The evolutionary history of vertebrate nonhuman animals such as mammals in what is now Latin America extends back tens of millions of years. Given that anatomically modern humans first appeared in Africa a mere 200,000 years ago and would not reach Latin America until some 12,000 years ago, nonhuman animals in the region evolved for most of their history without interference from human activities. Once they appeared, humans began to shape the history of the region’s animals in profound ways. In fact, one could argue that animal history in Latin America has been a story of increasing human impact; from the Paleo-Indians, who may have driven countless species of megafauna to extinction; to the agrarian societies that domesticated species such as dogs, turkeys, and llamas (or tolerated the animals’ self-domestication); to the radical transformations brought about by the Columbian Exchange; to the industrialization process of the last two centuries. But animal history in the region is also marked by adaptation and agency on the part of animals, who have influenced the course of human history. This dynamic and adaptive human–animal relationship has been pushed to the limit during extinction pulses, manifest in the currently accelerating biodiversity crisis. Environmental history makes the convincing case that any historical account that neglects the environment offers an inaccurate depiction of the past. By the same token, animal historians suggest that a more complete understanding of history requires redefining its boundaries to include the often underappreciated story of nonhuman species and their interrelationships with human societies.
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.
Agrarian transformations in Andean Peru, subject to larger sociopolitical and economic processes, entailed major material, environmental, and biological changes. The long history of sheep introduction in Andean environments, its specific impact on the central highlands, and the making of an Andean breed of sheep—the oveja Junín—illustrate how such transformations shaped rural Peru as a societal space. Following larger environmental patters in Latin America, sheep became the dominant animal of the upper Andean regions, populating depleted landscapes and refashioning otherwise hostile environments as areas of agrarian productivity. Many of the transformations that occurred during colonial times, particularly the consolidation of the hacienda system and the rise of sheepherding as a form of peonage, served manifold purposes in the transition to the national period. While the 19th-century liberal obliteration of corporate identities and property obscured the legacy of indigenous communities, sheep continued to thrive and set the conditions for the incorporation of the Peruvian countryside into the global world economy. In the 20th century, with the parallel arrival of state and capital governance, transforming sheep and sheepherding from vernacular expressions of livelihood into advanced forms of modern agrarian industrialism merged together scientific and veterinarian knowledge with local understandings, producing the oveja Junín as the ultimate result. As sheepherding modernized based on efficient husbandry, sheep modernity efficiently nurtured rural developmentalism, bringing together communal and capitalist interests in unprecedented ways. The state-sponsored project of granjas comunales devoted to capital-intensive grazing economies reveals how husbandry and modern grazing activities both reinforced and transformed societal organization within indigenous communities, sanctioning existing differences while providing a vocabulary of capital for recasting their internal social relations of production. When the state envisioned the centralization of otherwise profitable communal grazing economies, through the allegedly empowering language of agrarian reform, the cooperativization of land, labor, and animals led to communal, family, and individual disenfranchisement. Indigenous community members, turned into campesinos, sought new battlegrounds for resisting state intromission. Eventually, the very biology of the oveja Junín as an exclusive domain of state and capital became the target of campesino sabotage. As the agrarian reform collapsed and revolution engulfed the countryside, rural livelihoods—sheep included—faced their ultimate demise, often with severe degrees of violence. In this entire trajectory, sheep—and the oveja Junín—ruled the upper regions of the Andes like no political power ever did.
In February 1943, a small but powerful volcano emerged from a cornfield in the vicinity of Uruapan, Michoacán, México. A stunned farmer, Dionisio Pulido, alerted the nearby town of San Juan Parangaricutiro, and a group of villagers went to investigate the growing mound in Pulido’s field. The new volcano, named Parícutin by Mexican scientist Dr. Ezequiel Ordóñez, emitted smoke, ash, and lava until 1952. The ash fall and lava flows severely changed life in five of the surrounding villages. Most villagers in the affected areas were reluctant to move, but the ash fall made it nearly impossible to cultivate their crops, polluted the air and water sources, and made their animals sick. In the end, two villages completely evacuated with the help of the national government.
A few days after the volcano emerged, scientists from México and the United States flocked to the area for the unique opportunity to study a volcano from its birth. They recorded lava flows, eruption patterns, ash fall, and damage to the surrounding agricultural land. A significant relationship blossomed between a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, Carl Fries Jr., and a local Purépecha man, Celedonio Gutiérrez. Although Gutiérrez had only a minimal education, his knowledge of the environment and the local people proved essential to foreign academics studying the volcano. Working together, the two men published at least eight scientific articles in the U.S. weekly magazine Eos, based on daily observations of the volcano.
Parícutin fascinated people from México and the United States since the moment it grew into a cinder cone. Artists such as Dr. Atl used the volcano for inspiration, producing countless sketches and paintings, some of which were published. Reporters, tourists, and artists from around the world visited Parícutin, excited at the possibility of seeing an active volcano up close. Authors and illustrators also expressed the fascinating story of the volcano and the affected Purépecha community in children’s stories. In the 21st century, Parícutin remains a popular tourist destination.
A half-buried church in what was San Juan Parangaricutiro is all that remains of a once lively village and stands as a testament to the strength and reach of Parícutin. Despite the destruction, the eruption serves as a reminder of the importance of volcanoes in Mexican culture and provides a lens to examine the long-established relationship between people and volcanoes. The study of Parícutin fits into the wider scholarship of Latin American environmental history because it highlights the connections between culture and environment. This story demonstrates the interplay between the perspectives different groups of people had of the volcano and how landscape affects the social and cultural history of a place and its people.
Since the early 19th century, a number of Latin American countries have had active interests in the Antarctic continent. These interests began to accelerate in the early 20th century, and during the 1930s and 1940s, Argentina and Chile formalized sovereignty claims to the Antarctic Peninsula region. These claims overlapped not only with each other, but also with Great Britain’s claim to the “Falkland Islands Dependencies.” The two Latin American claims tended to be framed in the language of anti-imperialism, and for a while at least the idea of a “South American Antarctica” emerged to suggest a common front against the British Empire. Rivalry between Argentina and Chile, however, remained strong, and the alliance against imperialism never developed into a lasting agreement. In 1959, Argentina and Chile joined with ten other nations—including Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—in signing the Antarctic Treaty. This Treaty suspended sovereignty claims and created a “continent dedicated to peace and science.” Following the ratification of the Treaty in 1961, Argentina and Chile lessened their hostility to the imperial strategy of using scientific research as a justification for political claims, and came to be enthusiastic members of what some outsiders labeled an “exclusive club.” During the 1980s and early 1990s, four other Latin American nations—Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, and Ecuador—became full members of the Antarctic Treaty, attracted, in part, by the prospect of sharing in a potential minerals bonanza in the southern continent. This expected economic boom never came, however, and instead the Antarctic continent became one of the most protected environments anywhere on the planet by the terms of the 1991 Madrid Environmental Protocol.
Regina Horta Duarte
Modern zoos emerged as mass entertainment, spaces of public leisure and of culture. In the past, they served as monuments and expressions of the degree of “civilization” and progress of a city and its respective country. In Latin America, zoos date from the last quarter of the 19th century. The history of Latin American zoos is a political, cultural, and social history. The conditions of their creation and operation over the decades have conferred important specificities to these institutions. Since their inception, zoos in Latin America have reflected nationalistic aspirations, civilizational projects, and social transformation. Over the decades, the history of many zoos has blended with natural history in Latin America, as many zoo founders were important scientists. The development of new sensitivities toward animals also follows the history of zoos in Latin America from the beginning, because the first animal protection societies appeared at the same time. Today, zoos face vigorous claims from animal rights activists calling for their closure. In view of so many challenges, these institutions are reinventing themselves with an increased focus on conservation and environmental education, joining international zoological societies with high standards of quality. Among several of these societies, the Latin American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (ALPZA) stands out. Founded in 1990, ALPZA organizes, reshapes, and integrates Latin American zoos, establishing global connections. Various actors play a role in the defense and contestation of zoos, such as politicians, scientists, conservationists, animal protection societies, anti-zoo activists, visitors, administrators, officials, and, of course, thousands of wild animals from all over the world who have lived in Latin American cities for decades.
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.
During his breathtaking 19th-century scientific explorations of New Spain (as Mexico was known under Spanish rule), illustrious German scientific traveler Alexander von Humboldt crammed a lifetime of scientific studies into one extraordinary year: exhausting inspections of three major colonial silver mines, prodigious hikes to the summits of most of Mexico’s major volcanoes while taking scientific measurements and botanical samples, careful study of hitherto secret Spanish colonial archives in Mexico City, and visits to recently uncovered archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic cultures. Humboldt wrote voluminously about his Mexican experiences and is an indispensable source of insights into the colony of New Spain on the eve of its troubled birth as independent Mexico a decade later.
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.
Diogo de Carvalho Cabral
Although it has received less scholarly attention than firearms, microbes, domestic animals and plants, market economy, and statecraft, alphabetic reading and writing was crucial in the European conquest and colonization of the Americas from the late 15th century on. Unlike the agrarian empires the Spaniards encountered in the Andes and the Mexican highlands, the Portuguese frontier advanced upon tribal peoples who relied exclusively on oral language, such as the Tupi of Atlantic Brazil. These were semi-sedentary horticultural villagers whose entire socio-ecology (myths and knowledge, territoriality, subsistence strategies, etc.) was conditioned by the face-to-faceness and fugacity of spoken words. In turn, their Portuguese colonizers—for a while rivaled by the French, who enjoyed short periods of stable settlement through the early 17th century—were urban-based, oceangoing merchants, bureaucrats, soldiers, and religious missionaries whose organization strictly depended on the durability and transferability of written texts. Even if most of the Portuguese who came to Brazil in the 16th century were themselves illiterate, colonization as a social enterprise framed their actions according to prescribed roles set down in writing (both handwriting and printed script). Thus, the Portuguese colonization of Brazilian native lands and human populations can be interpreted from the point of view of the imposition of an alphabetically organized way of life. Two major dimensions of this “letterscaping” can be discerned as to its impact on Amerindian bodies (human and nonhuman) and modes of understanding. Although the 16th century was only the introductory act in that drama, its historical record shows the basic outlines of the alphabetic colonization that would play out through the early 19th century: native decimation and enslavement, territory usurpation by sesmaria grants, forest recovery in former native croplands (then resignified as “virgin forest”), loss of native ecological knowledge not recorded in writing, disempowerment of native cultural attunement to the wild soundscape, among other processes.