Interview with Salomón Hernán Zerpa - President of the PUNHA Network and Mayor of Abrapampa -Argentina

Organizations and different social actors who had been called to “Espacio NOA” were taking part in the meeting “Social organizations and politics: Do we join in or are we already in? »

Jose Luis Coraggio, enero 2004

En otros idiomas: Español

Salomón Hernán Zerpa, President of the PUNHA Network and Mayor of Abrapampa, a municipality situated in the province of Jujuy in Argentina.

What institution or organization do you belong to?

To the PUNHA Network, and originally the PUNHA Cooperative (PUNHA stands for “Por Un Nuevo Hombre Americano” - In Favour of a New American Man[RM1] ). It is a craft textile cooperative where I’ve been working for approximately twelve years.

Do you feel it is important to work in a network?

(Yes), we had been thinking of building the network since 1995 or 1996; we met with people in the Puna, people who were not only from the Puna but that were also living there and were willing to join efforts, to follow the same path. So we devoted ourselves to the network; today we are 43 organizations that share this vision of the need to work towards gaining ground in the political space that we must occupy.

What is the organization currently working on? What activities are being developed? How would you describe your organization’s activity?

We are producing llama-hair textiles in the Puna[4]: ponchos, ruanas, blankets, tapestries, as well as craft jam and preserved fruits and vegetables in Quebrada de Humahuaca.[5]

Above all, we are giving renewed importance to craft textile work. When we started, about 15 years ago, spinning and weaving were shameful activities, they were associated with old people, peasants, Bolivians. Today everybody in the Puna wants to weave and spin.

We have recovered a wealth of traditional knowledge and there is still much to be recovered, not only in connection with textiles but also in other respects. I believe that this has a great influence on the economy.

Most of the techniques were recovered through the old craftspeople; others were recovered through the stories that grandparents had told their children or through women that knew about them but were unwilling to transmit them because of the devaluation of such practices. So we began recovering weaving techniques and inventing others. We established PUNHA rules, such as the prewashing of thread and llama hair; we gradually mixed traditional knowledge with the need to adapt ourselves to the world of today.

I remember that there were many years in which we produced things that we couldn’t sell to anybody, but when we realized we had to make things that were different, we started to sell a lot.

Is this PUNHA cooperative and network internationally linked or is it just local?

From a trading point of view, we sell our products to people who are exporting, who are sending things abroad. But there is still plenty to do in terms of a strong inner organization of production. Associative production is not easy, more so when you are both employer and employee at the same time; it gets somewhat difficult.

How many members has it got?

There are 75 members, apart from people who work in connection with the Cooperative, about 120 families in all.

Does that mean that it’s family work? that the members are families?


Can you briefly describe your personal development and experience before the present situation?

In the first place, my mother was a teacher and I’m a primary school teacher, too. I spent almost 12 years in the countryside, alternating my work as a teacher with my political activism, occupying a kind of Finance Secretary post. Afterwards, I devoted myself entirely to social work, founding and working for the cooperative. Since 1995 or 1996, our aim as a network has been to progressively advance in the field of politics. Politics conceived as a space of power within the State. Always with the State: we must stand by the democratic system and strengthen it, without thinking that non-governmental organizations should take the place of the State. Thus, gaining control of the municipal governments of our towns became an aim; even within the network we discuss ways to fill spaces in that sense… Summing up, this is how I got here.

As a person responsible for the cooperative and as an organizer of the network, what results do you expect from its activity? To what extent does it influence the community as a whole? or does it target certain sectors in particular? What outcomes were you expecting?

In my opinion, it must have an influence; I believe that the network is intended to influence public policies. Our role is to be valid representatives, policy guides. I think it should mainly influence structural aspects, producing a change in options, generating new policies and eliminating fear… These have always been our expectations, as well as the possibility of creating a space of power, and the establishment of links with any individuals or groups in our Latin American country that may also be willing to change this reality.

Which fields do you think your interventions have most influenced or have focused the most on: social, political or economic ones?

I think that now we are having more influence in economic aspects, from a productive perspective in which we give renewed importance to rural life, and socially, by organizing and strengthening local social institutions; I think we are exerting great influence on these matters.

But doesn’t that bring us back to politics? In fact, you are affecting the three areas mentioned, aren’t you?

Yes, I think so. When I thought of the way in which we were going to reach this point, I imagined that five or ten people in the network would take up spaces in different places in order to avoid being swallowed up by the system[RM2] . I believe that this is one of the things we are more afraid of.

You are contributing to local development, generating jobs and producing goods. To which extent do you think you are creating an alternative economy?

When we decided to focus on local development in our community, we realized that no local development was possible without local economies, without an improvement in welfare. That is to say, we can’t talk about the realisation of a community if we don’t pay attention to the way in which local economies can include all the people who have been hitherto excluded.

Then, are you trying to contribute to an economy different from the one which currently prevails in Argentina?

Yes, yes, absolutely.


First of all, when the cooperative was formed, we believed we had to use our natural resources to create new jobs. During the nineties, globalisation and massive sales were killing us, and that was something that helped bind us strongly together. In addition, building on domestic markets we were able to recover livelihood strategies that had been destroyed by modern life. For instance, the barter markets that our network promotes.

Mi wife tells me that she used to eat oranges and apples that her father brought from the valley on his donkey and he would bring meat, milk, they had everything; how do we manage now to recover those things? We have been forced to abandon popular strategies; becoming wage-earners was insane for us as a race, as an ethnic group.

We are using the network to create all those spaces of negotiation, to exchange goods[RM3] , to create a different economy that enables people to solve their situations even if they choose to remain outside the madness of the globalised economy.

Have you given a name to this new and different economy? Is it about a new economy or just about recovering the old one?

I think it is a recovered economy but with new elements. That is to say, we no longer have the luxury of having abundant food and being able to get it by donkey; nowadays, trade has been modified by the development of communications, although it serves the same purpose as before.

Do you think your economy will be able to coexist and connect with capitalism, with the enterprise economy? or are they conflicting economies?

I don’t know to which extent it is possible to coexist with them but, for instance, in the cooperative we are required to work towards that possibility: receiving massive orders and complying with them; everything this modern economy demands is difficult for us, but I think that if we intend to get out into the world we must adapt to it.

In the cooperative, no worker is required to produce, for instance, 100 kg of yarn monthly, not at all; when a woman comes to us, she signs a contract with us, but we know that she has to take care of her children and do social work in the cooperative and that she may produce 10 or 3 kg of yarn in her spare time; she works whenever she is able to. Sometimes we may suffer from this situation because we might have ordered 3 kg of yarn but we do not get the whole of it. Sometimes we may be out of step with the orders: we are selling in Bariloche, Buenos Aires or to people who have already booked their ticket to Europe… so we must meet the orders. This kind of things, which are typical of modern economy, are the ones we try to adapt to, but we work within the alternative economy. We must learn how to manage both because we cannot choose one of them.

What values do you and the other members of the cooperative practice? What values are you guided by?

Basically, respect guides our action, respect in general, respect for diversity of thought; I think that respect is the source and support of all our other values, such as honesty, willingness to work, fondness of working, joy, if possible. I think that’s the basis.

Do you think that these values are held by the people involved in the activities you promote or that these values are found only in the leaders? do common people have a different set of values?

No, they are shared by everybody, I think that solidarity and participation are not necessarily considered as values but they are part of what the Andean world is: the desire to be together, respect, silence…

What does solidarity mean to you?

I think that solidarity is highly related with empathy, with the possibility of standing by others, at the right moment and place.

What does participation mean to you?

Well, we discuss very much the meaning of the word “participation”; I think it refers to the possibility of acting and making decisions together. I believe that we, the inhabitants of the Puna, are participatory people and not necessarily talkative.

What do you understand by profit?

I associate it with filthy lucre, with the accumulation of money for money’s sake.

By quality of life?

Health, nature.

By “basic needs”?

There is something that in general we do not take into account when speaking of basic needs: affections, especially the feelings of children during their first years, as affections play a structuring role in our first 10 or 15 years.

What is equity about?

For instance, the people who make looms earn more money than the women who weave thus generating a situation of inequality; in this case, the proceeds from loom production help subsidize weaving activities. It is expensive but I think that it is a great example of equity that should prevail among people…

Is the money distributed so that everybody gets the same share? Is the distribution adapted to each member’s need or does it reflect the amount of work done by each?

The distribution is done on the basis of the work of each member; the problem is that the cost of weaving is much greater than the cost of making looms, that is why we try to subsidize the former with the money obtained from the latter.

Do you think that your organization is facing new and unprecedented challenges nowadays? If so, should it change its strategies?

Yes, yes, we always thought we were training leaders, but now we have realized that this is not exactly the case; it is getting difficult for some members of the cooperative to take on leadership positions in other places; I don’t know if this is happening as a consequence of some kind of paternalism, of not being willing to participate; the fact is that we are facing the challenge of training new leaders…

On the other hand and from an economic point of view, we are facing challenges every day; maintaining the quality of the products and retaining markets or clients represent a new challenge, something unknown to us; we were not used to working like this. There was always somebody who would think for us.

Are there any conflicts or troubles in connexion with discrimination within the popular sectors presently? If any, which are the main ones?

I’m worried about the self-discrimination that some so-called indigenous people are practicing; in recent years, the creation of indigenous towns was favoured; I feel entirely Coya[6], an aboriginal Indian, and I see this as something absolutely natural. But nowadays virtual reservations are being created, like the ones Americans created for their Indians; we, the coyas down here, the aboriginals, are excluding ourselves and I think this is a very bad sign; it’s disturbing that we exclude ourselves because we feel we should be pitied, because we want an Advising Counsel especially intended for indigenous people. Next we are going to be asking for schools exclusively for Indians…

Work is generally associated with employment, with wage-earning; people work because they receive a salary in exchange, but new forms of employment are emerging as a consequence of the high unemployment that we are currently suffering. Do you think that people prefer to be dependant on an employer to make a living rather than take part in independent micro undertakings or in associative forms of production?

In general, people try by all possible means to enter an employment relationship, and if the employer happens to be the State, all the better; in our case, it means going back to working in the mines; it’s a kind of mental paralysis that prevents us from creating alternative ways of obtaining resources.

What do people prefer: micro undertakings or associative forms?

They choose individual forms of work first; finding associative forms is rare, they are very few, indeed.

Do you think that unemployment benefits for women and men heads of household[7] should be compensated by some kind of work done in return or that, on the contrary, they should be granted as a citizens’ right without demanding any compensation?

I think that some work should be done in return, in the sense of creating alternative forms of labour or otherwise channelling those benefits with the purpose of generating work in the form of services or production of goods.

I believe that you know about the “Let’s Get to Work” program[8]. Are you aware of who the promoters are? Can you see any difference with the Women and Men Head of Household Plan?

The program is promoted by the Social Development Office. I think it is complementary of the Women and Men Head of Household Plan. However, I can’t see any difference with the implementation of the very traditional programs that they have been putting into practice. People were forced to design projects for the sake of it, not because of strong needs but because of an attitude of the sort “if there are resources available, then let’s design a project” (seen in some government offices) or “the more projects we design, the better we are”. I think it is not a logical attitude to adopt and it will have serious inconveniences.

What role do women play in the economic initiatives aimed at cooperation and solidarity?

Women in Puna have always played a very special role, in the first place absorbing the impact of the great crisis; in the second place being responsible for earning a living when their husbands became unemployed; we are very proud of the fact that our cooperative is presided by women, who represent 80% of its members; also, we continue to strengthen gender equity and non-discrimination on the basis of age, which is also very important.

Do young people play any special role regarding cooperation, solidarity, undertakings?

We are working with young people a lot and they are playing a preponderant role with their “it’s possible” attitude, contributing optimism, change, which is key.

What are the main difficulties that you face in your activity?

Difficulties have to do, at the network level, with the clash between everyday reality and an academic point of view that probably comes from the seventies; this is something that happens not only within the network but also in many other social organizations, in the way that some enlightened leaders intend to control these groups politically. This was the cause, in my opinion, of a great imbalance in the network; as if it weren’t enough to enjoy a great deal of participation at the university centres, some experts have decided to join social organizations; I highly respect the left but not the pseudo-left… Seeing ghosts everywhere or feeling at war or in a revolution is bad for Argentinean social movements and unfortunately I’ve known many such experiences…

What is currently being done and what should be done?

The people and grassroots activists should be allowed to politically lead their own movements; they should not be constrained into fitting into certain types of movements, we are living a different moment now.

Do you think that the State should play an important role in the construction of an alternative economy or, on the contrary, that it should allow such alternative forms to emerge spontaneously from the grassroots level?

Personally, I do not believe in policies that are imposed from above, by the State; I’m convinced that we should create local policies that are able to gradually take hold at a regional level and, obviously, that we should generate more popular policies from below that can contribute to the alternative economy we referred to.

Q : Do you go by any paradigm, belief, example or point of reference?

In general, I have tried to break them all in order to adapt myself to this new conception of participation. In my case, for example, young people are my aim. We have always held the opinion that we should “learn how to learn”, and we are doing so, learning how to learn; the concepts of regional economy, strengthening domestic markets, revaluing rural life, they all suffer from many myths. I think that the countryside is life and I’m fighting strongly in favour of this idea, and so working in the countryside should be the best school. So that when we sell our knowledge and production, we will be doing it as competent and intelligent people, without practising that stupid indigenism that presents us as wretched. We have been beaten, that’s true, but we mustn’t go on with this attitude if we want changes to be made. I like sitting at the table with as many people as possible and necessary and talking with them. We can do it.


This interview was commissioned by Vision Workgroup to José Luis Coraggio and Inés Arancibia. Mariana Moyano helped proofread and edit the text.

Espacio NOA is formed by social organizations of North West Argentina that have joined efforts to build a more democratic, just and solidarity-based region. More information is provided on the website of Centro Nueva Tierra, the organization that promotes Espacio NOA:

The Puna is a region situated in North West Argentina comprising the territory of five provinces: Jujuy, Salta, Catamarca, Tucumán and Santiago del Estero.

Quebrada de Humahuaca is a region in North West Argentina that spreads over approximately 170 kilometres of valleys and mountains, from North to South. This place possesses great cultural heritage. UNESCO has declared this region Cultural and Natural Heritage of Humanity.

Being “Coya” comes from the word “QOLLASUYU” that gave name to one of the regions of the great “Tawantinsuyo”, which spread from the centre called “Cusco” throughout the present Bolivian Altiplano, the North of Chile and the North West of Argentina. Its inhabitants were called Qollas, a name that with the passage of time changed to COYA (Qolla). Source:

The “Women and Men Head of Household Plan” has a national scope and aims to give a monthly economic aid of 150 pesos to unemployed women and men heads of household in order to assure their family right to social inclusion thus enabling their children to attend school and access health care, their own inclusion in the formal education systems and in training courses addressed to help their future re-entry into the labour market, and also their inclusion in production projects or community services with an appreciable impact as regards labour. Source:

The “Let’s Get to Work National Plan for Local Development and Social Economy” is intended to finance production projects arising from the different experiences, trades, resources and abilities of the various members of a community, as well as from the characteristics of each municipality and town, in order to help social inclusion. It is aimed at groups of people in need of work organized in associations who already have a labour alternative underway or are looking for support to start their own project. Unemployed beneficiaries of the “Women and Men Head of Household Plan” will also be allowed to take part in this program. Source:


¿cómo salvo la cuestión de género? No me gusta mucho lo de Man and Woman pero no se me ocurre otra cosa.

me suena mejor que “system”

no sé a qué se refiere con el cambio de frutos, por eso lo dejé textual.

This interview was commissioned by Vision Workgroup to José Luis Coraggio and Inés Arancibia. Mariana Moyano helped proofread and edit the text.

Contact: Salomón Hernán Zerpa,, San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina

Fuentes :

Vision workshop of the WSSE

Véase también :