Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley, Peru (review)
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Ethnohistory 48.1-2 (2001) 373-375

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Book Review

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

Peasants on Plantations: Subaltern Strategies of Labor and Resistance in the Pisco Valley, Peru. By Vincent C. Peloso. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. xxi + 251 pp., preface, introduction, maps, glossary, bibliography, index. $49.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.)

Vincent C. Peloso’s account of labor relations on the cotton plantations along the southern coast of Peru fits squarely within a growing literature within subaltern studies. This literature challenges unidimensional characterizations of peasants and uses a wide range of sources to argue that peasants were active agents in shaping the economic and political life of the nation. Within Andean studies, the majority of such works have been concerned with conditions in the highlands rather than the coast. Furthermore, few span the time period on which Peloso focuses, the mid-nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II. Peloso’s study is unusual primarily for two reasons: the archival sources he uses, and his close attention to critical aspects of labor relations that many scholars have taken as given or found far too difficult and tedious to understand. Peloso draws on the rich archives found on estates themselves and in agrarian reform offices in district and provincial capitals. The latter accumulated as a consequence of the battles fought during agrarian reform proceedings in which estate owners, laborers, and agents of the government attempted to mount their defenses to retain or expropriate particular properties. Some of these documents date back to colonial times.

Peloso makes three principal arguments. His least remarkable conclusion is that peasants were not wholly dominated and often resorted to finely honed "arts of resistance," in the words of James Scott. Plantation owners played the same game of cat and mouse, wielding their "arts of domination." I am not entirely persuaded by his efforts to demonstrate the distinctions between domination and hegemony. In the end it seems to me that laborers on plantations rarely bucked exploitative conditions, although their creative tactics of resistance were impressive and Peloso has invested considerable labor in understanding them and making them come alive for us. While distinctive sectors of laborers on plantations demonstrated agency, it did not get them very far.

Peloso’s second argument is more original and raises important questions for historians and anthropologists who dwell on issues of political economy. In concluding that negotiation is the key to understanding the ability of peasants to manipulate instruments of control that plantation owners and managers put into place to create a malleable labor force, Peloso deconstructs the ways that these instruments worked–debt peonage, [End Page 373] known as enganche, credit relations, and labor and rental contracts themselves. By focusing on these instruments, Peloso immediately reduces the distance between the reader and the subject of the text, the workers of Hacienda Palto. Peasants become nonexotic and coeval as Peloso traces the sophistication and savvy that they exhibited in attempting to manipulate interest rates, loans, and contracts.

Scholars have never deconstructed debt peonage. Rather, they have taken for granted its exploitative nature, conflated credit and debt as part of the same circuit, and assumed that it made it possible for plantation owners to control the labor they needed so that cotton plantations could become a major growth sector of Peru’s economy. Peloso shows that long after slavery was abolished and long before yanaconaje (sharecropping) became the norm on plantations, fixed tenant farmers manipulated enganche–the practice of creating debt by advancing peasants credit–pitting the plantation owner against the manager to obtain more favorable conditions and greater autonomy. The circuit of credit and indebtedness had the unintended consequence of forcing owners to retain a resident labor force that was too big in the hope that they would eventually be repaid. This, of course, worked to the advantage of tenants who could continue to raise subsistence crops or to produce cotton for private sale to creditors other than the owner, and it kept more...