Re-centering Crops in Latin American History

AHA Session 102
Conference on Latin American History 21
Friday, January 6, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room 601 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Shawn Van Ausdal, Universidad de los Andes
Emilio Kourí, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

This panel brings together scholars focused on a shared idea: crops matter. Using crops as a scale of analysis, we discuss their changing social and political meaning over time and across space during Latin America’s twentieth century. We contextualize particular agricultural products, be they sugar cane, rice, avocados, or livestock, in social and political climates at once contested and contingent upon local circumstances while also inextricably linked to broader currents. In this way, we contend, crops offer a scaled and changing platform from which to consider the Latin American countryside in the twentieth century. Our collective use of crops as objects of embedded meaning contributes to current scholarly efforts to reinvigorate the study of agrarian Latin America using the tools and insights of environmental history.

Who plants particular crops? Who are they for? How and why did crop regimes change over time? What can changing crop patterns tell us about connections between local communities and national or international trends? How did the social meanings or political emphases embedded in particular crops evolve? On this panel, we utilize the perspective of particular crops and communities to rethink major historical moments in Latin America, including the populist politics of the Depression 1930s, agrarian reform during the Cold War 1960s, and NAFTA and the expansion of drug violence during the 1990s and 2000s. We situate these political and economic conditions in the soils of a research station in Colombia’s Cauca Valley, a hacienda on Peru’s north coast, and the fields of the Mexican state of Michoacán. Analyses of crops and their unique histories reveal relationships between the most immediate local material contexts and broader dimensions and connections. 

Javier Puente evaluates a 1969 agrarian reform’s intentional reconfiguration of hacienda landscapes in northern Peru through a deep historical analysis of a particular property and its principal product, sugar cane. Sugar, he suggests, defined social, economic, and moral boundaries between hacienda owners and their laborers. Sugar likewise traces the contours of change in Timothy Lorek’s analysis of Colombia’s Cauca Valley. Along with cattle and rice, Lorek contends that the emphasis on sugar cane as an object of agronomy research during the 1930s reveals the surprising connections between nationalist populist politics and international scientific networks. Fernando Pérez-Montesinos considers more recent international contexts of Latin American agriculture from the perspective of avocados in Mexico. In Michoacán, he argues, neoliberal economics and the drug trade have precipitated a dramatic and at times violent revision of the pastoral landscape. Each of these presentations reconsiders a critical period in Latin American agrarian history from the changing circumstances and meanings of crops. By interrogating crops at various scales we clarify opaque connections to write histories into the sprouting fields.

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