Inventing Indigenous Knowledge: Archaeology, Rural Development, and the Raised Field Rehabilitation Project in Bolivia

Lynn Swartley

PhD Thesis. 2000

This dissertation investigates an agricultural development project, implemented by the NGO Fundación Wiñaymarka, which introduced raised fields into rural communities in the Lake Titicaca Basin of Bolivia. The project was an example of applied archaeology, based on excavation and experimentation with pre-Hispanic raised fields, whose ancient remains are found throughout the lake basin. Despite considerable enthusiasm for the rehabilitation project from researchers and NGO workers, by 1996 all of the fields constructed by the NGO were abandoned.

To understand why the raised fields were adandoned, I examine the process through which the fields came to be regarded as an appropriate technology by archaeologists and NGO workers. Based on ethnographic research in a community that participated in the project and interviews with NGO workers, I reconstruct that history of the project in its social, political, and economic contexts. Following neo-liberal structural adjustments in the 1980's, amidst an emergent indigenous rights movement, and influenced by development trends emphasizing ecological sustainability, raised fields were represented as a model of sustainable agriculture and indigenous knowledge. The rehabilitation of this ancient, lost technology occurred within the contexts of heightened ethnic awareness and indigenous politics in Bolivia, and appealed to the pro-Indigenous and pro-environmental sentiments of development workers, archaeologists, and others involved in the rehabilitation.

First, I analyze the symbolic and cultural aspects of the project by examining how academics and NGO workers represented raised fields as sustainable development, indigenous knowledge, and appropriate technology. Second, I examine how these representations of raised fields and indigenous peoples conflicted with the economics of smallholder agriculture. I study agricultural production, access to land, and labor to explain why raised fields were ultimately abandoned after 3 to 4 years of cultivation. Given that raised fields were not continuously cropped, I argue that households lacked an adequate labor supply - due to out-migration and off-farm employment - to build and maintain this labor-intensive form of agriculture. Finally, I argue that the raised field rehabilitation project was an invention of indigenous knowledge, and that through representing local peoples as timeless, prehistoric subsistence farmers, the project preserved ethnic and class barriers between rural, indigenous cultivators and urban, middle-class Bolivians.