Mojanda Mirador, Imbabura, Ecuador (January 2020) [photo: Emiliano Travieso]

I work on economy-environment interactions in modern Latin America and Africa. My PhD thesis (Cambridge, 2020) examined rural development in Uruguay over the long nineteenth century, focusing on how resource ratios and conditions of access to land shaped agricultural practices and environmental change. The dissertation was awarded the Ellen McArthur Prize at Cambridge and is currently a finalist for the 2021 Alexander Gerschenkron Prize of the Economic History Association.

You can find my publications and datasets in other sections of this website; here’s what I’m currently working on:


‘Innovation in Uruguayan livestock farming, 1880-1913: soils, scale, or elites?’

[revise and resubmit at the Economic History Review]

This article examines the economics of innovation in livestock rearing during the First Globalization in Uruguay, the country with the most cattle per person in the world then and now. Using a new historical dataset of Uruguayan agriculture, the first one at a sub-provincial level, I exploit regional differences in the adoption of cattle crossbreeding—the genetic improvement of local herds through hybridization with foreign breeds. Contrary to traditional historiographical claims, I find that this innovation was not primarily explained by the location of enlightened elites (European or local) nor by the scale of productive units (i.e., latifundia); rather, rural producers invested in crossbreeding wherever their local landscapes and previous productive choices encouraged it. While it affected biological processes that spanned several agricultural calendars, and thereby developed more slowly than innovations in crop farming, technical change in Uruguayan livestock agriculture was also environmentally sensitive, largely scale-neutral, congruent with previous farming patterns, and hinged on a widespread response from producers.

‘Environment and Rural Slavery in the River Plate Frontier, 1780-1810’

[revise and resubmit at the American Historical Review]

This article makes three propositions about how environment-economy interactions shaped the unusual character of rural slavery in the late-colonial River Plate frontier, where pastoral agriculture relied on free and unfree labor in different proportions throughout the year and white creoles could find themselves routinely under the supervision of black slaves. First, that resource ratios in the Banda Oriental (abundant land, scarce labor, scarce capital except for cattle) made slavery profitable, but not completely displace free labor which remained predominant in most farms and ranches during most of the agricultural calendar. The second proposition is that the disaggregated content of those natural resources (the specifics of climate, topography, soils, and animals) encouraged crop choices and farming systems which created space for enslaved workers attain to levels of managerial authority normally reserved for Europeans or white creoles in New World colonies, whether Iberian, British, or French. My third argument is that this grassland ecology influenced a set of social relations stretching well beyond livestock production, shaping the personal autonomy of slaves, as well as the gender distribution of resources and tasks.

‘Cash-Crop Migration Systems in East and West Africa: Rise, Endurance, Decline’ [joint with Michiel de Haas, forthcoming in E. Frankema & M. de Haas (eds.), Migration in Africa. Shifting Patterns of Mobility from the 19th to the 21st Century, Routledge]

From the late 19th into the mid-20th century millions of people migrated, seasonally or more permanently, to regions where African farmers produced cocoa, groundnuts, coffee, cotton, and palm oil for export. In this chapter, we study the four major cash-crop migration systems across West and East Africa, centered on Senegal and the Gambia, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Uganda. We find that these systems rose alongside the process of emancipation from slavery, and that they persisted for decades as an effective response to large economic opportunity gaps, given that only a few areas could profitably grow export crops. While cash-crop migrant routes eventually dried up as the agricultural frontier closed and prices for tropical commodities worsened, they inaugurated an era of large-scale, voluntary, long-distance labor migration that continues to define African mobility.

‘Uruguay: The Rise of a Monocentric Economy’ [joint with Alfonso Herranz-Loncán, forthcoming in F. Valencia Caicedo (ed.) Roots of Underdevelopment: A New Economic (and Political) History of Latin America and the Caribbean, Palgrave-Macmillan]

In this chapter we explore the impacts of urban primacy on Uruguayan economic development, with a focus on the late 19th and early 20th century. We argue that Montevideo’s primacy produced a dualistic economic geography (city-port/countryside) without intermediate towns of an even remotely comparable scale. The lack of a network of cities translated into physical infrastructure, notably through a dendritic railway design where would-be secondary towns were not connected to each other. Primacy thus became an obstacle to the development of a more diversified territorial division of labor and limited the emergence of new clusters, especially in sectors associated with industrialization. Such a monocentric economy was ill-suited for structural change, contributing to Uruguay’s mediocre twentieth-century growth record and its continued divergence from the world’s leading economies.

‘Occupational Structures in Northern Nigeria, 1921-2006’ (joint with Gareth Austin)

This paper offers the results of a quantitative analysis of the occupational structures of Northern Nigeria over six benchmark years stretching from the colonial period to the twenty-first century. We make extensive use of colonial and post-colonial censuses complementing them with (and testing them against) other primary sources to reconstruct and classify the occupations of formal as well as informal male and female workers. We use the results to explore structural shifts in the northern Nigerian economy during and after British ‘indirect rule’ and relate them to the region’s specific precolonial history as defined by the model of the nineteenth-century Sokoto Caliphate.

‘Economy-environment interactions in Uruguay’s failed land reform’

Uruguay’s frustrated land reform project—it never made it through parliament in its full version—was atypical in 1960s Latin America. It was not atypical because it was unsuccessful (several were to different extents), but because it was designed for an unusual economic and environmental context: a predominantly urban society where export-oriented ranching presided over a lightly populated countryside. Still, the project had much in common with others: it identified the latifundia-minifundia dichotomy as the core structural problem limiting productivity and promoting inequality; it viewed insufficient or insecure access to land for the rural poor as a crucial limit to both their welfare and their development as agri-food producers; and it contended that joblessness in rapidly urbanising cities had its roots in the problems of the countryside. This article relies on agricultural censuses and other primary sources to examine Uruguay’s failed land reform as a historical site to unravel the economy-environment interactions implicated in the management of agricultural land. While technological innovations brought about by the Green Revolution in the decades that followed appeared to solve (at least in the short-term) the stagnant agricultural productivity of land that worried 1960s reformers, they have done little to deal with the ecological limits already tangible then.