Social and environmental change in Colonial Michoacan, west central Mexico.
The fall out from the Quincentennial anniversary of the "discovery" of the
Americas has yet to settle. One of the key issues still in need of address concerns
the nature of the social and environmental change wrought by colonialism. Until
recently, research in this field has been determined by a series of antiquated myths,
largely creations of Eurocentric Renaissance and Romantic philosophies. This
study aims to provide a more objective insight into the degree of regional Colonial
impact by focusing on an archival reconstruction of post-Conquest social and
environmental change in the highlands ofMichoacan, west central Mexico.
Archival evidence suggests that the Spanish encountered an already
degraded landscape in this region, reflective of several centuries of pre-Hispanic
settlement and exploitation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, little
evidence emerges to suggest that there was an immediate and deleterious
environmental impact following European contact, despite the introduction of
livestock and plough technology to an area where they had hitherto been absent.
Indeed, tangible evidence of ecological disturbance in the area does not emerge
until the 18th century - a period recognised to have been one of population
recovery and resource monopolisation. A detailed survey of litigation documents
suggests that this period witnessed an acceleration in the number of indigenous
claims for land reinstatement, concomitant with a marked increase in the number
of references to infertile and degraded territory and apparent heightened concern
over water sources.
It is here argued that de-intensification of land use in the wake of
indigenous depopulation and the imposition of conservative land use practices
accounts for the negligible environmental impact in the early post-Conquest
period. By the later 17th and 18th centuries, progressive climatic drying,
population expansion, resource monopolisation and social inequality had
combined to create a period of acute resource stress and landscape instability and
consequent civil unrest. It was this untenable situation that was to play itself out in
the Wars of Independence that characterised the first two decades of the 19th