Cheap Chinese Goods

In a new project, I trace the fortunes of three interrelated communities across four northern Andean cities.  Indigenous Otavaleño traders, mestizo apparel producers in the manufacturing cluster of Atuntaqui, and the Chinese diasporic community of Ibarra and Tulcan found their economic fortunes bound together in the 2000s.

The ubiquitous waving cat, widely available in the Sierra region of Ecuador.

The ubiquitous waving cat, widely available in the Sierra region of Ecuador.

Since 2009, Chinese-made products have swung from being the pure, free-wheeling, cheap global commodity to political pawn. By following the risky livelihoods of those who earn from Chinese-made sweaters, jackets, shoes, and casual wear, I spell out two critical lessons about Ecuador’s post-neoliberal development.  First, the trade in Chinese goods clarifies how much global trade still drives change, right down to artisanal enterprises.

Cheap Chinses Goods-Ipiales

Across the border in Ipiales, Colombia- small shop specializing in Chinese wares

The second lesson concerns the consequences of the state’s forceful yet temporary market interventions. In 2009 and again in 2015, the state has introduced steep but temporary tariffs.     Such breaks are caustic for the social ties among different north Andean trading communities: Chinese, indigenous Otavaleño, Spanish-speaking mestizo, and cross-border Colombian.  Here, cultural institutions are essential both for credit and for business tactics.  Yet the macro-economic reversals undo personal-economic accommodations.

I found this out from an Otavaleño couple trying to recover from an economic disaster. When a long time client from Colombia failed to pay for $50,000 of products José and Mercedes and sold him, they lost all their savings.  They had no choice but to start from scratch with the most affordable product they could sell—simple fleece blankets made of Chinese material. It is here that the lack of rapport with his Chinese suppliers had begun to anger José in 2015, more than fifteen years since he had started to work with them.   The issue was not credit. He said that the problem was a lack of courtesy.

“They are half angry with you all the time. You have to buy from them so you put up with it. You come in make your purchase and get out,” José said.  They would not engage in the kind of bargaining that José does with his Ecuadorian suppliers.  Such negotiating is partially about price. In the give and take with his suppliers, though, he angles for something more.  Seeking exclusive merchandise that might complement his distinctive style, he wanted to customize a transaction.

For a Peruvian Chinese businessman who operated out of Ibarra, José’s anger indicates a misunderstanding of Chinese business habits.  And this misperception, in turn, reveals the current limitations that Ecuador faces in its relations with China and the world economy.  In his account, An Otavaleño’s inability to get the goods he needs is not an artifact of cultural misunderstanding.  Nor is it a Chinese unwillingness to bargain.  It is rather the insularity of Ecuador as a whole, the narrowness of its economy and its president’s vision.

As an illustration, he explained that he always expects to bargain.  He picked up a shiny, golden, plastic waving cat. “When I get these, I mark the price up 500 percent. In Peru, someone comes in and says, ‘If I take 500, what is my price?’ I then give them a discount.  But the man stays, he says ‘OK. I want 2000, what is my price now?’ I give him a better price.  The man then says, ‘but I want 5000.’ So now I give him my best price. And then?

‘I want 7,500…’”

Cheap Chinese Goods-Image 1

A sample of retail inventory, Ibarra, 2015

In the course of our interview, again and again my respondent wanted to make it clear that Chinese were willing partners in a place such as Peru, a country of action and ambition, markets and movement.  In response to a lively setting, Chinese operators accommodated customers, dropped prices, and found new product lines.  He offered a vision of Chinese goods, entrepreneurs and communities as organic extensions of the life of Andean cities and economies.  If sales were poor, relations raw, or goods not available “It is because Ecuadorians are being held back or they simply do not know what is out there.” Correa, in this analysis, was the problem.  For all the costly infrastructure investments back by Chinese capital, the president was turning a small country inward. If globalization from above was pushed forward by the president, globalization from below was unraveling.

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Recordkeeping, Part I: How I got into Anthropology

I am currently drafting a chapter on the purpose of and problems with community studies.  It is for a volume being put together by the anthropologists Billie Jean Isbel and Francisco Ferriera,“A Return to the Village: Community Ethnographies and the Study of Andean Culture in Retrospective.” They have asked contributors to describe how they originally came to their research community in the Andes, to explain how they developed the questions that directed their work, and to reflect on the value they now see in doing community studies.

I have including here an excerpt from my own contribution, “Recordkeeping: ethnography and the uncertainty of contemporary community studies.” Below I describe how I got into anthropology.
Undergraduate Orientations

The spare tire is on top of the shared taxi shown in the slide projected on the screen—this is what Bruce Winterhalder wanted us to notice. Having introduced our undergraduate course “Human Evolution and Adaptation” to the ecology of Andean farming communities, Winterhalder was taking time in class to share pictures and stories from his own fieldwork. He had taken that tire as a good sign. It seemed to indicate a well-prepared driver, savvy about the bad road that lay ahead. Winterhalder then laughed and said that the tire turned out to be a sign of the four bald tires on their vehicle. It was not a matter of if they would get a flat, but when.

This was my first anthropology class, taken in 1985, and I still remember such details. Taxis were not really our concern. Winterhalder was leading us through the adaptive advantages of coca chewing. Explaining to us how Peruvian officials and development agencies had condemned coca chewing, he showed that the claims farmers made about how coca had held up in a series of experiments—how coca allowed them to work longer, stay warmer, and forestall hunger. It was a simple and powerful lesson about anthropology: the claims a group made about their lives and actions needed to be respected and a sign of that respect was the care one took in observing, recording, and assessing those claims.

Charles Mahaffey

Snapshot from old photo album: Charles Mahaffey and members of our research group, Achoma, 1986

A year later, a friend and I obtained funding for summer research and, with Winterhalder’s help, we got connected to a project in the Colca valley, Peru, working for a geographer named Charles Mahaffey. When we joined up with him, Mahaffey sent us off to investigate a high, wide drainage of abandoned terraces that had been a part of the ancient agricultural landscape of the present day community of Achoma. How did the old irrigation system work? Where did the water come from? What state were the terraces and ditches in? Off we went.

For three weeks, we hiked up out of Achoma each morning, crossed over a ridge into the drainage, and got to work with our compass, altimeter, map and notebook. Eventually, we realized that the terraces across the drainage divided into two parts. There was a lower section with well-defined water channels, tightly built walls, and level surfaces for cultivating. The upper ones were rougher in every way. Perhaps they were only just coming into service when the population collapsed. Or maybe the ancestral community was cultivating something different on their highest land. We could only guess. The uncertainty did not diminish our sense of accomplishment in detecting the basic split in the agricultural landscape, a reality revealed gradually through days of scaling terrace walls and scanning among the sparse vegetation for stone-lined water courses.

Colca terraces

Snapshot #2: Actively used terraces below Achoma, 1986

Returning for my senior year, I finished up my anthropology major. The classes began to frustrate me. Too often we seemed to finish an ethnographic case with a disclaimer that the people no longer live that way—pursuing bridewealth, worshipping cargo cults, passing through lengthy initiations, or whatever cultural issue we had just learned about. It seemed that rather than studies of cultural diversity, anthropology was becoming another kind of history. I kept wondering, “But what are they doing now?” I graduated, went to study German in Vienna, worked briefly in Europe, and then returned to Massachusetts where I worked as a salesman for a radiator factory for two years. It was not until 1990 when I enrolled at graduate school at UCLA that I worked to come up with a way to answer to that question.


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The lady, the fox and the ram


At the Zumbagua parish fiesta, July 5, 2014, the members of the tourist trade association of Quilotoa accompanied a lady, a fox, a ram and a four man band to the join the parade in Zumbagua. They were a hit among the thousands who gathered, spectators and fellow parade participants alike, many of whom tracked the ensemble at arm’s length with their cellphone video cameras.  The “lady” was a crossed dressed man, a scoundrel who put on a rubber mask of a white woman with a tangle of auburn locks and a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She toted along a loosely swaddled doll that was constantly put into peril.

Picture3The “fox” was a masked man wearing a one piece clown suit and a carved wooden mask. The ram was a ram. Big and wooly and festooned with a green blanket proclaiming the formal name of the trade association.


As good a show as this ensemble was, it was also a mess. Community leaders had got into a fight over whether to use a bus or a caravan of pick-ups to transport everyone down from Quilotoa. After finally sorting things out, the ensemble of residents, band and costumed protagonists arrived late to the staging area. They found a place– the second to last group –following over thirty schools, town groups and a credit union from across the parish. Where others twirled down the route in synchronized moves, the Quilotoans shambled along. And, the lady was a kleptomaniac, lifting skewers of meat, cotton candy, Orange Fanta and even eggs from street sellers who crossed paths with her, handing them off to her wife or simply tying the loot to the ram. Her brazenness drew wide-eyed wonder from young witnesses.


As the parade wended its way along, most Quilotoans got bored and slipped off into the market. By the time the Quilotoans arrived at the stand of politicians, perhaps five remained with the Lady, the Fox and the ram, and two of us were anthropologists, Joe Quick, a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin- Madison (who had been patiently filming much of the parade) and me (who was getting as distracted and prone to wandering off as some Quilotoans). Another was a disheartened young man who complained that the whole presentation of the association was badly done. “In 2006, the council organized things; we put on dances and won prizes at the fiesta. Now, nothing.”


Yet in all of the parade, this group that represented the “Centro Turistico Quilotoa,” was the only one marching as a community, not a school or a savings coop or dedicated parade unit like the assembled team of horsemen. Quilotoa, essentially a collectivity of tourist entrepreneurs, mustered its members where the scores of peasant comunas in the parish stayed home.

Why do some trades come together as a community package of territory, cultural identity and economic assets? I had been spending time in Quilotoa, working with Joe Quick, Angélica Ordoñez (from the Universidad San Francisco-Quito) and others to work on that question. Across the political spectrum, state authorities and activists have touted this kind of convergence as place-based development. In Latin America, pro-market, neoliberal reformers encouraged the growth of geographically defined business clusters. They argued the co-location of producers in the same market niche would develop and sustain a skilled labor force, attract suppliers, and build a city’s reputation for competitiveness internationally. The opposition embraced place and development, too. The fight against globalization defended indigenous ancestral territories, promoted community-managed fields and water rights, and backed heritage foods, the taste of place, and regional craft enterprises.

Currently in rural Latin America, the strongest application of these ideas is in communities that earn from heritage-based tourism. While this is especially true where thousands of visitors are drawn by UNESCO world heritage designations, communities also gain from more modest national promotions, including state-protected artisanal practices and new eco-tourism hotspots. Yet the idea is spreading, as factory towns, bustling weekly markets, and artisanal mining trades have also been tapped by the state for their potential to profitably blend place, identity and economy.

For all of their heritage or co-located resources, geographically-bound economies often falter. Based on what we are finding out in Quilotoa, we argue that the success of a place-based economy is a phase of community life, less tied to features of a location or the depths of tradition than to rivalries within and between communities. That is, a trade may start as idiosyncratic entrepreneurial activity, then draw a critical mass of local residents into its work, and consolidate into a claim about community tradition. This sequence succeeds, though, not for the way it recovers or develops some special fusion of tradition, product and place. Rather it tracks a series of conflicts among rival business operators, with outsiders, or in opposition to state regulators.

The generative tie between conflict and economy is what comes to mind when I think of the fiesta presentation of the tourist association of Quilotoa–the lady, the fox and the ram. The Quilotoa procession arrived at the parish’s main stage a diminished bunch by standards of past performances. They could show off no rehearsed dance moves and they enjoyed almost no accompaniment from the rest of the membership by the time they were face to face with all the dignitaries. More subtly, the lack of counterparts from other communities, the fact that no neighboring peasant sector bothered to march cast the Quilotoans as a kind of oddity. The rest of the parade was composed of orderly, marching high school kids or dance troops sponsored by savings coops. These capering Quilotoans were out-of-place.   If Quilotoa had built its authority within the community and across the parish by taking on rivals, it was no longer clear who they sparred with. It seemed as if their association’s moment now passed.


And yet, here they were, the lady, the fox and the ram, prancing to the end of the parade. They arrived in a dust-up over a bus that pitted the current president against longtime aspirant for leadership. Then the lady and the fox spent three mischievous hours rudely playing by their own rules, stealing little items, teasing bystanders and fellow parade marchers alike. An unfocused scrappiness bubbled up all morning long. It showed a community that still had its binding energy, its fighting spirit that can link up work, place and people up on the rim of the crater.

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Barley Eaters or Potato Farmers

Are residents of Zumbagua parish barley-eaters or potato farmers? Does it matter?

I wondered about this when I saw the difference between what men and women in Quilotoa, a community on the northern edge of the parish, said they planted compared to what they actually planted. In her wonderful book Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes, Weismantel writes about the pressures being brought to bear on women and the future of the parish’s peasant economy in the 1980s. As she documents the labor of farming and the cuisine of the parish, she shares a quip from a man, who is curious about what it is like to fly in a plane and asked her something along the lines of, “What do us barley eaters look like from the air?” “Barley eaters” seemed an apt description for a people who took pride in the substance and strength that the crop they raised gave to the meals they prepared.

Yet, thirty years later, during a survey we did last summer, potatoes seemed to be the crop that now first came to mind.

The issue came up for me when I saw that our economic survey was not working as I had hoped it would. Our two research assistants from Quilotoa tended to push respondents to affirmative answers when they asked “Do you farm?” The follow up question, “What crops?” then became a kind of free listing exercise, an idealized statement of what a diligent household would cultivate in a normal year. It never seemed as if respondents actually thought through what they had planted in the last twelve months.

So, treating these responses as free lists, I checked to see what the most salient crops were. What seemed most central to a Quilotoan’s image of cultivated fields when asked about farming? Potatoes came out on top:

Crop List Capture

Yet, in the previous year observations pointed toward barley as being the main crop. In 2013, a part of the research team spent a week walking the dirt tracks and ridge top paths of Quilotoa recording what had actually been most recently planted in the fields.


Covering approximately 10 kilometers and recording 485 observations, they found that half the fields had been left uncultivated. Of farmed fields though, barley was planted almost twice as much as potatoes:

Crop List Capture

So, if barley still is the most frequently sown crop and if it was the symbol of identity and pride a generation ago, why is it that potatoes are the first thing to come to mind when Quilotoans are asked to about what they farm? I suspect the answer has to do with the way what people consume has eclipsed consciousness of what they produce. Quilotoa’s economy centers on tourists coming to visit the crater lake, not on farming. Certainly, people still farm, need their annual harvests, and morally value farming—hence the research assistants’ inclination to push people to affirm that they all farm. Nonetheless, most Quilotoans provision their hearths out of Zumbagua and Pujili’s markets and shops. White rice and potatoes are the core starches served in most homes.

The slipping of barley from parishioners sense of self is not that much of a surprise, but it is disheartening for anyone interested future of non-industrial farming economies. It again shows how fickle the alliance between consumption and production can be. Activists in Ecuador, the United States, and Europe who try to build sales and income for small farmers count on consumer awareness of the ills of industrial farming and the benefits of sustainably grown traditional crops to create sales. Awareness, though, is a flimsy connection from consumers back to producers. In Quilotoa, it seems to be broken even when the producer and consumer are the same person. Identity with a rich local barley faming and culinary tradition fades despite the evidence of their own fields. A far thicker swath of kitchen practice would need to be mobilized to restore barley to eminence as both an expression of identity and a product of the community.

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