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Apprivoiser la montagne

Pascale de Robert


Texte intégral

Taming mountains. Portrait of a peasant society in the Andes (Venezuela)

1The Venezuelan Andes are at the north-east end of the range and are little known. Early Spanish colonisation resulted in the interbreeding of Andean populations and Europeans and then the terracing certain landscapes for growing wheat, a crop that has long been exported from these mountain regions. The high cereal valleys have now been forgotten and the small farmers who live in and still farm the old wheat areas are still outside the regional networks that are more favourable for coffee or horticulture. This is the case of the people of the páramo of Apure who live in the Sierra Nevada de Mérida near the sources of the Rio Nuestra Señora. Seeking cultivable land in the nineteenth century, they left the fertile land of the middle valley and settled higher up and have since cultivated marginal land at the edge of the farming frontier, as close to the summits as possible. By settling in the páramo of Apure, these farmers claimed to perpetuate some of the values inherited from the 'wheat people' while freeing themselves of the relations of dependence that used to be the rule in the haciendas lower down. They have also gradually remodelled their system of practices according to the features of a mountain environment reputed to be more hostile. To found this area and then live permanently in the high territories, the men and women of Apure maintain technical and symbolic relations with their environment. These relations are the subject of the book.

2To farm highland areas, the people of Apure had to acquire new knowledge with regard to the environment and then, in consequence, redesign their techniques for exploiting it. The vertical organisation of production according to the altitude is one of the most obvious features, but it should also be understood with the importance that farmers here award to potatoes and livestock, with complex management of field cropping and land rest periods, local organisation of labour and relations with urban centres. Finally, the methods of classifying, naming and using natural elements and especially plants demonstrate both the finesse of knowledge of the environment and a particular mode of relations with the world. Living in the high hamlets also means adjusting to a certain proximity with high mountains, reputed to be dangerous for humans, with the páramo and the monte. In this process, the farmers of Apure tell us of the importance that certain local values such as 'cordiality' and mutual respect have gained in the high territories. The páramo is used as grazing land but is also the domain of the cheses, mountain spirits to which is attributed a social life comparable to that of humans and that sometimes steal livestock. Even though they also seek to establish relations of domination, especially in barbechos, the highland people first of all tame the plants, animals, places and beings that surround them. Rather than forcing domestication that is finally considered as never being established, they see themselves as the 'tamers' of the mountain.

3Transforming their 'natural' environment in this way, the inhabitants also contribute to the elaboration of an identity as a 'highland people' by reformulating their roles in regional and historical frameworks. Farming, eating, economic and social habits make a System; these ways of doing things are linked with ways of considering relations with space and nature. Their singularity is seen in particular in the identification and ordering of differentiated and more or less domestic areas and also in the organisation of collective labour, farming choices, forms of behaviour, tastes in food and in forms of exchange with other people. The flexibility of spatial and social frontiers and the blurredness of certain local categories also facilitate the reformulation of the position of farmers in contemporary dynamics. Finally, by taking over areas reputed to be wild, the farmers founded a 'community' that claims to have freed itself from the 'time of the haciendas' and today enjoys a certain autonomy.

4The first part of the book describes the features that make it possible to apprehend the Andean world. The processes that led these peasants to becoming marginalised in relation to the dominant development models echo those of a great number of populations and not only in southern countries. The stages in the forming of a new territory—that recognised by the community formed by the Apure people—are also described. The second part of the book examines relations with the environment on the basis of categories of places identified by the inhabitants: the way of living in one's house and cultivating one's garden, the way of managing wheat land and freshly cleared mountain land and finally the customs of the páramo with regard to the social representations of the mountains. Social times are covered in the third part, with details of the progress of ordinary days and holidays, social organisation and the collective work involved in this and eating habits. Stories of the past are also used to analyse the ambiguous statements of the people of Apure concerning their origins and concerning the Indians. The book finishes with a description of migration strategies and the difficulties experienced by the peasants today, for example with regard to illnesses or the policies for the protection of nature upheld by the national park to which the highland areas belong.

© IRD Éditions, 2001

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