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Early Modern Perceptions of Human-Driven Environmental Change: Exploring Sixteenth Century Bolivia


Written by
Mario Graña Taborelli. PhD Candidate, Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, University of London

Discover more about environmental history and the human impact on climate change going back to the 16th century Spanish Conquest...

This blog is part of a series on environmental history leading up to History Day 2021 on Thursday 4 November. History Day brings together students, researchers and anyone with an interest in history with professionals from archives, libraries, and other organisations with history collections from the UK and beyond. This year the event will explore collections that capture the experiences of ordinary people, collectors and scientists, looking at nature, landscape, climate change and much more.

Climate change can be seen everywhere and it is affecting us in many ways that were totally unforeseen decades ago. With the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow 31 October - 12 November, and this year’s History Day on 4 November 2021, an opportunity for students, researchers and enthusiasts to explore collections across the UK on this year’s theme of environmental history,, it is a good time to look at early perceptions of human impact on the environment. 

The focus of my research and the topic of this blog is post-Conquest Spanish America, specifically in an area where Spanish occupation only began slowly, challenged by hostile indigenous peoples and a lack of mineral resources: the Andean slopes, their valleys, and lowland zones along the east of Charcas, in what is today Bolivia. 

Image below: Carta geographica de las provincias de la Gobernación del Rio de la Plata, Tucumán y Paraguay con parte de las confinantes Chile, Perú, Santa Cruz y Brasil. Archivo General de Indias (AGI, Seville, Spain). MP Buenos Aires 29.

Carta geographica de las provincias de la Gobernación del Rio de la Plata, Tucumán y Paraguay con parte de las confinantes Chile, Perú, Santa Cruz y Brasil. Archivo General de Indias (AGI, Seville, Spain). MP Buenos Aires 29. Image courtesy of Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport. Public Domain: Portal Archivos Espanoles.

Unlocking Hidden Gems – At What Cost?

Occupation spread quickly from 1545 onwards driven by the boom of mining in Potosi, the world’s source of silver at the time and Spain’s “Imperial jewel”. The land around La Plata -present day Sucre, Cochabamba, and beyond those sites -Mizque, Tomina and Tarija- became increasingly valuable to feed and sustain the thousands that used to inhabit the mining village, or were forced to work the mines, and who by the 1570s reached over 120,000, according to a now lost census ordered by viceroy don Francisco de Toledo (1569-1581). Putting this into perspective, such crowds probably matched in numbers those of a large European city as London at the time. Apart from horses, cows and pigs that the Spanish quickly brought to the area, the fertile lands of the east of Charcas and their mild climate initially provided large volumes of much needed timber, a trade historians still know very little about, that from the 1570s onwards was increasingly necessary not only for general construction works but also to erect hundreds of mills to process Potosi’s silver in a more industrial scale. However they also took advantage of the use of the amalgamation system, employing the deadly mercury that would contaminate rivers and pollute lakes and make humans and animals ill, also in an industrial scale. 

1588 map from AGI, MP Buenos Aires 12 showing the dense forests that once occupied the area in question.

The lands beyond were occupied by indigenous peoples, the Chiriguanaes, who fiercely opposed the expansion of the Spanish and their indigenous allies, largely Andeans of Aymara and other origins. The Chiriguanaes and other lowland indigenous peoples would become, from very early on, themselves a piece in the Potosi machine. Not as miners, as the harsh environment of the mountain village would not suit people more accustomed to milder climates, but as enslaved workers in those same farms run by the Spanish and Andeans along what would become one of the most conflictive borders of the Hispanic Monarchy. 

Land Mass: A Gift From God?

The environmental impact of Potosi was not noticeable to the Spanish and Andeans immediately. Sixteenth century Spaniards inhabited a deeply religious world and believed that precious metals had been gifts from God and grew in the ground and that some diseases originated from sinful behaviour or God’s willingness, and others due to being in an environment where someone did not belong to. Although, to a degree, this was a vision the Spanish shared with the Andeans, the original inhabitants of Peru exploited such resources in a more limited fashion, impossible in the mercantilist world of the early modern Europeans. 

However, visible signs of the impact of Spanish expansion on the environment, frequently perceived by members of Catholic religious orders travelling across the land, were slowly appearing everywhere. Castillian Hieronymite friar Diego de Ocaña lamented in the early seventeenth century that “not one single tree” could be found in an area 12 leagues around Potosi.  The New World, a region of the globe the Spanish used to compare to earth’s Eden, was quickly vanishing. Timber had to come, as a result, from farther afield. Dominican friar Reginaldo de Lizárraga stressed that because of the expansion of the Spanish via new towns and villages, snakes and other poisonous animals “would soon run away from the Spanish or would vanish”. He meant this in a positive way but, just as it would occur in earlier periods, wildlife would inevitably suffer with the foundation of towns and cities. Discalced Carmelite friar Antonio Vazquez de Espinosa, commented in surprise that over a decade later that the Pilcomayo river still had the same abundance of fish as in the past, as an example of the resilience of nature. 

Mining for Information

Despite claims that the post-Conquest human losses were such that global temperature may have fallen as a result, the history of the environmental impact of the Spanish Conquest in Charcas has not been written yet. Furthermore, climate change caused by Potosi is difficult to measure. The lack of sufficient and verifiable data and the fact that most of the sixteenth century saw what has been called  a “little ice age”, could distort any information and makes such a task almost impossible. However, what us historians can perceive through the small fragments of evidence we can piece together is a gradual deterioration of environmental conditions caused by human action, a pattern repeated across the globe wherever human expansion gathered pace, which seems to have accelerated since the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and which is clearly connected to climate change. Unfortunately, this situation has now reached a scale that is putting our existence on the planet at risk, and difficult choices may lie ahead of us.  

Mario Graña Taborelli. 
PhD Candidate, Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, University of London.

References/Further Reading:

Nicholas A. Robins, Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).

Diego de Ocaña and Beatriz Carolina Peña, Memoria viva de una tierra de olvido: relación del viaje al Nuevo Mundo de 1599 a 1607, 1. ed, Literatura de los Siglos de Oro de España y América (Barcelona: Paso de Barca, 2013)

Fray Reginaldo de Lizárraga Descripción Colonial, vol. Libro Primero (Buenos Aires: Librería de la Facultad, 1916)

Antonio Vásquez de Espinosa and Balbino Velasco Bayón, Compendio y Descripción de Las Indias Occidentales, 1. ed, Crónicas de América 68 (Madrid: Historia 16, 1992)

Alexander Koch et al. Earth System Impacts of the European Arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492, Quaternary Science Reviews 207 (March 2019)