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Gerardo Castillo

The production of space is a powerful concept developed within the Marxist tradition in social geography. Originally elaborated by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1991), the concept stresses the idea that space is not merely a natural object where human activities take place but in a double-movement itself is produced by these activities. Space is deeply inscribed in the social realm and encompasses material as well as social and ideological elements. In other words, space is a social production and, therefore, it is shaped by historical processes.

Lefebvre (1991) considers three dimensions of the social space: i) spatial practices, which connect routines between work, private life and leisure; ii) representations from the producers of space (for instance, the State or urban developers); and iii) representational spaces or the experiences from the inhabitants, subaltern, or contra-hegemonic groups.

Capitalism, with its internal need for incessant expansion, is one of the major forces of spatial production in modern times in a continuous process of “creative destruction” (Harvey 1999; Harvey 1989). Capitalism produces social and spatial patterns of “uneven development” (Smith 1984) and these processes of spatial arrangement create discourses, visions or ideologies that mask, legitimize or challenge them (Mitchell 1996).

Using the theoretical lenses of space production and capitalist expansion, I enquire about how the Andean space has been produced in terms of social practices, spatial arrangements, and discourses. The Andes is one of the largest mountainous ecosystems in the world and goes from Patagonia (Argentina and Chile) in the South to the Caribbean Sea (Colombia) in the north. The Andes has been the cradle of major civilizations and settlements in the continent and they have shaped as well as transformed and managed by human activities (Dollfus 1981). In this paper I will focus on the Central Andes, the area that more or less comprises the current borders of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Transformations in the spatial production of the Central Andes can be categorized under six major periods over the last six hundred years.[1]

The first spatial transformation was conducted by the Inca between late 15th century and early 16th century. In the Andean region altitude is the most significant variable that explains variation in farming production and access to natural resources. Therefore, within a relatively few kilometers, populations could access seafood, beans, corn, potatoes and other Andean tubers, and pastures for camelids, as the altitude increases from the sea level to the high peaks. In addition, the Eastern slopes of the mountains lead into the Amazon basin where fruits, coca and other tropical products and animals are found. In a pioneering and influential work, John Murra (1975) postulates that within that ecological setting —which provides both sharp constraints and opportunities—, the best strategy that Pre-Hispanic populations deployed in order to maximize their access to natural resources and micro-climates was the so called “Andean ideal of vertical control of ecological niches”. The implementation of this ideal meant that through the use of kinship bonds, ethnic groups allocate different household units at different ecological niches in order to access different products. This ethnic archipelago, as shown in the figure below, did not imply the exclusive control of the territory but the co-existence of diverse groups in a shared space.

Vertical control of ecological niches

In the same work, Murra explains that the Inca State used, adapted and enhanced previous kinship strategies of spatial production and control for its own purposes of expansion. Therefore, the Inca State —which extended from the northern part of the current borders of Argentina and Chile to Ecuador— gained direct control over large farming lands and obligated the population to work in them. In addition, the State implemented a policy of forcing specific groups[2] to abandon their places of origin to be allocated in remote areas with the purpose of fulfilling production and political needs. The population mostly cultivated potatoes —the main staple and core of the daily diet—, and the Inca´s bureaucracy strictly controlled the farming of maize[3] as an exclusive crop within the State´s lands. Hence, the Inca State functioned as an enormous octopus that controlled and centralized farming products to then distribute them for public (e.g. maintenance of a large army and bureaucracy) and caste (panacas) purposes.[4]

The second transformation of Andean space took place during the 17th century. Originating in the Colonial experience, it signified a dramatic change for the native Andean people and has had enduring consequences that still shape social and economic conditions today.

Prior to the Spanish conquest, the number of people inhabiting contemporary Peru has estimated at between 9 and 15 million (Cook 2010). However, following the Conquest years of war, famine, social disintegration and, more importantly, the spread of new diseases (namely, flu, measles and smallpox) the population collapsed to just one million (Cook 2010; Wachtel 1976).

The Spanish colonization of America (over the Andean and Aztec societies) sharply differs from other experiences (i.e. the British colonization in North America) in at least two key aspects. First, the newcomers were not precisely settlers looking to farm their own land. Embedded within the social relations of feudal Spain, they performed as conquerors seeking to obtain noble titles over the land and secure servants to work it for them. Second, the ecological conditions the Spanish found were very different from the peninsular ones so, instead of merely importing techniques and species from Europe they had to adopt native production systems.

Thus, for the Spanish Colonial enterprise the control of scattered indigenous labor was crucial for the purpose of redirecting it to the functioning of the farming, textile and mining industries. Hence, under the rule of the Viceroy Toledo[5], a division was created between the Republic of Indians and the Republic of Spaniards. This division implied a reorganization of the population, the territory and the social relations in two different though connected entities: the indigenous community (comunidad de indios or reducciones) and the large-state property (encomienda) (Spalding 1974). The inhabitants of the newly created comunidad de indios were evangelized into Catholicism, taught in Quechua, and dressed according to rural Castilian customs; thus, the cultural landscape become homogenized. Marginal and scarce lands were collectively secured for the comunidad de indios with the purpose of making possible the physical reproduction of the indigenous people (as a labor force assigned to specific Spanish encomiendas or mines) and the payment of taxes to the Crown (Fuenzalida 1970).

The third landmark signified the end of the encomienda system in the aftermath of the Túpac Amaru rebellion in late 18th century. The uprising lead by indigenous noble and entrepreneur Túpac Amaru was the most important indigenous revolt in the Peruvian Viceroyalty and was prompted by the attempts to implement the Bourbon reforms in the Spanish colonies (Fisher 1971). Two of the major consequences of the rebellion were the limitation of the most oppressive features of the encomienda system (and with that some weakening of the regional landlords) and the disappearance of the indigenous leaders (caciques) and nobility (O´Phelan 2012).

The fourth period was one of re-appropriation and expansion of the large-state property system (hacienda). This period began after the Independence Wars —around 1840s— and lasted until the 1950s. This process of land property expansion was prompted by capitalist production and signaled the dominance of English and American interest in the country. Thus, for instance, in the Southern Andes a productive and commercial circuit connecting peasants, criollo[6] landowners, and British traders was established for the provision of wool to the textile factories in England (Flores 1977). Manrique (1987) describes the growth of cattle enterprises in the Central Andes and the absorption of small and middle size Peruvian owners by the cattle division of the Southern Copper Corporation, one of the first transnational American mining companies. Klarén (1976) analyses a similar process among the rich sugar plantations of the northern coast and Deere (1990) focuses on the class and gender transformations in the Northern Andes with the establishment of the milk industry.

Of course, this capitalist expansion at the cost of communal lands was not without resistance. Peasant resistance was relatively successful where the State and regional elites were weak (Mallon 1983) and by the late 1950s it became evident that there were limits to that kind of modernization. In the decade of 1960 the campesino movement met leftist ideologies and leaders, from which discursive and organizational tactics were borrowed. A major campesino revolt and appropriation of lands in the coffee plantations of Quillabamba, in the Eastern slopes of Cusco (Hobsbawn 1974), made clear the need for land redistribution.

Consequently, the fifth transformation was led by the military leftist government of Juan Velasco and began in 1969. Though short in time, it has been one of the most radical agrarian reforms in Latin America and implied the destruction of the hacienda system both in the rich export-oriented cotton and sugar plantations of the coast and the semi-feudal haciendas of the highlands (Eguren 2006; Matos Mar & Mejía 1984). Under the slogan of “campesino, el patrón ya no comerá más de tu pobreza” (“campesino, the landlord will not feed from your poverty any longer”), this reform not only destroyed the prevailing land property system of the time, but also attempted to create communal forms of property –Cooperativas Agrarias de Producción (Agrarian Production Co-Ops) and Sociedades Agrarias de Interés Social (Social Interest Agrarian Societies). The latter was heavily resisted by the campesinos who sought to control the land by their own and not through the State bureaucracy.

Thus, backed by an uncommon alliance of leftist political parties —Vanguardia Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Vanguard) and Partido Comunista Revolucionario (Revolutionary Communist Party)—, the social democrats (Acción Popular) and the liberals, the campesinos took the land by the force and broke it up into particular plots for each family (Rénique 2004). This was the sixth main transformation of the Andean space and marked the end of decades of struggles over the land for agrarian purposes.

The decade of 1980 was one full of dramatic economic and political phenomena for the country. Significantly, Peruvians suffered the insurgence of Shining Path —a radical Maoist group that prompted a war with the State, social movements and civilians at the cost of nearly 70,000 deaths (Comisión de la Verdad y la Reconciliación 2004)— and the second highest inflation record in world´s history, which devastated the economy. Despite the magnitude of these phenomena, land-use and land-ownership remained relatively stable for around two decades.

More recently, the scenario has begun to change after the liberalizing policies implemented in the early 1990s. These policies have been instrumental in the emergence of a large mining boom in the country that has lasted more than twenty years and, as stated in this research, is producing a cycle of major transformations in Andean societies. With these historical cycles in mind, what has been the role that mining development has played in the production and transformation of Andean space?

From being a marginal activity during Pre-Hispanic times, mining development has been of central importance in Peruvian society in the last five centuries. However, this centrality has shifted, in a stark way, from being an agent of economic integration to a major source of social conflict. Certainly, mining has been prominent to the Peruvian economy and society since Colonial times. As Assadourian (1982) has shown, the exploitation and the commercialization of silver from the large deposits of Potosí organized and integrated a regional market which now includes Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and the north of Argentina. The decline of Potosí´s production and the Independence Wars in the late 18th century seriously affected mineral production. However, as Contreras (1995) has argued, mining continued being an important agent in regional economies with the opening of new mine sites in the territory. For instance, some authors (e.g. Deustua 1994; Manrique 1987) have explained how mining activities have provided economic surplus for the recovery of cattle and farming activities following the Pacific War in the 1890s.

Nevertheless, the arrival of the 20th century was a turning point with the emergence of modern mining. As Brundenius (1972) and Manrique (1987) describe, modern mining implied three major changes: the shift from a labor-intensive to a capital-intensive industry; the entrance of foreign interests in the sector and the decline of Peruvian capitals in large-scale mining projects; and the establishment of the enclave scheme. These combined factors configured a new system where mineral development was directly linked to international markets without the need of using local/regional products and workers. In other words, mining stopped being an important agent for the integration of regional goods and labor to become a disruptive actor among local populations.

Since the 1990s a mining boom began that has greatly contributed to the sustained growth of the Peruvian economy (UNCTAD, WB & ICMM 2008). Thus, for instance, minerals account for around 60% of the country´s total exports, which surpassed the 46,000 million US$ (Castilla 2012). This mining expansion has been supported by international financial institutions —namely, the World Bank and its private sector arm the International Financial Corporation. In what was regarded as a new era for the mining sector, these institutions promoted the design and implementation of the so-called New Extractive Industry Strategy (Arellano 2011). As Javier Arellano (2011) argues, this strategy aimed to foster social development through two measures. First, the distribution of significant State tax revenues into mining regions. Second, the promotion of more active participation of mining firms in social development initiatives following the practices of Corporate Social Responsibility. The results, however, have not met the State´s goals and nowadays mining expansion is a major source of social conflict in the country.

Much of the social conflict is triggered by the negative socio-economic impacts that mining operations create at the local level. Perhaps the most notorious impact is the —factual or perceived— environmental degradation; specifically the effects on the quantity of available water and its quality. The need of large-scale mining operations for water directly collides with local farmers’ interests and fears. In the context of poor environmental standards and weak State surveillance mechanisms and institutions, water is one of the most contested issues of mining operations (Bebbington & Williams 2008; Himley n.d.). In addition, land is also significantly affected; not only the quality of the soil in areas directly adjacent to the mine sites, but more importantly, because of the changes in use and ownership in larger areas that are fostered by the development of the mineral operations (Bury 2004). In some cases, changes in land-use and land-ownership have resulted in processes of migration or involuntary displacement (Szablowski 2002).

Additionally, the creation of mining-related jobs and the injection of relatively significant amounts of money into local economies have generated two non-foreseen effects: inflation and the shortage of workers for farming activities (Viale & Monge 2012). These effects especially hurt vulnerable families who are not engaged in mining activities. The combination of these and other factors has fostered deep transformation in the livelihoods of many rural families, particularly those living in mining regions (Bury & Kolff 2002), and in turn led to distress and social tension.

The mining induced production of space in the Andes differs from previous transformations in at least one central issue: it does not necessarily involve the control of farming activities or the use/control of local labor. The focus of this spatial configuration is the control of land and water for mineral resource extraction.


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[1] The following historical chronology has been suggested by the Peruvian sociologist Flavio Figallo. Personal communication, 18th October 2012.

[2] This is the case of the mitmakuna or “scattered people”.

[3] Maize was the most prestigious crop since is the base for the chicha, a widespread Andean beer.

[4] Murra uses insights from Karl Polanyi (Polanyi, Arensberg & Pearson 1971) to explain the functioning of ancient empires without markets.

[5] From 1569 to 1581.

[6] Criollo is the name given to Spanish descendants born in the American colonies. Because of their higher levels of education, social ranks and wealth —as well as legal restrictions— the criollos were able to maintain the highest power and economic positions after independence from the metropolis.