By Published On: September 18, 2006Categories: Indigenous peoples0 Comments on Patrimony

"I notice you keep talking about patrimony and common goods. What do you actually mean?" said the lanky floppy-haired man at the back of the packed dimly-lit room in the centre of Leeds. It was a good question.

I had been translating the words "patrimonio" and "bienes comunes" for several days and hadn’t really thought that they are hardly everyday expressions in England.

The question came on Day Five of a tour of Britain by Oscar Olivera, a Bolivian social movement leader who successfully helped lead resistance against privatisation of water in Cochabamba in 2000.  A small quietly-spoken man in his forties with a now trademark mao-style hat, Oscar nevertheless conveys with great passion the desire for radical economic and social change in Bolivia.

Oscar Olivera is something of an icon in the alternative-globalisation movement due to his identification with one of the first successful reversal of privatisations in the world. I hardly knew him in Bolivia, but after six days on the road together helping to translate, I came to admire Oscar for his humbleness, thoughtful reflections, gentle sense of humour and his tireless commitment to raising awareness of Bolivia in my mother-country, Britain. Over a week, we spent most of the time constantly on the move, sleeping in lots of different beds, finishing at 1am and up at 7am, eating crap food far away from his home and family and yet he never looked even mildly pissed off.

I hadn’t thought about the translation I did of patrimony and common goods, because they are words I have constantly heard in Bolivia. Oscar was speaking a language that you hear on the streets whenever resources like gas or water are mentioned.  They can certainly be easily translated literally but to really understand them you need to understand the context in which those words have become part of people’s language here. For the fact they are words that have disappeared from our language but are vibrant in Bolivia tells you more about both countries then you would first imagine.

In dictionaries, you would get references to inherited property or money or possibly heritage conjuring up images of crumbling National Trust properties or letters from lawyers saying your great aunt has left you stacks of cash. But in Bolivia, they are much more used to talk about natural resources in particular the hydrocarbons or water.

They do carry the sense of inheritance: Oscar during his speeches often said "Water is something that has been managed for generations by our communities and we need to look after it so we can hand it on to our grandchildren."

But they carry much more strongly the sense of the collective, that of "goods in common", which I guess links into the roots of "patria" or country within the word patrimony. This of course has a long and resonant history in Bolivia with a strong popular sentiment that Bolivia has suffered five centuries of "saqueo" (looting).

However it also reflects a revival of indigenous values and forms of organising and decision-making which are much more rooted in a sense of community and provided some of the indignation at the privatisation of key resources from gas to water that was behind protests that wracked the nation in the last five years. It can be heard in the adamant slogans: "El agua es nuestro, carajo" (The water is ours, dammit) as well as statements by indigenous now-President Evo against an individualist culture of neoliberalism.

I think that it is a concept that used to be much stronger in Britain. Interestingly the question was made in the North of England where we had spent several days walking past vast town halls, museums and public buildings that dated back to a time of "municipal socialism" where there was a real sense of the community needing to provide basic necessities to all.

Leeds now though seems to be a city where the idea of individualism and private money is all that matters. Across the city, endless shopping arcades seemed to be springing up behind scaffolding, large luxury apartment blocks lay with empty floors (apparently bought by speculators to keep empty and sell on for a higher price the next year) and the only message the centre seemed to scream very proudly was "SHOP!! SHOP!! SHOP!!"

Some inspiring and well-informed local activists took us to a housing estate right near the centre which is supposedly being improved thanks to the "Private Finance Initiative." A local resident and retired machinist who had lived on the estate for more than 30 years gave us a very different view to the glossy council pamphlets. For him it meant that he was being forcibly removed, the number of council housing would drop by a third, and land would be sold off to banks and shopping centres at vast profits. Meanwhile the nature of the PFI deal meant that the city council would be saddled with a huge debt that council taxpayers would be paying back at high interest rates for many years to come.

Bit by bit, through direct and stealth privatisation of our public services, through the introduction of "commercial logic" into public spaces, through the domination of advertising and consumption, our sense of the public is being chipped away. Even fair trade and justice movements find themselves slipping into the dominant paradigm when they predicate change on our role as consumers. Power and resistance has been reduced to the private ability to pay, rather than the public capacity to organise.

In Leeds, activists have got together to create a dynamic social centre which in the words of Stuart Hodkinson is one of the few spaces in Leeds where you "don’t have to consume". The energy of the evening meeting and the collective effort in the shared café meal demonstrated in microcosm a different vision of the city. Yet the relentless march of the financial and consumerist city which was quite literally visible in their attempts to take over a central housing estate made me feel  that such important initiatives must feel at times like Canute against the tide.

Yet in Bolivia, the opposite is true despite years of fierce neo-liberalism which even outdid Thatcher’s efforts at times. It is rooted in indigenous movements who seemed to have remained untouched by the logic of privatisation during its harshest years, perhaps because most of them  saw no benefit and were completely excluded from an economy that enriched a few. But it also lay with a strong pride and maintenance of indigenous cultures that have always retained a logic that has put their communities before individualism. They have now rediscovered their power and brought a debate about community and State to the fore.

It is represented in the way that rural communities still organise to manage their water, local food and politics. It can be seen in the fights indigenous communities led to regain control over key resources, their patrimony. It is clear in the many meetings I go to of social movements who put aside hours to develop common policies and ideas. It is evident in the way that the MAS government has stressed the collective and pushed for State and community involvement throughout the economy. It will also be at the forefront of indigenous movements’ attempts to redesign the State with a new Constitution that they hope will embed community values and forms of decision-making at the heart of Bolivia in the years to come.

It is my hope that the revival of the public and the collective in Bolivia could have repercussions around the world and bring words like "patrimony" and "collective good" back onto the streets of Britain.


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