Does malaria facilitate the development of exploitative agricultural estates? Interview with Dr. Luis Chavez

905237_334159403372948_183902807_oMy friend Luis just published a paper in PlosOne on land consolidation or the formation of “latifundia” in Spain. Latifundia were large agricultural estates owned by the Romans, often dependent on slave labor, the growth of which has been implicated in Rome’s fall.

Luis creates a mathematical model to describe the formation of these large estates. He then tests the hypothesis that malaria transmission exacerbated the situation, by forcing land owners to sell cheaply to opportunistic land owners in less malarious areas.

Luis, an ecologist who works on issues of disease transmission (and all around great guy), is somewhat unique in the world of quantitative sciences. He took a few minutes to talk to me so that you can see why.

Who are you and what’s your background?

If you ask the japanese they might say: O gata no hen na gaijinsan. As to my academic background, I studied biology/parasitology as an undergraduate, then mathematical ecology for a M.Sc. and then was granted a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology (note: at the University of Michigan).

Nevertheless, I have always been interested in the humanities, especially history since it gives the best vantage point to understand the present. I grew up in a household where mixing things/topics was usual. Both my father and grandfather went to grad school, something unusual in Latin America, and since i was child lunch time talk was heavy on the side of human rights and solidarity, science and the need for change. When Nelson Mandela died i remembered that a lovely family activity during my childhood was going to a cultural/educational event in solidarity with Nelson Mandela and the South African people to end the apartheid.

For lay people, what’s the paper about and what motivated you to explore it?

The paper presents a mathematical model that can explain the formation of latifundia (large estates) when the profitability of land varies across landowners in a landscape. The model is also used to show that when such differences are not present latifundia still can emerge if there are differences in the risk of acquiring an infectious diseases. I built the model based on historical records to show that both patterns have been observed in societies as different as “latin” Europe (Italy and Spain) and China.

What’s a “latifundium” in Spain? I dug around a bit and could find some things about Rome and Latin America, but not so much about Spain. Why choose Spain?

A latifundium is a large estate, which requires the labor of people that do not own the land. I chose Spain because a essay by Chantal Beauchamp presented a couple of striking maps showing that places where malaria was common were those where Latifundia were common during the 1930s (Fig. 2):

The pattern of association between malaria and latifundia was not new, but only Beauchamp had data amenable for a quantitative analysis.

Are you trying to say that malaria helped enable capitalist land appropriation?

It might be the case. The hypothesis that malaria helped to enable land appropriation was put forward by the great italian malariologist, Angelo Celli. He has a book on the topic [reference 8 in the paper, available at the UMICH SPH library]. Celli was probably the most advanced malaria epidemiologist at the turn of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, he and other italians [most notably Grassi] were blackbolded in the Anglo-Saxon world because they threatened the ego of Ronald Ross by saying malaria was not just due to a parasite transmitted by the bite of a mosquito [a biological fact that, nevertheless, they independently showed and published in Italian]. If you are interested just check the oldest records for malaria in the Nature archives.

Though issues of land tenure are very different in the US (given that we killed all the natives and stole it all), we did have some big and awful land plantations in the South along with a serious malaria problem. Might we also try to apply this to the United States, and, if so, how?

I think it might have helped to the consolidation of large estates in the south. Interestingly in the Midwest you never had the latifundia observed in the south, but you had malaria in Michigan (the midwest) at some point (See Humphreys M. 2001. Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States. Baltimore (MD): Johns Hopkins University Press.).

Nevertheless, in the south due, for example, to Jim Crow laws there might have been a differential risk of malaria infection not observed in the Midwest. However, i found no data to go beyond speculation, well other that in the Canal Zone the Jim Crow housing organization showed the differential malaria risk:

I find these quantitative approaches to historical problems fascinating (I also started work on a paper on malaria in post-conflict Angola, maybe I should publish it). Do you think applying these methods to history as informative to present day problems? If so, how?

I think so, history probably gives the best vantage point to understand the present (Rendering history a tinker damn’s is a good strategy to sell things no matter if they are useful or even safe, Henry Ford was clear about this). In theory failures can be highly educational, something the model suggests is that equity in land tenure is an unstable equilibrium that could only be maintained by an external policy as the Chinese did before the An Lushan rebellion, and that any kind of unfair land redistribution could only be expected to not work (latifundia will be eventually formed), as observed over and over in most Latin American nations.

The mix of methods is rather novel. However, in the discipline focused and partitioned environment of academia, do you find that its hard to get an audience for this kind of work? Is there a future in it?

I can tell you this stuff is only suitable for publication on the or PLoS One/ Springer Plus, if you want it to be peer reviewed and you don’t sign your paper with an address in Princeton or Oxford. I think the audience does not belong in any department, though scholars working on the diverse fields of ecology, health, sociology, maths, economics and even history might find it interesting. I think there is some future, there is the emerging field of cliodynamics that looks at historical dynamics and there is even a journal for cliodynamics where they, every once on a while, publish good food for thought like this paper:

I thought my data was not dynamical enough, so I didn’t try there.

This work is heavily political. Do you think there is a place for politics in science?

I think everything gets embedded in politics. Otherwise there would have been no shutdown in the CDC and other US government agencies few months ago, etc. I don’t think my work is more or less political than a risk factor analysis for lung cancer and smoking. I think i might be blackbolded by some of the references I cited, but to understand Capitalism even the Catholic Church is studying Marx [Funny the leading scholar is the Munich Bishop, whose last name is Marx]:


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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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