Guillermo Castro H.
An environmental crisis is neither the result of a single factor nor of a combination of such. On the contrary, it results from a complex combination of modes of interaction between natural and social systems, operating for periods in time and space. This holds true for the environmental crisis in Latin America, understood within the context of the first global environmental crisis in the history of our species. The combination of facts and processes with respect to the crisis in Latin America is associated with three distinct and interdependent historical periods: (1) The first period, one of long duration, marks the interaction with the natural world of the first humans to occupy the Americas and encompasses a timespan of at least 15,000 years before the European conquest of 1500–1550. (2) The second period, one of medium duration, corresponds to European control of the region between the 16th and 19th centuries, a timespan that witnessed the creation of tributary societies grounded in noncapitalist forms of organization, such as the indigenous commune, feudal primogeniture, and the great ecclesiastical properties, which were characteristics of peripheral economies that existed within the wider framework of the emerging modern global economic system. (3) The third period, one of shorter duration, extended from 1870 to 1970 during which capitalist forms of relationships between social systems and natural systems in the region developed. This period was succeeded, beginning about 1980, by decades of transition and crisis, a process that is still ongoing.
In this transition, old and unresolved conflicts reemerge in a new context, which combines indigenous and peasant resistance to incorporation into a market economy with the fight of urban dwellers for access to the basic environmental conditions for life, such as safe drinking water, waste disposal, energy, and clean air. In this scenario, a culture of nature is taking shape, which combines general democratic demands with values and visions from indigenous and African American cultures and those of a middle-class intellectuality increasingly linked to global environmentalism. This culture faces state policies often associated with the interests of transnational corporations and complex negotiation processes for agreements on global environmental problems. In this process, the actions of the past have led to the emergence of a great diversity of development options, all of which are centered in one basic fact: that, in Latin America as elsewhere around the word, if we want a different environment we need to create different societies.
Coffee has played complex and diverse roles in shaping livelihoods and landscapes in Latin America. This tropical understory tree has been profitably cultivated on large estates, on peasant smallholdings, and at many scales in between. Coffee exports have fueled the economies of many parts of Latin America. At first, coffee farmers cleared and burned tropical forests to make way for their farms and increase production. Early farms benefited from the humus accumulated over centuries. In Brazil, farmers treated these tropical soils as nonrenewable resources and abandoned their farms once the soils were exhausted. In smaller coffee farms along the Cordillera—from Peru up to Mexico—coffee farming was not quite as wasteful of forests and soils. In the mid-20th century, scientific innovation in coffee farming became more widespread, especially in established coffee zones that were struggling with decreasing soil fertility, increasing soil erosion, and new diseases and pests. In the 1970s, national and international organizations promoted large-scale programs to “renovate” coffee production. These programs sought to dramatically increase productivity on coffee farms by eliminating shade, cultivating high-yielding coffee cultivars, and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Renovation brought tremendous gains in productivity over the short term, but at the cost of added economic and environmental vulnerability over the longer term. Since the end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, the global coffee market has become much more volatile. New coffee pioneer fronts are opening up in Brazil, Peru, and Honduras, while elsewhere coffee production is shrinking. NGOs and coffee farmers have promoted new forms of coffee production, especially Fair Trade and certified organic coffee. Still, most coffee farms in Latin America remain “conventional” farms, using a hybrid of modern and traditional tools. Economic and environmental sustainability remain elusive goals for many coffee farmers, and the threat is likely to increase as they grapple with the effects of climate change.
The Caribbean’s most emblematic weather symbol is the hurricane, a large rotating storm that can bring destructive winds, coastal and inland flooding, and torrential rain. A hurricane begins as a tropical depression, an area of low atmospheric pressure that produces clouds and thunderstorms. Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June 1 through November 30, although there have been infrequent storms that formed outside these dates. Hurricanes are classified according to their maximum wind speed, and when a tropical system reaches the wind speed of a tropical storm (35 mph), it is given a name. Lists of names, which are rotated periodically, are specific to certain regions. If a named storm is responsible for causing a significant number of deaths or property damage, the name is retired and replaced with another.
Most deaths in a storm came from drowning, from storm surge along the coast or from flooding or mudslides in the interior. Storm-related deaths also occur when structures collapse or when victims are struck by flying debris. One important and underestimated cause of death after the passage of a storm is disease. Even if the destruction is not immediate, the passage of a hurricane can leave significant ecological damage along the coast and in the interior.
Hurricanes can have a devastating effect on a community that takes a direct hit. Repeated hurricane strikes can leave a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, “hurricane fatigue.” Conversely, survivors of a disaster are often left with a feeling of confidence that, since they have endured the effects of at least one deadly hurricane, they can do so again.
Until the last half of the 18th century, meteorology remained primitive, but the Age of Enlightenment brought scientific and ideological advances. Major beneficiaries were royal navies whose navigation manuals and nautical charts became increasingly more accurate. In 1821, William C. Redfield established the circular nature of storms and their counterclockwise rotation, while other scientists showed how wind currents within the storms moved upward. Once the coiled structure of hurricanes were established by mid-century, the term “cyclone” was applied, based upon the Greek word for the coils of a snake.
After the mid-19th century, scientists moved from information gathering to attempts to predict hurricane strikes. Technology, in the form of the telegraph, was a key component in creating a forecasting system aided by organizations such as the Colegio de Belén, in Havana, Cuba. Later in the century, governments worldwide created official observation networks in which weather reports were radiotelegraphed from ships at sea to stations on land. The 20th century experienced advances, such as the use of kites and balloons, and the introduction of weather reconnaissance aircraft during World War II. In April 1960, the first satellite was launched to observe weather patterns, and by the early 1980s, ocean buoys and sophisticated radar systems made forecasts increasingly more accurate.
Sheep Sovereignties: The Colonization of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego, 1830s–1910s
From the moment the expedition of Magellan gave Patagonia its name, it became a land where European fantasies and fears dwelled. A no man’s land inhabited by giant anthropophagites located at the antipodes of civilization, this steppe swept by icy winds was not transformed into a colonial setting until the 19th century. The territory then became the object of an ongoing territorial dispute between the new states of Argentina and Chile, whose efforts to establish sovereignty as landowners languished until the late 1870s. Nomadic indigenous sovereignties had faced slow Western expansion on the continent; here, they were swiftly replaced by sheep. On the continent, the Tehuelche were displaced; on the island of Tierra del Fuego, the Selknam faced extermination. Sheep sovereignty, fully integrated into imperial networks, was the driving force behind local state building. Just as the British pastoral colonization of the Falkland Islands conditioned any possibility of permanent presence in the South Atlantic, the sheep industry, arriving swiftly in the shape of capital, persons, and animals, allowed for the Argentinization and Chileanization of what was once the frontier of civilization. In this sense, the occupation of the Falklands/Malvinas, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego may be considered successive colonial processes that form part of the same frontier drive as the Empire in capital.