Laura's research interests include issues in Amerindian conceptualizations of nature and society, historical ecology, the impact of national development policies on indigenous peoples, learning and knowledge acquisition, and Latin American identity politics.
In her early work on humans and plant worlds, she was able to demonstrate empirically that native Amazonians do not adapt passively to given environmental conditions but continuously work at transforming them, both purposefully and inadvertently. By cultivating ‘in the wild,’ rainforest peoples such as the Huaorani domesticate whole landscapes, rather than specific species. The multi-disciplinary research conducted on Bactris gasipaes (peach palm) contributed to the transformation of scientific ideas about the Neolithic Revolution. Great manioc cultivators such as the Makushi practice an entirely different kind of landscape and crop domestication, one in which biocultural interactions between sexual and vegetative reproduction underlie wild/domesticated dynamics. Laura was thus able to establish that many tropical rainforest landscapes are the products of human alterations, which often reveal contrasting collective preferences and values as well as distinct agricultural choices and diversified nutritional options. The selective processes resulting from such on-going landscape transformations offer multiple pathways for plants and animals to follow, and many opportunities for local cultures to flourish and diversify.
Laura is now following several knowledge-exchange networks in Latin America’s vast rural areas with her collaborators to understand better dynamic linkages between urban and non-urban lands. Together they are currently pursuing this line of inquiry into peasant, farmer and bosquesino (forest peoples) landscaping projects. A preliminary comparative analysis of these projects indicates that they approach environment and development in ways that the dichotomous ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ straitjacket cannot accommodate. Building on Laura's analysis of the composite nature of knowledge, our studies point to the importance of pluralizing science, especially in the context of rapidly evolving global food systems.