Struggles for the Land in Latin America, Past and Present

Posted by Tony Wood, graduate student in Latin American History at NYU

Poster for the “Luchas sociales por la tierra en América Latina” conference, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima

On 24 June 1969, Peru’s military government decreed a sweeping agrarian reform, and at the same time ordered that the day itself – previously designated the “day of the Indio”, a term which carried a racialized, discriminatory charge – be renamed the Día del Campesino. It was only fitting, then, that the Universidad Mayor Nacional de San Marcos in Lima should host its conference on “Luchas sociales por la tierra en América Latina” on 24-25 June this year.

Two aspects of the conference were especially noteworthy. One was its attempt to combine scholarly contributions with perspectives from social movements and NGOs: the invited speakers included not only academics based at institutions around the world, but also local activists and campaigners from across Latin America; though for obvious reasons, there was a much stronger Peruvian presence. As a result, the event had a strong trans-Latin American character, pointing to problems shared by the Andean countries and Mexico, by Central America and the Southern Cone alike. Many of these revolve around “extractivism”, shorthand for the whole complex of political, social and economic phenomena that have gone along with the resource boom of the last decade in much of Latin America. In Peru, mining has fed the country’s recent economic resurgence, but as many of the speakers at the conference testified, it has also brought environmental damage and dispossession of entire communities, from the Pasco region in the central highlands to Celendín in the north, to Cuzco and Tambo in the south. By October 2014, mining concessions accounted for some 20 percent of Peruvian territory, according to a spokesman for Red Muqui, one of the organizers of the conference; moreover, these mining concessions now affect an estimated half of the country’s 6,000-plus comunidades campesinas.

The second striking feature of the event was the way discussion moved between historical analyses and the issues dominating the present. There were presentations chronicling land struggles that have taken place over the past half-century in such countries as Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Mexico, pointing again and again to the connection between popular mobilizations in the countryside and substantive change in ownership and control over the land; without the one, the other is unlikely if not impossible. In a keynote speech Sinclair Thomson from the History Department at NYU offered a much deeper historical perspective, tracing the “problem of the land” through the early twentieth century, where it occupied a prominent place in the thought of the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, all the way back to indigenous uprisings against Spanish colonial rule in the late eighteenth century – the most durable being that led by Túpac Amaru, who posed a direct challenge to Spanish sovereignty in this part of the Americas. Taking this longer historical view, Thomson argued, might encourage us to see struggles over the land as not only economic and political in nature, but also in part as battles between contending ideas of sovereignty, and between different conceptions of territory.

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