This month saw the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu. Its discovery by the West, that is: it was in July 1911 that Hiram Bingham, a Yale historian, was led to the already 400-year old site by a local shepherd boy, and announced the presence of the Machu Picchu estate to the world.

Machu Picchu, morning mist

I visited Machu Picchu a couple of days before its anniversary; it was glorious. A sublime city in a sublime location; the hundreds of tourists walking around could not detract from its wonderfulness. I was back in nearby Cusco, “the heart of America” for Che Guevara, and capital of the Inca empire, for the anniversary itself. To celebrate, Cusco’s main plaza saw parades, a stage with big screens, and a Peruvian folk/rock band in the evening. It also saw low-key protests, including one banner that particularly caught my eye: “100 años de la prostitución de la cultura andina”.

Elsewhere on the streets, the Incas’ conquered descendants mainly went about their business; selling chewing gum and proffering beautiful and often hand-made gloves and ch’ullus (traditional hats made from alpaca wool) to the hoards of foreign tourists, at knock down prices.

Indeed, the market for “traditional” handicrafs seems to me so saturated that it’s unlikely most of the participants make a profit from it. Many streets are lined with fairly elderly women, selling largely similar goods, and given such a large supply the natural outcome is very low prices. I bought a local factory-made alpaca ch’ullu for 10 neuvos soles (just over 3 US dollars), and a pair of handmade alpaca gloves for the same price. I resisted any temptation to haggle down from the price I was offered.

Since then I’ve made enquiries as to how long it takes a woman to make a pair of handmade gloves. The responses, from all over the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, have varied from 1 day to 3 days, with the average response being two days. Here in Bolivia, the same type of gloves sell for 20 bolivianos, almost exactly the same price as in Peru. That means, in either country, if we optimistically hope the time of manufacture is only one day, that’s a daily income of $3, assuming (impossibly) that no time is taken to actually sell the gloves, and (impossibly) that the sale is pure profit. What’s that I hear you say? Things cost less in those sorts of countries, so $3 income a day is PLENTY. Well, maybe. But a set lunch here in Sucre’s market costs 10 bolivianos (5 neuvos soles) or $1.50, so that’s half of the day’s money gone on lunch. And we’re not talking lunch for tourists. This is the market. A bag of pasta costs 5 bolivianos. A small avocado costs another 5. A big avocado might cost 10. And that’s your income gone. You’ve had lunch. You’ve got an avocado and some pasta for dinner. Shame there’s nothing left to fund a cooking stove, fuel, crockery and cutlery, or perhaps a house.

A Quechua woman in front of the big screen anniversary celebrationsOf course, I hear your say, the person making the gloves is just a woman, and she’ll be supported by her husband. Well, perhaps. Her husband, if not on the street with her, is probably out tending the animals from where the wool comes. He’s not down the phone shop talking to his stock broker, or moonlighting as a waiter at El Gato Rojo. In fact he might not be bringing in any cash at all, simply goods in kind. And he probably doesn’t own the land he’s farming.

All in all, the picture is one of poverty, and destructive competition between local producers that they bear with solidarity and dignity, if not good humour. And the difference between poverty and sustainability is the price that the Western consumer (tourist) pays. And that price cannot possibly be a fair one. What can be fair about paying someone $3 for one, maybe two or three days’ work? And here we arrive at the claim of the “prostitution” of the Andean culture. Because the quiet, respectable Aymara and Quechua locals are not simply selling their wares, they are flogging them to the lowest bidder in return for survival. Tokens of what is left of their culture, modified in style for Western consumption, become a direct drain on their minuscule wealth, flowing from their lands and their animals, through their manufacturing labour, to their labour as street-sellers, with the foreign tourist getting a nice authentic handicraft item as well as extra beer money, and the indigenous local getting the right to continue living, with exploitation occurring at every stage of the process. To add insult to injury the product is not even manufactured any longer as part of the culture itself, but for these strange outsiders who fetishise “traditional” things.

The role Machu Picchu plays in this is just different in a matter of scale. Machu Picchu is not being physically consumed (although there are reports of the mountain suffering subsidence from so many trampling feet, and recently an ad firm smashed a piece off of the sacred Inti Watana centrepiece stone when they dropped a half-ton crane on it whilst filming a beer commercial. The same beer company, I suspect, as sponsored the 100 year anniversary). But if Machu Picchu is not being physically damaged, its allure and image are being promoted the world over as part of a mystical forgotten traditional culture. But before Hingam’s re-discovery, Machu Picchu was not really forgotten. It was hiding. It was abandoned in the first place by the terrified Incas when the Spanish arrived at Cusco and built their church “El Triunfo”, the Triumph) on top of the razed rubble of the Inca emperor’s palace. Conquistador Francisco Pizarro ended up having the emperor himself strangled. Although, his first choice had been to have him burned alive.

Machu Picchu then spent several hundred years, overgrown with forest, as one piece of Inca culture that the Spaniards had not yet found, destroyed or exploited. But then it emerged suddenly and unwillingly one day into the 20th century as an instant walkable museum, at the hands of an American (an American who stole many relics from the site and took them back to Yale; even now the university is still quibbling about giving them back). Few tourists wandering around the ruins are really alive to the horror of the arrival of the Europeans. Few connect the Incas with the poor people on the streets selling cheap Nestlé crap, few get the idea that the people who lived here before the Spanish never went away, despite mass exterminations, they were just moved down a rung on the ladder, or, rather, thrown down to the bottom. But the hierarchical relationship between native Andean and latter-day criollo is very clear. Especially in Peru.

Peru, a country where the newscasters are almost all white, some even blond, while the majority of the country is an unmistakable brown to dark-brown. The reality is that little has changed, socially, since the 1530s when Atahualpa was garroted. The descendants of the Incas, usurped in the heart of their own empire, are not only now serving the dominant (white) class of their own imposed-country of Peru, but a new white class of annoying 18-year-old girls from Milwaukee, beer-swilling English students, preppy French chain-smokers, German walking enthusiasts and Japanese image-stealers. And these people, who might be expected to know better since they have come to the place mainly to revel in its “traditional” culture and history, are the cheerleaders of a race-to-the-bottom that is bleeding dry the meagre resources that indigenous people still possess.

What is the dividing line between free market exchange and prostitution? I would say when the people doing the selling don’t have any real choice, in their type of work or in setting the price. And it is such a position that the indigenous people of the Andes now find themselves in, in agriculture, manufacturing, services; in vegetable selling, road-building, silver-mining as much as in ch’ullo-making. Their role as labourers, textile-workers, farmers and miners in the globalised free market, and the white Westerners who benefit from their bargain-basement wage levels, is mirrored on the small scale by the white Western tourists who patronise their cottage industries.

Let’s celebrate Inca culture, let’s celebrate Andean culture. But let’s be clear what cute and traditional means. Even their “traditional” dress is not traditional at all. They were costumes imposed on them by the Spanish, modelled on the dress of Spanish Andalusian peasants, a kind of “let’s dress up the poor people to look all pretty for us in the way we like”. Here is Bolivia the bowler hat is a “traditional” dress item, a fashion statement shared by the Edwardian London banker and the Bolivian rural peasant. Ridiculous really: no doubt the trade in bowler hats made many British manufacturers very rich. But the tradition, again, is an imposed one. At least the chu’llu itself existed before the white men arrived.

It’s certainly a “tradition” now for indigenous people to be poor and stepped upon. But let’s not pretend this is a cute reflection of their real culture. The same forces that have been keeping them down since the 16th century are still keeping them down today, and Western tourism, and more importantly Western capitalism, are now playing the “traditional” role of the conquistadors of old.