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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 7 (2000)

 

Nature and Culture in the Andes, by Daniel W. Gade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press (1999), xiv, 287 pp.

Reviewed by Anthony Bebbington, Department of Geography, University of Colorado at Boulder.

This is an intriguing book: partly theoretical, partly methodological, often personal and largely empirical it takes the reader through one geographer's struggle to understand a region. The geographer is Dan Gade, the region the Andes. Gade has worked in the Andes for 35 years now, making him one of the academies' most senior and experienced Andeanist geographers. On the basis of that experience, Gade uses this book to lay out a series of arguments that convey his feelings on how cultural geography and landscape interpretation ought be practiced; and, by implication, how we ought understand the relationships between nature and culture in the Andes.

To make his arguments Gade combines two conceptual/methodological chapters and a conclusion with seven more substantive chapters discussing particular problems of landscape and cultural ecological interpretation in the Andes. The topics of these chapters are quite varied. The problems they address range from the momentous (have the Andean highlands been deforested or are they natural grasslands) to the more arcane (how do rats, people and environment interact to produce the urban landscape of Guayaquil, Ecuador; why do Andean people not milk llamas and alpacas). Whether treating "big" or apparently "minor" questions, Gade consistently uses his topic to argue that in any interpretation of Andean landscapes, nature and culture cannot be separated. This unity of nature/culture he calls the culture/nature gestalt, a term chosen "to communicate a mutually interactive skein of human and nonhuman components rather than opposing polarities or separate entities" (p. 5). Seen through this gestalt, most ecological formations must be understood as culturally transformed or modified, and social formations have to be understood as mediated through ecological processes. Understanding this skein of relationships, Gade argues, requires a mix of empirical research, intuition and (at least implicitly) some theory. Methodologically, this requires a deep immersion in a region - such as Gade has lived - and a profound commitment to field presence and fieldwork "as the prime source of information" (p. 28).

Having laid his conceptual foundation, Gade then uses it re-read and challenge a series of taken for granted assumptions about Andean landscapes and cultural ecological practices. His starting point is to reflect on the very notion of the Andes. While considering the varying meanings given to the term, he suggests that "[t]he most profound meaning of the Andes ... comes not from a physical description, but from the cultural outcome of 10 millennia of knowing, using and transforming the varied environments of western South America" (p. 34). At the core of lo andino is therefore a "culture complex" that has survived the colonial period and the technological changes of the modern world - a complex that has at its cultural ecological core "an agropastoralism that takes advantage of environmental diversity" to minimize risk and foster self sufficiency (p. 36). This is a relatively familiar assertion, characteristic of the boom of cultural ecological, anthropological and ethnohistorical work on the Andes in the 1970s and 1980s. It is also, however, a slightly problematic one. While Gade's earlier argument that lo andino is a cultural historical outcome of 10 millennia of mutual imbrication of nature and society implies it is more process than product, the subsequent definition seems to fix lo andino in particular practices. Furthermore, it finds in lo andino a resistance to certain types of contemporary change but not to others from earlier historical moments. An initially historicized and hybridizing notion of lo andino thus totters on the brink of essentialism. This uncertainty is significant because in this and some of the following chapters, Gade's particular, and critical, takes on modernity and development, appear to betray a lingering nostalgia for something that is truly Andean. Yet if we are to argue that lo andino is a nature/culture that is always in process, then such lingering essentialisms surely cannot be the basis from which to critique modernity and development: the foundations for critique have to be found somewhere else. If that somewhere else is an equally modern notion of "rights," be these to alterity, or to inclusion, then nor can a notion of lo andino be so instinctively critical of the modern.

Several of the substantive chapters that follow this more conceptual and reflective pair of introductory chapters were the highlights of the book, at least for this reader. Gade's technique of using a particular problem to reflect on larger issues, while at the same time addressing the landscape problem at hand, is often fascinating and always impressive for the broad arsenal of knowledge and information that he mobilizes. In arguing, for instance, that contrary to many popular beliefs the Andes were once far more forested than today, Gade uses a mixture of archival, ethnographic, remotely sensed and ethnohistorical information. These diverse information sources are then blended with a form of deductive reasoning to arrive at a concluding interpretation of the problem at hand. In other chapters Gade combines this battery of approaches with comparative analysis (e.g., using ethnohistorical and archeological information from the Near East to explain why Andean camelids are not milked), personal experience and simple discovery.

The technique - and the style of analysis it delivers - are resonant of Carl Sauer's approach to cultural and environmental history, and it is not surprising that Gade frequently refers to Sauer and recognizes him as an inspiration for his own work. The penultimate chapter of the book is dedicated to an analysis of Sauer's own contributions to the understanding of crop diversity in the Andes. Indeed, as is often the case with Sauer, Gade's chapters are consistently entertaining, thought provoking and impressive for the amount of reflection and thought that has clearly gone into them. Also as in Sauer's writings, some of the arguments are more compelling than others. For this reader, the chapters on highland deforestation and the impacts of malaria on settlement patterns were the most convincing. But each of the chapters left me with new knowledge, and new questions of my own, and that surely is the hallmark of a successful book - that it piques one's curiosity to probe further, and think further about things that one might otherwise not have pondered.

One of the more intriguing things about this book is the way in which Gade puts himself into its text. While such reflexivity is not uncommon in new cultural geography and contemporary cultural anthropology, it is far rarer in that school of cultural geography that draws its inspiration from Sauer and his early students. Perhaps for this reason, Gade's way of taking his own authorship seriously is more refreshing than many: his style is less jargon ridden, and more personal than theoretical in tone. It conveys his passion for this part of the world, and the sense in which it is not only culture and nature that have become mutually imbricated but also Dan Gade and the Andes. Dan Gade is an engaged, fascinated and somewhat spellbound commentator on the Andes.

Gade's willingness and concern to convey this sense of the personal is very welcome. It challenges all of us to be a bit more humble, and to reflect on the ways in which our own motivations, fascinations and backgrounds influence our interpretations of the landscapes we move through. Indeed, I am writing this review in the same Cusco where Gade did his earliest work and - while nowhere near as versed in the cultural history of this sub-region as is Gade - I am spending some time in parts of the same Vilcanota valley from which he clearly draws so much of his inspiration. As I do this work, Gade's book helps me perceive some of the many ways in which nature/culture constitute each other in this region. But in the end, perhaps reflecting my own passions, I perceive a somewhat different skein of relationships linking environment and society - a skein driven by processes that exclude and dominate certain nature/cultures, to the privilege of others, an intersection in which power and ecology have to be understood together. I also see intersections in which modernity is as much part of lo andino as is history, and in which social actors look to the modern as much as to anything else as they attempt to breach these processes of exclusion. Reading this book as I do this work warns me to think carefully and self-critically about the way I see the cultural and political ecology of this region; doing this work as I read the book reminds me that there are many ways of framing landscape interpretations, in the Andes as elsewhere. None is privileged, nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive in their entirety. But they lead us along different paths and, perhaps, invoke different futures.