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.
Gregory T. Cushman
Agrarian societies in Latin America and the Caribbean have accomplished some of the most important and influential innovations in agricultural knowledge and practice in world history—both ancient and modern. These enabled indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica and the Andes to attain some of the highest population densities and levels of cultural accomplishment of the premodern world. During the colonial era, produce from the region’s haciendas, plantations, and smallholdings provided an essential ecological underpinning for the development of the world’s first truly global networks of trade. From the 18th to the early 20th century, the transnational activities of agricultural improvers helped turn the region into one of the world’s primary exporters of agricultural commodities. This was one of the most tangible outcomes of the Enlightenment and early state-building efforts in the hemisphere. During the second half of the 20th century, the region provided a prime testing ground for input-intensive farming practices associated with the Green Revolution, which developed in close relation with import-substituting industrialization and technocratic forms of governance. The ability of farmers and ranchers to intensify production from the land using new cultivars, technologies, and techniques was critical to all of these accomplishments, but often occurred at the cost of irreversible environmental transformation and violent social conflict. Manure was often central to these histories of intensification because of its importance to the cycling of nutrients. The history of the extraction and use of guano as a fertilizer profoundly shaped the globalization of input-intensive agricultural practices around the globe, and exemplifies often-overlooked connectivities reaching across regional boundaries and between terrestrial and aquatic environments.
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.
From the time that Columbus arrived in the Caribbean until Spain surrendered power over its mainland American colonies in the early 19th century, Spanish and Portuguese colonial mines poured forth vast amounts of bullion, including some gold and a far greater quantity of silver, both in terms of weight and its overall value relative to gold. Fiscal records indicate that Spanish Americans officially refined gold worth approximately 374,000,000 pesos, each consisting of 272 maravedís, whereas the amount of silver produced reached a value of 3,432,000,000 pesos (to these figures need to be added contraband output, estimated to have been around 17–20 percent). In other words, the colonies refined nine times more silver than gold. While Columbus, Cortés, and other earlier explorers may have fantasized primarily about gold, it was the flood of American silver that touched off the price revolution in Europe and monetarized the emerging world economy, especially because China had a voracious appetite for silver, not gold. At the same time in the American colonies, mining distorted economic life because of the incentives the industry received from a silver-hungry monarchy. Mining also had profound consequences for indigenous society, severely exploited to provide workers for the mines and refining mills.
Colonial refiners used two methods to beneficiate their silver ores, smelting and amalgamation. Smelting was suitable for all types of American silver ores but required large amounts of fuel to heat the ovens. It remained widely used throughout Mexico during the entire colonial period. Amalgamation was a newer technology, adapted to American ores during the mid-16th century. Although it did not require large quantities of charcoal and other fuels, as smelting did, amalgamation depended on the availability of mercury. Nearly all quicksilver used in colonial Spanish American silver mining came from either Huancavelica (Peru) or Almadén (Spain), with occasional supplements from Idria (Slovenia). Whereas both smelting and amalgamation were used widely in Mexico, Andean mines relied on amalgamation.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, numerous academics and non-governmental organizations based in the United States generated alarm about political and ecological threats posed by human population growth. During the first half of the 20th century, improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medical therapies had dramatically reduced infant mortality and contributed to increased life expectancy in many parts of the world. In the context of the Cold War, many leaders of Western industrialized nations viewed the rapid growth of poor Asian, African, and Latin American populations as a potential source of political instability. They feared that these poor masses would become fodder for revolutionary political movements, particularly communism. Combined with eugenicist views rooted in colonial racism, new understanding of ecological systems, and growing concern about overtaxing earth’s resources, these fears led many American and European scholars and activists to promote population reduction in the newly designated “Third World.” In Latin America, such efforts to curb human increase were met with skepticism or outright opposition by both Catholic Church leaders and many left-wing nationalists who saw the promotion of birth control as a form of racist imperialism. Although some physicians and even liberal priests viewed decreasing family size as important for public health and family welfare, the involvement of North American capitalists (such as the Rockefellers), U.S. government agencies, and former eugenicists in efforts to distribute contraceptive technologies made them deeply suspect in the eyes of many Latin Americans.
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.