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Kallawaya culture

Kallawaya culture has been documented since the Early Colonial Period (1537-1780 AD) in the Northern Interandean Valleys in Bolivia. Today the Kallawaya people are found in the ethnographic region of the North Altiplano and in the department of La Paz. The Kallawaya practice ancestral medical techniques, dating back to the pre-Columbian era. Resting on a comprehensive knowledge of the healing properties of plants, animals and minerals, this tradition has been transmitted through generations via Kallawaya cosmology, beliefs, rituals, myths, objects and cultural values. The figurative motifs of the Kallawaya textiles include detailed regional fauna and flora, attesting to the importance attributed to these elements in their culture.

The Kallawaya way of life has come under increasing pressure from pharmaceutical companies interested in exploiting their knowledge for commercial purposes. In 2008, the Andean cosmovision of the Kallawaya was formally recognized in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (proclaimed in 2003). UNESCO's statement read as follows:

'The safeguarding action plan seeks, through intergenerational transmission, to ensure the preservation and transmission of the knowledge and wisdom of the Kallawaya culture, whose activity is bound to the ancestral healing medicine of the culture of the Andes.

The main objectives of the safeguarding project are to:
  • promote the preservation and safeguarding of Kallawaya culture at local, regional and national levels;
  • strengthen the techniques and transmission of traditional medicine;
  • strengthen the knowledge concerning healing with natural medicines;
  • create the necessary conditions to ensure the transmission of the traditional knowledge;
  • promote Kallawaya culture, as part of the multicultural identity of Bolivia; and
  • to promote the practice of traditional medicine in hospitals of the municipalities of the Bautista Saavedra province.'

Notwithstanding its good intentions, this approach privileges the idea of cultural identity as something 'authentic', which exists in an idealized and unhistorical space, reiterating a functionalist understanding of culture that favours cultural homogeneity and stability over long periods of time. It also implies that the process of preserving intangible culture is directly connected to the maintenance of a static cultural identity. The idea of people as 'transmitters' of cultural traditions presupposes a passive medium.

Since the inclusion of Kallawaya culture on the UNESCO list in 2003, local weavers have been reluctant to change their textile design and colours according to local fashion, preferring simply to reproduce the patterns of that moment.