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.
Machu Picchu is an Inca royal estate constructed in the mid-15th century in Peru’s picturesque high jungle. As a seasonal retreat for celebrations, religious rituals, and administrative affairs when the Incas traveled beyond Cuzco, Machu Picchu was abandoned soon after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Andes in 1531. The site was largely lost to the Western world until 1911, when a Yale University expedition led by Hiram Bingham lay claim to the scientific and historical “discovery” of the impressive complex of white-granite buildings and agricultural terraces. Contentious debates over cultural patrimony, conservation, indigenous rights, and neoliberal exploitation have enhanced Machu Picchu’s allure as one of the most famous archaeological remains in the Western Hemisphere.
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.
On August 13, 1521, the conquistadors and their native allies seized Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The Spaniards succeeded because they had agreed with the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous self-governing communities (altepetl) to fight the Aztecs. After the conquest these communities continued their traditions, and the Spaniards replaced Aztec leadership with their own. The friars and the secular church converted the natives, and together with the crown they foiled the conquistadors’ attempts to become liege lords with jurisdiction. The process culminated in the New Laws of 1542, which curbed the encomienda, a grant to a Spaniard that comprised several Indian towns paying him or her tribute. In its stead a society of corporations evolved, composed of town councils, lay brotherhoods of churches, and others, complete with their own laws and jurisdictions. Then a series of silver strikes beginning at Zacatecas in 1546 drew settlers into the region called the Bajío north of the former Aztec and Tarascan empires. The local natives resisted initially, and when peace came, they and the settlers created a dynamic early capitalist economy that invigorated other regions. The frontier expanded when animal herds moved further north beyond the mines, and the zone of Spanish influence grew to the south as well.
In 1540 Spanish conquistadors and their indigenous allies began seizing the northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, and they took Tiho/Mérida in 1542. The Yucatan, the Bajío, and the other regions that composed colonial Mexico successively integrated into a global commercial network spanning Europe, Africa, and Asia. The crown and the merchant guild (consulado) in Seville sought to capture the burgeoning Atlantic commerce within the fleet shuttling between Seville/Cadiz and Veracruz and restrict the silver flowing from Acapulco to Asia via the Philippines. Market forces defied most of the rules they put in place. Merchants from Asia settled in Manila; Peruvians docked in Acapulco; and the Dutch, French, and English competed with fleet merchants or operated contraband trade from the Caribbean islands to New Spain. In the 18th century, the crown found allies to loosen trade regulations within the empire and curb corporative autonomies. A series of audits (visitas) shook New Spain, and more compliant viceroys and officials appeared, while the friars lost over one hundred parishes (doctrinas) during the mid-century. The king expelled the Jesuits in 1767; registered ships sailing individually replaced the fleet in 1778; and in 1786 José de Gálvez introduced the intendants in New Spain. As the empire transitioned toward a territorial state, Napoleon imprisoned the Spanish king (1808). In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo and a popular following unleashed the War of Independence. As the conflict unfolded, the legitimacy of the old order crumbled, and the empire dissolved in 1821.
Throughout the 1980s, Central America was wracked by conflict. El Salvador faced a guerrilla insurgency, Guatemala’s long conflict festered, and Nicaragua faced a continually escalating U.S.-led proxy war that used fighters, loosely referred to as the Contras, to wage war on the Nicaraguan government through cross-border raids that implicated Costa Rica and Honduras in persistent violations of sovereignty. The Treaty of Esquipulas, spearheaded by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez, ended these conflicts and brought stability to the region.
The Treaty of Esquipulas stands as one of the most significant and understudied peace agreements of the late Cold War. These accords ran counter to the will of the more powerful United States, which throughout the 1980s had sought to use military force as the key to achieving regime change in Nicaragua. The United States policy of supporting guerrillas that waged a war of regime change in Nicaragua fanned the flames of conflict and destabilized the region. Esquipulas undermined this destructive policy. For the first time, the small nations of Central America, so long considered the imperial servants of the United States, thwarted an aggressive U.S. military policy. Through intense diplomatic meetings, and in the wake of the controversy that developed from the Iran–Contra scandal, President Arias of Costa Rica succeeded in creating a peace agreement for Central Americans and authored by Central Americans. The Esquipulas accords were a blanket repudiation of the near decade-long Contra war policy of the United States. Central America created diplomatic unity and facilitated a successful opposition to the military policy of its more powerful neighbor. This agreement was a great triumph of peace and diplomacy created in the face of what seemed like overwhelming odds.
In the late 1960s, several leftist political movements in Latin America began to claim the use of political violence as a means of social transformation. This second wave of leftist political violence was distinct from an earlier wave—composed of rural guerillas inspired by the Cuban Revolution, roughly a decade and a half earlier—in several ways. The later proponents of armed struggle emphasized the importance of cities in armed actions, not just rural settings. They also advocated interaction between armed organizations and other actors in social movements, including far-left nationalist and populist factions within traditional political parties and the Catholic Church. Armed action was seen by such groups as a valid response to increasingly repressive governments, and to limitations on political action that made social change through peaceful means impossible. The use of violence provided a way to develop collective action in the hostile environment of the Latin American Cold War, which was marked by extreme political and ideological polarization.
Timothy Wilson and Mara Favoretto
In the 20th century Argentina experienced a series of dictatorial regimes of varying intensity, but the last dictatorship stands apart. The Process of National Reorganization or Proceso (1976–1983) was not only the most brutally repressive, “disappearing” 30,000 of its own citizens into concentration camps, but also the most ambitious in terms of ideological mission. Its campaign, officially called “the war against subversion,” was committed to the total eradication of leftist ideas from the political landscape of the country by any means necessary. This radical transformation was to be brought about not only in the torture chamber, but in the media as well. The regime planned an Orwellian redefinition of words: the systematic creation of a national vocabulary that would exclude certain ideas and parties. In order to achieve its overt project of the appropriation of language, the junta maintained obsessive control over the media, instituted strict censorship reinforced by terror, and bombarded the airwaves and newspapers with official communiqués. In the face of this repression, most journalists and writers and many artists could not express dissent of any kind. Yet singers of a new Argentine music genre that came to be known as rock nacional developed codified and oblique metaphorical expression in their lyrics that allowed them to evade censorship and to continue to criticize the military regime with relative impunity. Moreover, many Argentine youths found solace in the music and used it to create communities in which they could meet and express themselves. The regime had sought to deny young Argentines a forum for public speech; however, together artists and listeners created a rock nacional culture that provided community for the isolated and lent a voice to the silenced.