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Agriculture and Biodiversity in Latin America in Historical Perspective  

Angus Wright

Latin America is thought to be the world’s most biodiverse region, but as in the rest of the world, the number of species and the size of their populations is generally in sharp decline. Most experts consider agriculture to be the most important cause of biodiversity decline. At one extreme of policy argument regarding biodiversity conservation are those who argue that the only path to species protection is the establishment of many more and larger “protected areas” in which human activities will be severely restricted. On the remaining land agriculture will be carried out largely with the presently prevailing methods of “industrial agriculture,” including heavy reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, heavy machine use, large-scale irrigation schemes, limited crop diversity, and crops genetically engineered to maximize returns from these tools and techniques. Those who argue for these policies largely accept that industrial agriculture of this sort is severely hostile to biodiversity, but argue that the high productivity of such methods makes it possible to limit agriculture to a relatively small land base, leaving the rest for protected areas and other human activities. On the other side of the argument are those who argue that agricultural techniques are either available or can be created to make agricultural areas more favorable to species survival. They argue that even with a desirable expansion of protected areas, such reserves cannot successfully maintain high biodiversity levels if protected reserves are not complemented by an agriculture more friendly to species survival and migration. The policy arguments on these issues are of major human and biological importance. They are also very complex and depend on theoretical perspectives and data that do not provide definitive guidance. One way to enrich the debate is to develop a specifically historical perspective that illuminates the relationship between human actions and species diversity. In Latin America, humans have been modifying landscapes and species composition of landscapes for thousands of years. Even in areas of presently low human population density and extraordinarily high species diversity, such as remaining tropical rainforests, humans may have been active in shaping species composition for millennia. After 1492, human population levels in Latin America plummeted with the introduction of Old-World diseases. It is often assumed that this led to a blossoming of species diversity, but the historical evidence from 1492 to the present strongly suggests the combination of European technologies and the integration of agriculture into world markets meant more damaging use of soils, widespread deforestation, and subsequent decline in species numbers. The exploitation and consequent despoliation of Latin American resources were integral to colonialism and intensified later by national governments focused on rapid economic growth. High species diversity remained in areas that were too difficult to exploit and/or were used by indigenous populations or smallholders whose production techniques were often favorable to species survival. Many of these techniques provide clues for how agriculture might be reshaped to be more friendly both to biodiversity and social equity.

Article

Coca and Cocaine in Latin American History  

Paul Gootenberg

Coca leaf (“chewed” by indigenous Andean peoples) and cocaine (the notorious modern illicit drug trafficked from the Andes) are deeply emblematic of South America, but neither has attracted the in-depth archival research they deserve. Their two modern histories are closely linked. Coca leaf, a part of Andean indigenous lifeways for thousands of years, is the raw ingredient for the alkaloid drug cocaine, discovered in 1860, and illicit peasant coca plots in the western Amazon of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia have been the source for the infamous illicit cocaine “cartels” since the 1970s. The two drugs’ fates have both had surprisingly shifting trajectories and meanings across the colonial, national, and modern eras. They have also distinctively linked the Andes to the outside world and national political cultures of the three chief Andean states. Bolivia has the most continuous history with coca, related to the highland geography of its indigenous majority, though coca leaf only became a “nationalist” symbol over the past fifty years or so. Peru was home to the world’s first legal cocaine industries, starting in the 1880s, and coca and illicit cocaine have interacted in complex ways ever since. Colombia had the least coca traditions, and was the last nation to develop illicit cocaine exports in the 1970s and 1980s, although with a dramatic impact on Colombia and the world. This largely unknown and changeable history underlies the present-day crossroads of coca and cocaine: will the US-abetted Andean “drug wars” against cocaine continue, despite their long failures, and will coca’s place as a symbol of cultural and national pride in the Andes be fully restored?

Article

Cochabamba’s 2000 Water War in Historical Perspective  

Sarah Hines

Water has long shaped economic, social, and political life in Bolivia’s highlands and valleys. As a result of dispossession under the Incas, the Spanish, and postcolonial governments, a small group of large landowners (hacendados) controlled most water sources in Bolivia’s most important agricultural valleys in Cochabamba by the end of the 19th century. Purchases of some of these estate (hacienda) sources and hydraulic infrastructure projects under military socialist governments in the late 1930s and early 1940s increased water access for independent smallholders (piqueros) and the growing urban population there, but water ownership and access remained highly unequal on the eve of Bolivia’s 1952 revolution. After seizing power in April 1952, the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario party passed an agrarian reform that provided for redistribution of hacienda land and water sources. Redistribution of previously hoarded water sources to estate tenants (colonos) transformed the region and the nation’s water tenure regime. But the reform excluded Cochabamba’s piqueros, landless peasants, and residents of the growing department capital. In the decades that followed, these groups worked to expand and protect their water access. City center residents protested shortages and rate hikes. Migrants to neighborhoods on the urban periphery built independent water supply and distribution systems. And peasants built and maintained irrigation infrastructure and fought efforts to drill deep wells that threatened shallow irrigation wells. These groups rallied behind the Misicuni Dam project, which promised to provide water for consumption, irrigation, and hydroelectricity, and faced off with the Inter-American Development Bank and Cochabamba’s municipal water company, SEMAPA. Contention and competition over water access and management, as well as residents’ autonomous management and contributions of labor to building water infrastructure, laid the basis for conflicts over water privatization in the 1990s. “Water wars” in Cochabamba in 2000 and in El Alto in 2005 forced the national government to cancel water administration contracts with transnational corporations and helped propel coca growers’ union leader Evo Morales to the presidency. Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president, called a constituent assembly to refound the country in the interests of Indigenous people, workers, and the poor, fulfilling his promise to social movements. The resulting constitution enshrined a right to water access as well as Indigenous and peasant communities’ rights to manage water and other resources autonomously. At the urging of Morales’s government and water activists, the United Nations adopted a human right to water. While some Bolivian water activists supported these efforts, others have criticized the Morales government’s use of the concept of the human right to water to justify new rounds of water dispossession.

Article

Competing Spanish and Indigenous Jurisdictions in Early Colonial Lima  

Karen B. Graubart

Spanish legal organization required that political communities be represented by a concejo or cabildo, which used customary law to determine and enforce the common good. In the Spanish colonial world, this entailed vesting indigenous communities with jurisdiction and political representation, parallel to that of the municipal cabildo, which represented the common good of most Spanish citizens. Nevertheless, the supposed common good of indigenous and Spanish jurisdictions often intersected or contested one another. In these cases, agents of the Spanish Crown might intervene, or the parties might negotiate new relations. Because Andean cabildos were entreated not to keep minutes of their deliberations or actions, historians have had difficulty in recognizing the role of indigenous authorities in self-governance, and given more credence to the acts of Spanish cabildos and the Crown. But Indian cabildos and caciques took meaningful decisions within their communities, as demonstrated by moments where they came into conflict with Spanish authorities, and as inferred from a small number of documents available for the similar Mexican case.

Article

The Conquest of the Desert and Argentina’s Indigenous Peoples  

Carolyne L. Ryan

The Conquest of the Desert was a military campaign launched by the Argentine state (1878–1885) to remove the Indigenous peoples of the Pampas and Patagonia in order to open the region for Argentine occupation. Then Minister of War Julo A. Roca led the campaigns and subsequently became president of Argentina in 1880. Argentine state makers described this campaign as a necessary step in growing the national economy and making Argentina a “modern” and “civilized” nation. The conquest was also celebrated by many contemporaries as marking the emergence of a “White” Argentina. Despite this rhetoric, Indigenous peoples from the pampas and Patagonia have endured throughout the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries. The contentious legacies of the conquest have continued to shape Indigenous peoples’ experiences in Argentine society and with the state through the early 21st century, affecting issues including land rights, cultural recognition, state violence, citizenship rights, historical memory, and social experiences of marginalization and discrimination.

Article

Indigenous Slavery in the Atlantic  

Miller Shores Wright

The capture, enslavement, and exchange of Indigenous peoples of the Americas predates contact between Indigenous Americans, Europeans, and Africans. Indigenous Americans incorporated captives into diverse communities in culturally specific ways that varied along a spectrum from chattel slaves to adopted kin. Upon contact with Europeans and Africans, the demand for Indigenous captives increased vertiginously to satisfy Europeans seeking laborers to exploit as workers and as a means to realize profits in Atlantic markets. Alongside European demands for captives, Indigenous peoples pursued captives to sell to Europeans or adopt to replace loved ones lost to disease, warfare, and slavery. The variation and persistence of Indigenous slavery in the Atlantic was shaped by the adaptation of various culturally specific Indigenous forms of captivity in North and South America toward commodified forms of bondage that had been developed on Atlantic islands and the West coast of Africa. In numerous locales in the Americas—such as the Caribbean, Mexico, Brazil, and Carolina—Indigenous slavery came to define labor relations between Europeans and Indigenous peoples after contact only to be replaced by the importation of millions of enslaved Africans. As the importation of enslaved Africans increased, Indigenous slavery became a labor strategy employed in borderlands between colonial and Indigenous communities. Colonists who could not secure the capital or access to merchants necessary to import enslaved Africans often turned to Indigenous slavery for their physical, domestic, and sexual labor needs. Indigenous communities exchanged captives for European commodities. This allowed for further acquisition of captives deep into the interior of the Americas through the exchange of European commodities or the use of European firearms in captive raids. Colonists frequently employed Indigenous slavery as a colonial strategy in competition with the desires of European imperial policies. With the monopolization of African slavery around Asiento contracts that supplied designated annual numbers of enslaved Africans to Spanish America and elsewhere, European imperial policy came to prioritize merchants who signed those contracts and the taxation, importation, and exportation of enslaved Africans. Colonial metropoles specifically outlawed the enslavement and exchange of Indigenous peoples unless captives were taken under specific conditions: frequently defined in Iberian colonies by “just wars,” ransoms, and accusations of real or imagined cannibalism. Colonists also employed Indigenous slavery as a means of displacement and removal of Indigenous populations, as can be seen in the exportation of Indigenous communities from English colonial possessions in New England, Virginia, and Carolina and in French Louisiana. Colonists and Indigenous slavers quickly learned how to exploit colonial stipulations against the enslavement of Indigenous peoples to blur the sources and nature of captives’ bondage as in Brazil, the Guianas, and New Mexico. The clandestine and illicit nature of Indigenous slavery resulted in the development of variable, adaptable, and persistent forms of Indigenous slavery that in certain forms still can be seen through the exploitation of vulnerable populations that exemplifies modern slavery.

Article

José de San Martín and Indigenous Relations in the South Andean Borderlands  

Jesse Zarley

Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1807 invasion of Spain and Portugal set in motion a transatlantic imperial crisis that, within two decades, resulted in Spain’s losing nearly all of its American possessions. Typically, the founding of most Spanish South American nations is attributed to the heroic leadership of the great liberators: Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín. While San Martín is most famous for organizing the Army of the Andes that carried out the liberation of Chile, parts of Peru, and eventually, in 1822, reunited with Bolívar in Ecuador, his time in western Río de la Plata building his army is less understood. From 1814 until 1817, General San Martín took up residence in the western Río de la Plata (Argentina) city of Mendoza to build an army capable of defeating Spanish rule in Chile and Peru. To receive permission to cross the Andes westward into Chile, San Martín needed more than soldiers well trained in European military style and horses: he needed to negotiate with the local Pehuenche people—part of the broader Mapuche peoples of southern Chile and western Río de la Plata—who had successfully resisted Spanish conquest for centuries. Before San Martín could cross the Andes to invade Chile, he participated in two interethnic diplomatic rituals known as parlamentos in Spanish and koyang in Mapudungun, with the Pehuenche. Nearly forty recorded Spanish–Mapuche parlamentos had taken place in Chile and near Mendoza since 1593. In the two 1816 parlamentos, interpreters translated the negotiations between Pehuenche representatives and San Martín over the exchange of horses, the giving of gifts, the recognition of Pehuenche dominion, and permission for the Army of the Andes to cross the mountains west to Chile. While San Martín chose to spread news of this agreement to confuse the Spanish forces in Chile as to the location of their crossing, opting not to cross Pehuenche lands, these parlamentos nevertheless speak to the power and importance of Pehuenche political traditions during the Age of Revolution.

Article

Mexico’s Urban Indians  

Mark Lentz

Mexico’s indigenous population developed urbanism on a large scale before Spanish invaders arrived. Indians constituted the majority in most Mexican cities through the colonial era and, in many cases, after independence. Tenochtitlan, reborn as Mexico City after the Spanish Conquest (1519–1521), remained one of the largest world metropolises and a home to millions of indigenous inhabitants. During the colonial period, migrants from ethnic groups throughout New Spain populated Mexico City, new cities founded by conquistadors, and smaller pre-Hispanic cities that survived the conquest. Though prohibited from residing in the 13-block central district (traza) of cities, indigenous urban residents lived in these nominally Spanish spaces, often as domestic workers. In surrounding barrios, they worked as craftsmen, artisans, and tradespeople. Barrios de indios enjoyed limited self-government under native cabildos. Independence brought about the erasure of racial classifications at the national level, but language, dress, and kin networks continued to set urban Indians apart from more racially ambiguous city dwellers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Rapidly expanding cities swallowed traditionally indigenous pueblos, absorbing their population into greater metropolitan areas. As pueblos originarios were absorbed into cities, such communities struggled to preserve their identities in an urban setting. Economic disruptions in the countryside also pushed migrants from indigenous rural pueblos into cities, a process accelerated during the 20th century. In new residences, urban Indians often worked as vendors, domestic workers, day laborers, and workers in the service industry.

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The New Philology and the New History of Religion in New Spain  

Mark Christensen

The New Philology and its emphasis on the use of indigenous-language sources for ethnohistorical insights contributes greatly to the study of religion in New Spain. Previous studies primarily employed Spanish-language accounts and reports to understand evangelization efforts. Although providing important insights, histories based solely on Spanish sources are limited in their contributions. The New Philology, however, provides an additional point of view from which to study religion. Indigenous-language texts in Nahuatl (Aztec), Yucatec Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec, and other languages contain a wealth of information on how natives responded, negotiated, resisted, and participated in the spread of Catholicism. The contributions of the New Philology to the study of religion in New Spain, although many, are particularly evident in its re-evaluation of the spiritual conquest; the natives’ role in evangelization; the diversity of religious beliefs, practices, and experiences throughout the colonial period; and through its critical study of the legend surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Article

Nueva Cádiz de Cubagua and the Pearl Fisheries of the Caribbean  

Fidel Rodríguez Velásquez and Oliver Antczak

The island of Cubagua, known since the end of the 15th century as the “Island of Pearls,” is a small semi-arid island located in the southeastern Caribbean. Pre-colonially, the island formed part of an extensive network of communication and trade that crisscrossed the southeastern Caribbean and the adjacent coasts. In 1528, a settlement on the island of Cubagua was granted a charter to establish the city of Nueva Cádiz. This city played a central role in the exploitation of and trade in pearls during the the 16th century. During the early modern period, the pearls from this area circulated widely throughout the Atlantic world and inspiredabundant depictions that helped construct notions of the “New World” and brought competitions that forged new relationships between the Hispanic monarchy and American Indigenous populations. After 1540, the city was gradually abandoned. Since, the island has remained uninhabited and relatively unknown academically. However, the history of Nueva Cádiz has played an important role in debates over heritage protection, in museum narratives, and, ultimately, in the identity of the region.

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Scribal Culture, Indigenous Modes, and Nahuatl-Language Sources from the 16th to 18th Centuries  

Celso Mendoza

While several indigenous languages from the Americas have been alphabetized and written, no Native American language has such an extensive corpus of historical texts as Nahuatl, the language of the Nahuas or Aztecs of central Mexico. Writing in Nahuatl but using Latin letters, colonial Nahua scribes or tlahcuilohqueh produced an unparalleled outpouring of texts throughout the colonial period. Prior to the Conquest, the Nahuas recorded information in codices, which consisted of pictographic glyphs painted on sheets of bark paper, analogous to European books. They thus readily perceived the parallels between their pictographic codices and European alphabetic texts and quickly saw the utility and potential of the new technology. All that was needed was an introduction to European writing techniques. For the most part, this came in the form of friars, some of whom established schools for elite Nahuas, such as the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in the latter part of the 1530s. Some Nahuas likely also learned writing from professional Spanish scribes as well. These students of the friars and lay Spaniards would soon teach other Nahuas to write, such that only a few years after the opening of the Colegio, Nahua scribes, working entirely on their own, were producing written texts. These scribes then taught others, and by the 1550s Nahuatl alphabetic writing became a self-sustaining, independent tradition that touched nearly every corner of the Nahua world. Alphabetic writing overtook indigenous glyphs, and by the 17th century most Nahuatl texts were entirely alphabetic. Last wills and testaments made up the bulk of scribal output, along with other “mundane” Nahuatl documents of financial, legal, or governmental matters, which have proven highly illuminating to historians. There were also annals; local histories stretching back to preconquest times; and plays, songs, and speeches (huehuehtlahtolli). Nahua scribal culture thrived until the 19th century, when opposition to it from both the Spanish Crown and, later, the independent Mexican nation made Nahuatl texts obsolete and superfluous.

Article

The Spanish Caribbean, 1492–1550  

Ida Altman

The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the northern Caribbean with three Spanish ships in October 1492 marked the beginning of continuing European contact with the Americas. With his second voyage of 1493 permanent European occupation of the Caribbean began, with enormous consequences for the peoples and ecology of the region. Failing to encounter the wealthy trading societies that Columbus had hoped to find by reaching Asia, Europeans in the Caribbean soon realized that they would have to involve themselves directly in organizing profitable enterprises. Gold mining in the northern islands and pearl fishing in the islands off the coast of Tierra Firme (present-day Venezuela) for some years proved enormously profitable but depended on Spaniards’ ability to exploit indigenous labor on a large scale. The imposition of the Spanish encomienda system, which required indigenous communities to provide labor for mining and commercial agriculture, and the large-scale capture and transportation of Native Americans from one locale to another wrought havoc among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean, resulting in high mortality and flight. Spaniards in the islands soon sought to supplement indigenous labor by importing African slaves who, in the early 16th century, became a significant if not always easily controlled presence in the region. From the earliest years the Spanish Caribbean was a complex, dynamic, and volatile region characterized by extensive interaction and conflict among diverse groups of people and by rapid economic and institutional development. Although the islands became the launching grounds for subsequent Spanish moves to the nearby mainland, throughout the 16th century and beyond they played a crucial role in sustaining Spain’s overseas empire and integrating it into the larger Atlantic system.