Problems of Place: Considerations for Understanding Human-Place Relations in Research

My interest in how people experience different kinds of relationships with different places over long periods of time is based on my academic and professional background. As a social scientist, I worked with grassroots organizations of fishermen from the coast and peasants from the Andean heights of Peru. Getting to know different places and realities made me think about the diverse ways that people connect with their environment and make sense of it from both a practical and theoretical point of view.

Political events that highlighted the struggle of Amazonian indigenous organizations to protect their territorial rights against the Peruvian government made me want to learn more about this region and the peoples living there.[1] Directing my interests toward the realities of another region created a turning point in my scholarship as a cultural anthropologist, which allowed me to zoom in on the challenges faced by indigenous people to legitimize their rights to maintain their ancestral territories. Following the lead of my informants, I became fixated on trying to answer questions regarding the history of this region and indigenous residents’ appeals to permanency living in this environment. As a capstone to my formal training as a historian, my dissertation traces back the history of ideas that have influenced the views of Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century, missionaries during the Colonial period, scientific explorers during the nineteenth century, and indigenous inhabitants throughout toward Amazonia and its frontiers with the Andes, focused on northern Peru.

My initial training as social scientist also predisposes me toward adopting a theoretical, and a more “on the ground” approach to analyze historical problems that are relevant today. As a foundation for approaching my project, I have analyzed the fundamental constructs that local indigenous people and outsiders have used to understand regional conceptions of Peru. Going through the historiography gave me the tools to shed light on how regional conceptions have changed over time, but it was my experience doing fieldwork that allowed me to recognize the need to question these notions about the place itself. Contrasting my experience, as a middle class woman from the city, doing research in the Amazon region of northern Peru, along with the perceptions and representations that locals shared with me about their relationship with their surroundings served as entry point to reflect on the following questions: How can I make sense of indigenous people’s historical connections with this place? How have local and outsider’s communities made sense of this place? And more importantly, how can I articulate those responses in an provocative way that challenges preconceived views within the territorial imagination of Peru?

Conducting interviews to indigenous leaders in Lamas, San Martín- Peru.

Ultimately, I realized that engaging in the analysis of broader concepts such as frontiers and wilderness widely studied by North American scholars will serve as valuable interpretive concepts to reflect upon the multiple associations between ideological constructions and material realities of the Amazonian region in Latin America. These concepts have allowed me to theorize the Amazon region as geographically and culturally connected in relation to the Andean heights, which even today exists as a permanent frontier. In a more practical sense though, these concepts represented a useful way for me to engage in broader conversations with other environmental historians from other parts of the world who have studied frontier zones or ideas related to wilderness in any shape or form.

The methodological question of whether these concepts provided me a framework in my analysis or if they actually limited it, is a discussion for another post. However, I did find myself more comfortable placing these terms in conversation with my findings in order to ground me as a Peruvian scholar trained in the United States. There is no doubt that my project has really been the result of my own intellectual and moral connections with the Amazon region and its people, but that does not mean I was less foreign to this landscape. I was born and raised in Peru, but I have been living in Kansas for almost ten years now, my professional language is English, and on a regular basis the only person that I can share my research with is my advisor and people interested in Latin America on a much broader sense. That been said, I have benefited from my training with wonderful professors at the University of Kansas, and I have felt that my contributions have taken seriously despite the fact that I am talking about a part of the world that is foreign to most of them.

While thinking about the challenges of presenting my work, it is true that, unlike other scholars, I need to take the first five minutes to geographically situate my audience. Nevertheless, the goal is to keep my work relevant to my peers in the United States, to the historians based in Latin America, but mostly to indigenous people from this area in question. In informal conversations with the indigenous people from this area, they have expressed their need to obtain an official proof of their ancestral, historical connections with their place that, according to them, go back to the period before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. They feel an imperative to do so, as soon as possible, due to recent attempts of the Peruvian government to question their legitimacy to even demand the ownership of these mountainous lands, due to the lack of evidence to sustain their relationships with this place. I strongly believe that regardless my position in academia or in world, this project and hopefully my future ones should align with that cause.

*The featured image is view of the mountainous transition zone between the high Andes and lowland Amazonia of northern Peru.

[1] In 2009, Amazonian indigenous organizations protested against the official decrees enacted by the Peruvian president and the Peruvian Congress to eliminate indigenous peoples’ rights to protect their territorial integrity. See Ximena Sevilla, “Kichwa Organizations in the Peruvian Amazon: Twelve Challenges in Their Quest for Land Rights” (University of Kansas, 2013).