Collaborative Research: Changes In Landscape, Labor And Livelihood In Long Chronological Context

Grants and Contracts Details


This year, 2019, represents the 500th year since Cortés first set foot on the shores of Mexico’s Gulf Coast, and altered the trajectory of World history. What is now the state of Veracruz hosted the earliest sugarcane experiments on the American mainland (Sandoval 1951), and it remains the largest cane-producing state (Geo-Mexico 2011) in the fourth largest cane-producing country in the world (World Atlas 2019). Sugarcane is fundamental to the state and national economy, and it is interwoven into the cultural identity of Veracruz. Despite linkages between sugar and Veracruz life, several mills have closed in the last decade. Declines are linked to several global factors, including demands for alternative, neoliberal policies affecting government support, and climate change. Petitions for congressional intervention are ongoing, and private investments in alternative byproducts are on the horizon, but climatic factors will exacerbate the already strained conditions for sugarcane or the study of its material legacy. Situating short-term decision-making within longer-term trajectories is crucial to understanding resilience and the avoidance of vulnerability. We request funds for the Tuxtla Ingenio Project (TIP), and the collection of systematic archaeological and environmental data, and complementary archival and ethnographic information to investigate inflection points in the 500-year adaptive cycle of sugarcane production in Mexico. Our particular concerns include (1) how indigenous, African, and hybridized communities adapted to the rises and falls in sugar production, (2) the factors affecting household economic resilience or vulnerability, and (3) whether memory of prior strategies informs later ones. To this study, we apply models derived from the analysis of adaptive cycles, which has benefitted the nuanced and integrative examination of human-ecosystem dynamics (e.g., Gunderson 2000; Iannone 2013; Pool and Loughlin 2016; Redman 2005; Schwartz 2006; Stark and Eschbach 2018). This project answers anthropological calls (Roncoli 2006, Crate 2011) for a political ecology of adaptation and resilience, understanding these as multi-scalar, multitemporal, multistakeholder, ongoing processes rather than a homesotatic construct of local communities reorganizing back to a prior state after periods of unprecedented change and crisis. Intellectual Merits This research evaluates local resilience to global trends, beginning with the early Colonial era, which we contrast with the immediate pre-Contact situation, and the periods following Mexican independence, the Mexican Revolution, and the Neoliberal present—each period is characterized by shifts in the national or global economy. The Contact period component is important in that it examines critical community-based responses to economic changes in Spain’s largest colony. New Spain differed from better known Caribbean contexts because sugar cultivation relied not on an African majority, but a native population. Despite population declines, native inhabitants remained in the majority even though enslaved Africans were used in sugar operations. Veracruz, and specifically Cortés’ former Tuxtla estate, permits us to evaluate adaptations made by native and African populations, as well as the cultural exchanges between the groups that contributed to a hybrid Jarocho tradition. Mill destruction, Independence, and the Revolution a century later provide inflection points that permit us to assess resilience during the dissolution of the Cortés estate, the expansion of 19th century haciendas, and the return of land to communities (ejidos) after the Revolution. The examination of contemporary strategies permits the legacy of sugar to be evaluated in the Neoliberal-dominant present now that the commodity is embedded within regional cultural identities. We will explore the extent to which notions of work and identity are linked and whether the latter constrains flexible strategies that may permit long-term resilience for workers, their families, and communities. Broader Impacts TIP includes collaborative efforts and learning opportunities for US and Mexican participants in the form of field and laboratory experiences, thesis data, and peer-reviewed publications. TIP will register historical site data that is often overlooked during archaeological studies emphasizing prehispanic achievements and archival analyses that can track large-scale processes, such as labor union formation (Thiebault 2014) and congressional petitions for mill reopening (Diario Xalapa 2018). The documentation and examination of the issues outlined in this proposal are especially important in a region that sees active and destructive forms of terrestrial oil and gas prospection. Additional landscape denigration will also result from the destabilization of soil and sediment matrices and stream channel meandering because of expected climate-induced changes. Ethnographic research will provide critical insights into how households adapt to the vagaries of agricultural markets. The unique diachronic nature of TIP means that we will be able to explore how contemporary livelihood diversification builds upon and/or challenges earlier processes, uncovered through archaeological research, to cultivate resilience during rapid economic change.
Effective start/end date5/1/214/30/25


  • National Science Foundation: $106,532.00


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