Emplacing Nature: Human Territoriality and Leaf-Cutting Ants in Preindustrial Brazil

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 9:10 AM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham)
Diogo de Carvalho Cabral, Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics
Neotropical leaf-cutting ants (genera Atta and Acromyrmex) were important non-human actors in the shaping of rural Brazil, especially before the intense industrialization and urbanization of mid-twentieth century. With the exception of wheat, the ants’ defoliation work threatened all major crops, both subsistence and commercial, being pervasively deemed an agricultural pest. As organisms pursuing their own survival interests, ants perceived human-influenced landscapes just the same way as everything else in their life-world (i.e., simply in terms of resources and threats), ignoring boundaries with specifically human meanings. This paper discusses the implications of the disjunction between the ants’ “natural” spatiality and human territoriality, with a special attention to the province of Minas Gerais, southeast Brazil. Drawing on Robert David Sack’s theory of place, it argues that rural properties and municipalities are examples of areas bounded by specific, scale-dependent territorial rules, weaving together elements of nature, social relations and meaning in specific combinations. Brazilian rural properties were privately-owned places which attributed roles for human and non-human actors in the agro-ecosystem reproduction. Each individual owner was free to manage the natural world within his property as he saw fit, but leaf-cutters resisted such confinement: worker ants from a farm’s nest were likely to forage in adjoining farms as well. A farmer could leave an anthill at the edge of his lands in peace, as long as it disturbed only his neighbor’s crops. Thus the control of these social insects required a higher-scale place, less attached to quotidian concerns, and with the political legitimacy to impose certain norms: the municipality. Since the late eighteenth century, councilmen passed laws and regulations obligating landowners to exterminate anthills within their estates, while the next century witnessed municipalities themselves taking over this responsibility (and issuing taxes for that purpose).
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