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Soroche: “dizzy” liberal land grabbing in Andean pastoralist territories.¹

Hanne Cottyn [ ]
Postdoctoral Research Associate. History Department, University of York

Over the last five centuries, Andean rural territories have been progressively incorporated in the rhythms and scales of the market and the modern nation-state, albeit in different and often ambiguous ways. This blog explores the messiness, or ‘dizziness’, of Andean pathways of rural transformation, particularly in communally controlled territories. The protagonists of this exploration are the indigenous pastoralist communities of Puno, particularly in the province of Chucuito situated South from Lake Titicaca (see map). At the start of the twentieth century, pastoralists’ relations to nature –land, labour and other natural resources- were dramatically reconfigured in the context of expanded commodity production, which fuelled rural conflict and criminalization in the wider Andean highlands. I approach this episode through the notion of ‘commodity frontiers’, understood as the process of appropriation, and often dispossession, of places and people as new and cheap reserves of natural resources and labour (Joseph 2019, 1-2). Rather than a closed definition, it serves as an analytical tool to generate a deeper historical and dialectical understanding of how capitalist development relates to the transformation of rural communities. It constitutes a central concept in world-ecology research, which offers ‘a perspective that joins the accumulation of capital and the production of nature in dialectical unity’ (Moore 2011). From that perspective, the contentious moment examined in this contribution was one of deepening, and violent, world-ecological incorporation. On basis of archival research, a literature study and field work, I analyse how indigenous contestation over land and power and the attempts on the part of the government and elite groups to neutralize these conflicts gave shape to that moment.

Province of Chucuito, Peru. Map created by Hans Blomme, Ghent University.

Cycles of world-ecological incorporation on the altiplano
In the second half of the nineteenth-century, South-Peruvian highland communities experienced profound transformations as they were gradually drawn into expanding mining and wool commodity markets. This context provided fertile ground for liberal imaginaries of modernity and progress that questioned the viability of coexisting indigenous systems of collective land and labour control. Indigenous communities were envisioned as black boxes to be unlocked, so individual Indians could be incorporated as governable and economically productive actors. Paradoxically, however, the take-off of Puno’s wool boom relied on indigenous herding communities, which constituted the largest wool producers (Rénique 2004). Old and new landlords nevertheless camouflaged pastoralist communities into a colonial anachronism that delayed the emergence of a modern land market. Grosfoguel has coined this mechanism ‘feudalmania’; the discursive mechanism to establish a distance between a pre-modern present and a modern future that legitimates a ‘catch-up’ (2000). In order to legitimize the implementation of measures to ‘open up’ communities –their land, labour and resources, they first needed to be un-thought as the viable basis for indigenous peasant state and market participation they actually constituted. Communities were thus reframed as an illegible reserve in need of abstraction to make them marketable and ‘legible’ (Scott 1998).
The vehicle through which these communities were absorbed within the circulation of commodities was private property. It served as a justification for the wide-scale appropriation of community lands, whether through legal land commercialization or fraudulent usurpation. Peasant communities, including areas where communal usufruct had remained strongest in place such as the Chucuito province, were pushed into ever higher and marginal territories (Cáceres-Olazo 2000, 50-51). The blatant dispossessions sparked a series protests in the 1910s and the 1920s (Ramos 1990). I argue that these ‘Great Peasant Revolts’ were not just about land, as most scholars used to explain (Rodrigo Montoya 1989), or labour and political power, as others have contended (Flores Ochoa and Palacios 1980; Calisto 1993), but that there was a much more systemic, world-ecological dimension to it.

Counter-commodification and colonial legacies in pastoralist territories
Research on the wool boom in Puno has demonstrated that communal land control was not simply replaced by capitalist property relations (Jacobsen 1993). Hacienda expansion, while aggressive, resulted in rather weak control over land and labour. Moreover, in some areas, communities managed to defend their territorial control in the face of advancing commodity frontiers. Several court cases ensuing from the usurpation of communal land in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century give insight in the logic and strategies of communal counter-commodification. In 1912, for instance, “free” and hacienda peasants organized a land demarcation in the district of Huacullani to physically and symbolically counter hacienda expansion ². While we have no details on the outcome of this action, the reliance on colonial land titles, taxes and land inspections to reverse land usurpation is revealing. In resisting and negotiating new liberal categorizations, indigenous communities had re-appropriated and re-imagined a legal-discursive apparatus that initially had served to incorporate those communities within the Spanish empire. Rather than vindicating their passive assimilation, it underlines how communal negotiation power builds on a longer experience, steeped in colonial asymmetrical power relations and accumulated through successive moments of rural restructuring. Communities that remained out of the scope of hacienda usurpation did not just ‘persist’ as a refuge, but were (re)created as such, in intimate interaction with the succeeding enclosure movement.

Puno, May 2017. Civil protest against the criminalization of indigenous leaders in the wake of an anti-mining conflict in 2011. Photograph taken by the author.

Criminalization and ‘externalizing’ community conflicts.
Through their actions and alliances, pastoralist communities in Puno managed to secure a small but important degree of independence. This sparked panic on the part of the local landholding elites. Collective claims for territorial justice were delegitimized by depicting them as irrational and major threats: ‘Great Revolts’. An essentialist portrayal of dangerous and passive Indians helped to justify the criminalization of communities and their leaders, and the further dispossession of their properties. Although a further discussion of criminalization and conflict management is beyond this text, the striking parallels between liberal and neoliberal de-politicizing tactics provide important lessons for contemporary discourses and policies addressing the current boom in socio-environmental conflicts. By reducing rural contestation to quantifiable externalities, conflicts become the subject of rational cost calculations and de-politicizing intervention. In the early twentieth century, liberal policies demanded ‘pedagogy, not laws’ –read: disciplining measures rather than structural change (Calisto 1993, 39); in the twenty-first century, ‘good governance’ or ‘corporate responsibility’ have become neoliberal devices to ignore communal demands underlying rural protest.

Concluding thoughts: The soroche effect.
The violent nature of world-ecological incorporation tends to be reduced to a black-white opposition between a commodification that erases everything, or a resistant de-commodification that knows no dialogue. Rather, my research identifies a dialectical relation that binds ‘commodification’ and ‘community’, undercutting the logic and outlines of a neatly commodified (land) regime. By interrogating the profound, yet incomplete transformation of the altiplano countryside, I seek to expose the dialectical, messy character of commodity frontier trajectories. I use ‘soroche’, the Andean term for altitude sickness, as a metaphor for the difficult ‘acclimatization’ of commodity frontier processes into communal territories. Successive phases of intensified commodity production are being subjected to a re-negotiation process over the terms of incorporation, evoking in a ‘dizzy’ commodity frontier expansion, suffering from a kind of soroche.


Cáceres-Olazo Monroy, J. M., (2000). La Gran Sublevación Campesina en Puno, 1920-1924. X-storia. (1), 45-73.
Calisto, M., (1993). Peasant Resistance in the Aymara Districts of the Highlands of Peru, 1900-1930 : an attempt at self-governance. PhD thesis, University of California at San Diego.
Cottyn, H., (2019). Making Cheap Nature on High Altitude : a World-ecological Perspective on Commodification, Communities and Conflict in the Andes. In: S. Joseph, ed. Commodity Frontiers and Global Capitalist Expansion. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 15–56.
Flores Ochoa, J., and Palacios, F., (1980). La Protesta de 1909. Un movimiento de pastores de la puna alta a comienzos del siglo XX. In: R. Matos Mendieta, ed. III Congreso Peruano El Hombre y la Cultura Andina. Lima: Secretaría General del Congreso. pp. 75-88.
Grosfoguel, R., (2000). Developmentalism, Modernity, and Dependency Theory in Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South. 1(2), 347-374.
Jacobsen, N., (1993). Mirages of transition: the Peruvian altiplano, 1780-1930. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Montoya, R., (1989). Lucha por la tierra, reformas agrarias y capitalismo en el Perú del siglo XX. Lima: Mosca Azul.
Moore, J. W., (2011). Transcending the metabolic rift: a theory of crises in the capitalist world-ecology. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(1), 1-46.
Ramos Zambrano, A., (1990). Tormenta altiplánica rebeliones indígenas de la provincia de Lampa-Puno, 1920-1924. Lima: Gráfica Espinal.
Rénique, J. L., (2004). La batalla por Puno: Conflictos agrarios y nación en los Andes peruanos, 1866-1995. Lima: Editoriales IEP / CEPES / SUR.
Scott, J., (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

¹ This contribution draws on a recently published chapter (Cottyn 2019) as part of the Commodity Frontiers Initiative ( and on discussions during the Contested Territories workshops. I am grateful to the guidance and support provided by Peruvian NGO IDECA ( and the Regional Archive of Puno.
² Denunciante don Juan de la Cruz Eduardo por delito de usurpación contra Santiago Mallca, Provincia Chucuito, Huacullani, 1912. Series ‘Usurpaciones’, Criminales, 15 H. Regional Archive of Puno, Peru.