K-12 Teaching Resources

Agriculture in Latin America

Teaching About...Agriculture in Latin America

Newsletter of the Outreach Services of the African, Asian, Latin American, and Russian Studies Centers
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 910 S. Fifth Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820
Number 79, Fall 1999
by Nan Volinsky, Outreach Coordinator

"Historically agriculture has defined Latin American economies and social relations. For most of the history of the region, the vast majority of Latin Americans have been a part of the agricultural sector. Latin American agriculture can be divided into four distinct types that roughly correspond to historical phases: (1) pre-Columbian indigenous agriculture, (2) semi-feudal hacienda agriculture, (3) precapitalist plantation agriculture, and (4) modern commercial agriculture" (May 1996:27).

Pre-Columbian Indigenous Agriculture

Domesticates such as chili peppers, avocados, and amaranths were being grown in the Americas around 7000-5000 BC. The development of irrigation around 3500 BC allowed for widespread corn (maize) production. Corn became a major food source in Meso-America and in South America between 3000 BC and 2000 BC...[V]illage life that was centered around the cultivation of corn appeared by 2000 BC" (May 1996:27). By then, common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), chili pepper (Capsicum annuum), and squashes were widely cultivated, forming a nutritionally balanced diet.

In Meso-America, the corn was prepared by boiling in limewater and by wet grinding. Cornmeal paste was then made into tortillas or flat cakes and gruel. Village life was based on the extended family, composed of parents and their children's families, which provided the labor force. In the Andes, a portion of the corn harvest was used in the production of a "corn beer" known variously as chicha or asua (see cultural observations on chicha).

The potatoes cultivated in the Peruvian-Bolivian Andes as early as 1,800 years ago probably consisted of a mixture of varieties. In the same area today, as many as 60 varieties may be distinguished in a single village market. Encountered by the invading Spaniards, potatoes were introduced into Europe during the second half of the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century the newcomer was a major crop in Ireland, and by the end of the 18th it was a major crop in continental Europe, particularly Germany, and in the west of England. The Irish economy itself became dependent upon the potato. Blight caused disastrous failures of the Irish crops in the mid-19th century and the ensuing famine led to one of the historically largest waves of immigration into the United States. ("potato" in Encyclopædia Britannica)

In the high Andes frost can occur almost every night of the year. For at least 1,000 years people in the Andes have been aware that the sharp alternation between tropical noon and arctic midnight can be utilized. Any animal or vegetable tissue exposed to this daily contrast can be processed into nutritive products that keep for decades, and the process can be achieved either at the household or the state level. Chuño is the name popularly used for freeze-dried tubers, but a rich vocabulary for tubers exists in the Quechuan (Andean) languages: there is a separate term for each plant and for each mode of preparation. Animal tissues also can be handled in this manner. ("pre-Columbian civilizations" Encyclopædia Britannica)

The Spanish name for these preserved meats is charqui (ch'arki in Quechua), or "jerky" in English. Commercial North American versions of jerky (Slim Jims) are found in our local supermarkets.

One unique aspect of pre-Columbian Andean ecology was that the greatest population concentration (more than 1,000,000 people) and the highest agricultural productivity occurred around Lake Titicaca, which is some 12,500 feet above sea level. Nowhere else in the world--not even in Tibet or Nepal--has cultivation been so successful at such a high altitude. Efforts to understand the ramifications of this paradox have revealed three principles: (1) The fields and terraces (see below) clustered around the lake were located just a few degrees south of the Equator, where daytime temperatures are truly tropical; (2) At this altitude climatic contrasts are not so much seasonal as diurnal, i.e., summer by day and winter by night. Contrasts of 55 to 70 F (30 to 40 C) within a single 24-hour period are not uncommon, and nearly 300 nights of frost per year have been recorded on the high, windy plateau (puna) surrounding the lake; and (3) Populations settled in such circumstances seem to have endured as others have survived in the Arctic, the Kalahari, and the Gobi, but it is clear that in the Andes a far denser population fared much better than have groups in other environmentally harsh regions, acquiring with time an intimate familiarity with the agricultural and pastoral possibilities of high altitude. ("pre-Columbian civilizations" Encyclopædia Britannica)

Large reserves of freeze-dried foods allowed both the peasants and the state to compensate for natural and man-made calamities. They filled thousands of warehouses--many of which are still extant--that were built by the state or by the ethnic lords along the more than 15,500 miles of roads. Such storehouses provided food for both human and camelid porters, for the armies, and for priests traveling to the many shrines. They also made possible the incredible forays of Spaniards like Diego de Almagro, who reached Chile from Cuzco across thousands of miles of deserts and snow-covered mountains. As late as 1547, 15 years after the Spanish invasion, one Spaniard, Polo de Ondegardo, reported that he had fed 2,000 soldiers for seven weeks with the food still stored above Xauxa, which had been the first European capital. ("pre-Columbian civilizations" Encyclopædia Britannica)

Indigenous peoples cultivated many varieties of tubers, of which only the potato has achieved widespread use in the world. But since the soils at this altitude were easily exhausted, "second- and third-year" tubers had to be domesticated to take advantage of the nutrients left unused in the soil. Then, as now, it was usual to allow the ground to rest--for six, eight, or even 10 years--after which some of the "rested" acreage was returned to cultivation annually, a rotation pattern that is still familiar to the local people.

A significant improvement in agriculture was the construction of massive terraces, a method of growing crops on sides of hills or mountains by planting on graduated terraces built into the slope. Though labor-intensive, the method has been employed effectively to maximize arable land area in variable terrains and to reduce soil erosion and water loss. Terraces not only extended the cultivated area but also created protected microclimates where particular varieties could flourish. When the use of highland irrigation and raised-ridged fields are taken into account, it becomes clear that these upland populations were highly familiar with, and respectful of, the potential for high-altitude agriculture and were intent on gaining additional acreage in circumstances that elsewhere would not have seemed worth the effort. Terrace cultivation has also been practiced for centuries in China, Japan, the Philippines, and other areas of Oceania and Southeast Asia; around the Mediterranean; and in parts of Africa. ("pre-Columbian civilizations" Encyclopædia Britannica)

Intense cultivation in central Mexico and irrigated and terraced fields in the highlands of Peru "allowed the same piece of land to support more and more people. Control of vast herds, combined with the hundreds of varieties of high-altitude tubers and grains, helps to explain the density of these populations. With population growth came the beginnings of political organization and social stratification. Enhanced agricultural methods thus led eventually to the highly advanced Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations encountered by the Spanish" (May 1996:28).

Agriculture in the Tropics

Slash-and-burn, or milpa agriculture, has been a prevailing technique in the rain forests of South America. Land in Amazonian rain forests was cleared by chopping and burning, and the seeds were sown with the aid of fire-hardened digging sticks. Mestizo cattle ranchers in the tropics of Brazil for example use slash-and-burn to create pasture. This leads to speedy and irretrievable erosion of the soil quality such that the land cannot be cultivated. Environmentalists frown on this use of slash-and-burn. The slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by indigenous Amazonian peoples has sustained forest growth for thousands of years, because after several years of production, the once-burned lots are allowed to lay fallow to regain its nutrients useful for future cultivation. This continual cycle of forest-clearing made it unlikely that large, sedentary populations could sustain themselves, or so archeologists used to think.

Because of the limitations of a tropical environment, the area could support only hunting and gathering and slash-and-burn agriculture. Anna Roosevelt was one of the archeologists who proved this opinion wrong. Roosevelt earned her PhD in Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is currently at the Field Museum in Chicago. She argued for example that the Marajoara culture at the mouth of the Amazon constituted a population of at least 100,000 during the first millennium AD and that it was developed in situ.

In the early 1960s, other archeologists uncovered evidence of massive earthworks in the savannas of the Llanos de Moxos (or Mojos), including raised fields, canals, causeways, reservoirs, dikes and mound settlements. They claimed that the savannas and forest of the Bolivian Amazon were once densely populated by well-organized societies. Its landscape was heavily modified by pre-Columbian farmers. Today, "[s]hallow flood waters cover much of the low-lying lands in the Llanos de Moxos during part of the rainy season. The rest of the year, dry conditions prevail and water is scarce. The alternation between seasonal flooding and seasonal drought, combined with poor soil conditions and lack of drainage, make farming in these areas difficult. The ancient inhabitants of the area created an agricultural landscape to solve these problems and make the area highly productive. They constructed a system of raised fields, or large planting surfaces of earth elevated above the seasonally flooded savannas and wetlands. Experiments have shown that the raised fields improve soil conditions and provide localized drainage and the means for water management, nutrient production, and organic recycling."

Pre-Columbian peoples of the Andes sustained themselves well by taking advantage of multiple ecological zone along the altitude continuum, from the high mountain slopes to the basins of the rain forest. Members of their extended families resided in discontinuous territories where they benefited from the variety of crops that flourished in each ecological zone. John Murra used the "vertical archipelago model" to explain this form of adaptation. During the pre-Columbian era, such production in multiple zones ensured a varied diet and a dense population in the Andes. In the Amazonian lowlands, excellent cacao, citrus fruits, bananas, avocados, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, melons, chili peppers, sweet potatoes, and cassava (manioc, a potato-like root high in starch and calories) are among the variety of crops produced. In mid-range, temperate altitudes, cattle, sheep, corn, beans, and squashes are produced. And potatoes and quinoa, a high-protein grain sold in North American healthfood stores, are cultivated at the higher altitudes.

With Iberian conquest of Latin America, many things changed for the inhabitants of the Old World as well as the New World. One of the paradoxes during the period of conquest was that "for most people what mattered most was not the new information about the lands, peoples, plants, and animals of the earth that came pouring into Europe after 1492, nor was it the gold and silver treasure that made the Spanish government so powerful for a century and more. Instead it was a change that historians have often overlooked: the spread of American food crops to Europe, Asia, and Africa. These crops included maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, manioc, cacao, and various kinds of peppers, beans, and squashes..Worldwide, the latest available figures compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations show wheat, rice, maize, and potatoes to be the four chief staples of human diet. The harvest for the two American crops, maize and potatoes, totaled 788 million metric tons in 1986" (Viola and Margolis 1991: 43).

Drastic transformations were made when the Spanish and Portuguese arrived in the late fifteenth century. They radically changed the economic, social, and physical landscape. In addition to precipitating a disastrous decline of the indigenous population, the newcomers also had a drastic effect on the vegetation of the New World by their introduction of European plants and livestock" (May 1996:28) Europeans introduced Old World grains, fruits, barley, oranges, lemons, onion, sugarcane, and bananas to the New World. The livestock, particularly cattle, that Europeans brought with them "required large tracts of land, much of which had previously been used for cultivation of traditional crops by indigenous people. Thus the introduction of European agriculture signified the first shift of land away from indigenous farmers and their traditional farming techniques" (May 1996:28).

Semi-Feudal Hacienda Agriculture and Precapitalist Plantation Agriculture

Soon after the conquest, a semi-feudal system of great estates, called haciendas, came to dominate the Spanish American landscape. "Farming and livestock raising at haciendas were worked by resident peons, usually of mestizo (mixed) ancestry, who through a combination of tribute laws, forced labor laws, and hereditary debt were confined to their hacienda in a system of virtual vassalage. In the feudal tradition, labor was performed in exchange for use of a plot of land or in-kind payments of food, and economic efficiency was not a priority. Haciendas were the major food source of the newly emerging urban areas they surrounded, and they produced both European and traditional crops and livestock" (May 1996:28).

Plantations produced agricultural commodities for a European market during the colonial period. Economically more efficient than haciendas, plantation owners relied on African slaves for the cultivation of cacao, tobacco, coffee, and sugar. Sugar was by far "the most profitable and widespread of early plantation products. It requires large tracts of flat land and many laborers for profitable cultivation, and substantial outlays of capital for refining" (May 1996:28).

Modern Commercial Agriculture

By the late 1800s the consolidation of huge tracts of land called latifundios further developed export agriculture, but growth in the export sector was achieved with a drastic decline in food production for local consumption. This impoverished the masses of Latin America. Compounding this trend was that governments encouraged production of only one commodity. To this day, the economies of Latin American countries are vulnerable to international market conditions (May 1996:28-29). Coffee became a monoculture in Central America, Colombia, and Brazil. Other important exports were wheat, cattle hides, cotton, and fruit. "The development of these industries required new outlays of capital for modernization and for improved transportation facilities and infrastructure...The United States was heavily involved in the sugar and fruit industries of the Caribbean Basin. By mid-1900s US companies owned substantial shares in the agro-industry of the region" (May 1996:30).

"In 1994 agriculture was the primary occupation of just under one-third of all working Latin Americans. Because of rapid urbanization since the mid-1950s, the percentage of the Latin American labor force engaged in agriculture has steadily declined. Despite this, the agricultural sector still employs more people than any other single industry. In addition, agricultural products (including livestock) still constitute the major export commodity for more than half of all Latin American countries, making agriculture arguably the most important Latin American industry" (May 1996:27).


Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Foreword by Otto van Mering. Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1972.

May, Rachel A. "Agriculture." In Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. Barbara A. Tenenbaum, ed. in chief. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1996:27-31.

Murra, John V. "The Limits and Limitations of the "Vertical Archipelago" in the Andes." In Andean Ecology and Civilization: An Interdiciplinary Perspective on Andean Ecological Complementarity.

Roosevelt, Anna. "Lost Civilizations of the Lower Amazon." In Natural History, Februrary 1989 Vol. 98, No. 2, Pp. 74-83.

Viola, Herman J., and Carolyn Margolis, eds. Seeds of Change: Five Hundred Years Since Columbus. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Wednesday, January 11, 2006 1:18p>

  1. BATZ'I K'OP: TRUE SPEECH (1988). S. Lane, P. Mueller & M. Turkovich. Chicago: AMIE. 93 pp. First in a series of books that deal with geography, history, and contributions of the Maya to agriculture, architecture, arithmetic and astronomy. Middle and High School.
  2. WHERE LAND IS LIFE (1990). Maryknoll World Productions. VHS video (28 min.). For the indigenous peoples of Peru's altiplano, the rugged land around Lake Titicaca is more than soil. Through centuries of conquest and exploitation, the Quechua and Aymara people have held on to the concept of the Pacha Mama - Mother Earth. Today they reclaim the land as their birthright and rediscovering traditional methods of agriculture. Grades 7-12 and college.
  3. SEARCHING FOR SUSTAINABILITY: COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION AND RESOURCE USE IN UBINTUBA, BRAZILIAN AMAZON (1993). J.W. Moon. Gainesville, FL: Outreach Program, Center for Latin American Studies, University of Florida. 15 pp. and 42 slides A cooperative in a rural community successfully markets their produce in the city, but finds economic activities are depleting the forest. Join them in the search for sustainable agriculture. Grades 7-12 and college.
  4. Traveling Suitcases are artifact collections reflecting daily life in specific Latin American regions with collections of national symbols, such as maps, flags and currency; artifacts from the agriculture, commercial and service sectors of the economy; handicrafts and newspapers. All grades.