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Plant-human relations in Latin America and the ‘ontological turn’

Francoise Barbira Freedman

In the last two decades, anthropological, archaeological, ecological and plant studies in Latin America have led theoretical movements in the social sciences and humanities advocating an ontological approach to human-nonhuman relations. Based on Amerindian understandings, this approach implies a re-evaluation of certain concepts associated with the post-Enlightenment tradition of thought including nature, culture and humanity. Beyond the Anthropocene, this seminar critically introduces three main areas of plant-human relations in Latin America in which interdisciplinary research has been particularly fruitful and has contributed to new understandings of bio-sociality.

  • Indigenous plant knowledge has been vindicated by scientific research in many admirable ways. Symbioses known to Amerindians have been conducive to a re-thinking of Linnean classification and Darwinian evolution. Selected cases exemplify the vast but politically complex array of rejoinders to current ecology and plant sciences.
  • Understanding the ways in which plant-human relations are conceptualised locally, with shared semiotic features throughout Latin America, require a grasp of onto-epistemologies which have intrigued colonists since the 16th century. The de-centrality of humans in these epistemologies is linked to decolonising cultural critiques (Mignolo, Escobar).  How are radically divergent human-plant life-worlds constructed in an ontological “pluriverse”? In a post-humanist vein, we may also begin to ask what kind of “ontologies” plants themselves occupy, and how they might perceive—even conceive- their worlds and human beings (Kohn, 2013).
  • Ontological preoccupations are seductive, but they may hide knowledge wars centred on ‘conservation’ and the ‘politics of nature’.  While social scientists rally to concepts of historically changing ‘meshworks’ (Ingold) between humans, their cultivated plants and anthropogenic forests, the practice often remains one of split worlds. Examples of tentative networks and initiatives to bridge conceptual divides in practice highlight the contribution of the concept of bio-cultural diversity to resource management. Meanwhile, challenges at the grassroots prompt strategies to salvage vital plant-human interactions in situations of displacement and alienation.

Amerindian onto-epistemologies include the perception of plant and human interactions as one of co-evolution, give-and-take and cooperation since prehistory.  Understanding the socio-cultural and biological mechanisms and practices that give rise to these ways of knowing and experiencing the world has relevance far beyond the ‘ontological turn’.