8. Sustainable Development in Latin America

Authors: Jennifer Beckmann, Charles S. Spencer

Water has always played a key role in the development, sustenance, and success of Latin American societies, both ancient and modern. Water is a necessity, but in many societies, poor management makes water a valuable commodity or even a luxury. In ancient Latin America, as in other regions, water was managed in a variety of ways depending on the nature of the environment. Latin American archaeologists have discovered ancient water management methods that can help modern societies thrive in or better exploit their environments.

In the Prehispanic world, there were no universal solutions to the procurement and control of water. Each society had its own method that best suited its size, scope, and environment. Scholars have used archaeological data to suggest that some of the most successful and enduring Latin American societies were those that had a thriving water management system tailored to the nature of the environment and the needs of its inhabitants.

Today the situation is very different in Latin American countries. Some areas that once had large populations are now barely occupied while other zones are overpopulated with inhabitants suffering food scarcity.

One key to solving this worldwide problem is to intensify agricultural output through improved water management. Many different agricultural intensification strategies have been hotly debated over the years. With the spread of globalization, many scholars and scientists alike are calling for a large-scale approach to agricultural intensification. Others, such as Dr. Charles S. Spencer, believe that the archaeological record shows us that a small-scale approach based on ancient methods can often be a much more appropriate, efficient, and effective strategy.

Globalization: Beneficial for all or catering to the wealthy?

Modern agricultural scientists in favor of the global strategy believe in an industrialized approach to agriculture. Embracing Western-style capitalism and consumerism, they encourage the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and agricultural machinery to increase productivity. The Western model stipulates that countries should focus on specialized activities in order to dominate a particular area of production; even if it means the abandonment of local, economically important activities. The efficiency of this global economic system depends on countries exchanging their surpluses in a world market for goods they do not produce. Supporters of a global economy claim the system is beneficial for all.

The drawbacks to globalization are clear, as critics are quick to point out. The use of expensive chemicals and machines to increase agricultural production greatly favors rich farmers. Poverty-stricken farmers are rarely able to afford such catalysts, putting them at a disadvantage when dealing in a global marketplace. Additionally, the dependence of a developing nation on other nations for staple food supplies (instead of being able to cultivate its own) could have problematic consequences. Finally, global industry often ignores the critical cultural role of traditional agricultural practices in developing countries, stripping local people of vital cultural characteristics and their basic way of life.

According to the record: What Archaeology tells us

 Archaeological data on traditional agricultural practices are quite relevant to the current debate on how to improve living conditions in the developing world. Ancient societies were faced with similar problems of increasing food supply for their growing populations. Archaeological sites preserve the remains of ancient water-management systems that offer insight to modern societies. These remains vary from site to site and consist of a variety of structural and organic clues. Water management can be indicated by the crumbling stone wall of an aqueduct or the green vegetation growing on the dry floor of an ancient canal. Archaeologists are responsible for piecing together ancient water systems by their informative but sometimes sporadic remains.

Did these ancient societies need large-scale, industrial agriculture to thrive? Not at all. A look at the archaeological data collected by Dr. Charles S. Spencer shows that a lasting solution to issues of third world food scarcity and poverty can be found on the small-scale instead.

Water management in the archaeological record: Tehuacán, Cuicatlán, and Barinas

Water management has played a major role in at least three of the archaeological sites surveyed and excavated by Spencer in three different areas of Latin America. In 1976, Spencer conducted an archaeological survey as part of the University of Michigan's Palo Blanco Project in the Arroyo Lencho Diego locality in the southeastern part of the Tehuacán Valley in Puebla, Mexico. Included in Spencer's survey was the Purrón Dam and irrigation system. The dam consists of four distinct construction levels built in phases between 700 B.C. and A.D. 250. At Level 2, which was constructed around 600 B.C., the dam reached a size large enough to meet domestic needs, producing a huge maize crop, and also produce exotic plants for trade. Thus, from early in its history the Purrón Dam complex was vital to the local economy and helped sustain the inhabitants of the Arroyo Lencho Diego for hundreds of years.

A wide aerial view of a flat green landscape with scrubby vegetation dissected by a road.
San Rafael alluvium, Valley of Tehuacán, Puebla, Mexico. Redmond and Spencer 1983:118.
A wide view of an arid hilly landscape with several species of cactus in the foreground and rolling dry hills in the distance.
Arroyo Lencho Diego, Tehuacán Valley, Puebla, Mexico. Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer
A person standing on dry rocky soil is dwarfed by a rockface in the background.
Purrón Dam. Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer
A drawing of the Purron Dam.
Purrón Dam, East-West and North-South profiles. Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer (reproduced from Woodbury and Neely 1972)
A plan of the Purron Dam Complex.
Plan of the Purrón Dam Complex. Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer (reproduced from Woodbury and Neely 1972)
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Chronological table showing the correspondence among ceramic phases in Tehuacán, Cuicatlán, and Barinas. Author.
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Map of the Cañada de Cuicatlán, showing high and low alluvium areas. Spencer 2000:161.
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Map of South-Central Mexico, including the Cañada de Cuicatlán, Oaxaca, and the Tehuacán Valley, Puebla. Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer.

During their 1977-1978 field project in the Cañada de Cuicatlán,  Oaxaca, Spencer and Dr. Elsa M. Redmond excavated the main aqueduct in a system of aqueducts and irrigation canals at Loma de la Coyotera, a Lomas phase (200 B.C.-A.D. 200) Zapotec-controlled residential site near modern Santiago Dominguillo. The irrigation system allowed the people of La Coyotera to cultivate land on both the low and high alluvium areas (previously only the low alluvium was cultivated). According to the population and agriculture figures calculated by Spencer and Redmond, the low alluvium alone could have provided enough food during the Lomas phase. It seems as if the construction of the canal system and the intensified agriculture was a response to Zapotec tribute demands and not to population demands. The extensive system remained in use, however, even after the area was no longer under Zapotec control. According to Spencer and Redmond, the Loma de la Coyotera canal system was used for over a thousand years, from its initial construction around 200 B.C. until A.D. 1000.

An arid rocky area with scrubby trees and saguaro cacti.
Main aqueduct, Loma de la Coyotera.Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer
A mound of rocks and dry soil, partly excavated, with a marker on the ground.
Main aqueduct profile photograph.Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer
A drawing of an underground aqueduct.
Main aqueduct profile.Spencer 2000:167

In the mid-1980s Spencer and Redmond conducted a field project in the state of Barinas in western Venezuela where they surveyed and excavated portions of a 35 ha drained-field system at the site of La Tigra, in the high llanos of Barinas. The drained fields date to the Late Gaván phase (A.D. 550-1000). The complex canal network maximized agricultural production by either draining or irrigating the cultivation area, depending upon climate conditions. The system allowed farmers to double their production output, harvesting two crops per year instead of one.

Spencer and Redmond suggest that the La Tigra drained field system played a significant role in the regional political economy due to the considerable surplus it would have created. This surplus was likely sent along one of the calzadas, or causeways, that linked the drained fields and other local sites to the first-order cultural center, El Gaván.

Approximately 10 egrets standing in water with grassy vegetation in the background.
Cattle and egrets on the western Venezuelan llanos.Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer and Elsa M. Redmond
A person wearing field cloths standing in an area with green vegetation.
The southwest corner of drained-field A at La Tigra. Despite the fact that this photograph was taken at the height of the dry season, the canal is indicated by the green vegetation.Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer and Elsa M. Redmond
An aerial view of a wide green flat landscape.
Aerial view of El Gaván, the first-order center of the prehispanic chiefdom, looking northwest. Both the main mound and the oval-shaped calzada earthwork are clearly visible.Courtesy of Charles S. Spencer and Elsa M. Redmond
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Western Venezuela, with Spencer and Redmond's study area delineated in black. The study area overlaps the Andean piedmont and the high llanos. Redmond and Spencer 1994:424.
A map marking several archaeological sites.
In this map, the dotted lines represent the calzada network that linked sites of different status to El Gaván, the first-order regional center. La Tigra (B27) is visible in the lower right corner.Redmond and Spencer 1994:435
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Topographic map of the drained-field system at La Tigra. The artificial canals linking the Caño Colorado with two oxbows of the Canaguá River create a patchwork of fields that were able to produce two harvests of maize every year. Test excavation sites are indicated by the red squares, and produced abundant samples of maize pollen.Redmond and Spencer 1994:436

Each of these sites showed clear evidence of a specially designed water-management system that took maximum advantage of the local environment and geography. These water-management systems were used for hundreds of years, and were eventually abandoned for political reasons, not production-related ones. The systems provided both sufficient produce for the local population as well as a valuable surplus that was used in a variety of ways. In Tehuacán , the surplus products were used for long-distance trade, while in the Cañada they were used to meet tribute demands. In Barinas, the surplus was used to support and participate in the local regional polity.

Applying ancient strategies to solve modern problems

Today, the populations and water-management systems in these areas are much smaller in size and scope. In In Tehuacán, a canal was constructed by the irrigation commission of the Mexican federal government, the Secretaría de Recursos Hidráulicos (SRH); but the water enters the area at an elevation that is too low to cultivate all the usable land. The SRH built a canal in the Cañada as well, yet the water from it, too, neglects a good portion of the area's irrigable land. In the Gaván locality of Barinas, cattle now greatly outnumber humans in the once exceptionally productive savanna grasslands.

There are many advantages to traditional water-management techniques. The water-management systems described above worked for hundreds of years, using a modest amount of local labor. They utilized local environments more efficiently and effectively than current systems and even provided surpluses. The archaeological cases suggest that small-scale, locally-tailored solutions are potentially more sustainable than large-scale, industrialized strategies. Scholars and scientists should consider using small-scale agricultural intensification programs to ameliorate the current situation of food scarcity, rural poverty, and population increase in the third world.


Spencer, Charles S.
1979 Irrigation, Administration, and Society in Formative Tehuacán. In Prehistoric Social, Political, and Economic Development in the Area of the Tehuacán Valley: Some Results of the Palo Blanco Project, edited by Robert D. Drennan, pp. 13-75. Technical Reports No. 11, Research Reports in Archaeology Contribution 6. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
2000 Food Scarcity, Rural Poverty, and Agricultural Development in Latin America: Issues and Evidence. Culture & Agriculture 22(3):1-14.
---- Prehispanic Water Management and Agricultural Intensification in Mexico and Venezuela: Implications for Contemporary Ecological Planning. In Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas, edited by David L. Lentz, pp. 147-178. Cambridge University Press, New York.
2002 Archaeology and Sustainable Development. In Life on Earth: An Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, Ecology, and Evolution, edited by Niles Eldredge, pp.142-144. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara.
Spencer, Charles S. and Elsa M. Redmond
1997 Archaeology of the Cañada de Cuicatlán, Oaxaca. Anthropological Papers No. 80. American Museum of Natural History, New York.
1998 Prehispanic Causeways and Regional Politics in the Llanos of Barinas, Venezuela. Latin American Antiquity 9(2):95-110.
Spencer, Charles S., Elsa M. Redmond, and Milagro Rinaldi
1994 Drained Fields at La Tigra, Venezuelan Llanos: A Regional Perspective. Latin American Antiquity 5(2):119-143.
Woodbury, R.B., and J.A. Neely.
1972 Water control systems of the Tehuacan Valley. In F. Johnson, ed., The Prehistory of the Tehuacan Valley, 4: Chronology and Irrigation, pp. 81-153. Austin: University of Texas Press.


Additional Reading

Alexandratos, Nikos, ed.
1995 World Agriculture: Towards 2010. Chichester: FAO and Wiley.
Brown, L.R.
1996 Tough Choices: Facing the Challenge of Food Scarcity. W.W. Norton, New York.
Erikson, Clark L.
1998 Applied Archaeology and Rural Development: Archaeology's Potential Contribution to the Future. In Crossing Currents: Continuity and Change in Latin America, edited by M. Whiteford and S. Whiteford, pp. 34-45. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle, NJ.
Mabry, Jonathan B., ed.
1997 Canals and Communities: Small-Scale Irrigation Systems. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.