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BOLIVIA: Aymara Traders Mix Tradition and Modern-Day Savvy

Franz Chávez

EL ALTO, Bolivia, Dec 18 2008 (IPS) - Quietly and inconspicuously, Aymara indigenous traders are combining pre-Columbian traditions and modern-day survival skills to find unique ways of creating wealth and sustenance beyond the confines of textbook economic theory.

Aymara traders in El Alto, Bolivia. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS.

Aymara traders in El Alto, Bolivia. Credit: Franz Chávez/IPS.

With roots stretching back centuries before the arrival of Spanish colonialists in what is now western Bolivia, southern Peru and northern Chile, Aymara commerce began with the exchange of food products, which served as a starting point for larger enterprises.

From rural areas where bartering is still practiced to the sprawling 16 de Julio market in the working-class city of El Alto next to La Paz in the Bolivian highlands, the makeshift market stalls in the slums surrounding the central Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, and the traditional commercial district of Liniers in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, the outwardly shy nature of Aymara traders hides an innate ability to earn every last cent from every transaction, no matter what the merchandise.

The passage of time has not erased the subsistence culture of the indigenous people of the Bolivian highlands. Living proof of this is Leonardo Esteban, 50, who continues the age-old practice of trading foodstuffs, while also spending much of the year travelling around rural markets carrying a load of handicrafts.

Esteban descends from a family whose name went down in the history of the high seas in 1970, when they participated in building the Ra II, a giant reed raft constructed with traditional techniques used in Lake Titicaca, which crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 57 days from Morocco to Barbados.

Esteban spoke with IPS during a break from selling his wares in a rural market in Laja, 25 kilometres west of La Paz. He specialises in crafting miniature replicas of the Ra II from the totora reeds that grow around Lake Titicaca, which stretches between western Bolivia and southeastern Peru.

Esteban hails from the island of Suriqui located in the middle of this lake. It is still a place where “very little money changes hands, and we continue trading fish for potatoes, which are worth about the same,” he explained.

The island’s rocky terrain makes it difficult to raise crops, and fishing is the main economic activity. Fresh, dried and salted fish serve as currency to acquire beans, corn and tubers like potatoes (as well as the freeze-dried potato staple known as chuño).

The barter system implies travelling long distances between people’s homes and other areas where different and complementary foodstuffs are produced. Esteban sets off from the island on a wooden raft with a cloth sail, reaches the shore, and then continues on foot to the Sorata Valley, 60 kilometres north of his home.

In Bolivia’s 2001 census, nearly 1.28 million people identified themselves as Aymara, which makes them the second largest ethnic group after the Quechua, who numbered 1.55 million, out of a total population of 9.2 million.

In a large cotton cloth slung over his back, Esteban carries a load of different varieties of fish, salted and covered in straw to preserve them, as he makes the trek across the highlands and down through the mountains to reach the Sorata Valley, where he can exchange his fish for fruit like pears and cherimoyas (custard apples).

The amount of food that can be held in two hands is the measure used to negotiate the barter. Aside from slight differences of opinion with the occasional supplier, both parties are usually satisfied with this transaction.

Underlying the exchange of foodstuffs is the pre-Columbian strategy of mastering different ecosystems, which made it possible for the region’s native peoples to acquire food from the sea, the altiplano (high plains) and the mountains, and to exercise control over vast areas of territory from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes mountains and valleys, Professor Joaquín Saravia told IPS.

The Spanish conquest led to the breakdown of this wide-reaching organisational system. A new order was imposed which restricted the movements of indigenous people and banned traditional forms of community organisation like the ayllu.

Colonial-era activities like growing coca leaves in the subtropical region of Los Yungas, 90 kilometres north of La Paz, and transporting them by pack animal to the mines of Potosí, 570 kilometres to the south, where they were used to boost the productivity of miners, opened up new economic routes for the Aymara, who ventured as far as modern-day Argentine territory.

These distant trade ties have come to play a major role once again, but today they are complemented by the capitalist economy, into which the Aymara have successfully integrated thanks to their adaptation to the demand for goods, said Saravia.

“The meeting of spatial control with capitalism translates into opportunities for free action, constant mobility and the possibility of developing commerce within circles of family and friends,” he added.

Saravia observes a “control of territorial space on the basis of capitalist control, without this signifying ownership of the place where activities are carried out. It is a mental, cultural and social scheme of the Aymara that allowed them, once they became aware of these skills, to transform this form of action into political, social and economic power.”


The hyperinflation that struck Bolivia in the second half of the 1980s and the drastic structural adjustment programmes adopted by the state resulted in the loss of around 30,000 public sector jobs. This led many families to seek incomes from economic activities ranging from coca growing to trading on the informal market.

According to Global Labour Institute researcher Lucía Rosales, informal sector employment has grown significantly and now accounts for 63 percent of the economically active population of Bolivia, as documented by International Labour Organisation (ILO) studies.

Rosales further notes that women are the driving force in the informal sector, in which 74 percent of working-aged women are employed, as opposed to 55 percent of men.

A prime example of Aymara entrepreneurial skill is provided by the 16 de Julio market, which covers nine square kilometres of the city of El Alto every Thursday and Sunday.

El Alto is essentially a vast, impoverished suburb of La Paz. Located nearly 4,000 metres above sea level, it is the gateway to the altiplano. The lack of formal employment has created fertile ground for the growth of business ventures that deal in both used and new merchandise, much of it illegal contraband. It is a place where almost anything can be bought and sold.

Here the market economy is adapted to the poor, with cheap merchandise offered at exceptionally low prices made possible by operating outside the formal economy and tax obligations.

Food, candy, spare parts of every kind imaginable, construction materials: the vendors’ wares spill over the streets, avenues and squares, in a silent and active invasion that thumbs its nose at the state.

With start-up capital of just ten dollars to purchase a stock of candy or foodstuffs, an individual can set up a makeshift stall on a busy street and earn up to four dollars a day, an anonymous financial source told IPS.

By constantly expanding and keeping a close eye on market trends, in order to offer the latest products, vendors can increase their capital and improve their earnings.

Norah Poma, director of the non-governmental organisation Senda Nueva (New Path), commented to IPS, “For the Aymara, there are no borders,” referring to the long distances travelled by these enterprising traders – who are nonetheless always one step closer to bankruptcy than bounty.


In the Brazilian city of Brasiléia, across the border from Cobija, the capital of the northern Bolivian department of Pando, Aymara women dressed in traditional long pleated skirts and bowler hats fashion makeshift umbrellas out of wood and cotton cloth, replicating a familiar scene in any western Bolivian city.

They travel between three and five days to cover the 1,200 kilometres that separate La Paz and Cobija-Brasiléia, carrying their loads of garden vegetables, onions and peppers, and cross into Brazil, with its vastly different culture and social structures.

Also far from their cold, mountainous home, Aymara traders have carved out a niche in the conservative, hot city of Santa Cruz, 900 kilometres east of La Paz, choosing as their point of entry an area of mosquito-plagued swamps, journalist Gina Quiroga told IPS.

The venue where they first set up operations has been known since the 1970s as the Mercado de los Pozos. They later ventured into La Ramada, a distant spot of lush vegetation, and finally El Abasto, named after a pedestrian mall in the city of La Paz packed with informal market stalls.

In Santa Cruz they are called Collas, because of their origins in Collayuso or Kollasuyu, a territory of Aymara kingdoms that came to form part of the Inca Empire. They started out as wholesale food suppliers, then settled into areas where they negotiated with the municipal government for the construction of covered markets and stalls in exchange for paying taxes.

Around 90 percent of the shops in downtown Santa Cruz, which sell everything from clothes to appliances, are run by indigenous people from the highlands, who almost always start out selling vegetables, legumes, meat and other foodstuffs.

Quiroga said people from eastern Bolivia, where the population tends to be lighter-skinned, do not consider natives from the western highlands as fellow Bolivians and treat them as outsiders, often with contempt, while identifying more closely with actual foreigners.

In Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia located 740 kilometres southeast of the administrative capital of La Paz, Aymara Indians have become a common sight on the city’s stately colonial streets over the past 15 years, said journalist Yuver Donoso.

This major influx of people from the highlands has shaken up traditional routines, introducing new styles of clothing and expanding the range of merchandise on offer, perfectly in tune with the tastes of customers, Donoso told IPS.

When migrating to Sucre, the Aymara bring their religious and cultural traditions with them. It is no longer unusual to observe festivities venerating the Virgin Mary with typical dances from western Bolivia.

The Aymara, instantly identifiable by their style of dress, have ventured as far as the Liniers district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they set up their wares on the sidewalk and cover them with a square umbrella in typical Aymara style.

Thanks to their seemingly innate ability to gauge the preferences of buyers, Aymara traders continue to develop an economic power that at the very least generates enough income to cover their daily needs.

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