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Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley of Peru.

Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley of Peru. By Vincent C. Peloso (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1999. xxi plus 251pp. $15.95/paperback).

The subject of this monograph is the history of labor on hacienda Palto, a cotton plantation in the Pisco River Valley on the southern coast of Peru. The time period is from just before the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) to 1940. Hacienda Palto belonged to the important Aspillaga family, one of the leading Peruvian families of the late nineteenth-century.

Author Peloso develops three parallel themes in this detailed study. The first theme is the shifts in labor with fluctuations in the price and demand for cotton. Prior to 1854, gangs of slaves worked the fields in a system of direct exploitation. Following the abolition of slavery, however, the planters in the Pisco Valley complained about chronic shortages of labor, or perhaps we should say cheap labor. The labor regime on Palto shifted from direct exploitation to different forms of tenantry that also involved sharecropping. The major forms were compania, fixed rent, and yanaconaje. All three systems involved division of the estate into rental parcels, payment of rent in crops, and some form of labor obligation. The major difference was the degree of control the hacienda administrators could impose on the tenants, with fixed rent tenants having the greatest degree of freedom. The plantation administrator also hired day laborers at times to work the demesne, the fields directly exploited by the owners.

The second theme is resistance, although in the case of hacienda Palto most resistance was subtle or passive. Tenants won the right to exclude hacienda livestock from eating the stubble in the fields following the harvest. Fixed rent tenants largely avoided labor obligations that other tenants had to fulfill. There were numerous examples of tenants lodging complaints, and in a few instances tenants went over the head of the hacienda administrator to complain directly to the owners. In 1917, as the owners shifted to a stricter form of tenantry, tenants responded with a strike. Loans formed a very important aspect of production and relations on Palto, and some tenants were able to go off of the hacienda to obtain credit.

The third theme can best be described as the ebb and flow of demand for cotton on the international market, and the ways that the hacienda administrators and tenants responded to fluctuations in demand and price. In periods of peak demand, such as during World War 1, more land was planted in cotton. During periods of stagnation, on the other hand, less land was dedicated to cotton, and more to growing food. As mentioned above, terms of tenantries also changed in response to the world market for cotton.

Peloso relies heavily on hacienda records for this study, and has produced a solid micro-historical study of labor relations and the internal economy of a cotton estate. The author navigates well the complexities and nuances of the different forms of tenantries, and the relations among tenants, wage laborers, the estate administrators, and owners. By placing the study within the context of the so-called "subaltern studies," Peloso has bought into one of the current trends in Latin American historiography. However, the "subaltern studies" approach does not bring new or interesting insights to an understanding of relations on hacienda Palto. Mercifully, Peloso does not use the heavy-handed jargon (verbaje) that some advocates of this supposedly new approach deem necessary to give their perspective legitimacy. The nature of relations on Palto boiled down to power exercised by the owners and their surrogate the administrator, and efforts by tenants to resist the authority of the owners and to carve out as comfor table a life as was possible. Other scholars have been able to study and document these power relationships without having to invoke an approach that really does not add to our understanding of the past.

While Peloso has done a good job of explaining the complex nature of tenantries on Palto, there are some weaknesses in his study. Throughout the book Peloso makes vague references to shifts in cotton prices, but only provides concrete information for the 1930s. Peloso also compares cotton prices and wages for the 1930s. Peloso's explanation for changes in the economy of hacienda Palto would have been stronger had he included tables and/or graphs of cotton prices, prices for other agricultural products, as well as wages and examples of rents paid by tenants for earlier periods, particularly the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries. What essentially should be a study that should present, in part, quantitative evidence has had much of that evidence stripped away. Peloso also provides some references to the amount of land cultivated on Palto, land cultivated by tenants, and lands directly exploited. Again, these references could have been more effectively presented in tabular form. Finally, Peloso has n ot come close to exhausting the existing literature on rural social and labor relations in the larger Andean region, both older studies as well as more recent ones. One glaring example is the late 1940s study of Bolivian rural labor by Rafael Reyeros titled E1 pongueaje. In this study Reyeros described forms of tenantries similar to the tenantries on hacienda Palto, and would have provided useful material for comparison.

With these substantial reservations in mind, Peloso has still produced a serviceable study. The use of detailed estate records allows the author to describe the complexities of labor relations on one hacienda. Peloso provides interesting and important insights from which other scholars will benefit. Peloso's study is worth reading, but it also could have been much stronger if the author had included more contextual information to give meaning to the patterns being described.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jackson, Robert H.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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