Accepted Paper:

The headman is dead, long live La Comunidad: of the institutionalization of power in Peruvian indigenous Amazonia  


Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti (University of Sussex)

Paper short abstract:

This paper analyses a recent articulation of power amongst Ashaninka people (Peruvian Amazonia) that has led to a shift from power being attributed to headmen, based on personal qualities or kinship relations, to an institutionalisation of power based on a communally drafted charter.

Paper long abstract:

The literature on leadership in indigenous Amazonia has long argued that the power of the headperson is set on the individual, most often through kinship links or personal qualities like warring prowess or shamanic knowledge. However, recent changes in the way indigenous groups in Peruvian Amazonia apply the Ley de Comunidades Nativas to everyday life seem to point to a transition of this power as carried by the individual to moving to the institution of Jefe as a representative of la Comunidad Nativa. However, this is not a strict adherence to Peruvian law but an innovative articulation put forth by comuneros to take advantage of the state-created political institution of the Comunidad in order to deal with a very complicated context.

Using Ashaninka groups of the Bajo Urubamba as a case study, I argue that the institutionalisation of power in the office of the Jefe, as opposed to the personal power sought in the pinkatsari ('he who is respected/feared for his personal qualities'), is a creative way to deal with today's context by allowing for a new more coercive manner of leadership. The power granted to today's Jefes is institutionalised in the Acta, the communal charter, rather than in the holder's personal qualities or social relations, showing that the importance placed on 'living well' in la Comunidad may, at times, be more important than the individual autonomy of its members.

Panel SE31
Chiefs, presidents, shamans and priests: rethinking indigenous forms of leadership, authority, and political action in 21st century lowland South America