Jaguars, Guanacos, and Anchovies: Global Markets, Local Environments, and the Commodification of Animals in Post-Colonial South America

AHA Session 85
Conference on Latin American History 21
Friday, January 3, 2014: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia Hall 3 (Washington Hilton)
Christopher Boyer, University of Illinois at Chicago
Marcy Norton, George Washington University

Session Abstract

This panel seeks to bring Latin American environmental history, commodity studies, and human-animal studies into dialogue.  Because of pioneering works by Alfred Crosby (The Columbian Exchange, 1972) and Elinor Melville (A Plague of Sheep, 1997), the field of Latin American environmental history has long regarded as a truism the radical impact that non-human organisms have had on Latin American landscapes.  In their narratives, humans, old-world animals, and their diseases wrought irreparable destruction upon local environments and societies.  Recent studies in environmental history, however, have complicated such narratives by demonstrating the ways in which humans both shape and are shaped by the ecosystems they inhabit.    

This recent scholarship in environmental history has focused mainly on commodified plants and minerals (i.e., bananas, sugarcane, oil).  When they consider animals, studies on Latin American commodities often depict them as mere objects, subject to the whims of changing world economies and acted upon by humans in their desire to control resources and profit from them.  New research in the field of human-animal studies – see, for example, Centering Animals in Latin American History (Duke, 2013), edited by Martha Few and Zeb Tortorici – corrects this one-dimensional view of animals, broadening our scope of knowledge about human-animal relationships by examining their social, cultural, and political significance in a variety of times and places.  While these studies often envision animals as a part of “nature,” only a few specifically address debates in Latin American environmental history.

The papers in this panel seek to integrate strands – and draw on strengths – from these three fields to analyze the ways in which humans and animals have coevolved within the ecosystems which they inhabited.  In turn, they seek to assess the historical consequences that these changes have held at a variety of scales, from the local to the global.  Each paper in this panel focuses on animals – including guanacos, anchovies, sardines, jaguars, and caimans – that were commodified at different times during the late nineteenth and twentieth century.  These animals formed integral parts of particular Latin American ecosystems – coastal, marine, and wetland – and were produced by a variety of social actors, including ranchers, fishermen, and hunters for worldwide consumption.  Taken together, the presentations in this panel suggest that a focus on human-animal relationships can help historians not only to understand local social and environmental change but also broad historical processes such as international commodity markets, globalization, and climate change.

In the spirit of this year’s conference theme, we hope that this panel will encourage discussion and debate between historians of related, but often separate, fields of inquiry.  Although the papers in this panel focus on cases from postcolonial Latin America, the conceptual issues they raise and their focus on global historical processes make them relevant to historians of other world regions and time periods.  At its core, this panel invites scholars to think critically about the relative weights that we assign to the agency of humans, animals, and the environment in history.

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