Cultural Feasts and Festivals: between the formal and the informal economy Final Report

By Diana Rey, Ph.D.

The Project Overview

In Andean countries, the analysis of the relationship between the informal economy and the intangible heritage is a theme to be addressed in the public agenda and the academics of the region. To promote this discussion, this exploratory study focused particularly on two topics.

First, the economist Javier Machicado has been invited to think of the informality of the intangible sector, considering that he has been responsible for analyzing the economic effects of the cultural heritage for the Ministry of Culture of Colombia. Machicado’s paper “Facets of self-management and informality in the Colombian heritage sector” shows how heritage practices embedded in territories and communities tend to adopt non-formal schemes and focused on self-management. As for the experiences oriented to present the heritage in front of the public (museums and some festivals), adopt defined management schemes, with more formal budgets and models for administration.

Second, this exploratory study sought to learn from the voice of the promoters of the feasts and festivals, how the practices of formality and informality are related to the process of documenting, recognizing, promoting, transmitting, enjoying and financing their heritage manifestations. From this perspective, three case studies of the Andean countries were selected.

From Ecuador, it was selected the experience of “Octaves of Mocha”. This celebration is held by the community of the Mocha municipality, every year on June 24 to commemorate the birth of San Juan Bautista, through traditional games, the use of costumes of mythological characters and the

production of vegetables grown just for that occasion, which was prepared and shared among the participants of the celebration. In Colombia, it was decided to focus the other two case studies in the city of Ibague. Municipality located in the center of the country, known as the musical capital of Colombia, which has an extensive program of events, of which two cases were selected.

The video “Cultural Festivals: between the formal and the informal economy” compiles the most emblematic moments of interviews achieved, allowing to identify how the Mocha experience is a heritage manifestation outside of the formal economy; meanwhile the festivals of Ibague, despite having predominantly formal economic and institutional organization schemes, have also problems related to the informal economy.

Research findings/Conclusions

The review of the state of the art on informality in the Andean cultural heritage revealed that since the 90’s, when the theme was incorporated as a relevant theme in the academic and political agenda of the region, the research on the sector has focused on two lines of analysis.

The first line research focus has been on describing the vicissitudes of the financing schemes for the feasts and festivals, as well as highlighting the structural problems in its value chain. For example, from the Ministry of Culture of Colombia, the research has advanced significantly in investigating the sustainability schemes of the organizations and people involved in the heritage manifestations.

Faced with the second line of analysis, the economic research on cultural heritage has been oriented towards the generation of monetary data with the objective of assessing its contributions to employment, dimensioning the related public and private spending, and highlighting the percentage of participation of the exports of heritage goods, especially of handicrafts. Regarding those objectives, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru have implemented the Cultural Satellite Accounts to offer quantitative information about it.

The thesis presented by Machicado, according to which the degree of self-management of the celebrations and festivals depend on the level of roots in the communities to their territory, make visible why in municipalities with predominantly Afro or indigenous communities, the dynamics of organization, enjoyment and transmission of intangible heritage have stronger degrees of self-management.

In this regard, Machicado highlights the case of the Festival of Drums and Cultural Expressions. This celebration takes place in the municipality of San Basilio of Palenque, Colombia, recognized in the Intangible Heritage list such as cultural space encompasses social, medical and religious practices as well as musical and oral tradition. The other emblematic case is the Octaves of Mocha, for its promoters, self-management is the axiom to safeguard their heritage. For them, organizing and celebrating the octaves by putting their own resources (food, time, space and even today money to pay for what they need) is a form of maintaining alive their cosmovision. Therefore, self-management is at the same time a heritage practice of living the celebration in their community.

The Octaves are an emblematic case of how in Andean countries there exists cultural heritage practices through which all the safeguarding processes are developed totally outside the formal economy. For instance, for the use of public space, no special permission is requested to the municipality. The house in which the meeting prior to the octaves develop and where they cook is the home of a member of the community. The costumes, instruments and games are acquired directly by the participants own account. In the same way, the musical bands that participate in the celebration receive financing from individuals naturally external to the municipality. As the organizers highlighted, there is no direct monetary transaction in the name of the Octaves, work or formal structure established.

The two festivals of Ibague demonstrate that when the celebrations and festivals are legally legitimized and financed primarily by the State, the payment to the providers of creative services is not made in any case outside of the banking system. Since the responsible organizations must render financial reports that allow them to legalize the public resource they receive. Regardless, in both festivals, those who are in charge of the central tasks of the festivals are obliged to accept contracts as freelancers for three months when they support the processes continuously.

Consistent with this, Machicado demonstrates how despite that there exists a legally constituted institutional framework to support the organization of the festivals, the creation of employment is reduced to sporadic jobs for the local cultural sector. For example, in the case of the Colombian Folkloric Festival, the artisans in charge of making the floats for the parades must work for months in their design and elaboration, without receiving a remuneration throughout the production, but instead they obtain one single final payment at the end of the process. This situation puts at risk a valuable human capital for the safeguarding of the festivals and leaves it adrift from situations like moonlighting employment and underemployment.

Likewise, the Ibague festivals revealed that despite counting on legally organized structures and boards of directors with public-private representation, the labor informality of the directors of both festivals puts them at risk. In both cases, the women who have led the festivals have worked for decades voluntarily and have been able to do so thanks to their own resources derived from other economic activities.

In fact, Machicado reflects on the function of the Objective of Sustainable Development, number 8 and invites us to have a broader look to think about measures in favor of respectable work. His proposal is to overcome the conditions of intermittence of many heritage activities and advocate for the strengthening of capacities for the sustainable management of heritage use projects.

Suggested areas for further research

• Analyze from an interdisciplinary point of view how the degree of economic, legal and political formality and informality has an impact on each of the processes of safeguarding the intangible heritage: identification, documentation, preservation, transmission, dissemination, and enjoyment.

• Investigate how the direct effects of public and private spending that are generated through the heritage celebrations and festivals impact and/or correlate with the formal and informal economy circuits of the territories where the events are held. For example,

for the financing of the gastronomic, hotel and transportation industries (formal and informal), and even, for prostitution and illegal markets of psychoactive substances.

• It is necessary to explore the schemes of voluntary work related to the heritage celebrations and festivals of the region to identify their associated risks.

Highlight particular links to policy

The case students make it possible to identify that the relationship between the informal economy and intangible heritage, apart from describing itself through underemployment, moonlight employment and instability, acquires other characteristics related to the legal and political recognition of the celebrations and festivals. When it has been asked in the interviewed of the Octaves of Mocha and Ibague their concern about their relationship with the formal and informal economy, they emphasized three aspects about the relationship between the informality, the public politics and the communication to the public.

First, the recognition of their celebration or festival by the State. In this regard, Mochanos highlighted their decision to remain informal to prevent their heritage being recognized legally by the local government and this would lead to a loss in autonomy over how their celebration is organized. While both the Festivals of Ibague underlined that thanks to their legal recognition both in part from local and national government, they do not suffer the scourges of the informal economy.

The second aspect refers to the capacity they have in determining autonomously or not the programming of the activities developed within the framework of their celebration or festival. Both the representatives of the Octaves of Mocha and those of Ibague, related the degree of formality with the possibility of making decisions about the activities to be developed. For the members of Mocha, being in the world of informality guarantees them independence over how to define and delimit their heritage (which member of the community will be selected as representative in each edition, who will make the decisions over the organization of the process and what activities will be carried out). In turn, the festivals highlighted that in depending on public resources for their financing and having been recognized by the state, implies that key decisions over what activities to develop must be made based on the local government in power.

Third, the interviewed correlated their link to the formal and informal economy, with formal and informal practices of communication. In the case of the Octaves of Mocha, how the image is defined and presented to the Ecuadorian population, is an autonomous decision from the organizers which they do not want to renounce regardless of the sponsorship of natural persons they obtain. The National Festival of Colombian Music highlighted a medium degree of autonomy to define the use of its image in mediums of communication. In contrast, the Colombian Folk Festival, as highlighted by Greis Cifuentes, the Secretary of Tourism in this municipality, faces changes in image every time the local government changes.

Reflections on the covid-19 pandemic and affect on the research

It was notable that all those interviewed, as a result of the pandemic, identified key aspects for the safeguarding of their heritage to be restructured. The members of the Mocha community wish to generate peasant associations to bring a more stable employment option for creators of costumes and handicrafts since with the pandemic, various people are in high degree of social vulnerability because they can no longer sell their products during the days of celebrating the Octaves, and they require finding other online avenues for marketing.

In the case of the Colombian Folk Festival, there exists an evident concern because given its high degree of dependence on public resources, a possible contraction in public spending towards the cultural sector puts the development of the festival at risk. Additionally, considering that in Colombia the regulation on public procurement processes require that in order to receive and administer resources from the State, the organizations must demonstrate that the immediately preceding year had a budget equal to or greater than the amount they receive, the Colombian Folk Festival in not having been able to celebrate the 2020 version and in being unable to do so in 2021 due to the rules of social distancing, fears that once the situation is normalized, it will not be able to demonstrate financial capacity to develop the Festival, since it does not have its own resources.

Likewise, the National Festival of Colombian Music managed to identify only as a result of the pandemic that they have practices of the informal economy that put in danger their continuity. The linking scheme of the director of the festival as a voluntary worker had not been inconvenient in the last two decades. The problem now is that given her imminent retirement due to the impossibility of continuing to develop Festival activities that require high social contact, the Foundation cannot find a person to replace her as a volunteer. Strictly speaking, the pandemic highlighted the degree of labor informality with which this key position for the Foundation was handled.

Finally, it should be emphasized that various aspects related to the informality of the Andean intangible heritage that are not resolved following epistemological frameworks exist in the region. Extrapolating these territorial barriers and at the same time recognizing that the analysis of the correlation between the formal and informal practices is an incipient issue in the cultural economics, the proposal of the French economist Christian Barrè, allows us to better interpret how informality of the intangible practices based on three key processes: its definition, delimitation and legitimation.


This project is undertaken by the PEC International Council and supported by the British Council. The PEC International Council is a network of leading policy and creative economy practitioners from across the world. The group is convened by The British Council and is an international advisory body to the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC), which is led by Nesta.

This research has been supported by the IPANC (Latin American Heritage Institute)

Luis Javier Armendariz — Octaves of Mocha Festival
Noe Mayorga Ortiz — Octaves of Mocha festival
Valentina Brevi Martínez — Researcher
Betty García — Director of the Colombian Folk Festival
Doris Morera — Director of the National Festival of Colombian Music
Greis Cifuentes — Secretary of Culture of Ibague
Efrain Valencia — Manager Centro Comercial La Estación



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store