Dimas on Hirsch and Canova and Biocca, 'Reimagining the Gran Chaco: Identities, Politics, and the Environment in South America'

Silvia Hirsch, Paola Canova, Mercedes Biocca, eds. Reimagining the Gran Chaco: Identities, Politics, and the Environment in South America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. 360 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-68340-286-2

Reviewed by Carlos Dimas (University of Nevada Las Vegas)
Published on H-LatAm (March, 2023)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57435

The Gran Chaco is an ecological region that stretches into the modern nation-states of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay. The region’s sheer immensity makes it difficult to define. Ecologically, it has dry grasslands and humid landscapes. Historically, the region is home to multiple Indigenous communities whose homes stretch across the now imposed national borders. Beginning in the colonial period and continuing into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, settler colonizers have flocked to the region. Whether for cotton fields, quebracho, or soy cultivation, each has looked to take advantage of the Gran Chaco’s natural riches. Unfortunately, the expansion of extractive industries has created significant strain that has exacerbated long-standing social, cultural, and political tensions between the states of the region and the Indigenous communities.

The edited volume Reimaging the Chaco explores the history of the Gran Chaco from the colonial era to the present, and demonstrates the importance of studying the region for a broad audience. The volume works to fill gaps in the study of the region from a regional and hemispheric perspective. Although the Gran Chaco is vast and contains conditions of interest to academics, the region has existed on the academic peripheries. Indeed, according to the editors, academic interests in the Amazon or the Mesoamerican basin overshadow the Gran Chaco. The volume brings together scholars, primarily anthropologists, from Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and the United States who look to examine “unequal encounters and the frictions the changes produce, revealing the ways local actors are experimenting and negotiating socioeconomic and environmental transformations in their own terms” (p. 1). Thus, the main topics discussed are related to “missionaries, millenarian movements, the Chaco War, industrial enclaves, political mobilization, and the struggle for right” (p. 2).

The dominant narrative in this engrossing work is the collective effort to assess the encounters from the perspective and highlight the voices of local actors to illustrate that the colonization of the Gran Chaco continues to this day—both major strengths of each chapter. Historians may notice the occasional sparse historical context in some cases, while other chapters condense two centuries into only a few pages. However, to focus on this is to ignore the heavy work each chapter and the volume as a whole are doing of assessing the Gran Chaco within current theoretical frameworks. My assessment is that this work is important to historians, since it offers our profession an introduction to new theoretical vernaculars and methodologies to examine our historical sources and to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations.

Take, for instance, chapter 6, in which Mercedes Biocca applies the work of David Harvey’s “accumulation by dispossession,” an expansion of Karl Marx’s “primitive accumulation,” to illustrate how Indigenous communities responded differently to incursion, such as large-scale agriculture. Looking at the Qom and Moqoit communities of the Argentine Chaco, Biocca argues that resistance is not always an automatic response. Rather, some subaltern communities negotiate and look to capitalize on the development of new industries as an example of agency.

Reimaging the Chaco begins with an introduction that emphasizes the environmental diversity of the Chaco and gives brief historical overviews of the six main topics of the work. For instance, the editors note that the limited academic interest in the Gran Chaco has not always existed. Colonial and modern missionaries and explorers provided rich ethnographic sources, on top of maps and descriptions of flora, fauna, and animals. The governments that emerged in the nineteenth century utilized firsthand accounts from private citizens, practitioners of the natural sciences, and military officials to substantiate national claims over the region to facilitate extractive industries—such as tannin in the nineteenth century and ranching and soybean cultivation in the twentieth—and settler colonialism. It is important to note that historians, especially Argentine ones, who I am more familiar with, have done important work in looking at the history of extractive industries in the Chaco in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Thus, the argument of limited academic interest in the area has limits, and it is possible that historians of other nations will also note the same.

The first chapter explores the Chané people’s claims of their homeland in the Itiyuro River basin in northwestern Argentina, but formerly in Bolivia. Federico Bossert shows that the Chané’s land claims are divided between archival sources and ethnographic material collected over the centuries. He recounts how the Chané speak of “lost papers” from the colonial period to explain the modern state’s colonization of their land. Moreover, the chapter illustrates how colonization is perceived as a single moment as opposed to a continued process—an aspect later chapters engage with. The following chapter (2) continues with the effects of colonization and identity in an examination of the Bolivian Guaraní and the “Chiriguano thesis,” which argues that they are not Guaraní but Chiriguano—an ethnogenetic fusion of Guaraní and Arawak-speaking Chané originating from the Andean foothills. Bret Gustafson argues that scholars from all disciplines have incorrectly perpetuated this thesis, which has little archival support and ought to be seen as a fabrication that emerged during the colonial period. Instead, Gustafson asserts that Guaraní-speaking people extended to the Andean foothills in centuries past, but it is not known when or from where they arrived to what is the modern-day Bolivian-Argentine borderlands.

The next chapters present the colonization of the Gran Chaco as a process that continues to this day. In chapter 3, César Ceriani Cernadas explores Christian missionization as a “cosmology of development” that has evolved from the nineteenth century to today through religion, humanitarian efforts, and community work. The next chapter (4), by Hannes Kalisch, looks at the Enlhet’s loss of lands with the arrival of Mennonites around the time of the Chaco War (1932-35) and how this incursion required them to renegotiate their notions of space and territory. A discussion of locality, space, and identity continues in chapter 5. Rodrigo Villagra Carron studies the death of a shaman and a community death ritual to present ethnopoeisis—the way an ethnic group consciously forms their identity based on influential historical phenomena. Chapters 7 and 8 examine the expansion of the settler-colonial state into the region through infrastructure and extractive industries, a highway in the former, by Joel E. Correia, and the hydrocarbon industry in the latter, coauthored by Denise Humphreys Bebbington and Guido Cortez

The remaining chapters investigate the relationship of state and society in the Gran Chaco. Nancy Postero (chapter 9) looks at Guaraní communities confronting the government of Evo Morales in its transition from an “Indigenous state” that guaranteed Indigenous rights, to a state that nurtures extractive industries to the detriment of many communities. It specifically highlights the work of Guaraní activists in Charagua during the second phase of the Morales government who successfully used the new constitution to form an autonomous Guaraní municipality as a process of decolonization. The next chapter author, Paola Canova, moves to Paraguay and the difficulties Indigenous women—the case study concerns Ayoreo women—face in accessing basic healthcare. The chapter highlights the cracks in the façade of the Paraguayan state’s multicultural reform programs that championed integration and access but ultimately “reproduced colonial hierarchies, hierarchies that in in turn continue to exclude Indigenous people from accessing state resources and services” (p. 239). The concluding chapter, by editor Silvia Hirsch, examines how Argentine society has obscured Indigenous communities, specifically studying the Tapiete people of northwestern Argentina who are difficult to find in archival sources and even unfamiliar to people in neighboring communities. Hirsch highlights the work of community leaders seeking to make their identities visible across national borders, and caps off the volume’s argument for the benefits of a regional over national approach.

The volume is a welcome addition to any individual’s library. In terms of its use in a class, I can see the modern connection helping to guide a class discussion on Latin America today at the undergraduate level, but instructors will have to be judicious in choosing a chapter(s) to assign, as not all are structured for use in a classroom. Moreover, the historical and theoretical approaches will assist in graduate courses when combined with other readings. All readers, however, will engage with a volume that demonstrates the modern and historical frictions that have formed the Gran Chaco and its communities.

Citation: Carlos Dimas. Review of Hirsch, Silvia; Canova, Paola; Biocca, Mercedes, eds., Reimagining the Gran Chaco: Identities, Politics, and the Environment in South America. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57435

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