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

I work on economy-environment interactions in modern Latin America and Africa. My PhD thesis (University of 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 2021 Alexander Gerschenkron Prize of the Economic History Association for the best doctoral thesis on the economic history of anywhere outside North America.

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.

‘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’

I use Uruguay’s failed land reform project (1960s) as a vantage point to examine agricultural land management in the country, focusing on the 20th century but with reference to preceding history (especially since late-colonial times, c.1750). By ‘land management’ I mean both the institutions of land governance (who is allowed to own and use agricultural land) and the farming practices on the ground (how the land is used through crop choices, techniques, etc.). I map and analyse quantitative data on land ownership, land use, and environmental degradation to try and show that in the early 20th c. the natural environment of Uruguayan agriculture changed faster than the institutions surrounding it. I argue this story challenges what I see as economic historians’ standard approaches to the environment, which frame it as a time-invariant set of variables (in econometric models inspired by development economics) or as a deep structure that only changes at a glacial pace (in the Braudealian framework).