By Erick Tejada Sánchez
Editor’s note: The writer of this article is the third-prize winner in the 2005 IDBAmérica Scholarship Competition. He studies sociology at Peru’s Universidad Nacional de San Augustín in Arequipa.
In many villages throughout the Peruvian Andes, alcohol consumption reaches alarming levels. Until the 1990s, this was also the case in Tuti, a small community in the Río Colca valley, some 4,700 meters above sea level in the southern department of Arequipa. A kind of “alcoholic culture” had imposed itself there by force of habit.
Jacinto Yanque Capira, a current resident who served as mayor of Tuti from 1973–76, recalls how alcoholism was devastating the population. “People would come to the office with their liquor, they’d bring bottles of it, and before they’d say something or ask for a favor, they would have a drink. They would drink in groups here and there, and after they drank they would fall sleep, sometimes without eating, and they wouldn’t go to their farms to work.”
In those years, alcohol was more than just a way to socialize. The deterioration of living conditions in the village was depressingly clear, say the residents. “Here in Tuti, people spent the little money they earned from farming or livestock on drinking, instead of investing it in their children’s education,” says Flora Capira, Tuti’s current mayor. “Women and children were also being mistreated.”
A radical change. In 1993, Jesús Mamani—an austere, unmarried and hardworking man who had great concern and respect for young people—was elected mayor, and his government decided that the situation had to be reversed at all costs. To do that, they resurrected an old regulation known as the Ley Seca (“Dry Law”), which had been deliberately forgotten, and which prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol. However, the authorities discovered that the existence of this law was not enough, and they turned to the villagers themselves.
“At a public meeting, [Mamani] convinced the people to agree to the Dry Law,” explains Don Jacinto. The mayor’s determination was the deciding factor. Doña Flora remembers him personally urging residents over community loudspeakers in Tuti’s main plaza to avoid drinking alcohol and to devote themselves to work and to raising their children. The task he had undertaken was not an easy one.
“When the Dry Law began, several years went by before there were any results,” remembers Don Jacinto. “People didn’t just stop drinking at the drop of a hat. It took three or four years. They even threatened Jesús Mamani. People would say, ‘This isn’t the mayor’s money I’m spending,’ because they didn’t agree [with what the mayor was doing], and they’d drink.”
Don Jacinto says that the example of a local evangelical group, whose principles forbade drinking and emphasized hard work, ultimately convinced the townspeople to stop drinking. This type of evangelical group was still unusual at the time, but it drew attention to the precarious situation of the town’s Catholic majority.
The growing resolve of Tuti’s residents and the mayor’s tenacity finally succeeded in getting people to obey the law, with all the changes it meant for peoples’ lives. “I’ve been a witness to this,” the ex-mayor recalls. “I was an alcoholic too. It took me two years of suffering to stop drinking.”
The law is very clear. The ordinance strictly forbids the sale of liquor within the village, including beer—which was very popular—except on holidays, which tend to be patron saints’ feast days or religious holidays. The village government has notified wholesale liquor dealers in the provincial capital not to supply stores in the village during times when liquor consumption is not permitted. The only resistance to the law has come from store owners, and some of them do disobey it occasionally.
In a culture that favors consensus and persuasion over coercion and imposition, it is difficult to set penalties that go beyond moral persuasion. However, popular pressure recently made the village government decide to establish disciplinary measures for those who disobey the law.
The participatory and consensual core of the law has not been ignored. At village meetings authorities and residents show the most enthusiasm in convincing each other that the Dry Law is still necessary.
Before and after. In Tuti, one of the most valuable consequences of applying the Dry Law has been reducing violence within families. Although statistics for such remote villages are difficult to find, this fact is clear from what people say, because all the village residents speak with each other so frequently.
Doña Flora, the mayor, points out that women who were being mistreated physically or psychologically did not know that they could file complaints. “No one knew,” she says. “They were beaten, and that’s as far as it went. But they always looked depressed, they always talked about how so-and-so was beating his wife, that this one had been kicked out of the house with her children. I saw this sort of thing a lot when I was young, but now you don’t see it anymore.”
The Dry Law years have coincided with a series of improvements in community life. For example, the residents’ traditional pattern of raising crops for their own consumption has been replaced by a market-oriented model that focuses on cash-crop production. Another development is the introduction of improved livestock. All of these activities receive support from NGOs that work in this region.
Although it may be an overstatement to say there is a direct causal relationship between improvements in production and the Dry Law, it is clear that the ethic created conditions in which the villagers are more likely to use assistance available to them. It also makes them more likely to live in harmony with their community. There is an overall, admirable optimism that reinforces the idea of “before” and “after” the Dry Law.
“Tuti used to be very backward,” says Don Jacinto. “Today, people aren’t wandering around drinking in the street. Everyone goes out to the country, to farm and take care of livestock. I think that here in the province of Caylloma, Tuti is ahead of everyone in terms of economic progress, cultural progress and more than anything spiritual progress.” Says Doña Flora: “People are slowly realizing that when they don’t drink, they don’t spend the little money that comes into the household. They see that one person’s cattle are in better shape, and then everyone wants them, everyone buys [from each other]. Nobody wants to stay behind. Everyone has something and everyone works hard.”
Kelyn Gómez, a local government employee who has lived in Tuti for several months, says that a few weeks ago, when she was giving a vocational test to the young people graduating from school, almost all of them said they wanted to stay in Tuti and be farmers like their parents. Only one of them said there were too many farmers, which was why she wanted to be an engineer. (Meanwhile, in Lima, a recent survey showed that 86 percent of young people wanted to leave the country.)
Although ex-Mayor Jesús Mamani does not live in Tuti anymore, the initiative he took upon himself to launch is bearing fruit. Neighboring villages, such as Callalli, have announced their own “dry laws,” seeking to repeat Tuti’s success. In Tuti, the law is [now] so internalized among residents that at the last village anniversary celebration they talked the mayor out of making the toast with Champagne. They preferred to follow the Inca custom and make a toast with large earthenware jars of chicha [a traditional drink].