Sub-theme 4. Commons between colonial legacies and the Anthropocene
Notions and practices of community and commons in Latin America from colonial times to the present
From the beginning of the colonial period, communal land use competed with the expansion of private land ownership in the Spanish and Portuguese overseas territories in the Americas. Initially, the Spanish crown in particular restricted European settlers’ access to traditional or newly created indigenous communal lands. Nevertheless, private land ownership soon emerged as a critical resource for the economic and social base of the colonial upper classes. Following the emergence of independent states in the early 19th century, liberal reforms and the integration of the subcontinent into the expanding global economy led to an increased decline in indigenous common lands from mid-century onward. While the agrarian reforms of the 1960s/70s did not bring about lasting change in land access and ownership rights, the demand for preservation or restitution of the commons has been at the center of indigenous identity and social movements in the subcontinent since the 1980s. The panel welcomes contributions that address the continuities and changes in notions and practices of community and commons in the overseas Iberian colonies and their independent successor states, with particular attention to the indigenous populations of the subcontinent. From an interdisciplinary perspective, contributions may focus on the legal, economic, social, political, and cultural dimensions through which the (re)construction of community and commons has passed in different historical periods.
1. Notions and practices of community and commons in Latin America from colonial times to the present
University of St Gallen, Switzerland
Thema: Community water management in Paraguay, a pioneer model for the protection of the commons
Paraguay has approximately seven million inhabitants; 59.2% live in urban areas and 40.8% in rural areas. 26.40% of the population is in poverty. Most of the poor live in rural areas, where the water is not provided by the government but by the community itself.
Paraguay is one of the countries with the world’s highest amount of freshwater per capita. However, the distribution of the resource varies throughout the country. While in the eastern region, it is abundant, in the western part of Chaco, aquifers are mostly non-drinking because they contain excess salt. The country was one of the last to establish piped water distribution services in Latin America, which is a possible explanation for the still reduced coverage of piped or networked water in the country that persists today.
Following the guidelines of international organizations, especially the World Bank, in the early 1970s, the government enacted regulations to rule the operation of the institutions in charge of rural water. These are still in force today, although changes have been taking shape in the public sector, which has yet to have any effect. In the rural sector, the system continues to operate practically the same way, and it has not been possible to adapt the regulatory and institutional advances that have arisen because they need to be accompanied by sufficient government support. According to official data, approximately 2,567 Environmental Sanitation Boards (JSA) in the country are distributed in 16 of the 17 departments. Other estimates suggest that there are more than 3,000. Paraguay is a pioneer in the use of the community water management model. It is relevant to its legal regulation of more than fifty years, institutional recognition, management autonomy, and State supervision. The communities have contributed to making access to water a reality in rural areas of the country. The exercise of active citizenship and decision-making over a vital resource is remarkable.
2. Resilient Commons: The collective perseverance of Afro-descendent lands held in common
1University of Cambridge, UK, 2University of Bern, Switzerland
Early colonies in the Americas depended on homestead networks to sustain burgeoning populations. As these rural enclaves supported colonial ambitions, they also had to guarantee sustainability for Afro-descendant labourers; as populations grew, communities formed, adapting to local realities. Within contexts of vulnerabilities and scarce arable land, some communities adopted communal land approaches to guarantee continuity. As the region moved toward decolonization, some communities gained legal recognition of these traditional land systems. This paper examines compelling narratives from two Afro-descendant communities through their struggle to continue colonial-era land practices.
First, this paper examines demands for collective land titling initiated in 1946 by the Garífuna community in Honduras that impacted land titling processes in favour of Afro-descendant communities in other countries in the region by presenting the process of collective land titling for Afro-descendant communities as one of the common good strategies, while analysing the legal frameworks through a political ecology approach. Second, this paper explores Barbuda, a Caribbean Island making up Antigua & Barbuda, on which drought led to land flexibility through common holdings based on livestock and small-scale agriculture that became limited through state-building processes and challenged by hurricanes and the promise of luxury transformation. Together, these narratives, divergent by colonial histories, weave a related story demonstrating limitations and agency during state-building processes with an outlook to the future, in which the lure of development may force communities to abandon the commons.
3. Rediscovering the sacredness of land and culture: The Yawanawá case
Notions and practices of community and commons in Indigenous lands have changed a lot since colonial times. Once viewed and managed as sacred lands, which would be used as a space between being-in-common with other-than-humans, now they are generally perceived through biophysical and economic lenses. Here I look at the Yawanawá case, the Indigenous Land of Gregory River in the Brazilian Amazon, to raise attention to the spiritual aspects of lands. When the Yawanawá encountered Western society around 300 years ago, they’ve experienced every type of colonization (i.e. rubber barons, missionaries, loggers). Their culture and people were almost exterminated by the beginning of last century. Since then, they have decided to fight for their rights and were the first people in Brazil to successfully lobby for the revision of their land boundaries (UNDP 2012). Now they face a new challenge, the spiritual commodification and (neo)colonization of Indigenous culture (Hay 2020). With the spiritual and psychedelic renaissance (Hadar et al. 2022), many non-indigenous people have been approaching them to learn from and sometimes reproduce their traditional practices. I discuss if and how the spiritual aspects of indigenous lands are being incorporated into socio-political debates and what are the implications for Indigenous rights. Conclusions point out for the need of better legitimizing Indigenous spirituality as important evidence of intellectual property and ancestral ties to land and other-than-human beings. Finally, expanding perceptions of lands to include spiritual practices could help in integrating a plurality of perceptions when moving forward towards more resilient futures.
4. Sites of memory as commons: appropriations and dispossessions in Colombia’s urban margins
University of Geneva, Switzerland
In Medellin, in 2022, a collective of artists and activists submitted a proposal to the Colombian Truth Commission to register a cemetery as a collective good that preserves local memories. The collective appropriated this site when it was under the neglected supervision of the clergy. They regularly paint its walls in a call for remembrance and resistance, depicting the violence (mainly through portraits of murdered youths), and emphasizing the indigenous and peasant roots of marginalized neighborhoods. Described in the media as the “largest painted cemetery in Latin America”, this project allowed activists to use a decaying site as a political space, where neighborhood histories, figures of the community and portraits of the disappeared are presented. However, the site is threatened by current developments. Because it is situated in a zone of strategic urban planning, the cemetery risks being demolished. Moreover, with a tourism boom developing around the street-art scene in some adjacent neighborhoods, residents are complaining about over-tourism and criticizing the urban legends and fake facts that tour guides are promoting. As many testified, they are experiencing a feeling of dispossession that is both material (e.g. with displacements and destructions due to urban planning) and symbolic (e.g. through the distortion and commodification of their local history). This contribution examines how activists, artists and residents express their right to their city, by considering a cemetery as urban commons. It will expose some of the tensions that arise when tourism, art, urban planning and violence coexist in the margins of Latin America.
5. (Re-) Defining Community and Commons in a Transcultural Landscape. Liberation Theology and Indigenous Communities in the South American Andes (1960s to 1980s)
University of Bern, Switzerland
With its preferential option for the poor, Latin American liberation theology inspired many clerical and lay actors to engage in rural communities of the South American highlands from the late 1960s onwards. Reconsidering traditional conceptions and methods of evangelization, often characterized by a (post-) colonial legacy, representatives of the Catholic progressive church of the time attempted to enact new pastoral approaches in concordance with the cultural, social, and economic reality of rural communities. This is especially true regarding the indigenous population of the Andean highlands that challenged the world views and self-understanding of clerical and lay actors, which came often from an urban, middle- or upper-class social background, and in many cases had only recently moved to the region from North America or Europe. More than theological reflections, it was the daily experience in a hitherto unknown cultural and religious environment that moved clerical and lay actors to explore and adapt to local community life. The traditional Andean conceptions and practices of reciprocity, and the role of the commons in shaping economic, social, and cultural reality, had a decisive impact on the way clerical and lay actors reflected their role as Christians and gave birth to new forms of cultural and religious engagement as well as social and economic assistance that moved far beyond classical missionary and development approaches. The paper addresses the pastoral activities of liberation theology inspired clerical and lay actors, as well as the transcultural challenges and conflicts it provoked, in highland Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia from the 1960s to the 1980s.