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date: 25 September 2017

Latin American Environmental History

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: agriculture, Anthropocene, development, environment, commodities, conservation, natural resources

Latin America and the Caribbean constitute the world’s the most biologically diverse region. According to the best estimates, over half of Earth’s tropical forests and a third of its mammal and reptile species are found there. Much of Latin America’s plant and animal life is endemic, meaning that it is found nowhere else in the world.1 The region’s immense variety of life derives in part from its spectacular geographic diversity. Latin America is home to the driest deserts (Chile’s Atacama), the most extensive rainforest (the Amazon), and the longest mountain range (the Andes) and spans the greatest latitude of any culture region of the globe.

This prodigious natural wealth has long attracted the attention of colonial and postcolonial empires. As Eduardo Galeano put in his 1973 classic Open Veins of Latin America, everything in the continent, including “the soil, its fruits, and its mineral-rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume,”2 fed the demand from European economies, later joined by North American and now Chinese ones as well. The ecological and human costs of this extractivism completely remade the landscapes in places like the plantations of western Cuba (once the site of effusive tropical forests) or the Valley of Mexico (once a land of broad, marshy lakes).3 Native peoples and their descendants were sometimes forced into the mining economy, which also destroyed forests, rivers, and other habitats. Enslaved Africans and their descendants cleared the woods, planted and harvested sugar cane, and permanently transformed the Caribbean ecology. Even today, loggers, ranchers, fieldworkers, miners, fishermen, and others make use of Latin American resources—almost always unsustainably—destined for foreign markets.4

While contact with foreign empires and markets indelibly changed Latin American landscapes, “dependency” narratives that simply address external sources of environmental change capture only half the picture. Latin Americans have always used resources and modified their environment to suit their own needs. Native peoples shaped their surroundings long before Europeans stepped foot in the New World. Likewise, the unleashing of Old World biota in the Americas brought untold harm to native people, yet they eventually embraced new sources of food such as rice and cattle in ways that refashioned the peasant diet and agriculture. Particularly after independence, Latin Americans were often the authors of their own quest for settlement, economic development, and (eventually) conservation. In short, while much ecological change in Latin America derived from exposure to foreign interests, internal and domestic actors also played a major role. Rather than dependency, we need to focus on exchange as the operative mode of ecological restructuring.

Ancient Landscapes, 12,000 bce–1492 ce

The Homo sapiens whose descendants originally populated the New World began their journey no later than 25,000 years ago. They ventured onto a land bridge a thousand miles wide and 3,000 miles long that had been exposed when the last great ice age (110,000–12,000 years ago) captured massive amounts of water and lowered sea levels enough to create a landmass known as Beringia between Siberia and Alaska. The ancient forebears of Native Americans likely settled in Beringia’s boreal grasslands, which were dotted with forest outcroppings, edible plants, and herds of animals, until rising sea levels or the promise of new hunting grounds led them into North America proper. A warming climate melted glaciers and raised the sea level until water once again overspread the Bering Strait 11,000 years ago and severed the ecological link between Asia and the Americas. For the next ten and a half millennia, the peoples of the so-called New World lived in cultural and biological isolation from their far more numerous (and disease-ridden) kin in “Old World” Eurasia and Africa.

Archaeologists formerly believed they had a clear picture of human settlement of the Americas: according to that view, the first humans arrived from Beringia pursuing large game and settled in what is now the southwestern United States, from which point they spread throughout the Americas. This hypothesis originated in the early 20th century with the discovery and excavation of Paleo-Indian settlements near Clovis, New Mexico. These “Clovis people” appeared approximately 13,000 years ago and used spears tipped with distinctive stone heads to hunt mammoths. Moreover, the Clovis people are genetically related to the other indigenous peoples living in the Americas today, all of whom originated in northeast Asia. Nevertheless, recent discoveries make it clear that the Clovis people are not the only forebears of Native Americans. Archaeologists have discovered older sites in what is now Chile and southern Argentina as well as the southeastern United States that appear to date at least a thousand years before Clovis. Moreover, genetic evidence suggests that at least four groups of native people arrived from northern Asia. Did some ancient Paleo-Indians travel to the Americas over the water, hugging the coast of Beringia? Did some ancient peoples rush southward while others dawdled in the far north? Whatever the case, our current understanding remains incomplete.

There is no doubt that human settlement of the Americas coincided with a catastrophic ecological event known as the Pleistocene extinctions, in which the majority of large mammal species disappeared from the New World over a single millennium. By around 11,000 years ago, thirty-three of forty-five genera had suddenly gone extinct in North America, while forty-six of fifty-eight genera died out in South America. Large herbivores that survived on other continents, such as the horse and camel, disappeared from the Americas. Strange creatures endemic to the New World, such as ground sloths the size of elephants and 400-pound armadillo-like creatures perished altogether, as did large predators including the saber-toothed cat, the giant polar bear, and the dire wolf. The precise reason for this generalized ecological collapse remains unclear and undoubtedly had multiple causes, including climate change provoked by the end of the last ice age or the disappearance of keystone species such as mastodons and mammoths. Humans almost certainly helped to spark these mass extinctions. The sophisticated, two-legged predators that had recently spread through the New World used unprecedented weapons to bring down their prey. Lumbering land sloths, mastodons, and mammoths had few natural defenses to the stone-tipped spears, fire, and language that Paleo-Indians had at their disposal.

For thousands of years thereafter, the native peoples who lived what became Latin America sustained themselves by living off the land. Some settled on the shorelines or river banks and sustained themselves by collecting shellfish; years later, archaeologists discovered huge mounds of discarded shells in several coastal regions and even deep in the Amazon, suggesting that large populations once lived in supposedly “virgin” rainforests. Other peoples followed a more mobile strategy of following animals’ annual migration patterns or the seasonal ripening of edible plants. This meant following a nomadic pattern that followed roughly the same path year after year. Some of these hunter-gatherers eventually learned to scatter the seeds of desirable plants in the places they knew they would pass by the following season. Perhaps as early as 10,000 bce, semi-nomadic people had learned to plant chili, squash, and avocado in Meso-America and cassava in Brazil. The potato was domesticated in the western Andes some centuries later. Between 7000 and 5000 bce, indigenous farmers in western Mexico began to plant teosinte grass, selecting for the largest grains and (around 5,500 years ago) benefiting from a genetic mutation that ultimately produced maize, a crop that soon spread throughout the Americas and made the establishment of the first semi-permanent agricultural settlements possible.

Native peoples learned how to manipulate their environment to make agricultural production viable. They became increasingly dependent on two natural elements: fire and water. It was (and in a few remote places, still is) convenient to cut down the tallest vegetation and burn the fields in preparation for planting. Not only did the fire temporarily remove unwanted weeds and insects, the ash acted as a natural fertilizer. Within a few years, the soils treated in this way grew unproductive, at which point farmers moved on to new sites and started a new round of swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture. Although sometimes regarded as “primitive,” this use of fire can be sustainable as long as farmers have a large enough area to leave the land fallow for several years while they plant elsewhere. In the formerly thickly settled Amazon, native people eventually learned to mix charcoal, manure, and fish bones into the soil in order to create small but highly productive fields. Water also demanded careful use, since a quarter of Latin America is arid land with seasonally heavy rains Ancient farmers built canals and terraces throughout the Americas, from the sophisticated hydrological works of Peru’s Zaña Valley to the temporary construction of brush and low berms to channel water during seasonal rains in northern Mexico.

By around 2000–1500 bce, improvements in agriculture produced enough surplus food that native elites could abandon the fields and dedicate themselves to building of complex civilizations. The Olmec culture developed in Mexico, while forerunners of the Maya, Muisca, Arawak, and Chavín cultures appeared further south. By 1000 bce, complex native cultures capable of manipulating the environment on an unprecedented scale had appeared throughout the Americas. Many developed ingenious techniques for farming, including raised fields near Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca adapted to its plentiful water but high altitude or the super-productive agricultural berms called chinampas built into the shallow lakes of the Valley of Mexico. Particularly in the Andes, terracing (the construction of step-like fields on mountainsides) created flat agricultural plots that resisted erosion in a rugged terrain. This is not to imply that native people lived in absolute harmony with “nature.” Even with terraces, erosion plagued the most densely populated areas, and increasing urbanization brought deforestation as people cut trees for fuel and construction. Moreover, climactic events could undermine even sophisticated societies. Extended droughts appear to have played at least some role in undermining the Tiwanaku empire of the Andes, the classic Maya of the Petén, and the Anasazi of the U.S. Southwest. The greatest threat to indigenous cultures came not from the environment but rather from European colonialism.5

The Columbian Exchange and Colonialism, 1492–1820s

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, two rival Iberian nations vied for control of trade in valuable goods such as gold, spices, sugar, and slaves. Spanish navigators had learned from their Moorish (North African Muslim) counterparts that the world was probably round, prompting Christopher Columbus’s epochal 1492 quest for a westbound route to Asia that landed him in the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (now occupied by Santo Domingo and Haiti). Although he misjudged his destination, Columbus shrewdly recognized that he had stumbled on a bounty of human and natural resources. He regarded the Taino natives with a practiced eye and declared them “well made, with very handsome bodies”—and as people who could easily be bent to the Europeans’ will. He described the new lands as suitable for agriculture, ranching, and European settlement; he also incorrectly believed that spices and gold mines abounded. He made a second trip to Hispaniola the following year to found a permanent colony, having kitted out his fleet with the biological matériel to begin terraforming the New World. Columbus brought European livestock, grape and olive vines, seeds of Old World grains, and several stalks of sugar cane he picked up while restocking his ships in the Canary Islands. In time, this European biota radically transformed the New World.

The Spaniards traveled not only with their religious zeal and aspirations of riches, in other words, but with their plants, animals, and disease-bearing microbes as well. The historian Alfred Crosby has dubbed the massive transfer of biota between Old and New Worlds the “Columbian Exchange.”6 Although Europeans intentionally transplanted plants and animals to the New World, the greatest impact ultimately derived from the unintentional transmission of bacteria previously unknown in the Americas, including smallpox, influenza, typhus, bubonic plague, and measles. These diseases had appeared in the Caribbean by 1518 and arrived on the mainland the following year. Over the next two centuries they caused the worst pandemic in human history. European diseases, aggravated by the social displacement and the brutal labor demands of early colonialism, extinguished native Caribbean civilization by virtually wiping out native people there. The native population of the mainland Americas declined by around 80 to 90 percent by 1700. The precise numbers of lives lost still remains a subject of debate, but the case of central Mexico has received the most intense study and may reflect trends elsewhere. According to the most rigorous estimates, 15 million indigenous people inhabited the region prior to the conquest. A smallpox epidemic that began in 1520 helped to destroy the Aztec empire, and the disease may have killed 8 million people over the next century. Likewise, a 1545 outbreak of hemorrhagic fever (perhaps sparked by drought) killed as many as 2 million people. The native population reached a low of 1.5 million around 1620 and began a slow, centuries-long recovery but has only recently reached its pre-conquest number.7

The plants and animals that European colonists brought to the Americas (as well as to Australia and parts of Africa and Asia) functioned to terraform these new lands and make them what Crosby calls “neo-Europes.” Colonists preferred wheat to native corn, which they denigrated as unhealthy. Along with these grains, colonists inadvertently introduced Old World weeds, including invasive grasses and several species of thistle, which competed with native plants. Animals further shaped the emerging colonial landscape.8 Prior to the European invasion, the only large domesticated animals in the Americas were the closely related llama and alpaca used in the west-central Andes for transport, wool, and meat. Native plants and indigenous communities were therefore unprepared for the strange new animals that the colonists intentionally released in the new continents, including pigs, goats, sheep, and horses, not to mention the creatures that tagged along unbidden for the transatlantic ride, such as the black rat and Aedes aegypti mosquito (bearer of yellow and Dengue fevers).9 These creatures filled ecological niches formerly occupied by native species and sometimes invaded native people’s fields to consume precious food crops. In some ecosystems Old World animals reproduced on their own and came to dominate some biomes, as with cattle in the Argentine pampas or horses in the far north of Mexico. Historian Elinor Melville argued in the 1990s that sheep released into Mexico’s Mezquital Valley bred uncontrollably and overgrazed the grasses to the point of converting the area into a virtual desert.10 Other scholars regard Melville’s thesis as exaggerated; they point out that significant erosion predated the conquest and that Spanish herders elsewhere in the colony took great pains to manage the size of their flocks.11

The Spaniards did not come to the New World to farm, however. Mining was the mainstay of the colonial economy. The Spanish extracted modest amounts of gold from the Caribbean at a horrific cost to native people, and still more was extracted from Colombia and (later) Brazil. But it was silver that structured the global economy. Native people had gathered easily accessible deposits on mount Potosí since long before the conquest. The Europeans began to mine the so-called Cerro Rico (rich hill) in 1545 and eventually established a harsh draft of indigenous labor to expand operations. By the end of the colonial era, over 40,000 tons of silver ore plus many times more debris had been removed from the earth. As with subsequent silver strikes in the Andes and Mexico, mining on this scale caused immense damage to the local environment: miners cut trees to construct mineshafts and to burn as fuel in the refining process; heavy metals from mining tailings (the dirt residue left over after ore extraction) leached into the soil and water; mercury used for refining poisoned workers and soil alike; and draft animals foraged on delicate alpine grasses. The scars from the largest colonial-era mining operations can still be seen on satellite photos today.12

Feeding all of these agriculturally unproductive workers, not to mention the growing urban population, required new ways of using the land. In a few places, Catholic missionaries tried to settle far-flung, often nomadic peoples and often had to confront unyielding environments that natives understood far better than friars did.13 As native populations declined, large rural estates known as haciendas occupied the most productive lands near the mines and cities. They functioned more like small villages designed to produce a surplus of grain or meat (or alcohol) than as modern agribusinesses, but their use of plows and draft animals reached deeper into the soil for nutrients than native agriculture ever had.14

A far more threatening variety of agriculture took root in the Caribbean and Brazil in the early 16th century. Sugar had been used as a medicinal spice in Europe for several centuries, but increased production in the colonies set the stage for its transformation into food, particularly once the industrial revolution created a demand for cheap and portable calories.15 Unlike other foodstuffs, sugar was grown as a monocrop, i.e., a single crop grown within a field or region with potentially harmful effects on soils, water, and the plant’s own ability to resist disease. (In the 19th century monocrops came to dominate the agro-export sectors of many Latin American nations, as we shall see.) The expansion of sugar cultivation created a demand for human labor in the form of African slaves. Seventy percent of the approximately 10 million enslaved people sent to the New World—the vast majority of whom arrived in Brazil and the Caribbean islands—worked in sugar fields and refineries. Sugar planters wiped away entire forests and mangroves to plant row after row of cane and spurred still more deforestation to produce wood fuel for refineries and, eventually, steam locomotives. By the 17th century, mangroves in northeastern Brazil had effectively disappeared; two centuries later, the rich forests of Haiti and Cuba had become little more than memories. By then, even the most remote woodlands in the hemisphere began to give way to the pressures of commodification.16

Into the Anthropocene, 1820s–1920s

Wars of independence in Latin America began with the Haitian declaration of independence in 1801 and ended with Bolivia’s final defeat of Spanish forces in 1825, leaving Cuba and Puerto Rico as the only remaining Ibero-American colonies in the New World. The young nations faced a global order in the midst of an industrial revolution centered on Great Britain and spreading to other European nations and the United States. Industrialization entailed a shift from organic forms of traction and energy (i.e., wind, water, human, and animal power) to carbon-emitting combustion processes beginning around 1800 that released massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other energy-capturing gasses into the atmosphere, which in the long run will result in rising sea levels and changes to the global climate, leading many scholars to dub this new climatological era the Anthropocene. Latin America suddenly became a major source of raw materials to feed global demand that now included not just sugar and precious metals but also cotton, fertilizer, animal products, and a widening gamut of industrial ores. Whereas Spain had regulated international trade and restricted access to profitable industries such as mining, most Latin American nations deregulated trade and threw their economies open to global commerce after independence. From an environmental perspective, this new global order brought two new phenomena to Latin America: neo-colonial extractivism and, hence, the widespread commodification of natural resources. Extractivism refers to the capacity of foreign and domestic corporations to sell a small range of raw materials (minerals, petrochemicals, or agricultural goods) to more developed countries, often at great cost to the environment. Commodification is the process of attaching monetary values to resources such as forests and water that had once held no value and been widely available for public use.

Neo-colonial extractivism and commodification characterized most Latin American countries in the first century after independence, yet Peru and Brazil experienced unusually intense resource booms followed by spectacular busts. The virtually rainless Chincha islands in Peru’s southern territorial waters were habitats for several species of seabirds whose droppings, known as guano, accumulated in amazing quantities over the centuries. Native people had long understood that spreading guano on croplands increased yields. The Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt and two French chemists demonstrated in the early 1800s that the droppings functioned as natural fertilizers because of their rich nitrogen content, but Europeans did not have an opportunity to begin extraction until the 1840s. For the next three decades, British corporations systematically quarried the islands, sending guano to a hungry, industrializing Europe and paying royalties that the Peruvian government invested in ambitious development projects such as building an immensely expensive railroad through the Andes. By the late 1870s, the guano had all but disappeared along with the seabirds themselves, whose numbers had plummeted as a result of habitat disruption and overfishing of their food sources. In desperation, Peru turned to nitrate mines on its far southern border; the nation lost this territory to Chile in a war (1879–83) fought in part over control of these suddenly commodified resources. The mines began to lose their value in the 1910s, when the first artificial fertilizers appeared.17

Brazil’s experience with the extractivism followed roughly the same pattern. Rubber emerged in the 1880s as a key industrial ingredient for the tires, hoses, and gaskets needed for automobiles and machinery in industrial nations. Latex rubber derived from the sap of trees that grew naturally throughout the American tropics, with the highest concentration located in the Amazon basin. Latex was initially extracted by cutting down the rubber trees and draining them dry, but the widely dispersed trees soon grew scarce and tappers who traveled deep into the forest shifted to bleeding live trees by opening wounds in the bark and collecting latex sap in buckets. Rubber barons initially forced Indians into slave-like labor arrangements, especially in Peru, but the close quarters and exposure to disease wreaked havoc on the native populations. Soon, colonists arrived from outside the area and settled permanently in the rainforest, particularly in Brazil, thus adding a major new population to the delicate ecosystem. Rubber earned vast fortunes for a select few, but efforts to create plantations failed when pests invaded rubber monocrops (as Henry Ford later learned in the 1930s) and as the British succeeded in founding their own rubber groves in Malaysia.18 Within thirty years, the boom had effectively ended, leaving behind ruined lives, a weakened ecosystem, and railroads that, when later transformed into highways, allowed ranchers and loggers to establish their own enterprises deep in the forest. Unlike Peru’s experience with guano, many of the rubber workers who remained behind emerged as conservationists in the late 20th century, when a movement spearheaded by Chico Mendes sought to limit deforestation and continue artisanal latex- and nut-gathering activities.19

The conversion of bird excrement and tree sap into global commodities is but one example of what happened when natural resources were placed at the disposal of the industrializing world. In Argentina, the vast grasslands known as the pampas had for centuries supported wild cattle and rhea (an ostrich-like creature) that gaucho cowboys considered part of the landscape there for the taking. As beef became more valuable and transportable in the 19th century, the Argentine government delivered the pampas to private landowners, who demanded the construction of railroads, effectively making one of the world’s greatest plains a vast feeding lot grazed by herds of a single species of animal destined for the tables in Argentina and Great Britain. An essentially similar fate befell previously valueless commodities, such as precious timber in Brazil, the Caribbean, and Central America or henequen (a fiber used for cordage) from the Yucatán.20

All of these goods were transported on rails and ships propelled by steam generated by burning carbon in the form of wood and coal. The transportation revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to locally significant socio-environmental changes, most notably in the form of deforestation and the privatization of spaces and resources. Wood was required for ties, trestles, and buildings. Water needed to be pumped into towers for trains, sometimes at the expense of rural townships that needed it as well. Furthermore, Latin American nations incentivized the construction of railways and ports by granting foreign corporations so-called concessions that gave them long-term access to land, water, wood, and other resources—all of which were consumed in the process of commodifying more valuable resources and making them available on global markets.21 And everywhere cities began to consume more resources from the surrounding area, as amenities like lighting, piped water, and easily accessed cooking fuel became the symbols of modern urban life.22

Urbanization and export-agriculture created concentrations of human settlement that were particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. Major earthquakes—some followed by tsunamis—damaged Lima, Peru, in 1746; Caracas, Venezuela, in 1812; Arequipa/Arica, Peru, in 1868; Managua, Nicaragua, in 1931 (and again in 1972); and San Juan, Argentina, in 1941.23 The temblors killed thousands yet also gave urban planners an opportunity to reconfigure both cityscapes and the social structures they reflected. Other reminders of the threat posed by nature came in 1902. In October, the Santa María volcano erupted in Guatemala, killing 5,000 people, six months after the eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique had killed 30,000 and destroyed the island’s largest city.24 Less immediately damaging but perhaps more broadly felt disasters came in the form of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods—some periodically caused by so-called El Niño global weather events—that upended the livelihoods of farmers and urbanites alike. Hurricanes repeatedly leveled cities, plantations, and peasant communities in the Caribbean, sometimes at immense cost of human life; as recently as 1998, Hurricane Mitch carried away 19,000 souls in Central America and the Yucatán.25 The severity of these disasters is likely to grow as a result of global climate change, and not only on the seaboard: in the Andes, for example, warming temperatures and melting glaciers have spawned flash floods capable of wiping out entire neighborhoods, as in Huaraz, Peru, in 1941.26 None of these events were strictly “natural” disasters. Human settlement patterns and construction techniques, as well as the removal of forests and mangroves that might have mitigated some impacts—not to mention the often inadequate response after these disasters had struck—often made these events far more lethal than they might have been.

Chasing Development, 1920s–Today

Most Latin American nations attempted in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II to shift their economies away from the export of raw materials (a process often controlled by foreign corporations) and tried instead to stimulate industrial production. This state-managed economic development, dubbed import-substitution industrialization (ISI), promised to jump-start the domestic economy and to create new jobs for booming urban populations. It also meant harnessing natural resource exploitation to the broader paradigm of economic nationalism. Even when most countries turned away from state intervention in favor of “free”-market economies during the neoliberal shift of the 1980s, the emphasis on intensified use of natural resources—ideally, within the nation-state itself—remained intact. By then, most political leaders regarded it as matter of national interest to make the most intensive use possible of their nations’ natural wealth.

Nowhere was this trend clearer than in the petrochemical and mining sectors. Native peoples had known about oil patches for centuries, but the Industrial Revolution and above all the rise of the automobile put a sudden premium on petroleum exploration and extraction beginning around 1900. British and American companies began drilling in coastal Mexico and on the shores of Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo, which entailed clearing forests and draining swamps. Leaking oil and toxic fumes harmed workers and local ecosystems, a problem that has only grown worse in subsequent decades as the scale of petroleum extraction has grown ever wider.27 In Ecuador, for example, American oil companies (and later the state-owned conglomerate) built pipelines far into delicate rainforests. Leaks poisoned the soils and waters of some of the continent’s most delicate ecosystems, while oil crews and infrastructure displaced entire native populations. Despite a decades-long lawsuit against these practices, the corporations have yet to pay any damages for their actions. Indeed, the nationalization of petroleum production by nations such as Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, and now Brazil and others may actually have exacerbated pollution and public health problems, insofar as state-owned corporations typically maintained very friendly relations, often unethical ones, with labor and political leaders.28 The environmental costs of such arrangements were made particularly clear by the 1979 blowout on the Ixtoc I offshore well into Mexico’s Bay of Campeche, caused by shoddy construction and poor management. The spill ranks as the world’s largest accidental spill, having released over 3 million barrels of oil at immense cost to the shoreline human and animal populations. Nevertheless, the state-owned oil company attempted to cover up its true dimensions and has yet to effectively remediate its long-term effects.

The second industrial revolution that peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries not only revitalized mining but expanded the number of desirable minerals and hence the scope of extractive industry. Copper had previously played a minor part in Latin American extractive economies, but the expansion of electrical grids in the developed world and Latin America spiked the demand for this critical mineral. Large mines opened in northern Mexico and larger ones still in the desolate northern provinces of Chile, where the largest mine (El Teniente) spawned a city of 10,000 almost overnight. Lax government oversight and foreign corporations’ negligence contributed to forge working landscapes that were more polluted and dangerous than necessary. Smelters and mining tailings poisoned rivers and other water bodies, while earthquakes sometimes burst containment dams and sent toxic water and slag down the canyons, obliterating the villages below. Chilean president Salvador Allende tried to ameliorate these conditions by nationalizing copper mines in 1970, but he was overthrown in a coup three years later, allowing the status quo to return. Bolivia had already blazed this path and nationalized its massive tin mines in 1952 after a brief revolution; for the next thirty years the state-run mining corporation functioned as the mainspring of the nation’s export economy, but it also fell prey to corruption and slipshod extractive techniques that paid little heed to the well-being of the environment or the largely native workforce. Nevertheless, its de facto privatization in the 1980s may actually have worsened environmental impacts as some large mines closed down and small-scale miners took over with obsolete technology and even less respect for environmental regulations.

The state-controlled extractive industries of the mid-20th century typically supplied raw materials for other state-controlled industries, many of which were highly polluting. Mexico’s diversion of some petroleum to the state-owned fertilizer corporation or Chile’s construction of railroads to promote its wine industry constitute prime examples. The clearest case of such environmentally damaging economic synergies was found in Brazil’s iron sector. Determined to ignite economic development in the 1940s, President Getulio Vargas arranged for the construction of Latin America’s first modern steel mill in the town of Volta Redonda.29 The mill made use of domestic coal (also mined by a state-owned corporation) that had such dangerously high levels of sulfur that much of the national coal production was simply discarded. By the 1970s, iron ore came from astoundingly damaging open-air mega-mines such as Carajás (the world’s largest), which is located within the Amazon rainforest. Despite privatization in the 1980s, Brazil’s iron industry continues to receive direct and indirect state subsidies. It stands at the center of a production cycle characterized by poorly regulated and wasteful production, deforestation, habitat destruction, and air and water pollution. The true dimensions of this threat became clear in November of 2015, when two retention dams operated by the Samarco company in the Mariana district of Minas Gerais collapsed and released 60 million cubic meters of iron-mine tailings into the Rio Doce river. The flood of toxic sludge wiped away the nearby village of Bento Rodrigues, killing seventeen people, and devastated the riverine ecosystem in what is widely regarded as one of Brail’s worst ecological disasters.

This industrial model also bled into agricultural production practices. By the turn of the 20th century, U.S. corporations had come to dominate the sugar industry in Cuba and the banana industry in Central America. Corporations such as the American Sugar Refining Company and the United Fruit Company radically expanded existing practices of monocropping by introducing technologies such as railroads, steamships, and pesticides into the agro-export sector. Pathogens such as the mosaic virus that attacks sugar cane and the sigatoka and Panama funguses that affect banana trees could quickly move through entire plantations and wreak havoc on national economies. Scientists from Latin America and abroad raced to address these challenges, but their solutions often involved the massive application of chemical treatments (some of dubious value) that threatened the health of the fieldworkers who applied them and the families living near the plantations.30 Small-scale family production did survive in some corners of the region as in the case of coffee production in Colombia, which caused much less deforestation than the plantation model favored by coffee growers in Brazil.31

A broader change also overtook Latin American agriculture as a result of the so-called Green Revolution. In the wake of World War II, American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Rockefeller Foundation worried that malnutrition and global hunger might promote communism. Working with the blessing of the U.S. and Mexican governments, foundation-sponsored agronomists and plant biologists arrived in Mexico during the 1940s to breed improved varieties of wheat and corn. They soon promoted the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers, and irrigation. These techniques succeeded in increasing overall production under ideal conditions, and they quickly spread to other Latin American nations, to Asia, and beyond, but they came at immense cost that became increasingly apparent over time. Early organochlorine pesticides such as DDT persisted in the soil and could accumulate in the body, so they were replaced by water-soluble chemicals that do not build up as readily but are more acutely toxic, meaning that fieldworkers and their families who come into regular contact with these chemicals can suffer from a variety of maladies.32 Fertilizers demand petrochemical inputs and, when used in the massive quantities that some proponents recommended, wash into waterways and stimulate the growth of microorganisms that deplete oxygen and create “dead zones” such as the one along the U.S.–Mexico shoreline of the Caribbean. Irrigation meant a costly process of damming rivers and distributing water. The cumulative result of these policies deepened the ecological and social footprint of commercial agriculture, typically at the expense of more sustainable peasant farming practices.

Current Challenges and Responses

The era since 1980 has been characterized by the phenomenon of neoliberalism, i.e., the policy of privatizing government services and corporations, combined with “free market” reforms that force domestic companies to compete on a global scale This period has witnessed two contradictory trends. On the one hand, the opening of formerly regulated domestic markets to private investment, along with policies that favor economic development at virtually any ecological cost, has led to a boom in extractive activities, with severe implications for the environment. The neo-extractive boom is most visible in the mining and petroleum sectors. Canadian gold mining interests have begun mining throughout Mexico and Central America, sometimes in territories claimed by indigenous people. New technologies have prompted mining for minerals such as lithium in areas that had never been exploited. Most state-owned petroleum corporations have established partnerships with transnational corporations and pushed offshore exploration to deeper waters and terrestrial drilling further inland. Fresh water has also become the object of commodification and contention. Chile’s military dictator effectively privatized water rights in 1980, and by the early 21st century a large European corporation controlled much of the national water supply. Small farmers complained that mining companies and agro-industries received more than their fair share. In the early 2000s, various initiatives to privatize drinking water sparked protests in Mexico City, Havana, and Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Even renewable resources have been used unsustainably. Ocean fisheries teeter on exhaustion in several places (most notably Peru) due to overfishing, while “farming” of seafood such as shrimp has created an archipelago of toxic bays in Peru and Chile. Likewise, the expansion of traditional monocrops, including sugar, corn, and bananas, as well as new ones such as soy and oil palms, has renewed deforestation and habitat loss. A substantial portion of agricultural output goes to livestock or “renewable” energy such as ethanol rather than to direct human consumption, which raises concerns about the “soil mining” of nutrients and the ongoing human intervention into the nitrogen cycle through the use of petrochemical-based fertilizers. Even forestry has become a sort of monocropping process in places such as southern Chile, where tree farms have replaced more “natural” landscapes.33

As in much of the developing world, cities in Latin America grew at a breakneck pace after World War II as life in the countryside grew economically precarious and cities beckoned with better jobs, services, and educational opportunities. Capital cities in particular saw growth rates of up to 5 percent annually during the 1950s and 1960s. Megacities emerged in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia. With urbanization came ecological challenges: pollution, garbage management, and ever-increasing demands for food, energy, and recreational opportunities. Some cities, such as São Paulo and Mexico, face deep challenges providing water for their residents. Many confront the legacy of centrally planned economies that placed heavy industries in or near the largest urban areas. Nevertheless, Latin American urban planners have responded with creative measures to mitigate these problems, such as Bogotá’s widely imitated rapid transit busses or the effort of Curitiba, Brazil, to protect open spaces and promote environmental sustainability.

Indeed, the people of Latin America have addressed environmental challenges throughout recorded history. Even before the Spanish conquest, some farsighted native leaders decreed conservationist measures to protect forests and game or to regulate the use of water. Spanish naturalists (and foreigners such as von Humboldt) understood the immense diversity of Latin American ecosystems, and some called for measures to conserve it, although poorly conceived prohibitions on the use of scarce resources could backfire and lead to the destruction of the very ecosystems they were meant to protect.34 Since the 1980s, many Latin American nations have witnessed the development of robust environmental movements dedicated to conservation, small-scale farming, and an opposition to unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. These movements can trace their heritage to several origins. Scientists and legal experts throughout the region began to worry around 1900 that foreign corporations heedlessly extracted resources; in several nations, a nationalist backlash demanded greater domestic oversight.35 In Mexico, for instance, President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized petroleum reserves as the result of a labor dispute with foreign corporations, but Mexican resource sovereignty (and the president’s own conservationist ideology) also factored in.36 Indeed, Cárdenas created some of the region’s first national parks and institutionalized a national forest service. Moreover, his expansion of the national land reform program—combined with promises of irrigation and other valuable inputs—sought to make peasant agriculture more productive and establish it as a major source of the nation’s food production. These initiatives withered after he left office and the Green Revolution took hold.37

Scientific conservation and the desire for resource sovereignty continue to play a role in Latin American environmentalism today, but so too does a grassroots sensibility about the need to protect natural habitats and create livable cities. Perhaps the most visible proponent of this attitude was Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber tapper who decried Amazonian deforestation by cattle ranchers and paid for it with his life in 1988. Since that time, indigenous and pro-peasant (campesinista) groups, along with urban allies of various stripes, have continued to press the authorities to protect the environment. Costa Rica has successfully marketed itself as an ecological paradise, for example, while protestors in Mexico successfully demanded a ban on growing genetically modified corn.38 In Ecuador, indigenous activists have pressed the government to limit petroleum exploration. This growing ecological consciousness—sometimes called an ethos of buen vivir, or holistic living—has been written into law. In both Bolivia and Ecuador, the earth itself enjoys legal protections. While these laws have not on their own succeeded in reversing environmental decline, they reflect a widespread and growing sense that humans must find a more balanced relationship with the natural world.

Discussion of the Literature

Latin American environmental history ultimately traces its roots to the explorer-scientists who have crisscrossed the continent since the 16th century, many of whom relied on native informants with even older and deeper knowledge. Modern historiography originated with the geographically informed reportage of Brazilian Euclides da Cunha and the historical geography of American Carl O. Sauer. Many of the intellectual foundations were set by studies of environmental change and demographic collapse sparked by European contact, beginning with Alfred Crosby’s 1972 The Columbian Exchange, which reframed the meaning of conquest. Specialists in colonial history have delved ever deeper into questions of environmental change wrought by European contact. Water has played a central role in this discussion, particularly in arid regions such as Mexico, thanks in part to the pioneering work of Michael Meyer.39 Another topic of interest centers on the scope and transmission of the “great dying” in which microbes such as the smallpox virus killed millions of native people in the 15th and 16th centuries. More recently, scholars have included plants and animals more fully in the narrative, asking how natives and Europeans initially made sense of the exotic biota they encountered and how plants and animals themselves played a role in reshaping the environment and society of Latin America.40

The environmental history of the post-colonial era has been slower to develop. Scholarship developed in the 1980s to investigate how commodification transformed the landscape. Warren Dean’s important work on rubber extraction and, later, the destruction of the Atlantic rainforest by coffee planters are key examples.41 Scholars continued to work within that tradition in subsequent decades but branched out to more fully consider the evolving relationship between human societies and their environment—whether of the “natural” variety such as forestlands or of the anthropogenic variety such as banana plantations. The variety of topics and approaches toward environmental history has grown dramatically in past decades, with scholars revisiting the desiccation of lakes in the Valley of Mexico, the relationship between city and countryside, the impact of natural disaster, and the interaction between humans and the ecosystems within which they live.42

Primary Sources

The sources for writing the environmental history of Latin America are as diverse as its landscape. Study of the pre-Columbian landscape is largely restricted to archaeological techniques because of the remote timeframe and lack of written sources for most regions. Nevertheless, abundant examples of material culture do exist throughout the Americas, as does a limited number of pictographic and hieroglyphic materials. Many early conquistadors, explorers, and clerics wrote field reports or memoirs that can shed light on the Columbian exchange and its aftermath, but researchers are hampered by the fact that Europeans tended to use familiar categories to explain unfamiliar, sometimes endemic species. Of particular value are 167 reports produced by colonial officials between 1578 and 1586 known as Relaciones geográficas de Indias, which describe the geography, indigenous societies, and natural resources of various sites in Spanish America.43 Later in the colonial era, civil engineers, hydrologists, agronomists, and others began to produce technical reports and other written materials that can offer insight into environmental issues. Beginning in the late 18th century, scientist-explorers (following in the footsteps Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in the 16th century) produced invaluable descriptions, drawings, and specimen collections, some of which still remain in European museums. While some of these sources are available only in specialized repositories (most notably the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain), many early documents have been digitized and made available online.

Sources produced by outside experts continue to retain their value as sources for post-independence history as well, but a variety of other sources also appear. Military studies and reports sometimes discuss landscape and issues of public health, for example. New ministries charged with development began to take stock of natural resources. Surveys and concessions to foreign corporations often made careful inventories of the territories and resources they covered. Natural history museums also appeared in Latin America and abroad; their archives and holdings can tell us much about not only the environment but also experts’ understandings about the natural world. Indeed, the writings of scientists such as conservation biologists can constitute the basis for histories of conservation, as can the petitions and reflections of rural peoples that appear in archives and newspapers in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially on the heels of land reform movements or protests against unwanted “development” projects. International development organizations and NGOs appeared in the 20th century, some of which have published primary data and internal documents in print form or made it available on the Internet. Also useful for studies of the second half of the 20th century are data collected by aircraft and Landsat satellites, many of which are available online.

Further Reading

Bebbington, Anthony, and Jeffrey Bury, eds. Subterranean Struggles: New Dynamics of Mining, Oil, and Gas in Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Boyer, Christopher R., ed. A Land Between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Castro Herrera, Guillermo. Los Trabajos de Ajuste y Combate. Naturaleza y Sociedad en la Historia de América Latina. Panama: Casa de Las Americas, 1994.Find this resource:

Few, Martha, and Zeb Tortorici, eds. Centering Animals in Latin American History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Hecht, Susanna. The Scramble for the Amazon and the “Lost Paradise” of Euclides da Cunha. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Melillo, Edward Dallam. Strangers on Familiar Soil: Rediscovering the Chile–California Connection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Miller, Shawn William. An Environmental History of Latin America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Radding, Cynthia. Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Simonian, Lane. Defending the Land of the Jaguar: A History of Conservation in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995Find this resource:

Toledo, Víctor. Ecología, espiritualidad y conocimiento. De la sociedad del riesgo a la sociedad sustentable. Mexico. PNUMA, Universidad Iberoamericana, 2003.Find this resource:

Tucker, Richard P.Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.Find this resource:


(2.) Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 12.

(3.) Reinaldo Funes Monzote, From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History Since 1492 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Vera S. Candiani, Dreaming of Dry Land: Environmental Transformation in Colonial Mexico City (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).

(4.) UNEP, “State of Biodiversity.”

(5.) For a good overview of pre-Columbian settlement, see Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York: Knopf, 2005).

(6.) Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange; Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972).

(7.) Noble David Cook, Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492–1650 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

(8.) Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Studies in Environment and History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

(9.) On the geopolitics of yellow fever, see John R. McNeill, Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(10.) Elinor G. K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

(11.) See, for example, Karl W. Butzer and Elizabeth K. Butzer, “The Sixteenth-Century Environment of the Central Mexican Bajío: Archival Reconstruction from Colonial Land Grants and the Question of Spanish Ecological Impact,” in Culture, Form, and Place: Essays in Cultural and Human Heography, ed. Kent Mathewson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993), 89–124; and Andrew Sluyter, “From Archive to Map to Pastoral Landscape: A Spatial Perspective on the Livestock Ecology of Sixteenth-Century New Spain,” Environmental History 3.4 (1998): 508–528.

(12.) For an overview, see Kendall Brown, A History of Mining in Latin America: From the Colonial Era to the Present (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012).

(13.) Cynthia Radding, Wandering Peoples: Colonialism, Ethnic Spaces, and Ecological Frontiers in Northwestern Mexico, 1700–1850 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).

(14.) There is a vast literature on haciendas. A recent contribution is John Tutino, Making a New World: Founding Capitalism in the Bajío and Spanish North America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

(15.) Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985).

(16.) Reinaldo Funes Monzote, From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History Since 1492 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Claudia Leal and Eduardo Restrepo, Unos bosques sembrados de aserríos, Historia de la extracción maderera en el Pacífico colombiano (Medellín: Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad Nacional sede Medellín, Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, 2003). For an overview of the Caribbean Plantation, see Philip D. Curtin, The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

(17.) Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(18.) Warren Dean, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Seth Garfield, In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); and GregGrandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (New York: Picador, 2010).

(19.) This episode still awaits serious academic treatment. In the meantime an excellent source is Andrew Revkin, The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest. (Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2004).

(20.) Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012); and Sterling Evans. Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the American and Canadian Plains, 1880–1950 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007).

(21.) Christopher R. Boyer, Political Landscapes: Forests, Conservation, and Community in Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

(22.) See, for example, Matthew Vitz, A City on a Lake: Urban Political Ecology and the Growth of Mexico City, 1880–1950 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming).

(23.) Charles F. Walker, Shaky Colonialism: The 1746 Earthquake-Tsunami in Lima, Peru, and Its Long Aftermath (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Mark A. Healey, The Ruins of the New Argentina: Peronism and the Remaking of San Juan After the 1944 Earthquake (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); and Sherry Johnson, Climate and Catastrophe in Cuba and the Atlantic World in the Age of Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

(24.) Alwyn Scarth, La Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelee, the Worst Volcanic Disaster of the 20th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(25.) Stuart B. Schwartz, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

(26.) Mark Carey, In the Shadow of Melting Glaciers: Climate Change and Andean Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(27.) Miguel Tinker Salas, The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

(28.) Myrna I. Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900–1938 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Suzanna Sawyer, Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

(29.) Although not an environmental history, a useful introduction is Oliver Dinius, Brazil’s Steel City: Developmentalism, Strategic Power, and Industrial Relations in Volta Redonda, 1941–1964 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

(30.) Stuart G. McCook, States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760–1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002); John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005); and Thomas D. Rogers, The Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

(31.) Germán A. Palacio, Fiebre de tierra caliente. Una historia ambiental de Colombia 1850–1930 (Bogotá: ILSA, 2006).

(32.) Angus L. Wright, The Death of Ramón González: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma, rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010).

(33.) Thomas Miller Klubock, La Frontera: Forests and Ecological Conflict in Chile’s Frontier Territory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

(34.) Shawn William Miller, Fruitless Trees: Portuguese Conservation and Brazil’s Colonial Timber (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

(35.) For Brazil, see José Augusto Pádua, Um Sopro de Destruição: pensamento politico e crítica ambiental no brasil escravista (1786–1888) (Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 2002).

(36.) Santiago, The Ecology of Oil.

(37.) Emily Wakild, Revolutionary Parks: Conservation, Social Justice, and Mexico’s National Parks, 1910–1940 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011); and Mikael Wolfe, Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in La Laguna, Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

(38.) Sterling Evans, The Green Republic. A Conservation History of Costa Rica (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999); and Elizabeth M. Fitting, The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

(39.) Michael C. Meyer, Water in the Hispanic Southwest: A Social and Legal History, 1550–1850 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1984).

(40.) Melville, Plague of Sheep; Rick López, “Nature as Subject and Citizen in the Mexican Botanical Garden, 1787–1829,” in A Land Between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico, ed. Christopher R. Boyer (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 73–99; and Martha Few and Zeb Tortorici, eds., Centering Animals in Latin American History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

(41.) See, for example, Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

(42.) For broader essays on Latin American environmental historiography, see Lise Sedrez. “Latin American Environmental History: A Shifting Old/New Field,” in The Environment and World History, eds. Edmund Burke and Kenneth Pomeranz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 255–275; and Mark Carey, “Latin American Environmental History: Current Trends, Interdisciplinary Insights, and Future Directions,” Environmental History 14.2 (April 2009): 221–252.

(43.) For an overview, see Barbara E. Mundy, The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geográficas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).