Christopher R. Boyer
Human interaction with nature has shaped Latin American ecology and society ever since the first people arrived in the Americas more than fifteen millennia ago. Ancient Native Americans made use of the region’s immense biological diversity and likely contributed to a massive extinction of large animals at the end of the last ice age. Over the ensuing centuries, their descendants took cautious steps to shape the landscape to suit their needs. Colonialism ruptured this process of ecological and social co-evolution, as Europeans conquered the Americas, bringing with them new plants, animals, and diseases as well as a profit motive that gave rise to two economies that further reshaped the environment: the sugar plantation complex and silver mining/hacienda complex. These socio-environmental structures foretold the dynamic of resource extraction and reliance on a single major export destined to more developed countries that characterized most Latin American economies and ecologies after independence. Although most nations sought to break away from this neo-colonial syndrome during the 20th century, they typically did so by increased reliance on agro-industry and the extraction of minerals and petroleum, all of which came at a predictably high ecological cost. At the same time, calls for conservation of resources and biodiversity began to be heard. By the turn of the 21st century, scientists, urbanites, and rural people had become increasingly concerned about the costs of economic “development” and alternative ways of coexisting with nature.
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.
Alejandro Tortolero Villaseñor
For several years, some of Mexico’s most influential literary figures associated mountains with the presence of certain characteristics: wildlife, botanic variety, and most importantly, backwards and/or mysterious indigenous communities. Order and civilization, it seemed, for writers like Ignacio Altamirano and Manuel Payno, ceased to exist in mountainscapes. For these writes, mountains constituted social afterthoughts—places lacking history and dynamism, places that did not matter. They were, in Braudelian terms, the margins of civilization and factories that supplied human resources to cities.
Such portrayals were not derived from reality, however. Far from solely being dull or dangerous sites where banditry and romantic indigeneity prevailed, Mexico’s mountains were, between the colonial era and the Porfiriato, the places where dramatic transformations took place. Impresarios’ mastery of Mexico’s natural resources fueled the country’s economic growth during the 19th and 20th centuries. Concomitant with this growth came dramatic alterations of the country’s landscape that left much of Mexico’s environment in disrepair.
Mountains, thus, have histories. They are not landscapes where civilization parts ways with society. Such an argument has relevance in parts of the world like Latin America, where nearly half of the people who reside there live at elevations above sea level, and where only 7 percent reside under an elevation of 1,000 meters above sea level.
Before there was Mexico, there was oil. Millennia of organic matter that collapsed and liquefied into fossil fuel rested deep underground and underwater along the half-moon territorial formation that 19th-century geographers named the Mexican Gulf. Hidden by the lush tropical rainforests, marshes, and mangroves that occupied the landscape from the Pánuco River on the border between modern day Tamaulipas and Veracruz and the Bay of Campeche on the South, the oil seeped to the surface in small ponds, sometimes blackening the waters of streams and lagoons from Tabasco to the Huasteca. The human communities who inhabited that part of the globe thousands of years later knew about and utilized nature’s oozing sticky black tar.
The Olmec, who flourished in southern Veracruz from 1200 to 400
All of the Andean nations possess oil. Each has a unique historical relationship with petroleum, but there are also similarities between the histories of oil production in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. First, oil was discovered in the countries at roughly the same time in the late 19th century when oil was gaining in global importance. Second, foreign companies came to control oil reserves in these three countries, with similar outcomes. One such outcome was the development of state oil companies so that the countries could capture more revenues from the oil deposits than they received from foreign companies. Third, many saw oil as a panacea for the region’s many social ills. Failures by oil producers, including the state oil companies, to use the oil to cure those ills has led to persistent social and political conflict. And fourth, but not finally, oil extraction in these countries has caused major struggles between indigenous people and the state since the onset of neoliberal economic schemes in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are many differences as well. The creation of state oil companies in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru occurred in different decades, and therefore, within different global and regional historical contexts. Only one of the countries, Ecuador, is a member of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Bolivia has a stronger presence in regional energy distribution through its large deposits of natural gas. Peru has not turned away from the neoliberal model in the same ways that Bolivia and Ecuador have. Finally, indigenous people have had different levels of success in protecting their lands and cultures from the onslaught of oil production in the Andes. There is no question, however, that oil remains central to the development plans of each country.
Heidi V. Scott
Between 1796 and 1809, an array of pro- and anti-mining discourses unfolded in response to a proposal to mine gold in the former Jesuit mission territories of Chiquitos. In the last years of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, Chiquitos, in addition to being a region formerly known for its network of Jesuit missions, was a frontier of colonial settlement on a transimperial boundary characterized by an ambiguous jurisdictional status. These geographical particularities molded in significant ways the arguments presented by supporters as well as detractors of gold mining. Whether they inclined to the negative or positive, colonial discourses relating to mines and mineral extraction were tethered to geography and shaped in relation to ideas and beliefs about the characteristics of particular territories.
Pulque, the alcoholic beverage of pre-Columbian highland Mesoamerica is the fermented derivative of aguamiel, the juice or sap of the agave known as agave pulquero—principally Agave salmiana. Aguamiel is a sweet, somewhat heavy juice that collects in a scraped out basin in the heart of the agave pulquero and, unless refrigerated, rapidly ferments into the alcoholic pulque. The agents of fermentation are ambient and plant-colonizing bacteria and yeasts. Fresh pulque is a frothy, cloudy brew with a slightly sour taste, usually containing around 2 percent alcohol or somewhat higher, meaning it can be drunk in large quantities without intoxicating the imbiber. Although it is a nutritious drink, consumption was condemned by Spaniards in varying degrees during the Colonial Period. Its popularity in contemporary southern Mexico is increasing after more than a century of persecution and public disparagement. Pulque figures prominently in pre- and post-Columbian Mesoamerican history.
Production of tequila and mezcal is completely different from production of pulque. The former are distilled from the pressed juice (tepache) of macerated and roasted hearts of certain agaves. The juice is fermented in vats for several days, then heated in a still, evaporated, and condensed. Tequila, by law is made from A. tequilana, and mezcal by custom is made primarily from A. angustifolia. Both these distillates contain about 40 percent alcohol. Pulque is a naturally occurring product consumed by native peoples for at least two millennia. Tequila and mezcal are industrial products derived from processes introduced into the Americas by Europeans.
Peoples and biotas of the Andes and Amazonia have been interacting for millennia, influencing each other through complex dynamics of biological, social, and cultural adaptations. The 16th-century Spanish invasion introduced radical technological, ideological, and political changes that altered fundamentally the forms of ecological and social coexistence that had been in place for thousands of years. Indigenous peoples of the two areas as well as the new “mestizo” communities have resisted the more than five centuries of colonial and postcolonial occupation of these lands, structuring organized responses to protect their communities and their lands.
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.
Reinaldo Funes Monzote
For the greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cuba, the largest island in the Antilles, figured as the principal exporter of sugar cane, a product that dominated the country’s agro-industry. In this way, Cuba became illustrative of the economic, social, political, and environmental impact of basing an economy on monoculture in order to supply foreign markets. This does not mean, however, that sugar cane was the only major crop being grown in the Cuban fields, as there was no dearth of different plants destined for foreign markets, such as tobacco and coffee, or for local markets, such as yucca, plantains, corn, sweet potatoes, and rice, not to mention a long if little-known livestock tradition. However, the dominance of agro-industry almost always eclipses agricultural and economic alternatives that could become potential competitors, despite the periodic adverse circumstances that affect consumers. But, in the 1990s, the production and exportation of sugar suffered an abrupt fall, creating a vacuum that allowed diversification of land use and that prompted a search for alternative agricultural models.