Reciprocity: an indigenous teaching for a better 2021

Indigenous youth making masks with traditional elements during COVID-19

Ayni is an Aymara principle that means “mutual reciprocity and help others in need” and Juk’uchaña is an Aymara word that means “to accumulate or hoard like a mouse” translated by the Aymara teacher Félix Layme Pairumani.

While thinking about actions to take for a better 2021, I was compelled to ask my elders what are the steps to reimagine a better future after the COVID-19 pandemic? Instead of providing a straight answer, they narrated one of our traditional stories, which is taught from generations to generations. There was once a mouse who always had food in his house. He harvested all crops for himself and the other animals often went to his house to pray for some food, but the mouse always refused to share food. Juk'uchaña is the word for a mouse in Aymara; it also means selfish accumulating that is understood as stealing. After telling the story, my elders taught me about the ayni. Ayni is the Aymara principle of solidarity and reciprocity. If someone needs help, everyone should be ready to help, without expecting any kind of reward. In reciprocity, ayni teaches us that we know that someone will help us when we are in need. If we are to behave as the mouse, guided by the principal of juk’uchaña, we – as humanity – are doomed to vanish. Ayni is the moral principal that creates societies with reciprocity and companionship. For this, I believe we could all learn and promote Ayni for the year 2021.

Ayni also teaches us that we depend on the actions that were taken previously. We need to create ayni or relations of solidarity and reciprocity with our past, present and future. Our current well-being depends on the steps and choices made in the past. Likewise, the well-being of future generations depends on the efforts that we make today. For the Aymara people, solidarity and companionship are essential to creating the pathway for a better future. Therefore, Ayni takes place within elders and youth; women and men; and indigenous and non-indigenous persons.

I firmly believe that our role is to promote local, regional and international solidarity or ayni to meet the demands of a better 2021. I propose three goals for 2021:

·      To eliminate health inequities with the integration of traditional medicine.

·      To build a sustainable economic recovery based on solidarity and collaboration.

·      To take action to combat climate change by reinforcing the connection with nature.

Ayni and healthcare

COVID-19 has shown the structural social, economic, gender, generational and identity inequalities. Its devastating effects have particularly harmed the most vulnerable populations. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted indigenous peoples’ marginalization in the healthcare system. Indigenous peoples, we, do not have access to healthcare services. And, if we manage to reach to a hospital, we face harsh discrimination and mistreatment. For these reasons, I reimagine a world with universal healthcare, where everyone has access to health no matter their cultural identity nor gender. To achieve this, the mayor goal for 2021 is to eliminate healthcare inequities with the cooperation between governments, international organizations, civil society, youth, and indigenous peoples.

During 2020, indigenous people practiced ayni by using traditional medicine to combat COVID-19. The increase of COVID-19 cases made indigenous peoples face the pandemic with their own resources. Families and communities shared traditional remedies to take care of their communities. This is an example of collective work to maintain ancestral knowledge and to integrate traditional medicine to the national healthcare system. This joint response has showed the importance of cooperation to face COVID-19.

Ayni and the global economy

2021 should aim to promote economic aid on the basis of solidarity and cooperation. The most vulnerable are currently suffering from a lack of economic income due to lockdowns. Whereas lockdowns are implemented as a health emergency, people are pushed to decide between their health or their access to food. In consequence, the youth is driven to leave their studies to work and support their parents economically. It is essential to create mechanisms that continue to achieve international cooperation while improving people’s well-being after the increasing unemployment rate. The second goal for 2021 is taking the pandemic as an opportunity for sustainable economic reconstruction — for example, providing financial support to individuals and local producers. By promoting food production systems that sustain healthier diets, the global community will boost sustainable agricultural practices that are beneficial to mitigate climate change’s effects and support local producers.

In 2020, there are examples of indigenous communities that created communal gardens to share crops and seeds, particularly for people affected by unemployment. Traditional crops became an alternative to feed families.

Ayni and climate change

The global community has adopted norms that are results of difficult debates and consensus-building. These norms have to be set into action. I reimagine a collaborative platform that will encourage governments, international institutions, and the overall global community to rethink their priorities and investments. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we took health for granted. After COVID-19, I encourage countries to take action on the global climate change crisis. We must not wait to see the devastating consequences upfront to react. Future generations depend on the actions of today.

My final goal for 2021 is to promote sustainable agriculture to achieve zero hunger and restore natural resources. In consequence, we need to reinforce our connection with Nature. For indigenous peoples, reciprocity is also practiced with Mother Earth. It means that we preserve natural resources because we are bonded with Nature. We, members of indigenous peoples, have been connected with Nature since the beginning. As Mother Earth gave us shelter and food during the crisis, we must repay by taking care of Her.

My elders’ story shows that societies build on Juk'uchaña, the principle of individualism and egoism, face more challenges to overcome collective challenges, very often leaving the most vulnerable behind, including disregarding Mother Earth. With Ayni, communal societies, such as the Aymara people, are connected to themselves, and to Nature as a family. Everyone has to help each other. You are what you have but what you give others in times of need. Overcoming COVID-19 is not a problem of one society, nation, country or group. It is the opportunity that we, being different, are one family. 

The current global outbreak of COVID-19 has put many global risks to light, making collective work and solidarity more important than ever. Just like the mouse from the story, a part of the worldwide community has focused on isolationism and self-interest rather than cooperation with each other. I believe that these three goals can help to emerge stronger and, more importantly, together after COVID-19. We cannot return to “normal”, where the inequality was hidden. we, individually and collectively, must turn into ayni, reciprocity and solidarity.


Plurinational State of Bolivia