The Culture of Debt in Northern Andes of Ecuador

Posted on July 27, 2016 • Filed under: Ecuador, Latin America Indigenous Issues, Social Issues

Owing and being in debt. A contribution from the northern Andes of Ecuador

This paper discusses the notion of debt in Pesillo, a Quichua community in northern
Ecuador, whose socio-economic organisation is based on a system of generalised
reciprocity that includes a variety of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ exchanges, and non-
monetary and monetary transactions, as well as ceremonial exchanges.
Exchange pervades social life in all societies and this is why it is a topic widely
studied and debated in anthropology. Based mainly on ethnographies from Melanesia,
the anthropological literature on exchange has grown and developed around the debate
between two positions: the structuralist and the relational (Carrier 1996; Kaplan 1996).
Holders of the former position, although with differences in their arguments, state that
exchange exhibits a structure and regular patterns, the most famous examples of this
being the
system described by Malinowski, the Tiv’s spheres of exchange described
by Bohannan, and L
evi-Strauss’s analysis of marriage exchange. The relational approach
is more concerned with the way exchange creates relations between those involved in
it, as well as between people and the objects exchanged. The works of Sahlins, Strathern
and especially Mauss, all underline how exchange can shape and create individual and
group identity.
The ethnography that I present here is intended to be a contribution to this debate.
Using data from the Andes, a region underrepresented in the anthropological literature
on exchange, and focusing on practices and relations of debt – a topic little analysed
in both economic anthropology and Andean ethnography – I want to demonstrate
that debt is more than the expression of a contractual dependence between dominant
creditors and subordinate debtors; it is a category permeated with spiritual, moral and
legal meaning. As such, the analysis of debt transactions and relationships represents
a privileged entrance to the study and understanding of the relationship between
economy, exchange and culture.
The phenomenon of debt is familiar to social scientists because it exists in all
societies. As early as 1964, Firth and Yamey devoted a book to credit and saving in
peasant societies, arguing that economists have tended mainly to focus on its economic
and instrumental roles rather than on its social, cultural and political dimensions. Since
that publication, other empirical studies from all over the world have made clear that the
practices of borrowing and lending do not merely flow through economic and financial
institutions. Independent of the nature of what is actually borrowed and lent (money,
goods or services) these debts are channelled through several and different levels of
society (cf. Chamoux
et al
. 1993).
Social Anthropology
, 1, 77–94.
2004 European Association of Social Anthropologists
DOI: 10.1017/S0964028204000060 Printed in the United Kingdom
Notwithstanding this, debt is a topic little analysed in economic anthropology
and little attention has been paid to the diversity of its socio-cultural practices;
besides, the relatively small literature on the subject concerns almost exclusively the
geographic area of Asia, while other regions of the world, especially Latin America, are
Using ethnographic evidence, my paper seeks to criticise those approaches that
tend to convert debt into an exclusively economic category, thus disregarding the fact
that it is a cultural construction that, in different parts of the world, is locally expressed
in a diversity of socio-cultural practices.
Following the arguments of Malamoud (1988) and comparing my Andean material
with ethnographic findings from Asia, I argue that debt is an important expression of
a wider system of exchange that shows the proactive, performative behaviour of the
people involved in it.
In Pesillo reciprocity is the ideal norm of exchange between villagers. Reciprocal
exchanges imply delayed transactions that include a negotiation in time, a notion of
duty and owing, and the moral obligation to repay what has been received. These
transactions imply a notion of ‘debt-as-owing’; people distinguish them linguistically
from those loans in money that explicitly carry a notion of interest over time, usually
taken from formal institutions. This notion of debt is a more ‘recent’ one; Pesillanos
therefore need to borrow from Spanish the word
(debt) to refer to them because
the Quichua language does not have a word for such transactions. In Pesillo interest
is what defines debt as a specific transaction, one that is compatible and coexists with
transactions based on the notion of ‘debt-as-owing’. The analysis of the most important
local religious feast, the celebration of San Juan, highlights the interweaving of debt’s
economic dimensions with its cultural and symbolic dimensions, revealing a local notion
of debt that articulates the mundane world with the supernatural one.
Reciprocity and debt
There are no societies where debt is not recognised. Ethnological studies of Japan, China
and India provide evidence about the importance of debt as a constitutive element of
society and culture, and in some cases as the structural condition of mankind (Gaborieau
1988; Malamoud 1988a; 1988b; Galey 1988; Cobbi 1988a, 1988b; Pigeot 1988; Cartier
1988; Ching-lang 1988; Alleton 1988. See also Fontaine 1994; Dehouve 1993; Pepin
Lehalleur 1993a, 1993b; Lartigue 1993; Chamoux 1993a; 1993b; Goloubinoff 1993;
Gouy-Gilbert 1993). While these topics are very common among Asianist scholars,
they are little researched in the ethnography of the Andes, where there has been little
analysis of the diversity of the social and cultural practices surrounding debt relations.
Scholars mention the existence of debt in Andean societies from pre-Hispanic times;
Andean ethnography calls attention to it when describing the Inca’s socio-economic
organisation as based on a system of debts between the local chiefs and their people,
calculated in time and labour (cf. Murra 1975; 1980; Alberti and Mayer 1974; Mayer
1974; Fonseca Martel 1974; Fonseca Martel and Mayer 1991). Debt also figures in
ethnohistorical documents dating from the post-Conquest period. Ram
ırez (1995),
for example, takes its existence as evidence that for most of the sixteenth century
Indians were involved in commercial exchanges with peddlers. Later on, the hacienda
system was based on a system of debt in money, labour and time (Guerrero 1991);
Platt (1987) comments on credit transactions in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century
Nevertheless, Andean ethnography on debt is insignificant when compared to the
attention given to the notion and relations of reciprocity. Nowadays Andean societies
are still based on what can be defined a system of generalised reciprocity (Sahlins 1972),
in which socio-economic relationships are based on transactions of giving–receiving
and giving back, very similar to what Mauss (1990 [1925]) described for gift exchanges
in pre-industrial societies.
The most popular and widely cited definition of Andean reciprocity is given by
Reciprocity is the continuous, normative exchange of services and goods between known persons,
in which some time must elapse between an initial prestation and its return. The negotiating process
between the parties, instead of being an open discussion, is covered up by ceremonial forms of
behaviour. It is a social relationship that ties an individual to other individuals, an individual to
social groups, producers to producers, and producers to consumers (Mayer 2002: 105).
Reciprocity is thus the mechanism through which the flow of labour, goods and services
between the institutions of production, distribution and consumption is regulated.
As the above definition makes clear, it is about delayed transactions that imply a
negotiation in time, a sense of duty and owing, and a strong moral obligation to repay.
Like Sahlins’s triadic division (1972), Andean reciprocity reflects the internal division
exchanges. The former characterises exchanges
between equal partners: what is reciprocated must be equal in value to what has been
given. The latter, on the other hand, characterises exchanges between unequal parties
involving unbalanced material flow as well as power and status dimensions. In this
case, the value of what is given may be less than the value of what is received in
exchange so that reciprocity blends into redistribution, since what has been accumulated
through asymmetrical relations is generally redistributed through feasts and ceremonial
distributions (cf. Mayer 2002: 105).
Much like the Maussian gift, Andean reciprocity is a total social phenomenon that
gives expression simultaneously to religious, legal, moral and economic institutions
(cf. Mayer 2002: 106). Indeed, the Maussian gift and Andean reciprocity have at least
one fundamental characteristic in common: they both are interested and obligatory


As an economic institution, reciprocity implies the flow of services and goods
between individuals, but the content as well as the manner of what flows from hand to
hand is culturally determined (Mayer 2002: 105). Indeed, the gift must be received
graciously whether or not the recipient is satisfied with it, because, Mayer says,
The original definition is in Mayer 1974. Here I use the revised and updated version published in
Mayer 2002, ch. 4.
Mayer defines this ‘interested’ exchange following the formalist definition of economic behaviour,
that is, based on the ‘maximizing assumption’ stated by Plattner. This definition assumes that: (i)
people are calculating beings; (ii) they have the necessary knowledge and information on costs,
interests and incomes; and (iii) they ‘have the necessary calculating ability to solve the maximisation
problems’ (Plattner 1989: 8, quoted in Mayer 2002: 138, n.1).
of devotion brings punishment through statements about the obligations people have
towards San Juan.
For example, during my stay, two buses of the local transport
co-operative called ‘24 June’
had two different severe accidents. People commented
that it was surely due to the fact that the co-operative members had not fulfilled their
commitment to the saint, had not ‘paid him a mass’.
It may also happen that people
who have accepted the invitation to the rooster soup do not fulfil their commitments
and refuse to contribute to the preparation of the following year’s party. The formula
often used by a guest to tell the host that s/he will not contribute is something like
‘after death I will keep owing you something, as during my life’. That is, this debt will
remain pending after death.
The breach of a credit contract (of any type) always carries a sanction. In the case
of the rooster soup, the sanction implies a state of ‘being in pain’. Pain is an essential
notion in defining the state of well-being for both body and soul. It is a physical, moral
and emotional state very similar to what western medicine would define as profound
depression. People are literally said to die as a result of the pain. Defaulters who have
debts pending after they die will join the crowd of restless souls destined to wander
until their debts are paid off by kin, either via the actual repayment of what the dead
owed or through a requiem mass.
A woman explained to me why she did not want to take a loan from a local NGO
in the following terms: ‘We do not have money to pay the loan back. . . and you know,
it is dreadful when you have a debt and stay in pain. . . you know, when one takes a
credit then it grows’ (E. Y., Turucucho, Oct. 1996), implying that not only the sum of
money borrowed, but also the pain (i.e. the sanction for not paying it) will grow as
well. This is one of the reasons why, people say, few default on debts related to the
celebration of San Juan.
The economic and religious dimensions of debt
Linguistic analyses of Japanese by Pigeot (1988) and Chinese by Alleton (1988)
demonstrate that in these languages the spheres of material and moral debt are separated.
In the same way, Sanskrit does not have a verb for ‘ought’, nor is there any etymological
relationship between the different words that indicate ‘moral obligation’ and ‘debt’
(Malamoud 1988a). On the contrary, in modern European languages the very word
combines the notions of duty and fault. Malamoud (1988a: 8) uncovers the linguistic
connection between these two elements also in the German word
, which means
, and from which
derives, meaning both
derives in turn from the Gothic
, which is related to the verb
have the duty’, ‘to be in debt’ and also ‘to be at fault’. From the same radical
is derived, which means ‘ought to do’, as is the English
which, at an
early stage in the language’s evolution, meant
. These Germanic words have a Latin
counterpart. The English, French, Spanish and Italian words for
comes from the
Andean scholars have written about the attribution of natural disasters such as drought or frost,
both fatal for agriculture, to human default on debts to their superior beings (Gose 1994; R
1994; S
anchez-Parga 1997; Dillon and Abercrombie 1988).
The 24 June is the Day of San Juan, the day when the main celebration takes place in Pesillo.
‘No le han de haber pasado la misa’.
same Latin root,
, i.e. fault, mistake, lack, guilt, sin;
that is, disobedience to, or
violation of, a duty or a moral, religious or social law.
In Italian there is a direct connection between debt and guilt that is very explicit
in the Italian translation of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, in which the word
The connection between debt, duty and fault is evident not only in Indo-European
languages, but also in Hebrew, with the verb ‘to be guilty’ and related nouns such as
‘debt’, ‘debtor’ and ‘obligation or duty’ (Malamoud, 1988a: 8). Debt implies, then, a
relationship between parties who are bound to each other by a strong moral obligation
that defines what is good and bad, right and wrong.
An analysis of the connections between debt and sin is beyond the scope of this
paper, but the issue reminds one of the close relationship that many cultures establish
between the religious and economic domains of debt. In Pesillo, this connection is
made evident in the celebration of San Juan that constitutes a privileged moment for
establishing a never-ending cycle of debts and obligations that is constantly renewed
because people’s fulfilment of their duty towards the saint obliges them to indebt
themselves. People see these material debts as material acknowledgement of their
debt to the saint; they incur such debts to celebrate San Juan as establish a privileged
relationship with the saint. They must be maintained so the relationship with the saint
can be maintained as well. If the debts convey the saint’s goodwill, they can never
be closed; then, both individual and communal sources of vitality and productivty
would disappear and catastrophes and misfortune would come to the village. When
a villager gains the reputation as a ‘defaulter’, s/he is excluded from reciprocal
transactions and thus social life; in the same way, s/he who does not properly honour
San Juan will be excluded from the source of eternal life that the saint represents.
This is why villagers do not hesitate to borrow and spend heavily to honour the
The connections that debt establishes between the economic and religious spheres
are further confirmed by ethnographic data from Asia, where debt can be linked to
death. Galey (1988), for example, describes a financial system in southern India where
the social and religious truthfulness of a relationship between a creditor and a lender
is revealed only when one of the parties, who reveals himself as the true creditor, dies
leaving no children; the other party then assumes his mourning to acknowledge his
status as a debtor.
Without reaching the extreme described by Hou Ching-lang (1988) for Taiwan
and Formosa, where people literally buy their destiny from a heavenly department
of treasure, in Pesillo too debt relates to death. The following story is exemplary. A
villager had a pending debt with his sister from whom he had taken away a bull. After
several years of quarrelling he agreed to pay back the loan in cash, but because he
was about to die his whole family decided he was not in a condition to fulfill his
commitment; the main concern was that he ‘die well’ and not become a restless soul,
his debt ought to be forgiven. In order to make ‘effective’ her forgiveness, the man’s
sister, the creditor, went to church, talked to the priest, made confession and went to
mass, during which she asked God to forgive her brother’s debt and ‘to give her the
22 From the Latin
it comes the French
, the Spanish
, the English
and the Italian
23 In her article of 1981, Crespi writes about the celebration of San Juan and mentions the idea,
expressed by local people, that San Juan is perceived as the giver of eternal life.
courage to forget the debt, as God forgets our sins’. Only afterward did the woman go
to see her brother and give him her forgiveness. In return, she asked him to protect her
and her family from heaven; in this way, I was told, she could receive back some of her
At another level, Cobbi (1988) reminds us that for Brahamism ‘ought’ is first of all
‘ought to die’. In Brahamism, debt is the constitutional and foundational condition of
mankind, not in the sense that Christianity gives to it – that is to say, as ‘original’ sin
– but as a foundational element of humanity in its condition as ‘debtor’. Following a
different path, Pesillanos reach the same conclusion: the conditions of humans is to be
indebted to superior beings. This existential status of indebtedness materialises itself in
a diversified series of duties and partial debts that, in the case of the Hindu codes, is
used to justify the legal system that rules material debt. In the Quichua case on the other
hand it assumes the shape of debts in money, services and goods; here the ultimate goal
is the survival of the group as such. Put simply, debt organises the social life of humans
as social beings: as Malamoud says (1988a), it manifests its presence in the world in a
web of relationships that is simultaneously supporting and tiding.
In this paper I have tried to explore the dynamics of debt transactions and relationships
in Pesillo as they are perceived by people locally. Two aspects of debt are particularly
important. Firstly, it has ceremonial dimensions. Secondly, unlike the contract-based
model that underlies much economic theory, debt is a cultural category that is not
necessarily decided between just two individuals. This is made evident in the celebration
of San Juan that is discussed within the cycle of production and reproduction of
life. This celebration is built around a locally constructed notion of debt and is a
privileged moment in the life of Pesillo, one in which reciprocal exchanges among
villagers are strengthened and extended through the institution of new material and
moral obligations, at the same time as debts to the saint are renewed. The dynamic
of the celebration makes clear that reciprocal and debt exchanges are not dyadic
transactions between individual partners but rather links in a chain in which people
are simultaneously creditors and debtors. Someone who borrows something becomes
the lender, but s/he will be, in turn, someone else’s creditor. So those
people who incur debts in order to sponsor the celebration of San Juan are at the same
time the creditors of others, although what they owe back cannot always be strictly
defined in financial terms.
Debt has a very strong ceremonial dimension in which the more individualistic
exchanges that take place between villagers in ordinary life move from a dyadic
betterment to a moral intervention of a third party – San Juan – that guarantees the
morality of the exchange. In this way, exchange creates links of obligation between
those involved in it, and between humans and superior beings.
The importance of debt transactions in the life of Pesillanos sheds new light on
ethnographical data from other Andean regions and on the current anthropological
debate surrounding gift, debt and exchange. It specifically adds to the literature on
economy as a cultural system and on the relationship between exchange and economy;
it demonstrates the relevance of opening a new theoretical and analytical space for debt
as a category in its own right while showing, at the same time, that a comparative
approach may lead to a better understanding of Andean cultural traditions, as well as
to a better evaluation of the parameters of ‘external’ models.
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