Water, Land, and Pasture. Possession and the Conflicts over Access to Resources in Yanhuitlan and the Mixtec Area in New Spain, 1550­—1620

Shortly after the installation of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, questions emerged among settlers and native populations on how to regulate the access to land and the resources within it. This was especially the case with land that had no direct use for agriculture or habitation but rather provided nourishment for animals and/or materials for construction, or possessed bodies of water, for example. These categories of land, sometimes referred to as montes, pastos, or aguas, were pristine and untouched by humans. Although sometimes legally owned by a community, they were a frequent cause of conflict, as the possession of land that was not utilized for an activity deemed useful to the Crown could be challenged by proposing a better use. In the conflicts over this type of land and its resources, we can see that the matters of use and ownership were inextricably linked.

This project investigates the conflicts over the access to certain resources located in land that was used jointly: land that was accessible either only to certain members of a community, or to anybody, for extracting wood, feeding animals, or to power mills.

I will focus on the Mixtec region between 1550 and 1620 and in particular on the conflicts over resources that arose during the construction period of the Yanhuitlan convent. The construction, a project of enormous dimensions at the time, required the collection of materials located in commonly held land from neighboring villages, which led to documented disputes between the towns and their neighbors. Within Yanhuitlan, the building project’s constant need for labor and commodities to be provided by the native population caused ever-shifting tensions between Dominicans, cacique and encomendero, but also alliances, such as became apparent for example in the land donations from the local native rulers to the convent.

This case as well as its broader context provide the framework for the project’s main questions:  How was the period of construction endured, in backdrop terms of conflicts for land and resources? How did contemporaries conceptualize the land and its natural riches? How were the relations between communities and their land and what this land provided for their everyday subsistence? How were this land and these resources defended? Who was given preferential access by the authorities? Who held possession or who could make use of the mountains, meadows, bodies of water, and plots of land that were not actively used by humans for agriculture or habitation in New Spain? The project seeks to understand how the decisions regarding this type of land were justified, as well as how the land was defended, which legal or extra-legal devices were used to do so, and how the different actors thought about, represented, and conceptualized the land on which they lived and which they used for their subsistence.

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