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Subsistence Economics: Avoiding Capitalist Exploitation

"Subsistence economics doesn't appear in any statistics or gross national product..Everyone may only take as much as he or she needs for survival..The resistance communities have shown that a life is possible beyond paid labor and dependence.. Self-sufficiency gives them impressivestrength

By Corinna Milborn

[This April 3, 2004 article originally published in the Subsistence Handbook is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://paradigmawechsel.com/index2.php?option=content&task=view&. Readers are referred to Erika Marke (1986), Ein Weg aus der Abhandigkeit? Die ungewisse Zukunft des informellen Sektors in Entwicklungslandern, Stuttgart.]

What is a subsistence community?

Erika Marke (1986) names three characteristics:

Independence in the sense of autonomy,
Contentedness in the sense of a non-expansionism and
Survival in the sense of cultural identity.

A fourth characteristic could be added. Subsistence communities are subversive because they avoid the dominant system. They can hardly be reached by the oppressive mechanisms of the (capitalist) system and react very flexibly to difficult situations.


Guatemala is an excellent example. For five hundred years, a stubborn battle has been waged against the subsistent mode of life of people. The resistance communities (Comunidades de Poblacidn en Resistencia-CPR) have resisted oppression, exploitation, war and persecution in Guatemala's mountains and forests for 16 years. Cut off from the outside world, they avoid the grasp of the state and the military and refuse integration in the system of paid labor and modern development programs.

Their weapons in the struggle against the military and the state are their organization and their subsistence way of life. Up to now they have not been dissuaded from their uncompromising attitude either by massive offensives or enticing economic aid projects.

Guatemala's history must be understood to comprehend the genesis, organization and perspectives of the resistance communities. This history of exploitation and resistance began with the Conquista of the area of present-day Guatemala by Spaniards in 1524. The region does not glitter like others through gold- and silver deposits. In the first years, the Spaniards recognized that the true wealth of this country was in the labor of its inhabitants, the Mayas. Maya labor was and is the basis of the agricultural export model introduced by Spaniards that still defines Guatemala's economy. With the labor of the local population, useful tropical plants are cultivated in monocultures on huge plantations that since time immemorial served export and enriched only the big landowners and foreign businesses.

This model repressed the Maya in two life-threatening ways. On one hand, the colonial rulers possess the best land for establishing plantations and thus evade the grasp of the population who had to withdraw again and again to unproductive mountain regions. On the other hand, the Maya were forced to work on the plantations of the large landed property owners with complex strategies.

The prerequisites for the integration of the indigenous population in the agricultural export model were the destruction of their original way of life, the rural subsistence economy and its foundations. They were made "free" for paid labor and forced labor. No alternative was left open to them. This consistent war against the subsistence of the Mayas dominates the centuries to our days. There are breathers but no way back. The Mayas, a population majority of 70 percent, were always tied to the agricultural export model since the economy needed their labor.

With the help of legal tricks or simple use of force, the large landed property owners took away so much land from the Mayas that they were made dependent on paid labor on the plantations. They could feed themselves and their family outside the time of plantation work.

The destruction of their subsistence foundation by land robbery forced the Mayas to become integrated in the lowest level of the national agricultural export system. Forced labor laws and vagrancy laws helped where this was not enough. In the 20th century, the need for workers increased so much that most villages of the uplands are deserted today in the months of plantation work. The whole population including women and children is carted to the coast to work for months under inhuman conditions.

Maya families are driven into debt through sophisticated and targeted sale of alcohol so they can no longer slave away all their lives. Their fields are poorly maintained at the most important times of sowing and harvest. The exorbitant cost of living on the plantation does the rest to make families return just as poor or poorer to their villages.

The Maya offered resolute resistance to oppression by the Spaniards and later by the independent state amid the complete conquest of the area of present-day Guatemala over two centuries, rebellions and legal protests of the famous passive resistance of the Maya enabling them to save their culture and language through many years of oppression.

The growing pressure on the uplands in the 1960s led to the stronger organization of the Maya in farmer organizations, liberation theology base groups and migration movements in the unsettled lowlands of the Ixcan near the Mexican border. These tendencies to self-organization were not tolerated by the state and military (that were nearly the same at that time). The persecution of the indigenous movements only led to the integration of thousands of Maya in the guerilla.

The response of the state was a war of extermination against the indigenous population of the uplands. Between 1981 and 1983, over 440 villages were completely burned down, 150,000 people died and another 1.2 million escaped to other parts of the country or to Mexico. The goal of this scorched earth policy was the physical obliteration of the subversive indigenous population and integration of survivors in a rigid militarized forced labor system that drowned every tendency to self-organization in blood. The indigenous population should be finally subjugated, settled in model villages built as regularly patrolled camps and compelled to forced labor ("paid" by international food assistance), educated in bilingual schools to be submissive citizens and integrated in the market economy through development aid projects.

However not all survivors of the massacres of the early 1980s were integrated by the military in this "development model". Beside many who escaped to Mexico or other parts of the country, thousands of small farmers withdrew to the immediate countryside of their communities and later deeper in the forests and mountains. Most of those who escaped hardly had the necessities and resisted hunger in the forest, coldness and fear of the fighter-bombers and helicopters that flew over the area incessantly.

The first organized structure of the groups in the forest arose with the help of guerillas out of self-defense against the military. Guard teams warned the community of approaching soldiers to make possible a timely flight into the jungle. Up to today, resistance villages protect themselves through flight from the attacks of the military. In this seemingly hopeless situation, the scattered groups slowly assembled into larger communities and recalled the organizational forms of their ancestors.

In base-democratic assemblies, they chose their first representatives, organized health brigades and school lessons for the children. Three resistance areas arose that were first independent of each other and had more intensive contact after several years. They had different organizational structures: the CPR de la Sierra in the mountains, the CPR del Ixcan in the tropical lowlands in the north near the Mexican border and the CPR del Peten in the vast rainforest in the north of the country.

All are a day's journey from the nearest road. The outward circumstances made it hard to believe that the resistance communities could survive so abundantly up to today. Until 1993, the Guatemala army directed great offensives every year against the resistance villages. The transition to "democracy" in 1986 initiated by the military hardly changed this situation. One of the bloodiest offensives that dissolved the entire resistance area of the Sierra occurred in 1987. Every family in the resistance villages mourned at least one victim and knew the indescribably brutality of the soldiers. If they couldn't seize the people, the soldiers and patrols destroyed the subsistence foundations of the fleeing population. All field plants were cut down, the sparse water in the mountains poisoned and the animals killed and burned. The life of the population was meager. The population was mainly nourished from wild weeds and bulbous plants that could not be discovered by the military. Sewing clothes was impossible in the constant flight situation.

The official reason for this operation, using a highly technicized army with fighter-bombers, helicopters, telescopes and defoliation poison against an unarmed civilian population was the claim that resistance villages were the political arms of the EGP guerilla army operating in this region. This claim is untenable since relations between the guerillas and the resistance villages are very complex. The military central command knew this.

The stubborn genocide war was more a war against subsistence than a war against the guerillas. The people in the resistance villages were subversive and treasonous and had to be combated because they refused to be integrated in the model forced on the uplands by the military. The country relying on agro-export and exploitation of the labor of the indigenous population has a system-imminent logic.

The threat by the military has gradually receded since the relative relaxation of the military situation in the 1990s. In 1990, a national commission and then an observer of the United Nations visited the resistance villages and urged the military to stop the attacks after a public declaration of the resistance villages on their existence and their status as a civilian population. A few weeks before the visit of the UN commissions, the military started the last great offensive against the resistance villages with the goal of definitively destroying them. The military claimed that no civilian population existed in the mountains.

Despite the huge number of victims, the military did not succeed in obliterating the resistance communities. For a year, international escorts have lived in the resistance villages that greatly limited the attacks (the last documented attack occurred in 1996 when the peace treaty was signed between the guerillas, the government and the military).

In 1994, the resistance villages took another important step. On February 2, the CPR del Ixcan abandoned its nomadic life and settled in permanent villages. In the same year, the CPR de la Sierra and the CPR del Ixcan opened a common office in the capital and began influencing the political processes in the country. One result of this work was the proposal of the "civilian society" for the peace agreement signed on December 29, 1996. A new era was to begin in Guatemala with this agreement. The most important agreements for the resistance villages were the "agreement on resettling the population uprooted by the armed conflict" and the "agreement on identity and rights of the indigenous population". These agreements did not take up all the demands of the resistance villages. Still they are an instrument in the struggle for more autonomy - even if hardly one point was fulfilled in the first year after the agreement was signed.

The resistance communities live independently. All aspects of life - political, economic, social and cultural - are subsistence-oriented. Everyday life is organized in a communal, base democratic and participatory way. The foundation of this way of life is the deeply rooted Maya identity of the inhabitants. The rules of cooperative life and association with nature refer back to the traditions of their ancestors that are astonishingly alive after 500 years. The borders between the individual groups dissolve particularly in the CPR del Ixcan with members of all 21 Maya languages represented in Guatemala. The common roots and the shared culture and way of life are much stronger than the differences in the languages.

Land is the foundation for life of the resistance communities. The inhabitants of resistance communities are without exception small farmers whose economic mode is focused on preservation of community and not accumulation of wealth and power. This way of life is based on mutuality. All works are done collectively on community fields in the CPR del Ixcan in the lowlands whose inhabitants have made experiences with shared economies in the cooperatives since the 1960s. Work in production is also the most highly valued activity. The community supports teachers, advocates and others who do not work directly in the fields or vegetable gardens without claiming a "higher" position. In the CPR de la Sierra, the traditional farming of families is emphasized again today after the difficult 1980s. Community fields are cultivated to support all persons employed outside agriculture. All works in the infrastructure (roads, schools, assembly halls etc) are performed collectively.

Many of the things necessary for life are made in the communities. The situation has considerably improved since the decline of military attacks that were always connected with the destruction of vital things and useful plants.

Thus the fruit trees are slowly growing, small cattle are raised again and women use the peaceful time for sewing their dresses.

The economic life flourishes. In many communities, there are bread ovens in which holiday cakes are baked. The juice is extracted from sugar cane in large presses (community property) and processed into raw sugar. Soap is made out of pork, ashes and lime in traditional processes and sold on the market. In the CPR del Ixcan, women since 1992 have cultivated community vegetable gardens. The women of CPR de la Sierra weave and embroider materials. From the first proceeds, they purchased a cow that is tended everyday by another woman (or their children).

Markets are an important part of the subsistence economy and have been held once a week since the decline of military attacks in 1993. The exchange of goods on regional markets is vital and doesn't inevitably lead to accumulation. Basic foods like beans, veal, eggs, nuts and fruit are exchanged at the market place. Indispensable goods like needles and thread, wool for sewing dresses, notebooks, pencils and tools are purchased from traders who come to the market from surrounding villages. Alongside the exchange of natural produce, money is also used as a means of exchange...

The market serves trade and is also an important meeting place. With the megaphones, the "animadores" of the CPR de la Sierra use the market day to disseminate songs and the latest news heard (and reinterpreted) during the week on the radio or learned from the communities. The news is read aloud in the respective Maya languages.

The objection is often heard that pursuing subsistence economy is all that is left to the Maya of the resistance villages. There is no wealth to accumulate. Families have enough for their daily survival.

The regular "costumbres" held at holy days of the Maya calendar give an opposite view. The surpluses arising in the course of time are collectively "celebrated" at these feasts on harvest, sowing or memorial days.

The amount of eating, drinking, resin and candles for the hour-long religious ceremonies is amazing given the actual shortage of food in the resistance villages. Everyone brings to the feast what he or she can do without. The surpluses do not belong to the individual but serve the public interest or common good.

During the feast, everyone has an equal share and the hosts and donors are sure of the high esteem of the community.

Subsistence economy does not appear in any statistic or gross national product. No taxes can be cashed from subsistence economy and no foreign debts can be paid. Subsistence is also the refusal of the Maya toward a system that only abuses them as the lowest stage of the production chain and at the same time the preservation of the economic mode of their ancestors. The strong bond of the Maya to the land is the foundation of that economic mode.

The cosmos vision of the Maya that includes all the correlated elements of the universe (including humanity) would not allow any other economic way. Everyone may only take as much as he or she needs for survival as a Maya priest once explained to me after healing the mysterious sickness of a female inhabitant of the resistance village. Otherwise he or she destroys the balance and rushes headlong into disaster or brings disaster upon him/herself.

Whoever clears more forest than necessary for the preservation of his or her family becomes sick. Whoever pollutes the river with excessive soap because he or she washes outside laundry for money becomes sick. Only the subsistence way of life that doesn't allow any accumulation of goods in a few hands guarantees the universal balance and thus the survival of humankind.

The subsistence economy is a central factor for the self-assurance of resistance villages. Members of resistance communities strictly refuse to go to work on the plantations as seasonal workers at the coasts. They regard this separation from the national economic model oriented in agro-export as one of their greatest successes. The resistance communities know they can survive without help from the outside and that the necessity of paid labor deluding the farmers of the Guatemalan highlands is only a chess-move of the plantation owners. They have shown that a life is possible beyond paid labor and dependence even under the most adverse circumstances. This self-sufficiency gives them an impressive strength.

The resistance village is the only organization known to me that deals very carefully with economic aid and refuses projects under foreign control.

In the communities of Guatemalan refugees returning from Mexico, I saw how development projects could destroy the economy and cohesion of communities in a few months. In contrast, the resistance villages already learned in war that development leads to dependence when the military tried to entice them with money and development into re-education camps and model villages.

The everyday challenges of life in the resistance villages are mastered by the so-called "structures". These are organizational structures in the most different areas. School education is taken over by the "education structure". All children go to school for six years. Literacy- and continued education courses are offered to adults, especially women. Knowledge is a common heritage. Everyone can pass on his or her knowledge as a teacher and receive a little support in the form of rice and beans. The curriculum is based on the culture of the Maya. Spanish is taught as a foreign language from the 2nd grade. School materials from the outside are not accepted as gifts since they contradict the ideas of the Maya. School holidays are in the harvest- and sowing seasons when teachers and children work on the fields. The illiteracy rate that is 90 percent in the Guatemalan countryside fell to 20 percent in the CPR del Ixcan without help from the outside.

The public health system also hearkens back to the tradition of the Maya. In the first years of the resistance when there wasn't even soap for washing wounds, the ancient knowledge about medicinal plants was rediscovered. Methods like acupuncture were added. The brigadistas are competent for healing wounds, mild sicknesses and teeth.

The midwives and the Maya priestesses have an important place in the preservation of health. The "animation structure" spreads local and national news and is responsible for music, theater and entertainment. In addition, there are women's organizations, youth organizations as well as catholic, evangelical and Maya religious groups with their respective priestesses.

Who makes the decisions that affect all the members of resistance villages? Let us take the CPR de la Sierra as an example: Each of the 40 communities chooses a local community that organizes regular meetings and manages the affairs of the respective villages. The villages exist in three clearly definable areas administered by a regional committee chosen by them.

The highest authority of the resistance communities is the general assembly. This assembly is held once a year or with special problems requiring an immediate communal decision. Chosen representatives of every village appear at the general assembly: an older man and an older woman, a woman and a man who are middle age and a young man and a young woman, representatives of different "structures" like schools, health brigades or women's organizations. Altogether 400 to 500 voting persons participate. Visitors from outside only have a right to listen.

The assembly is preceded by a referendum through local committees in which individuals comment on problems. The population's opinion is the basis for all decisions.

Decisions are made in consensus if possible. This means all questions are discussed in the plenary and in different smaller study groups until a solution is found and everyone agrees. The assemblies often last several days. Every individual has weight unlike a representative democracy that works according to majority principles.

Common decisions are possible because the participants seek the advantage of the community, not their own advantage. The goal is common to everyone. People can unite on the way to the goal.

There are no punishments for offenses against the community. However a special work in the common property must sometimes be performed. The council of the elders decides if a conflict cannot be solved through dialogues. The general assembly chooses a seven (Ixcan) or fifteen-person (Sierra) group that represents the interests of the resistance communities during the year and is bound to the decisions of the assembly.

These representatives are supported with food and work in different areas (in the land problematic, the project commission, political work in the capitol or even as representatives of the expelled population in commission for implementing peace treaties). These persons do not form the top of a hierarchy but emphasize again and again that each and everyone can assume these tasks. They serve a society in which rural fieldwork has the highest rank.

From their offices in the capitol, the resistance communities cultivate lively active relations to other organizations of the popular movement with whom they founded a common party of the popular movement in 1995. The Democratic Front of the New Guatemala will send six delegates including two Maya women to the congress.

The resistance communities are a non-expansionist system that doesn't try to force its methods on others or even strive for power in the state as a part of the guerillas did in the 1980s.

The resistance communities do not fight for power over others but for a free space guaranteeing their organizational freedom, free choice of political and economic system and respect for their way of life.

Integration in a party is only one means among many in this struggle for autonomy like the international indictment of human rights violations or negotiations for their own land.

The resistance communities in Guatemala belong to the subsistence communities that give hope and stimulate others to resistance against globalization and neoliberal economic policy.

Whoever resists a deliberate war of extermination thanks to a collective organization structure and subsistence way of life for 15 years can also avoid the pressure of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and live a fruitful and rich community life at the edge of a global development.

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