This article is an attempt to discuss the image of Alexander von Humboldt as a pure natural scientist with a humanist ethos, and to highlight that he was in fact one of the first thinkers who anticipated positions known today as political ecology. We outline that his universal knowledge obviously has contradictory perspectives, and was interpreted in several directions. On the one hand, there is the position taken by post-colonial critics that Humboldt showed Eurocentric and imperialist thinking during his travels to the Americas, as Pratt has advocated. On the other hand, and in explicit contrast to the post-colonial critique, Humboldt has been regarded by Sachs as a founding figure of American environmentalism and as "perhaps, the first ecological thinker." Furthermore, Wulf's biography titled The Invention of Nature tries to show that Humboldt wanted to bridge the gap between the emerging natural sciences and Romanticist aesthetics. However, based on his writings, we argue that his perception of nature has been misread and that his position was shaped by a view akin to open and critical political ecology, as opposed to pure nature constructivism without including local humans. We show this by focusing on his research methods that were open to local Indigenous ecological knowledge, his appraisal of Indigenous socio-cultural systems, his perception of nature as Indigenous cultural landscapes degraded by colonial and early capitalist market forces, his openness towards Indigenous ontologies of what we call nature, and finally his focus on local institutions for the sustainable governance of resources.
Keywords: Political ecology, Alexander von Humboldt, anthropology, human-environment interactions, power relations, institutions, colonialization, Indigenous practices
How to Cite:
Eibach, J. & Haller, T., (2021) “Pioneering political ecology: perceptions of nature, Indigenous practices and power relations during Alexander von Humboldt's travels in Latin America”, Journal of Political Ecology 28(1), 663–676. doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/jpe.3028