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Year : 2019  |  Volume : 17  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 236-249

Negotiating the Taskscape. Relocating Human – Environmental Relationships in Conservation Proposals around Palm Forests in Uruguay

Centro Universitario Regional del Este, Universidad de la República, Rocha, Uruguay

Correspondence Address:
Juan Martin Dabezies
Centro Universitario Regional del Este, Universidad de la República, Rocha
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_17_147

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Date of Web Publication3-Jul-2019


Butia odorata palm forests of southern Uruguay face conservation problems. This species is the identity benchmark of the region and it represents an important source of income for local people who make food products to sell to tourists. To prevent the disappearance of the Butiá forests, different proposals have been developed to protect the ecosystem. These proposals focus on arguments such as aesthetic beauty and ecosystem services from a naturalistic perspective. Following the concept of taskscape developed by Ingold, T, I propose an alternative way of negotiating conservation of the Butiá landscape in terms of the overlap of features, affordances, tasks and temporality of the Butiá life.

Keywords: taskscape, landscape, Butia odorata palm, conservation, anthropology, Uruguay

How to cite this article:
Dabezies JM. Negotiating the Taskscape. Relocating Human – Environmental Relationships in Conservation Proposals around Palm Forests in Uruguay. Conservat Soc 2019;17:236-49

How to cite this URL:
Dabezies JM. Negotiating the Taskscape. Relocating Human – Environmental Relationships in Conservation Proposals around Palm Forests in Uruguay. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2019 [cited 2020 Aug 11];17:236-49. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2019/17/3/236/255888

   Introduction Top

The Butia odorata palm tree is one of the most austral species of the palm tree family (Hoffmann et al. 2014). The Butia odorata palm (hereinafter referred to as Butiá palm or Butiá palm forest) form monospecific forests covering 70,000 ha in the southeast of Uruguay and part of the southern tip of Brazil (Rivas et al. 2004). In some areas, the Butiá forest is characterised by up to 600 palms per ha. Butiá has strong symbolic meaning in southeast Uruguay, as it forms part of the coat of arms and the departmental anthem and is present as a regional emblem in public and private iconography.

In the southwest of the Butiá palm forest there is an area called Palmar de Castillos. A small rural village called Vuelta del Palmar, home to twelve families, is located on the fringes of the Castillos Butiá forest. These families, primarily the women, make and sell handicraft products derived from Butiá. In addition, they also engage in small-scale cattle and sheep breeding (mostly for consumption, yet occasionally for sale) and have some small plantations to feed the livestock or for their own consumption. They make their products using practices that have been passed down through generations that have generally inhabited the same area or its surroundings. In addition to this group of artisans, there are three micro-businesses that manufacture products with Butiá fruits (Pizzanelli et al. 2013).

Palm forests have been part of UNESCO's Bañados del Este (Eastern Wetlands) Biosphere Reserve since 1976 and cutting down grown palms has been prohibited since the National Act No. 9872 was passed in 1939. Nevertheless, Butiá forests are under threat because they are located on private property where agricultural activity often takes place (mainly rice and livestock), which threatens the reproduction of the ecosystem (Rivas 2005). In response, the academic sector, NGOs and different governmental bodies have put forward several conservation proposals for the palm forests since the late twentieth century (Báez et al. 2000; PROBIDES 2000; Molina 2001; Nin et al. 2011; Rivas 2013). These theoretical proposals, most of which have never been implemented, aimed to promote ecological and economic sustainability.

Generally, conservation activities focus on marginal zones in terms of productivity. However, the human groups that inhabit these areas (usually indigenous groups, rural populations, mestizos, etc.) are affected by these processes. Although for much of conservation history the arguments that have supported its objectives have focused on the search for ecosystem balance, scenic beauty and/or biodiversity, the current conservation paradigm focuses on the economic value of nature conservation (Vaccaroet al. 2012). In this framework, local populations affected by conservation proposals are occupying an increasingly important place in conservation and development discourses (Brightman et al. 2017).

This discursive inclusion can be understood as part of what Adams (2017) calls “conservation from above”, which is supported by international financial institutions, global conservation structures and trade organisations at different scales. According to this new paradigm, conservation is seen as a strategy of local development to generate revenue. However, human-environmental relationships which do not align with these strategies tend to be devalued and marginalised by such approaches to conservation. This form of conservation establishes a hierarchy of knowledge in which decision-making processes are based on scientific knowledge (Adams 2017), natural sciences being at the top of this pyramid of knowledge (Bennett et al. 2017). Academic scientific knowledge is at the basis of the system of understanding the hegemonic powers that support conservation (Hobart 2002). As part of the scientific system, this work proposes a discursive negotiation with the natural sciences. Its goal is to criticise the structure of this knowledge hierarchy, denaturalising conservation and repositioning human-environmental relations at the core of conservation discourse.

The conservation proposals for both Butiá and the people who live in close relation to it, are focused on the Butiá forest as a biological entity, highlighting its aesthetic, economic and/or ecosystem values. Following the ideas put forth by naturalistic ontology (Descola 2001), I have chosen to refer to this approach, which separates humans from the nature to be conserved, as the “naturalistic way of managing the conservation of nature”. This separation has fostered processes and policies of social exclusion (West et al. 2006). In this sense, nature conservation processes must be understood as political and cultural processes rather than as processes of ecological order (Santamarina 2006). Following the proposal of landscape ethnography (Ogden 2011), with this work I aim to understand the political asymmetries between species and make “the human back into the multispecies collective”.

Social sciences should foster dialogue among the stakeholders involved in nature conservation, encouraging those agents who are subsumed in the hierarchy of knowledge of the conservation system (Adams 2017) as a key tool to resist cultural homogenization (Santamarina 2009). In this case, the stakeholders are not only the artisans of Vuelta del Palmar and the institutions linked to conservation, but also the prehistoric populations whose lives were strongly linked to Butiá as well as European settlers during colonial times and the early twentieth century, all of whom established specific links with Butiá. The historically constituted human-environmental relationships are a central aspect of the Butiá life. While these relationships are mentioned as tangential aspects in some conservation proposals, they are not at the centre of conservation discourses. I argue that Butiá has functioned as a life structuring element in the landscape of the lowlands of eastern Uruguay for some 5000 years.

In this paper I consider that the naturalistic approach focused on the natural elements is not enough to protect the life associated with the Butiá palm forests. This approach fails to account for the role played by Butiá in shaping the landscape of south-eastern Uruguay in a diachronic perspective, as it does not give enough importance to the people who have been, and still are, linked to Butiá. Understanding these human-Butiá relationships – the elements that make up the entity to be protected as well as the spatial extent and the human practices that will be regulated – is critical for conservation strategies.

Land management and nature conservation have incorporated the category of landscape as a powerful tool capable of capturing human-environmental relationships as a part of environmental conservation processes (Reed et al. 2016). The term landscape has always been linked to the concept of space, as the land that extends to the horizon and the individual objects on it (Gupta et al. 2008), a measurable, fractionable and sealable land (Criado-Boado 1993). Ingold (1993) proposed the concept of the 'taskscape' to connect local practices with the concept of landscape. Following Tim Ingold's concept of the taskscape (Ingold 1993, 2002), I suggest an inside-oriented approach to the Butiá landscape, focusing on the actions carried out “in what is out there” from a diachronic perspective. Just as landscape is often understood as a summation of material characteristics, the taskscape is defined by an understanding of human-environment activities as inseparable. In this paper, I draw on the taskscape concept to put forward a series of key arguments related to the features and affordances, tasks and movement, and temporality that characterise the Butiá landscape.

Thinking of Butiá as a structuring element of life on a time-space scale like the one proposed would allow us to imagine conservation strategies that go beyond exceptionality (beauty and rarity) or economic value (real or potential utility). For this purpose, I propose a diachronic perspective to reposition everyday life around Butiá as an argument for conservation. I suggest that we should think of the Butiá's taskscape as the accumulation of human-environmental relationships structured in tasks, movements and rhythms embedded in culture and social life, which are part of temporalities that appear intertwined according to the features and affordances of Butiá.

   Approach Top

This work followed an ethnographic approach, linking different techniques. I conducted fieldwork over three years, from September 2011 until July 2014. This involved regular contact with the artisans of Vuelta del Palmar and members of the micro-businesses. I conducted 22 open-ended interviews and engaged in informal conversations and participant observation with around thirty people, mostly from Vuelta del Palmar, but also including the R&D sector and the Departmental Council of Rocha 1. In addition, I also collected bibliographical and web data, explored secondary archives and carried out archaeological prospecting and ethno-cartography. The combination of techniques is important in terms of the selected approach, which attempts to think about human-environmental relationships at different temporal and spatial scales. It also makes it possible to triangulate information from different sources to consider their convergences and divergences, looking for new angles of analysis that were not initially planned.

To analyse secondary archives, I reviewed files and documents of the Departmental Council of Rocha, including unpublished fieldnotes from 47 days of fieldwork by the Botanical Garden and Museum of Montevideo “Prof. Atilio Lombardo” (hereafter “the Botanical Garden”) in the Butiá palm forest 2 as well as the private “Néstor Rocha”3 archive, which consists of 44 audio-taped interviews that gathered oral accounts of the uses and conservation of Butiá palm forests in Uruguay from 1993 to 2002. Regarding the spatial analysis, I carried out archaeological and ethnocartographic exercises with the residents of Vuelta del Palmar in order to gain knowledge of past and present spatiality in human-Butiá relationships.

The archaeological survey was carried out after the ethnographic field work began. In the interviews, several material elements were identified: pens made of Butiá palms, factories where palm leaves were processed and the villages where many factory workers lived, among others. This was all remotely mapped (through Google Earth images) and then on-site assessment was carried out so as to characterise them with greater accuracy. Ethno-cartographic work was done to identify certain areas both inside and outside the palm forest. For this purpose, some reference areas were marked, such as national routes and roads, beaches, large bodies of water, mountain ranges, etc. Also, further questions were asked to ascertain the spatial expression of the current and past practices of the Butiá forest in terms of use and perception.

   Butiá Conservation Top

From conservationist, agronomic and biological perspectives, Butiá palms and particularly palm forests are one of the most studied scientific objects in the southeast of Uruguay [Figure 1]. One of the main reasons why palms have become objects of scientific study for conservation purposes is their difficult reproduction. Most of the Butiá palm forest is located on private farms where a number of farming activities are carried out. Rice farming, open-field pig breeding and cattle and sheep overgrazing currently pose the main threats to the reproduction of palm forests (Rivas et al. 2004). The lands flooded for rice production make it impossible for new palms to grow, while pig breeding damages and often ruins the seeds, and cattle and sheep overgrazing exerts great pressure on the pastures, which results in animals feeding on younger palms before these reach the height of the pastures. Considering these threats to the seeds and young palms together with the fact that palm forests are formed by aged palms (some 200-300 years old), reproduction difficulties are leading to their disappearance (Molina 2001; Rivas et al. 2004)4.
Figure 1: Map of the working area. Source: the author

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Out of the many plant groups in the region that face reproduction challenges, as is the case for other types of native forests (Soutullo et al. 2009), Butiá forests have raised more academic interest both at a local and national level (at least discursively). Different kinds of arguments are presented as axiomatic and innate attributes in favour of conservation of the Butiá forest. One of these attributes is scenic and landscape beauty. This quality was mentioned in the field notes of the works carried out by the Botanical Garden. One of the journals written during one of the field trips organised by the team of Botanical Garden botanists says that palm forests “provide the area with a tropical look of undeniable scenic beauty.”5 Moreover, the argument of the forest's scenic beauty appears in several scientific publications: “These plant communities are known for their biological diversity, scenic and cultural value, and for the traditional use of its fruits” (Rivas et al. 2004: 12), “with high biodiversity, scenic and cultural values” (Berretta et al. 2007: 31) “that stand out because of their scenic beauty, creating a unique landscape” (Rivas 2005: 162). In the preface of one book edited by members of a local NGO, it says: “I have never seen and maybe there is not such a beautiful palm forest. If it is not the most beautiful in the world, the mere fact of it being the most beautiful we have would be enough to pay it this much attention” (Geymonat et al. 2009: 14).

Regarding the forest, the aesthetic aspect is very much linked to palm density [Figure 2], something that was highlighted by Arechavaleta (1892: 97) when he referred to the palm forest as a “cluttered jungle of palms”, an observation that is constantly made in many scientific publications. Several works have aimed to quantify this palm density (Molina 2001; Rivas et al. 2004; Zaffaroni 2004; Rivas 2005, 2010, 2013), as it is one of the main attributes in defining its uniqueness and even one of the aspects to be considered when selecting different areas of the forest for conservation. According to Rivas (2013: 62), “for the high-density palm forest, of only 223.4 ha of extension, mainly located in an area known as Vuelta del Palmar, its global inclusion in a conservation proposal may be suggested because of its high landscape value.”
Figure 2: Palm density in the palm forest. Source: the author

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Attributes such as scenic and landscape beauty, high palm density and their past and present importance have contributed to the argument of the exceptional nature of Butiá palm forests. Furthermore, the feeling of shortage and nostalgia derived from their reproductive situation has been the basis of the boom of scientific research. The argument of scenic beauty and its association with nostalgia related to natural heritage has been a key argument throughout the history of conservation (Santamarina 2009; Meskell 2012). In general, these proposals based on exceptionality do not include everyday practices as key elements. Not only do they promote a greater estrangement between nature and culture, but they also generate another level of separation between natures: the common nature, which is abundant, and the exceptional one, which must be conserved.

Although there have been several ideas and proposals to conserve the Butiá forest, presently none of them are being executed. Most of the proposals were projects oriented to diagnose and elaborate theoretical guidelines to find economic sustainability. Amongst these, there was one project supported by the Ministry of Livestock and Agriculture of Uruguay which proposed to regulate agricultural practices and organise tours to the Butiá forest, aiming to maintain ecosystem functions and services (Nin et al. 2011). Another project funded by the National Agency of Research and Innovation consisted of a proposal to organize tours to the historical palm pens used for cattle management in the 17th and 19th centuries (Dabezies et al. 2015). A third proposal, with a line of approach from plant genetic resources, aimed to delimit the palm forest's landscape based on “high ecosystemic and genetic richness values” (Rivas et al. 2017: 116).

However, as previously stated, these proposals were never made into actual conservation actions. A fourth project, that was implemented, consisted of building a Butiá processing plant in Vuelta del Palmar. This project indirectly aimed to conserve the palm forest. The main goal of this processing plant, built by the local NGO Casa Ambiental and funded by the European Commission, was to improve the manufacturing practices of handcrafted food products within a general framework of conservation of the Butiá forest as well as “its cultural values”. Although it was supposed to bring about great technical improvements which could help to boost the economy for the artisans of Vuelta del Palmar, the project proved unsuccessful and the plant eventually fell into disuse. Currently, it is used for very limited purposes, as the artisans from Vuelta del Palmar no longer work there. Instead, they manufacture their products in their houses, located just a few meters away. The main reason for its failure was the imposition of a productive model that aimed to reify local knowledge in standardized recipes (Dabezies 2018).

These types of proposals are framed within what Vaccaro et al (2012) call 'neoliberal models', since they intend to position Butiá as a natural asset. Another project linked to this model aims to regulate the livestock management in large productive areas, as this often impedes palm tree regeneration. In these areas, animal farming is limited because palms occupy a large area of productive land (in some cases, there are 600 palms per hectare). While cattle can graze within the palm forest, palms appear as an obstacle to production as they reduce the productive space for grazing. This proposal aims to create specific rotation systems for cattle grazing that would not only allow the forest to regenerate, but it would also keep or increase the productive income (Rivas 2013). This does not intend to use the palm forest to obtain greater net profit. Even though this system is still merely a theoretical model, it maintains an economic logic aimed to increase productivity and obtain economic benefits from the use of nature under a different type of management.

In all the proposals framed within or linked to the neoliberal conservation model, the development of economic activities based on Butiá by-products would work as a way of adding value to the palm forest. But they are not regarded as conservation objects per se. From this perspective, although the cultural aspect adds value to the natural aspect (Barilani 2009; Nin et al. 2011), the ultimate aim is to protect the nature within which culture is comprised.

The places and areas that have been key to the configuration of the technical and social activities that have brought people and Butiá together do not seem to be relevant according to current proposals, especially in terms of the conservation spaces selected for their social significance. At a general, discursive level, the inclusion of human-Butiá relations as elements capable of adding value, yet not as objects of value per se for conservation purposes, can be interpreted from the perspective of the social exclusion and cultural homogenisation that often result from nature conservation processes (West et al. 2006; Santamarina 2009; Adams 2017; Escobar 2017). Considering that anthropology has a key role in the analysis of the diversity of forms of human-environmental relations pointing to the interpellation of cultural homogenization processes (Richards 2002), I emphasise the need for the inclusion of the social and cultural life related to the Butiá forest as a core argument. For this, it is important to combine different time-space scales as well as different levels of analysis, including everyday practices, the analysis of global discourses and the relationship between these (Brightman et al. 2017).

   Landscape and Taskscape Top

The hegemonic concept of landscape as a set of features that are “out there in the land” must be rethought in order to be a heuristic and critical tool at the same time. To do this, it is necessary to understand the landscape from the perspective of the daily practices that configure it, something that can be emphasized using the concept of taskscape (Ingold 1993). I use the taskscape concept to disassemble the outside-centred and objectivist idea of landscape and emphasise landscape configuration in relation to practice. Just as the concept of landscape can be understood as the set of features that configure an environment, the taskscape can be understood as the set of activities that define it. The landscape is the accumulated imprint of the taskscape on environment; it is the 'taskscape made visible' (Ingold 2002). Ingold notes that “I shall adopt the term 'task', defined as any practical operation, carried out by a skilled agent in an environment, as part of his or her normal business of life. [...] Every task takes its meaning from its position within an ensemble of tasks, performed in series or in parallel, and usually by many people working together” (Ingold 1993). These activities have certain temporal and spatial patterns that shape the landscape but are also interconnected with each other and with marks on the landscape. These marks thus represent human activities (past and present), as well as interactions with non-human lives. The landscape, as well as the taskscape, is in continuous movement and creation.

The taskscape model allows us to connect knowledge with skill, practice, atmosphere and place; it establishes links between Butiá palms and the practices related to Butiá. In this way, it is possible to define the taskscape perspective as a type of link with Butiá palms and the people who make use of them. Conceiving the Butiá landscape means focusing on temporality and movement, the possibilities of action (affordances), and the tasks involved in its configuration. Thinking about the landscape from this perspective allows us to focus on the relational aspect according to the concept of taskscape, thus locating Butiá at the core of the discourse but in terms of its relationship with other elements. This shift would implicitly place other species at the centre of conservation. This is a key exercise in order to address the current conservation discourses that generate a discursive asymmetry among the species involved (Ogden 2011).

A fundamental characteristic of the taskscape is its temporality, not as the course of time in a chronological, linear sense, but as the resonance of interconnected rhythms. Just as a song follows a unique rhythm (which can be measured using a metronome), in which the different instruments are interlaced, the taskscape coexists in an articulated way with many different social rhythms produced by different human activities (tasks). The temporality of the taskscape is social in that it is the product of the interaction of different social rhythms that are coupled, self-adjusting and based on mutual attention. Ingold (1993) proposes the term 'resonance' to refer to the interrelationship of self-adjusting rhythmic patterns. In the case of the landscape, other non-human factors are involved in configuring the resonance. This resonance is established by the interrelations of rhythms between humans and nonhumans, including animate and inanimate entities. On a larger scale, these adjustments are part of reproductive cycles, migrations, and learning, which resonate as part of the behaviour of these animate beings. In the case of interactions with inanimate beings, visibility and the speed of movements can make it difficult to see these adjustments (Ingold 2002).

Although not easily perceived by humans, inanimate beings also move and interact, adjusting their rhythms with one another and with other animate beings. The human capacity to see things in the world depends not only on the size of things, the distance and their ability to emit, reflect and refract light, but also on the speed of movement or its variations (Adey 2006). The Earth's rotation around the sun or on its own axis is imperceptible as such for humans. However, they are embedded in other much more visible events such as night-time and daytime, the seasons or tidal shifts, among others. They are easily discernible rhythms for human beings that also resonate with social and productive processes and activities. The temporality of the landscape is composed by the resonance of social rhythms (taskscape) with non-humans (Ingold 1993).

Past taskscapes are part of multi-rhythmic resonance processes. The incorporation of previous activities related to the use of Butiá are present in different ways. The lithic archaeological remains made to crack the fruits of the palm and the infrastructure developed during the twentieth century to extract fibres from the Butiá leaves are, among other elements, part of historic processes of human-environmental relationships. Many of these trajectories remain embedded in daily life while others that have been abandoned often have an archaeologically-visible materiality and spatiality.

   Results Top

Features and Affordances of Butiá

The interaction between humans and non-humans depends on the possibilities of interaction. The possibilities of doing depend on the possibilities of the doer and the affordances of the environment in which the action takes place (Gibson 1979). To this end, humans who have developed their practices at resonant rhythms have transformed those practices into skills that are embodied in procedures that often have interconnected patterns. Human skills are the product of successive adjustments in interaction and resonance activities. The possibility of harvesting fruits from a Butiá palm depends on the palms' having fruits and people having the ability to do so. Landscape affordances are important elements for understanding human-environmental relationships and defining the axis of a certain type of relationship, as in the case of human-Butiá relations. The affordances are not only defined by relationships between the palms and humans, but by a large set of animate and inanimate beings that also resonate in the temporality of the landscape. Landscape features that may seem opposed to taskscape activities are materialisations of past and present human and nonhuman lives that are interwoven.

Butiá palms are 10 metres tall in the adult phase (reaching up to 12 metres) and it is estimated that they can live up to 200 years. Their leaves are between 2 and 3 metres long and their fleshy fruits are eaten by humans and other animals. It produces fruit in autumn, feeding many wild animals. As for human consumption, Butiá fruits are used to make jam, liqueurs or eaten fresh, among many other local uses (PROBIDES 1995; Dabezies 2009, 2011). In addition to the fruit pulp (mesocarp), the seed (endosperm) and the seed shell (endocarp) are also consumed. The seed is used for direct consumption or it may be roasted to make a type of flour or as flavouring to drink with milk or water (locally known as coconut coffee). It was also used for oil extraction in a local industry called “Cocopalm Oil Factory”, which operated between 1943 and 1948 (PROBIDES 1995). Seed shells were used as floor mortar in rural houses and as fire fuel in homes and factories. Currently, the affordances of the palm are centred on the fruit, which is the part that is most used today, and also acts as an attractor of human and non-human life 6.

Such life attraction is also observable in the settlement of humans in certain areas driven by the proximity to the fruits and to the consolidation of technological projects oriented to improve production from the fruits. Regarding the first aspect, the consolidation of the rural village of Vuelta del Palmar, where the artisan producers of Butiá products are concentrated, is linked to the possibility of having better access to the fruits. The location and economic life of this village was influenced by the production and sale of Butiá products. The territorial configuration is not only given by the proximity to the palm forest, but also by the proximity to National Route No. 9, which has a significant flow of tourists who buy Butiá products. As we will see later on, the temporality of productive work with Butiá is related to the location of the production sites and, above all, the selling points located between the forest and the national route.

The importance of the fruits as the main affordance of the palm forest has an archaeological correlation. Several lines of evidence support the idea that the Butiá has played an important role in the subsistence of prehistoric groups that inhabited the area of the Butiá forest about 5000 years ago (known as the Constructores de Cerritos). Microscopic remains of fruits of these palms have been found in archaeological sediments at several archaeological sediment and human artifacts (Bracco et al. 2000b; Campos et al. 2001; Capdepont et al. 2005; Bracco et al. 2008). There is also more indirect evidence such as the existence of the “rompecocos” (coconut breaker), a stone tool used specifically to break Butiá fruits and take the albuminous seed. The use of this device was generalised about 4,000 years ago in the lowlands of eastern Uruguay (Mazz et al. 2002; Mazz et al. 2007; Bracco et al. 2008) and was largely spread in pre-Columbian America, linked to the use of the different palm varieties (Boretto 1980; Politis et al. 1997). Although the fruit is currently the most used part of the palm, leaf micro-rests have also been found in archaeological contexts (Capdepont et al. 2005). In addition, the analysis of ethnographic and ethnohistoric documentation in the region suggest that palms were used in a comprehensive way for several other purposes such as developing weapons, ceremonies and funeral rites, basketry, fuel, housing, rope-making and developing musical instruments as well as for medicinal purposes, hunting, fishing and transportation (del Puerto 2003).

Even though the leaves are currently used in making sunshades, today they are not widely used in other ways. However, this was one of the most used parts of the palm during the twentieth century, when the extraction of fibres from the leaves was industrialised. The industrialisation of Butiá fibre production began in southern Brazil (next to Santa Vitoria do Palmar, Rio Grande do Sul) in the early twentieth century (Puig y Nattino 1915) and continued well into the 1930s, as the fibre was used for stuffing mattresses (Rossato et al. 2007; Büttow 2008). The creation of these factories was boosted by the implementation of the Import Substitution Model at the national level, which aimed to promote national industrial production. With the implementation of this policy that marked Uruguay's economy from 1930 to 1960, manufacturing grew stronger (Arnábal et al. 2010). The abandonment of the model and the subsequent importation of synthetic fibres resulted in the collapse of the palm fibre industry.

Prior to the introduction of large trees such as the Eucalyptus and the Pine (which are currently widespread in Uruguay), Butia odorata palms represented one of the tallest plants, their trunks being the most upright, a key attribute in the use of palms throughout the world (Balick 1984). The trunk straightness meant palms were used in the construction of pens for livestock management during colonial border disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish. From 1493 until 1793, Spain and Portugal signed nine different treaties related to border disputes. Some fortifications were built in the current Uruguayan territory (Fort of San Miguel and Santa Teresa Fortress) and the current cities of Maldonado (1750) and San Carlos (1764) were founded, being at that time border cities. The objective of these treaties, military buildings and the founding of settlements was to prevent the Portuguese from advancing westwards. But a process of consolidation and settlement of the border began in 1793 with the founding of the city of Rocha (current departmental capital). As part of this process, the border started to be slowly populated in the late eighteenth century. Prompted mainly by the fixation of political boundaries, the process soon became attractive because of the possibility of taking advantage of the free cattle that abounded in the area. In this context, a system called “homestead farming” (which granted land to settlers for productive use) was implemented in the surrounding area of the city of Castillos at the time of its foundation in 1866 (Fajardo 2002).

Within this framework, the palm pens used for cattle management played a key role in the lives of those who lived near the border. While there is currently no data about the date when the pens were built, there are several historical documents that refer to its existence in 1831 (Perdomo 2011). Pen palms are circular or rectangular spaces built with Butia odorata palms, although construction is sometimes accompanied with stones. It is made with young transplanted palms which enclose the pen. These pens extended from the city of Castillos to Santa Vitoria do Palmar (Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil). As part of the archaeological prospections of this work, I identified 16 pens between the city of Castillos and the current border with Brazil. Although some of them are visible at first glance, they may be difficult to identify if they are surrounded by palms or other trees. Sometimes there are just a few remaining palms, which meant I had to make an aerial photo-interpretation of the evidence on the surface left by the missing palms to map them correctly.

Movement and Tasks

The study of the role of movement in the configuration of human life is a highly developed field in geography (Adey 2006; Sheller et al. 2006). There has been particular interest in floodplains due to the strong relationship between flood regimes, transportation technologies, road networks, route design, and movement cycles, among others. In her work focusing on the flooded lands in the Everglades, for example, Ogden (2011) analysed the role that movement has played in the configuration of the landscape. In this swampland, the possibilities for and limitations of movements generate a type of human and non-human mobility that is in itself a way of producing territory.

The area of southeastern Uruguay where the Butiá palm forest is located is known as the lowlands of the eastern region of Uruguay [Figure 3]. One of the peculiarities of these wetlands is that they include several coastal lagoons, surrounded by floodplains, hill ranges and the Atlantic coast. The palm forests are mainly located in these wetlands or their immediate surroundings (Zaffaroni 2004). Given the abundance of floodplains, rice farming is currently one of the most developed agricultural practices in the region. Together with livestock, they represent the two most important economic activities. Economically speaking, beach tourism, mainly during the summer season, comes third (Barrenechea et al. 2008).
Figure 3: Illustrated map of the Department of Rocha, Uruguay. Source: Andres Robaina and Mateo Folco (PROBIDES, Uruguay)

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In these flooded lands, small variations in sea level or rainfall have a strong impact on land availability. This factor has been critical in the configuration of the landscape and the possibilities for human and nonhuman movement and their rhythms. The spatial distribution and configuration of the landscapes of the region have been strongly influenced by the availability of non-flooded land for over 5000 years. Sea level shifts throughout the Holocene determined the possible locations of human settlements and forms of terrestrial communication. This configuration of prehistoric logistics may have been associated with territorial control and the use of mounds that archaeologically characterize the Constructores de Cerritos7 as territorial marks, delimiting spaces and giving them meaning (Gianotti 2000a, b, 2005).

The distribution of these floodplains was key in the colonisation process between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The process of dispute and consolidation of the border between the Portuguese and Spanish empires was linked to permanent human settlement and the movement of people and animals, mainly cattle, across the border. The construction of palm pens is associated with these movement phenomena. They are located mainly along the Camino del Indio (Indian Trail), one of the two main routes connecting the current Uruguayan and Brazilian territories. The pens were constructed with palms that were transplanted when they were a little less than 2 metres high [Figure 4]. Some hypotheses about the origin of the palm pens posit that they were built between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as part of a cattle management strategy in Vaquerías del Mar, belonging to the missions of the Jesuit order settled in the Southern Cone of America around the year 1678 (Pintos 2011). This idea suggests that these pens were used by cattle drovers and smugglers as part of their territorial logistics between Portugal and Spain (Oliveira et al. 2006; Oliveira 2009; Oliveira et al. 2009). Another hypothesis on livestock management proposes that pens were built once a permanent population had already been established in the border area. In that sense, pens were used to enclose either the cattle or the horses used to manage the cattle. In this case, the builders were people who kept cattle within their property and also had to carry out various types of activities to handle it. This hypothesis links the construction of pens with the delimitation of the Uruguayan border, pointing to the settlement of permanent residents.
Figure 4: Different views of the palm pens in the lowlands area. Source: edited by the author with own images and Néstor Rocha images

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Despite the different hypotheses regarding the functionality of pens, this period would be characterised by a taskscape related to the use of palm pens as a resting place for drovers and smugglers or for livestock management on private property. Without ruling out the multifunctionality of these pens, which may have also changed over time, all scenarios are characterised by the activity of handling cattle. Today the landscape is characterised by localised activities of livestock management related to those pens. Moreover, the border played a key role in structuring this landscape. The movement of cattle across the border (the smuggling hypothesis), or the explicit need to avoid such movement, i.e. fixed cattle management activities in private properties where pens would be located (the fixed cattle hypothesis), are “opposite” hypotheses that depend on how the border is conceived. The tasks involved in the creation and use of pens includes knowledge and skills related to the ecology of palms, specifically their transplantation, cattle management, and forms of transboundary mobility of livestock. The structure and rhythm of movements of cattle or horsemen during that time were closely linked to the availability of drylands.

During much of the twentieth century, the movements related to the industrialisation of fibre extraction were linked to the location of factories, the affordances of the lowlands and the palms and the accessibility to the palms. Initially, all the factories were located in Paso del Bañado some 5 km away from the city of Castillos. According to some accounts, there were between 5 and 10 factories, some of which coexisted while others changed owners; at times, different factories are referred to with the same name (or vice versa), which makes this quantification slightly inaccurate. The reasons that led these plants to be installed in Paso del Bañado were proximity to the palm forest and closeness and connectivity to the city of Castillos. During the time these factories existed, there was a considerable increase in the population of Paso del Bañado, as several workers were located in the village near the factories. At that time, there were people who specialised in cutting leaves and there was also an intermediate leaf trade. The harvested leaves were transported to the factories by car or by truck. The process of fibre production was called “fiberising” and it demanded several stages: separating the leaves from the stem, passing them through a softening machine, extracting the finest fibre, weaving it into a rope with a carding machine and pressing the ropes [Figure 5].
Figure 5: The fiberising processes. Source: edited by the author with figures of Geymonat and Rocha (2009)

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In this period characterised by the industrial process of making fibres from the leaves of the palms, several activities that characterise this taskscape can be defined. Harvesting is the activity that brings people and Butiá most closely together, as it involves going deep into the Butiá forest and reaping the most appropriate ones without hurting the palm leaves. It is a very specific activity that involves direct contact between the person and the palm through physical effort and specific techniques and technology. These localised activities involved in the harvesting process were the beginning of a production chain that continued with the transportation and fiberising process that took place in factories located in Castillos or Paso del Bañado. This landscape was characterised by activities and skills that revolved around Butiá palms, but which also defined a social universe of people united by these activities and the interaction between people, palms and machines.

As previously explained, the fruit has become the most commonly used part of the palm since the late twentieth century and particularly since the beginning of this century. While its sale to tourists is currently the most widespread activity, the fruit was historically used to make liquors and sweets at a domestic level. The vast majority of the tasks of the artisans of Vuelta del Palmar are linked to the development of products derived from the fruit. The artisans of Vuelta del Palmar often harvest the fruit themselves for local consumption. If the harvest is too demanding, then they informally outsource the task to neighbours or rural workers who work at a very low cost 8. Artisans usually cut the fruits off the youngest adult palms, so they can get the fruits with their own hands (or using a knife). Harvesting in this way does not pose a threat to the reproduction of the Butiá forest. Harvesting between 10 and 50 palms provides enough material to cover the artisans' productive needs for a whole year. Harvest sites are varied. Some growers harvest from palms located in public spaces, usually on the sides of roads, while others grow palms in their gardens or rural properties. In most cases, lands belonging to third parties are also used. The harvest is one of the most important activities in defining this landscape since, in the case of leaves harvested for fiberising, it involves physical contact between palms and people.


In floodplains, seasonality plays a fundamental role in temporality. Water level shifts must be approached in relation to the configuration of temporality at different scales (Harris 2005). Many social scientists have focused on the configuration of temporality from a seasonal perspective (Evans-Pritchard 1969; Mauss et al. 1979; Harrison 2001; Krause 2013).

In a 5,000-year time scale it is possible to analyse temporality that resonates with the variations of sea level, the structure of human settlements and the logistics of control of movement in the landscape. On an annual time scale, there is also a strong, observable seasonal component. Mound builders moved seasonally across the lowlands between the more continental areas in autumn-winter and the more coastal areas in spring-summer (Bracco et al. 2000a; Mazz 2001). There is much evidence that suggests that Butiá palms played an important role in the subsistence of prehistoric groups in the region, spanning from about 5,000 years ago until their disappearance in the times of the first European settlements in the River Plate. Many micro-remains of fruits and even of some leaves have been found in archaeological sediments (Mazz et al. 1994; Bracco et al. 2000b; Campos et al. 2001; Bracco et al. 2008; del Puertoand Inda et al. 2008) or adhered to grinding artifacts (Capdepont et al. 2005; López Mazzet al. 2014). In addition, there is also evidence of Butiá fruit consumption according to the high values of zinc and strontium in the bones of the mortuary population found in several mounds (Coheet al. 1987). Also, the cavities frequently found in some dental remains have been interpreted as a possible consequence of fruit intake (Portaet al. 1995). Considering the analysis of del Puerto (2003), the fruiting of Butiá would have played a key role in this seasonal movement since, in addition to the direct consumption or the elaboration of mesocarp by-products, it could have been used to make flour with the almond (endosperm). Several works suggest that there was a strong seasonal movement of prehistoric populations in which the use of marine resources in spring and summer and Butiá resources in autumn were key elements (López Mazz et al. 1994; López Mazz 2001; López Mazz et al. 2014).

Landscape seasonality in colonial times was linked to the dynamics of border disputes, which led to several international treaties, the establishment of permanent settlements, cattle management near and across the border (smuggling) and the construction and use of palm pens. The changes in territorial boundaries resonated with the rhythms of the consolidation of various settlements. On the other hand, the routes that connected the disputed territories structured the cross-border movement, which depended on the structure of the populations and the places where movement was controlled. The seasonal rhythms of the movement were marked by land availability for circulation and were part of a slow pace of geopolitical disputes. The construction of pens was linked to this temporality that emerged from the movement.

The different parts of the palm (seen as affordances that became more or less visible at different times) are important arguments in understanding the narrative of this temporality. The whole palm or the trunk, leaves and fruits, are all involved in resonance and temporality. Currently, the temporality of the life around Butiá is based on the fruit. Fruit seasonality is the foundation of the productive rhythm of the extractive and productive activities related to Butiá. These activities involve some movement inside the Butiá forest, as people move from their homes to the harvest site in the months of February, March and April, when it is most appropriate to harvest the fruit. Processing usually occurs immediately after harvesting, but sometimes the fruits are frozen so as to make products later on in the year. Refrigeration technology established a new temporality in the productive rhythm in that it de-seasonalised production. During processing, families share the space and time of production as well as teachings about life with Butiá. This is a key space of social reproduction shared by grandparents and grandchildren (parents generally work outside), passing on recipes and sharing life around Butiá.

Most sales activities are carried out by the manufacturers in quite precarious sales facilities known as “Butiá shops” (small wooden structures) located in Vuelta del Palmar. This settlement is crossed by the National Route N°. 9, that connects Uruguay and Brazil and has a very high tourist flow in summer. In these Butiá shops a wide variety of products are sold, such as mushrooms, canned tomatoes, carrots, sweet peppers and cheese. Even though Butiá products are the most distinctive and typical, for some sellers they do not represent the largest income. The route and these Butiá shops are two very important elements for the artisans of Vuelta del Palmar. Butiá shops are what connects them with the route and to the other artisans of Vuelta del Palmar, as selling in a shop by the route implies adjusting to the same selling conditions which, according to the artisans, are often very hard. The fact that sales are carried out in these Butiá shops [Figure 6] is yet another key activity that defines the current landscape. Unlike the harvest, it does not involve direct physical contact between palms and people, but it is characterised by contact with other people. This activity involves less human-environmental intimacy (if compared to harvesting) but it is regarded as one of the most important activities in defining the group of artisans in Vuelta del Palmar. The temporality of this practice is marked by the flow of tourists along the route; sales activities are concentrated in the summer, when thousands of tourists pass by their stalls, while the number of tourists is much lower during the rest of the year.
Figure 6: Butiá shop run by artisans of Vuelta del Palmar, located by Route 9. Source: the author

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   Discussion Top

The possibilities of discussing hierarchies of knowledge and thinking of ways of “conservation from below” (Adams 2017) are based on visualisation and discursive decentralisation. In this sense, the study of non-hegemonic forms of human-environmental relationships offers great potential to critically analyse the hegemonic forms of cultural homogenization, development and conservation (Escobar 2017).

Although the artisans of Vuelta del Palmar are currently a small group of approximately 12 families, by using the concept of taskscape I have brought marginalised human-environmental relationships back to the centre of attention. Understanding human - Butiá relationships diachronically allows us to consider a chrono-spatial framework defined by the prehistoric use of Butiá in a territory that is difficult to delineate, though apparently larger than the one currently occupied by the palms. This space and its temporality are defined by seasonal rhythms in a much broader framework of Holocene changes that resonated with the location of human settlements and technologies of environmental relationships and palm forest management. Human and nonhuman cross-border movements and the settlement of the border within the context of colonial disputes marked the rhythm of social life on a scale that was defined by the control of the movement itself, limiting or promoting it.

Leaf industrialisation stimulated the consolidation of the town of Paso del Bañado. The life rhythm of the village was marked by the social activities that resounded in the factories. Currently, the fruit of the palm is the centre of Butiá life and perception. Vuelta del Palmar is the space from where the taskscape of the current life around Butiá can be thought, being strongly defined by the harvesting, production and sales activities. This taskscape can be understood as a temporality that is defined by non-seasonal processes such as the use of the leaf or the trunk, but which is also defined by the presence of tourists in summer.

Different palm forest areas contain different temporalities and features and are part of other taskscapes that make up the current landscape. Including the temporality of spaces in the management implies including the tasks that comprise it. These tasks, developed by people who are also biological organisms, are configured from the use of Butiá and cannot be de-localised tasks. Tasks depend on one another and on the palm. The skills involved in the interaction with Butiá must be understood from a diachronic perspective. There are currently no archaeological or paleo-environmental works that clearly define the role played by human beings in spreading Butiá seeds over 5,000 years of interaction. Nevertheless, there exist several works that argue that the current configuration of the Amazon rainforest is the product of the interaction of plants, animals, the biosphere and human beings (Balée 1994). These types of forest management skills should be explored in the case of the Butiá forest. However, I believe it is important to discuss the skills involved in human-Butiá relationships at different levels of contact regarding the environment. It is possible to clearly identify skills that involve a high degree of intimacy between palms and humans, which involve direct contact, a physicality defined by tasks of processing environmental elements, physical effort and the contact with textures and colours. However, to define a taskscape we should not consider only the skills involved in the direct relationship with Butiá palms.

The manufacture of Butiá by-products, which takes place in the artisans' homes, involves key aspects not only in the manufacture of products, but also in social reproduction. Butiá shops are highly relevant to the artisans' collective identity, since there is a very distant degree of physicality with the palms. Some of these skills, which may seem marginal from a productivist or conservationist perspective, are central to the definition of human-environmental relationships (Richards 2002).

   Conclusions Top

While the disciplines recognised as generators of useful information for managing the environment have been historically linked to the field of natural sciences (Bennett et al. 2017), this paper contributes to resituate the role of the social sciences in this framework. I explored the potential offered by the concept of taskscape to discuss naturalistic conservation processes. The taskscape allows us to rethink the past and present human-environmental relationships of human groups that are on the fringes of conservation processes. In the analysed case, this exercise allows us to relocate human-Butiá relations in the discursive scope of existing conservation proposals, shifting the conservation axis towards everyday practices from a diachronic perspective. Focusing on the taskscape and placing the relational aspect at the basis of the proposal implies bringing nature and culture closer together or, in this case, people and palms. As objective conservation entities, this implies considering them as inseparable entities.

Any kind of conservation which is based on economicist logics or on specific aesthetic attributes (such as scenic beauty or “high landscape values”) is at risk of essentialising the landscape. This focus on what is visible tends to leave aside the everyday life of the movements and tasks that have been historically arranged in terms of features and affordances. This should not to be determined only by the aesthetic aspect of the conservation of the palm forest or by ethics based on ecological or economic value.

Including different present and past degrees of social visibility conceived from a relational perspective contributes to the multivocality of environmental management (Santamarina 2009), a multivocality understood from a relational perspective of human-environmental interactions. If social sciences contribute to giving greater visibility to past and present human-environmental relations as something inseparable from the objects to be conserved, the discursive incorporation of social life occupies a leading role. In this sense, the multivocality of environmental management would increase: one can no longer speak just about palms but, instead, about palms that exist in relation to people, which are the product of diachronically developed human-environmental relations.

In this context, social sciences linked to environmental management are enriched due to the fact that, in addition to contributing to greater justice in environmental negotiations, this work generates interpretative contributions to analyse the construction of scientific problems. In this multivocality of the negotiation, the relational aspects of the human and palm life acquire another argumentative dimension, since they are understood as part of a framework of human and non-human life.

Considering that conservation generates a specific spatial and cultural organisation, this work allows us to focus on the ways in which conservation proposals demarcate the spaces to be protected while defining what things can and cannot be done in those spaces afterwards. Proposals with naturalistic criteria tend to select Butiá conservation areas based on beauty, density, biodiversity, etc. By considering the spatial categorisations in terms of temporality, affordances, tasks and movements in a diachronic sense, we may change the way of thinking about conservation in general, as well as in particular in the case of Butiá.

The concept of taskscape reformulates the practice of conservation, since it relocates culture within nature conservation. It is repositioned as an object of conservation but also as an action of conservation, since it dismantles the knowledge hierarchy involved in the conservation practice itself. It allows us to redirect the traditional focus of naturalistic conservation towards human relations with the environment and, more specifically, towards the diachronic densities of such interaction. This proposal aims to search for these relationships and then move towards focal objects and not vice versa. By starting from these densities, we can redefine the forms of categorisation and the possibilities of action of the conservation spaces.

   Acknowledgements Top

Mainly to all the people of Vuelta del Palmar who were part of the fieldwork of this research. To Néstor Rocha, for his time. To Javier Taks and Cristina Sánchez-Carretero for their comments on the previous work. To the funding institutions that supported this work: National Agency for Research and Innovation (ANII, Grant code FMV-6715) of Uruguay, Competitive Fund for Culture of the Ministry of Education and Culture (FC-MEC, Grant code Q4312) of Uruguay and Sectorial Commission for Scientific Research at the University of the Republic (CSIC-UdelaR) of Uruguay.

   Notes Top

  1. Departmental Council of Rocha is the main administrative body of the Department of Rocha (departments are Uruguay's first-level administrative and political subdivisions).
  2. The Botanical Garden conducted a series of works in the area of the palm forest of Castillos between 1985 and 1993, with the aim of learning about its flora and studying the forest's regeneration in those areas where grazing was restricted.
  3. Néstor Rocha is a local historian who lived great part of his life in the city of Castillos, very close to the Butiá forest and who has devoted many years to collecting oral history about the uses of Butiá and other topics of local importance. In addition to transferring his audio tapped archive to the Eastern Regional University Centre to be digitised, he has been a key informant in much of the field work.
  4. It is important to mention that palm forests as an ecosystem are currently endangered, although Butiá odorata palms as a species are not.
  5. Field trip made between May 20th – 21st, 1992.
  6. A camera trap identified a wide variety of animals that came to feed on the fruits that had fallen on the ground, including several types of birds (Aramides ypecaha, Aramides cajaneus, Penelope obscura, Cyanocorax caeruleus, Coereba flaveola, Tangara sayaca, Thraupis bonariensis), lizards (Salvator merianae), foxes (Cerdocyon thous), different types of rodents (Cuniculus paca, Dasyprocta azarae), raccoons (Procyon cancrivorus) and deer (Mazama gouazoubira). Fieldwork conducted by Embrapa Clima Temperado in a palm forest in Rio Grande do Sul in the south of Brazil (near the Uruguayan palm forest region). Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwq7DnX6dqI. Accessed on March 5th, 2017.
  7. In Uruguay, the indigenous groups that inhabited the territory before European contact were mostly exterminated. In the eastern region of Uruguay where this work is centered, the process of colonisation found the region mostly inhabited. The reasons for the Indigenous abandonment of the area, is still a topic under discussion between Uruguayan archaeology and ethnohistory. The indigenous presence is mainly due to the presence of the prehistoric mounds that give the archaeological name to these human groups: Constructores de Cerritos.
  8. Although the sale of Butiá products is not usually the main economic income of the artisans, the other economic activities they perform, such as the sale of other edible artisan products (cheeses, sweets, etc.) or domestic animals, allow them to occasionally outsource the harvest. Some of them are also rural wage earners or work in different types of services in the city of Castillos.

   References Top

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  [Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4], [Figure 5], [Figure 6]


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