This week, we have a guest post from Dr Natalia Gándara, a researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile.
During 2020 and 2021, the international press has run several stories about the presence of a Chinese fishing fleet in the South Eastern Pacific region. Governments in Chile, Peru, and Ecuador have installed alert and defence systems to monitor the extractivist activities of this fleet in their exclusive economic zones. Despite this, the NGO Oceana has reported that in the waters off the Galapagos Marine Reserve alone, the fleet pulled up thousands of tonnes of squid and fish. This phenomenon is not of course new. For centuries imperial powers have plundered the waters of the South Eastern Pacific, altering the marine ecosystems. If in the past, fur seals and sperm whales became a commodity, now is the turn of squid and tuna, products highly appreciated in the international market of the twenty-first century.
This history of extractivism and commodification of marine nature needs to be critically examined. Moreover, it acquires a sense of urgency as the region is increasingly facing the impact of climate change and the deterioration of marine ecosystems. In particular, we need new and disruptive ways of thinking about society’s relationship with nature to comprehend and tackle these social, economic, and environmental challenges. For historians, this means writing the history of the seas, oceans, and coastal communities in a way that focuses on representations of nature, power relations between locals and foreign powers, the changing needs of global markets, the knowledge systems and technologies used in fishing, as well as the localised human impact of these activities.
My doctoral thesis, titled ‘Thalassologies of Empire and Republic: Competing for Knowledge of the South Eastern Pacific in the Age of Revolutions’, engages with recent scholarship in environmental humanities. It explores the construction of global geographic knowledge systems and the commodification of coastal waters of the South Eastern Pacific, specifically addressing the changing representations and knowledge constructions of this region in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This focus allows me to analyse the origins of enduring social representations of the seas as spaces of natural resources for human exploitation and profit.
A critical understanding of society’s relationship with nature must also take into account the geopolitics of knowledge production and economic exploitation of these environments. In the case of Latin America in general and the South Eastern Pacific in particular, the commodification of the sea and its exploitation at an industrial scale in the late colonial and early national periods was entangled with imperialism, state formation, and the global expansion of capitalism. Crucially, my research also engages with how these power relations influenced and even shaped local representations and experiences with this marine region.
The commodification of the South Eastern Pacific propelled local initiatives to exploit what were considered local or national resources. In the late eighteenth century, colonial authorities in Chile and the viceroyalty of Peru fostered fishing projects, creating internal markets for these products, especially conger eels. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the South American republics had developed sizeable national fishing industries, particularly on whaling, catching animals from the Southern Ocean to the North Eastern Pacific.
Latin American coastal communities have historically been marginalised from the studies of the cultural productions and economic exploitation of the Pacific. The acknowledgment of their engagement in the exploitation of the sea and the commodification of marine nature is relevant to tackle current Eurocentric and imperialistic narratives about the South Pacific history, and, very importantly, to illuminate how to engage with historical unsustainable practices of marine exploitation in Latin America.
My goal as a researcher is to rethink the history of global commodification of the world’s oceans, to question current inequalities in the production and exploitation of marine nature and their impact on environmental justice, and to re-imagine human history in the light of the climate crisis. Only by linking local with national and global dynamics, and giving agency to local actors as well as international and imperial powers, we will be able to truly examine global representations of the world’s seas, their historical economic exploitation and to develop new critical understandings of how coastal communities respond to social and environmental pressures, particularly relevant in the current political and environmental context.