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Volume 65 / Social Sciences

GEOGRAPHY: WESTERN SOUTH AMERICA


DANIEL W. GADE, Professor Emeritus of Geography, The University of Vermont

OF THE FIVE ANDEAN COUNTRIES canvassed for this cycle, the quality and quantity of geographical scholarship on Colombia stands out. At several administrative levels, Colombia has emphasized planning its space, an activity that carries with it analyses of a geographical nature. It also has a vigorous culture of publishing, and a well developed system of universities. In 2008 the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá established the first doctoral program in geography in the Andes. In comparison with Venezuela and Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia have received more research attention from foreign scholars. Several themes transcend country boundaries, most notably lowland deforestation, political ecology of resource exploitation, peasant out-migration, shantytown evolution around cities, and natural disaster management.

Three substantive studies of Andean pastoralism are flagged in this essay, one in Peru's Huancavelica Department (item #bi2009001212#) and two on the Altiplano of Peru and Bolivia (items #bi2008003503# and #bi2008003532#). A data-rich tome on altitudinal gradients in biogeography, an important concept for understanding Andean diversity, also merits mention here (item #bi2009001203#). Questions of environmental impact find a focus in the shambolic town that has formed below Machu Picchu (item #bi2008003508#). Two works on Andean migration point to the various scales with which that phenomenon can be investigated (items #bi2009000745# and #bi2008003552#). Two stimulating studies in historical geography include one on Apurimac Department, Peru, that reproduces colonial documents (item #bi2008003546#) and another that provides a cartographically rich account of the grid-pattern town in Ecuador as an idea brought from Spain (item #bi2008003541#). A postmodern approach to the Andean past suggests the insights that representation can provide (item #bi2009001214#). The history of geography is enriched by attention to two seminal figures: the natural scientist Francisco José de Caldas in a work that includes his exquisite maps (item #bi2008003542#) and Alexander von Humboldt in the Andes (items #bi2009000747# and #bi2008003512#).

Though professionally a much smaller field than history, geography is the least hermetic of the social sciences and that inclusiveness has turned it into an exceptionally sprawling discipline. At the same time, as in other domains of knowledge, the grip of intellectual fashion has marginalized many themes. Twenty years of canvassing Western South America for the HLAS point to certain lacunae in the knowledge quest of geographers. Rural depopulation has been going on apace in many parts of the Andes since the 1950s, yet little is recorded of its effects on the zones of departure in terms of declining villages, abandoned land, and changing land-use. The study of soil erosion based on diachronic fieldwork would shed light on an insidious process about which still too little is known. More research on production of export commodities would fill gaps in knowledge about the local effects of globalization. Historically oriented investigations that use increasingly organized and accessible archives to reconstruct past geographies offer a perspective that could also be incorporated into how regions emerge and consolidate. Once a staple of the discipline, regional geography will at some point again assert an important role to meet the demand for knowledge about places at various scales. Out of detailed knowledge about regions well informed by the past can emerge theoretical strands about place and the interplay of space and time. On another front, each Andean country holds extraordinary diversity that offers settings for research on biophysical processes. Since the arrival of Alexander von Humboldt to the New World in 1799, many geographers from different parts of the world have been enchanted with the environments of the Andean countries. When foreign and national scholars collaborate to form circles of affinity, a variety of benefits accrue for all concerned.


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