An introductory framework for ‘Habilito: Debt for Life’

Chuck Sturtevant
Finance and Society, 2016, 2(1): 86-89


The documentary film Habilito: Debt for Life provides a case study of the conflicts and tensions that arise at the point of contact between highland migrants and Mosetenes, members of an indigenous community in the Bolivian Amazon. It focuses particularly on a system of debt peonage known locally as ‘habilito’. This system is used throughout the Bolivian lowlands, and much of the rest of the Amazon basin, to secure labor in remote areas. Timber merchants advance market goods to Mosetenes at inflated prices, in exchange for tropical hardwood timber. When it comes time to settle accounts, the indebted person often finds that the wood he has cut does not meet his debt obligation, and he has to borrow more money to return to the forest to continue logging. This permanent cycle of debt permits actors from outside these indigenous communities to maintain control over the extraction of wood and provides them with a free source of labor in the exploitation of timber resources. This system is practiced especially in remote areas where systems of patronage predominate, and where colonists with a market-based economic logic come into contact with Amazonian indigenous peoples who, historically, have not employed an economic logic of saving or hoarding.