcomandanta / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Guelaguetza: The guelaguetza tradition, from the Mexican State of Oaxaca, can be described as cross between a potlatch and a tequio. The term describes “a reciprocal exchange of goods and services”. Its practice is woven from the reciprocal relations that tie people together. It’s the starting point for family and even village and territory-wide cooperative networks. The guelaguetza also evolved to a syncretic sort of celebration held in the town of Oaxaca.

Minga: Minga is a Quechua term defining an ancestral mechanism for collective work that’s very common in Ecuador and the north of Perú. The common objective is always more important than any individual benefit. Collaboration trumps competition. In effect, it’s 100 percent reminiscent of crowdsourcing or a commons-based economy. It’s no coincidence that Cultura Senda, a collective for the promotion of networked cultures, has held workshops in Quito called “Open Minga”. Minga, according to Cultura Senda’s own description, “implies the challenge of overcoming selfishness, narcissism, mistrust, prejudice and jealousy; the misfortunes that regularly allay collective work and social mobilization.” In fact, “it implies learning to listen and to comply, while making proposals”.

Ayni: Ayni is a term with a meaning that’s closely related to minga. It describes a system of work and family reciprocity among members of the ayllu (a community working on collective land). It is commonly exemplified in the sharing of tasks such as agriculture, shepherding, cooking or house construction. The tradition is still alive, not only in many peasant communities, but among the mestizo populations of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. Any Time Bank or hours exchange system, such as those of the Spanish 15M movement, could, in essence, be described as an ayni.

Mutirão: This is originally a Tupi term used in Brazil to describe collective mobilizations based on non-remunerated mutual help. Wikipedia’s Brazilian Portuguese definition for mutirão is very telling: “An expression originally used in field work for the civil construction of community houses where everyone is a beneficiary and offers mutual help through a rotating, non-hierarchical system”. It’s often used to describe collective, unpaid actions such as park, street and school maintenance. There are plenty of words that also describe this sort of communal action: muxirão, muxirã, muxirom, muquirão, putirão, putirom, putirum, pixurum, ponxirão, punxirão and puxirum.

Córima: The Rarámuri people of Mexico’s Chihuahua mountains use the word “córima” to describe an act of solidarity with someone who’s having trouble. Not offering córima to someone who needs help is considered both a breach of an obligation and an offense. The definition could also describe “the practice of the common good”. It’s not really related to charity, as the Rarámuri are as far removed from Catholic morality as you can get. The utmost authority overseeing all village decisions is a community assembly, much like what we’ve seen in the 15M movement, Occupy Wall Street and Mexico’s #YoSoy32.

Maloka: Maloca (or maloka in Portuguese) is an indigenous communal house found in the indigenous Amazon region of Colombia and Brazil. These are cohabited by different families. They share their workspace, like any modern co-working space. Property is collective, as in Europe’s squatter communities. They live, in effect, by and for the commons. At night, the maloca becomes a knowledge center where stories, myths and legends are told. The tents present at Tahir Square in Cairo, in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol or in Zuccoti Park, New York during Occupy, are the modern techno-digital versions of the Amazon’s collective houses.

Article translated by Jane Loes Lipton and Stacco Troncoso – Guerrilla Translation!

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