This article is part of a series on Risk and Uncertainty. Articles in this series aim to explore how ordinary people understood and coped with risk and uncertainty in times of personal crisis and in everyday life, helping to illuminate our own experiences of navigating an increasingly uncertain world. You can read an introduction to the series here

Poverty and scarcity are not the same thing. Poverty and scarcity are both material conditions, yet have distinct socio-political contexts. Conditions of scarcity occur when the availability of basic resources is limited by factors such as drought, disease, or war, but societies can usually mitigate the risks of fluctuations by using a range of socio-environmental strategies, such as agroecology (a way of sustainably producing agricultural products in relation to the natural and social environment) or temporarily providing labour in another household in exchange for basic resources. By contrast, conditions of poverty occur when the distribution of resources is limited and communities do not have access to socio-environmental strategies to mitigate risks, and so poverty is individualized and experienced not only as a material condition but as a position of social alienation within a given society. The conjoined processes of capitalism and colonialism create conditions of poverty by breaking down the ability of communities to practice strategies of risk mitigation to enable not only individual economic survival but also the socio-cultural and political survival of communities.

Theories of classic political economy that were developed by white European scholars during the eighteenth century set out a global taxonomy of wealth and poor societies, classing societies that had more commerce and industry as rich and societies that they identified as nomadic or hunter-gatherer as poor. In his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) the Scottish Enlightenment scholar Adam Smith, who did much to lay the foundations of classic political economy, discussed ´savage nations of hunters and fishers´ and ´civilised and thriving nations´.

In the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx wrote the first critique of classic political economy in Grundrisse, a work later developed into Das Kapital. In his work, Marx observed that the economic growth generated by capitalism did not actually decrease poverty but increased it. People often become poorer within capitalist societies as they are separated from the social and environmental resources that traditionally enabled communities to mitigate the risks of resource scarcity. This is particularly the case when households and communities lose access to subsistence agricultural lands and forms of agroecology and become dependent upon wage labour as a means of subsistence. Across Mesoamerica, the traditional agroecological system is known as the milpa and has facilitated Indigenous and peasant communities to resist many waves of impoverishment through colonial capitalism.

Despite Marxist critiques, places that are more capitalised, where agricultural and industrial developments have replaced the natural environment, are often classed as wealthy, and places that are less capitalised, where agricultural and industrial developments are within the natural environment, are often classed as poor. Historical societies in Central and South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of South Asia, have often been classed by economists as poor. Today, societies identified as nomadic or hunter-gatherer in tropical zones are understood as exemplary cases of poor societies.

Yaxchilan, Late-Classic Maya city, in the Lacandon on the Mexican Guatemalan border. Credit: Author’s own.

This global taxonomy of the wealth and poverty is also informed by the racial logic of colonial capitalism. Capitalism and colonialism developed together as co-constitutive systems in the sixteenth century as new relations of extraction enabled new modes of production and consumption. The way in which the racial logic of colonial capitalism has identified Western societies as more advanced and non-Western societies as backward is well known. The racial logic of colonial capitalism has also informed the global taxonomy of wealth and poverty which recognizes the enduring material cultures of the historic urban centres of the world´s temperate zones as wealthy, and the historic societies of the world´s tropical zones as poor.

However, contrary to the racial logic of colonial capitalism, historically the societies of the world´s tropical and subtropical zones were not poor even if they left fewer enduring traces of rich material cultures than urban centres in the world’s temperate zones. Instead, tropical societies had a range of socio-environmental strategies for mitigating the risk of resource scarcity. The forest itself was the most valuable resource for these societies, enabling higher levels of survival not only of indigenous peoples but also of dynamic indigenous cultures than regions that have been historically more readily exploitable by colonial capitalism.

Forest zones have historically been places of refuge for communities facing excessive extraction of resources such as crops, labor, or cash, in the form of taxes and tributes (in the Spanish Empire these tributes were known as encomienda or repartimiento). Forest zones have not only offered a place of escape but also an alternate means of production, broadly known as agroforestry, or agroecology. This has often taken the form of itinerant, or swidden agriculture, also known as slash and burn agriculture, where forestry is burned to create clearings to grow crops, the burning fertilizes the soil, and the site is then left fallow for vegetation to regenerate. Maintenance of agroforestry has tended to be a communal process which reinforces social bonds that facilitates the cultural and social as well as economic survival of communities.

Yaxchilan, Late-Classic Maya city, in the Lacandon on the Mexican Guatemalan border. Credit: Author’s own.

Throughout history, forests have constituted a tangible resource that enabled communities to mitigate the risks of resource scarcity. In the Mayan peninsula in Mesoamerica, patterns of urbanization and settlement dispersal varied as societies mitigated the risks associated with resource scarcity. For example, during periods of drought communities could disperse to be sustained by distant milpa, and later return to cities. Agroforestry techniques were not a meagre form of production but could produce enough surplus to sustain periods of urbanization and large populations. Mayan societies developed rich urban centres in both the Classic period (250 c.- 900 C.E.) and the Post-Classic period (c. 900-16th century C.E.); similarly, the temple city of Angkor Wat was developed in the Cambodian tropical forest in the 12th century C.E.

In the colonial era, following the arrival of the Spanish in Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, agroforestry traditions enabled higher levels of community survival than in other colonized areas, for example the plains of northern Mexico where Indigenous people were more likely to be forced to work in the expanding commercial agriculture projects (haciendas). Haciendas were large estates that practiced monocrop agriculture, for the production of cash crops, and were labour intensive. Indigenous people were made poor by colonialism through processes of resettlement that disrupted social and environmental bonds, processes of enslavement and proletarianization that appropriated Indigenous labour and rendered them unable to produce the means of subsistence, and the erosion of various forms of community resources including communal property, labour, and governance traditions.

The Indigenous communities of the world´s tropical zones were not naturally poor but had had culturally contingent value regimes, valuing socio-environmental resources that did not necessarily leave the same wealth deposits in the archaeological record as societies that valued the accumulation of more durable material culture.

Yaxchilan, Late-Classic Maya city, in the Lacandon on the Mexican Guatemalan border. Credit: Author’s own.

Conventional periodization of poverty-inducing crises can often be misleading, following the narrative of history as a series of events such as ´conquest´, famine, and war. Yet the historical creation of poverty is more subtle and takes the form of what the historian and environmentalist Rob Nixon describes as ´slow violence´. The breakdown of socio-environmental systems that had traditionally enabled communities to survive took place at different rates, in different places and in different time periods. While the conventional global taxonomy of the wealth and poverty of societies has tended to class tropical societies as poor, societies in tropical and subtropical forest zones, such as the Maya Mesoamerican region of the Lacandon jungle were sometimes able to use the socio-environmental resources of agroforestry to mitigate the risks of scarcity and avoid the impoverishing forces of colonial capitalism. The expansion of colonial capitalism cannot be reduced to singular crisis events but rather has been a slow, and ongoing, process.

Today the communities of the world´s tropical forest zones are once again in danger as state-led reforestation programmes – such as Sembrando Vida in the Mayan region of southern Mexico – undertaken in the name of mitigating the risks of climate change threaten to perpetuate the capitalist colonial logic that metabolises communal resources and erodes socio-environmental bonds. Understanding the socio-environmental values of the world´s forests, their role in helping communities to mitigate the risks of resource scarcity, and the values of the communities that inhabit the forests, can help us to avoid accelerating the capitalist colonial pathways to global poverty.

Julia McClure is a global historian of the Spanish Empire, specialising in poverty, charity, and inequality. She has published broadly on the history of poverty, rights, and institutions. Her first monograph, The Franciscan Invention of the New World (Palgrave, 2016) explored the role of missionaries in the early Atlantic world. Her current book project, Empire of Poverty: the moral economy of the Spanish Empire, explores the role of the ideology of poverty in empire formation. McClure is a senior lecturer in late medieval and early modern global history at the University of Glasgow. Before this, she taught at the University of Warwick, and held postdoctoral fellowships at the European University Institute and at Harvard. She is the founder of the poverty research network, co-founder of the food sovereignty network, and part of an international team of researchers examining contemporary challenges to agroecology in Latin America.

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