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date: 24 April 2017

Labor and the Environment in Latin America

Summary and Keywords

Latin American labor has a well-established historiography, in dialogue with trends outside of the region. Environmental history is a newer and more exploratory field. In basic terms, environmental history explores the relationships of humans with the natural world, sometimes referred to as “nonhuman nature.” This can include how humans have affected the natural world, how the natural world has affected human history, and histories of human ideas and belief systems about nature. Labor and environmental history grows from explorations of the connections between these two spheres. Humans interact with the natural world through their labor and from their class perspective. The natural world shapes the work that people do and the institutions and structures humans create to organize and control labor. Changing labor regimes change the ways that humans interact with, and think about, the natural world. Both labor and environmental histories are in some senses investigations of how humans relate to nature. This essay sets Latin American labor and environmental history in global historical context. After offering a chronological summary, it briefly examines connections between U.S. Latino and Latin American labor and environmental histories, and ends with a discussion of contemporary Latin American critical environmentalisms.

Keywords: labor, environment, class, work, nature, economic development, borderlands, Latino

Defining the Fields

Latin American labor has a well-established historiography, in dialogue with trends outside of the region. Labor history began with institutional and political histories of urban workers and their organizations; studied the development of industry; engaged with structural and dependency ideas; moved into social and working-class histories that transcended the workplace and its institutions; expanded to include rural workers, women workers, reproductive labor, and processes of proletarianization; and moved on into gender, cultural, postmodern, and postcolonial analyses. More recent works have also emphasized workers in the informal sector, migrant workers, and transnational labor history. Since the 1990s labor history in the United States and elsewhere has begun to engage explicitly with histories of the natural world, sometimes referred to as “nonhuman nature,” and Latin American labor history is also making its first steps in that direction.

Environmental history is a newer and more exploratory field. In basic terms, environmental history explores the relationships of humans with the natural world. This can include how humans have affected the natural world, how the natural world has affected human history, and histories of human ideas and belief systems about nature. In the mid-1990s, practitioners came to posit the socially constructed character of “nature” and to build on the premise that “‘nature’ is a human idea, with a long and complicated cultural history which has led different human beings to conceive of the natural world in very different ways . . . the objects and creatures and landscapes we label as ‘natural’ are in fact deeply entangled with the words and images and ideas we use to describe them.”1 They acknowledged that what we conceive of as “nature” has in fact been shaped by millennia of human presence and activity. Today environmental history includes not only the natural world as commonly conceived but also the study of environments in which human activity (or labor) plays a preponderant role, like conservation projects, pesticide-heavy industrial agriculture, or public works projects.

Some environmental histories implicitly incorporate labor and the working class in various ways. A very few directly address the ways that labor and environment are related. Labor and environmental history grows from explorations of these connections. As Richard White pointed out in the U.S. context, most people know nature most intimately through their work.2 Humans interact with the natural world through their labor and from their class perspective. The natural world shapes the work that people do and the institutions and structures humans create to organize and control labor. Changing labor regimes change the ways that humans interact with, and think about, the natural world. Both labor and environmental histories are in some senses investigations of how humans relate to nature. This essay examines the small number of works that explicitly address the intersection of labor and environmental histories in Latin America, but also looks at how works rooted primarily in one or the other of the two fields shed light on different ways of conceptualizing relationships between labor and environment over the course of Latin American history.

We might periodize this relationship on a global scale by conceptualizing labor systems (or, in Marxist terms, “modes of production”) as ways that human societies interact with nature and think about nature. A chronology could begin with hunting and gathering and move through agriculture, state-controlled agriculture, the industrial revolution, and the technology revolution and global economic restructuring of the 21st century. This chronological list partially reflects when these systems first emerged and their relative prevalence on the planet, though of course they have also intersected and developed in different directions and offshoots over time.3 All still exist in today’s world. The list also reflects intensification of scale, of labor, of consumption, and of resource use and environmental impact.

Hunters and gatherers and small-scale agriculturalists have frequently been the victims of economic development as they have been exterminated, incorporated as forcibly exploited laborers, or pushed onto (or escaped to) the most marginal and unproductive lands. But their subsistence activities (labor) and their resources (nature) contributed to the production and reproduction of labor forces everywhere from the Caribbean slave plantations to the most modern of high-tech industries.4

Latin Americanists have analyzed some of these connections, pioneering global and transnational approaches to history, including world systems and dependency theories. Yet Latin American labor and environmental historiographies have each been critiqued for overreliance on these broad narratives, to the detriment of historical specificity and agency, and attention to race, gender, religion, culture. In the case of environmental history, this critique extends to “declensionist” narratives that depict an ever-intensifying process of human destruction of nature.5 Most environmental and labor histories, though, seek to incorporate contingency, culture, and agency, as well as structure.

Shifts in modes of production involve fundamental transformations in ways of engaging with and thinking about the natural world. For most of human history, “nature” was intrinsic to everyday life and work. Urbanization and industrialization contributed to a growing sense of nature as something external to daily life, to be used, romanticized, or preserved. Environmental history emerged in the United States in a historical moment in which the labor and environmental movements were frequently divided over issues of economic development. Labor activists, seeking to protect jobs and improve living standards, advocated increased production. Environmentalists, seeking to protect nature, frequently opposed polluting industries. Employers used job blackmail to foster these divisions.6 Early environmental histories suggested that concern for nature emerged as a middle-class or elite sensibility. More recent histories have explored labor and working-class environmentalism through environmental justice movements, workplace health and safety struggles against environmental toxins, working-class struggles for access to nature, and the ways that working-class peoples brought rural values, from kitchen gardens to anticapitalist collectivism, into the industrial workscape.7

In Latin America, Martínez-Alier shows how the debate has played out differently, between rural and especially indigenous peoples seeking to protect their lands and autonomy and governments and multinationals intent on developing natural resource exports.8 Because so much of Latin America’s production has historically been aimed at export markets, workers are more likely to be critically aware of the costs, environmental and other, of the productive system. As first-world workers gained access to consumer society, they became less critical of capitalism.9 Latin America’s workers were more likely to maintain ties to rural roots, and to be exposed to the toxic undersides of industrial production. Both U.S. and Latin American workers were imbedded in a global economy, but its workings frequently were more visible to Latin American workers (including those who crossed the border to work in the United States) and their historians. Latin American labor and environmental histories tended to be transnational well before the “transnational turn.”10

By focusing on labor and environment, historians have found unique ways to explore the interconnections between global structural issues like colonialism and dependency, and nuanced case study and cultural histories. Both labor and environment are spheres in which individual and local experiences are tied to global and transnational systems, from empire and capitalism to climate change. Ecological economics, which urges attention to the environmental costs of production, and consumption studies have suggested new ways to connect the local to the global in terms of labor and environmental history.11

As I argued elsewhere:

In 1997 Fernando Coronil critiqued “the erasure of nature in dominant currents of social theory” and argued that “amnesia about nature has entailed forgetting as well the role of the ‘periphery’ in the formation of the modern world . . . that reinscribes the violence of a history made at the expense of the labour and the natural resources of peoples relegated to the margins.

In arguing almost two decades later for the importance of a transnational labor and environmental history, Douglas Sackman suggests:

Landscapes of production located within US territory have themselves been transnational sites, as they are powered by human labor and natural resources from elsewhere. In turn, their products—metals, wood, fiber, or food—have been shipped to far-flung national or international markets for consumption . . . An orange is not just a thing of nature, but an artifact bearing the inscription of human labor and technology; by the same token, pistols, automobiles, or laptops are not pure products of industry, but elaborate reformations of nature.

John Soluri likewise argues that “by calling attention to the materiality of stuff like coal, petroleum, fruit, or even electricity, labor-environmental histories help to ‘make strange’ labor markets, commodities, and capital accumulation that paradoxically become ‘naturalized’ by historical frameworks that privilege economic relations over ecological ones.”12

As labor and environmental historians have explored these connections over the past decades, they have suggested some terminology and concepts to illuminate the links between the fields. Landscape refers not just to the physical contours of the land but to the multiple ways that humans have physically and ideologically constructed its character.13 The term political landscape emphasizes the ways that different social sectors define and contest appropriate uses of land.14 The concept of a workscape “treats people as laboring beings who have changed and been changed in turn by a natural world that remains always under construction . . . Wherever people work . . . the boundaries between nature and culture melt away.”15 An industrial hazard regime apportions the physical and environmental risks of industry to different populations.16 Environmental load displacement refers specifically to the ways that environmentally dangerous extraction, production, and disposal of the products of industrial society are removed from the sites of consumption.17 Environmental racism refers to discriminatory practices and policies that disproportionately expose people of color to environmental risk, especially in the siting of toxic industrial and extractive operations and waste disposal. Environmental justice movements “explicitly locate environmental concerns within the context of inequality and attempts to alter dominant power arrangements.”18 Indian environmental historian Ramachandra Guha proposed the concepts of omnivores—people who overconsume resources from around the planet, ecosystem people—people who consume within the means of their local environment, and ecological refugees—people displaced from subsistence economies by omnivores who seek access to their resources.19 Although Guha does not incorporate an analysis of labor, labor is inherent to production and consumption. Labor and environmental histories have much to tell us about the nature of global economic relationships and inequalities.

This essay sets Latin American labor and environmental history in global historical context. After offering a chronological summary, it briefly examines connections between U.S. Latino and Latin American labor and environmental histories, and ends with a discussion of contemporary Latin American critical environmentalisms.

Latin American Labor and Environment in the History of the Global Economy

Latin America prior to 1492 was home to hunters and gatherers, small-scale agricultural societies, city-states, and large empires. Each of these forms of social organization involved different forms of labor and different ways of relating to the natural environment. As elsewhere in the world, rural hunting and gathering and small-scale agricultural societies tended to have nature-based religions, in which labor and nature were understood in a spiritual relationship. City-states and empires developed hierarchical systems in which the rulers claimed religious authority over the ruled. Most of the population was still rural and agricultural, but owed labor or tribute to the state. Popular religion syncretized nature-based traditions with hierarchical cults that sacralized the new rulers.20 Empires, with their significant urban populations and their higher levels of accumulation and consumption by elites, demanded more labor from the plebeian population, and more resources from nature. Scholars have proposed environmental factors, including drought and overconsumption of resources, as the cause of the “collapse” of lowland Mayan civilization centuries prior to the conquest.21

The European conquerors that arrived after 1492 brought qualitative and quantitative changes to these systems. The post-Conquest era can be periodized in terms of three waves of empire: colonial, late 19th-century liberal, and late 20th-century neoliberal. Each wave asserted imperial control over nature and natural resources, driving out hunters and gatherers and undermining subsistence farming economies while drawing or forcing producers into proletarianization. Each wave also encompassed a quantum leap in consumption—for some—based on an expansion and intensification of environmentally destructive activities like mining, plantation agriculture, deforestation, and increased production.22

This periodization, though useful, inevitably oversimplifies the messiness of history. Neither nature nor human labor existed in a timeless, Edenic harmony prior to 1492. Subsistence activities often continued, intersected with, or were even reconstituted in the shadows of the new industries. Some Latin American export booms, like Cuban sugar, Peruvian guano, and Brazilian rubber, escape the neat boundaries of these periods.23

Export booms were only one—if clearly a crucial one—of many factors implicated in labor and environmental history. Mid-20th-century populism and developmentalism offers a counterpoint to the “waves of empire” paradigm. This period fostered a different kind of economic intensification based on import-substitution industrialization, nationalization of natural resources, and Green Revolution agriculture. Changes in human labor and the human relationship to nature were intimately linked in each phase, and exploitation and “progress” offer uneasy mirror images for analyzing the different moments of economic intensification.

Colonial Labor and Environment

The European incursion beginning in 1492 established a colonial system of labor control primarily in Latin America’s highly populated, fertile, and/or mineral-rich regions. Indigenous peoples were dispossessed from their lands and forced into labor in Spanish- or Portuguese- owned plantations, haciendas, and mines. Nature—in the presence of natural resources like gold and silver, or in the ecological conditions allowing for production of export crops like sugar—structured colonial settlement and forms of labor control. In the sugar-producing tropical lowlands, where the indigenous population was too sparse to be forced into labor, enslaved workers from Africa provided the labor force. Where nature offered little of interest to Europeans, indigenous peoples maintained greater autonomy from colonial labor systems.

Latin America’s indigenous population suffered a catastrophic demographic collapse that had both labor and environmental aspects. Early commentators elaborated the “Black Legend” that emphasized the cruelty of Spanish labor regimes like encomienda, though these accounts did not go into enough depth to really be characterized as labor histories. Demographic studies that originated with Cook and Borah in the 1960s were among the first to look to nature—in this case, microorganisms brought by the Spanish and, secondarily, climate—to understand the collapse of the indigenous population in the centuries following conquest. The debate over population decline and the role of human and nonhuman agency continued into the 1990s.24 In a 1985 survey of the field and a 1995 study of colonial Ecuador, Linda Newson explored the many ways in which nature—in the form of climate, disease, and natural resources—intersected with the labor demands and systems that the Spanish imposed on native societies to influence disease patterns and depopulation rates.25

Beyond and along with the impact of disease, colonially induced changes in the natural environment contributed to the transformation of indigenous labor systems and death rates. Many colonial histories have examined Spanish labor systems, including encomienda and repartimiento, and their impact on native societies.26 Nicholas Robins’s Mercury, Mining, and Empire, an unusually in-depth colonial labor and environmental history, examines the physical effects of mita [draft] labor in the silver and mercury mines of the Andes. Air, soils, and human bodies were poisoned by the labor that workers were forced to carry out. Entire populations suffered—and continue to suffer—from mercury poisoning. “It is not possible to release tens of thousands of tons of mercury into a limited environment and not have an effect on the people, animals, and plant life for generations to come,” Robins reminds readers.27

Even in areas peripheral to Spain’s economic focus, European conquest brought fundamental change. Elinor Melville describes an “ecological revolution” in highland central Mexico as European sheep turned a “fertile, productive” indigenous landscape “into something often perceived as archetypical of the ‘naturally’ poor Mexican regions . . . In the process the Otomí were displaced, alienated, and marginalized, their history and that of their region mystified.”28 Others, however, question Melville’s methodology and argue that precolonial indigenous agriculture had caused significant erosion, while post-Conquest depopulation actually eased environmental degradation, and Spanish patterns of livestock transhumance limited animals’ impact on the land.29 Angus Wright emphasizes social inequality and labor exploitation, both pre- and post-Conquest, as key factors in land degradation in Mexico’s Mixteca region, noting the successive ravages of pre-Columbian agriculture, depopulation, and post-Conquest livestock.30

Another major labor and environmental change brought about by conquest was the forced transport of some eleven million enslaved Africans to the Americas, mostly to Brazil and the Caribbean under the control of Portugal, Britain, France, and Holland, although many also went to Spanish territories. They were taken primarily to the tropical lowlands, where nature did not sustain the indigenous population concentrations and labor systems of the pre-Columbian empires, but where Europeans soon set about establishing export plantations. In some sense all histories of Africans in colonial Latin America are labor histories, since their presence in the continent is the result of a global system of forced labor.

Several works have looked at the sugar plantation complex, labored by slavery, from an environmental perspective. “Sugar exterminated the forest,” Manuel Moreno Fraginals wrote in El ingenio in 1964. “The sugarocracy destroyed in years what only centuries could replace—and at the same time destroyed much of the island’s fertility by soil erosion and the drying-up of thousands of streams.”31 Of course while the sugarocracy may have overseen the destruction of the forest, it was their enslaved workers who carried it out. A generation later Reinaldo Funes Monzote called the sugar plantation “one of the most representative cases of early industrial agriculture in the Americas,” one that “functioned like a strip mine,” relentlessly depleting the natural environment.32 Thomas Rogers delves more deeply into the cultural relationship between labor and environment in the northeastern Brazilian sugar complex, exploring how landed elites romanticized a landscape that was created by exploitative labor relationships, while for workers, both before and after abolition in 1888, cane meant captivity.33

Following anthropologist Sidney Mintz, who introduced the concept of “reconstituted peasantry” in 1961, historians have recognized multiple forms of African labor inside and outside the plantation system.34 Although the slave system brought Africans to Latin America, not all Africans there were slaves. Some were free people of color within Spanish- and Portuguese-dominated slave societies, who worked in the interstices of the plantation economy. Even those who were enslaved frequently engaged in subsistence production. Self-freed maroons lived or established small- or large-scale communities in areas outside of state control. In Jamaica, in northeast Brazil, in Caribbean Central America, in northern (Caribbean) and western (Pacific) Colombia, and in Suriname, subsistence communities of freed and rebel slaves produced for their own consumption and trade networks rather than for export. Like Martínez-Alier’s peasant environmentalists, they rejected the extractivist, profit-oriented mentality of the export economy and preferred long-term sustainability. Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff explore African agricultural production outside of the plantation system—in their well-known subsistence plots and kitchen gardens—and show how slaves “Africanized the food systems of plantation societies of the Americas.”35

Other works have looked at the labor and environmental history of the African diaspora from the perspective of disease. Kenneth Kiple authored a “biological history” of the Caribbean slave. “Those reaching the plantations of the Caribbean,” he writes, “were an immunological elite as survivors of one of the most formidable disease environments of the world.”36

Latin America played an important role in the transformation of global labor and environmental systems. The global economic system nourished by the first wave of European expansion underlay the industrial revolution that spurred the second (late 19th century) and third (late 20th century) waves. For Nicholas Robins, the colonial mines of Potosí constituted “the leading edge of modern capitalism and global integration”; for Sidney Mintz, the Caribbean sugar plantation likewise underlay modern labor and consumption patterns.37

The Second Conquest

Colonial labor and productive systems were generally intensified under the Bourbon reforms of the late 18th century, and then crumbled under the weight of the independence wars and the “decentralization and ruralization” that followed in the 19th century.38 The second wave of empire to sweep much of what became Third World was the underside of the industrialization of Europe and the United States. In the new imperialism of the 19th century, Europeans pushed into remote, previously unprofitable lands as new minerals and crops fed the growing industrial revolution and its labor force in the metropolis. Still-autonomous indigenous populations from the western Unites States, to the Yucatán, to the Guatemalan and Andean highlands, to southern Argentina and Chile faced a new round of expulsions and forced labor systems as the empire reached into most of their remaining territories. Friedrich Katz called this process “the greatest catastrophe in the history of the Mexican peasantry since the massive Indian mortality of the sixteenth and seventeenth century.”39 Separated from the land, and lacking the basic means of subsistence, many found themselves working for wages on plantations or becoming part of a growing urban poor.

Industrialization was at the center of what Kenneth Pomeranz called the “Great Divergence” that set parts of Europe on the path of sustained economic growth, and allowed Europeans to increase their consumption and the gap between Europe’s and the rest of the world’s economies to widen. For Pomeranz, the “extraordinary ecological bounty” of the European colonies served the industrial project in two ways: “acquiring resources and exporting settlers.”40 Looking at Colorado’s coal-mining region and lamenting historians’ tendency to associate industrialization and increased consumption with progress, Thomas Andrews notes “a troubling propensity to overlook the human suffering and environmental destruction that our appetite for energy inflicts on distant hinterlands.”41

Richard Tucker too explores these hinterlands, many of them in Latin America, tracing the histories of six products of tropical nature that played key roles in U.S. industrialization: sugar, bananas, coffee, rubber, cattle, and timber. His aptly titled Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World emphasizes environmental aspects of their production and extraction. Yet each of the products he examines also entailed dispossession of subsistence populations and the mobilization of significant labor forces, a process left to other historians to explore.42 What Christopher Sellers and Joseph Melling called an “industrial hazard regime” apportioned the benefits of the new industrial process (in terms of increased consumption) and its hazards (in the form of toxins and environmental destruction) unevenly through the workplace, local communities, and the planet at large.43 Industry’s smokestacks may have been concentrated in the centers, but deforestation afflicted both centers and peripheries. Industrial-style agriculture may have originated on peripheral plantations, but it was replicated and expanded in the centers even as it was re-exported to the peripheries in the 20th century. Economic growth was supposed to be a rising tide that raised all ships, but in fact the vast economic inequalities that characterize the world today date back to the mid-19th century as the fruits of the industrial revolution shot some regions and peoples upward and crushed others down.44

Many of Latin America’s classic labor histories focus on this period. Those that study urban labor so far have had little to say about nonhuman nature. However, most Latin American workers were still rural, and much of their work involved direct interaction with the natural world. Thus rural labor histories offer environmental insights, at least indirectly. A number of studies have examined the commodity chains in which Latin American workers supplied U.S. and European consumers and industries with cultivated, foraged, and extracted products of nature, transforming landscapes and labor in all regions.45

In new waves of voluntary and semivoluntary migrations, Afro-Caribbeans flocked from land-poor and degraded islands to Panama, Venezuela, and Central America to build railroads and a canal, tear down forests, cultivate bananas, and extract petroleum. They confronted, and through their labor transformed, new (to them) natural environments.46 Indigenous peoples were forced into labor extracting rubber in Brazil and Peru and picking coffee in Guatemala and El Salvador.47 In some regions forced labor gave way to “voluntary” migrations, through the use of debt peonage or by ecological refugees whose subsistence economies were undermined by state policies and environmental and economic change.48 Bolivians mined tin, Chileans copper and nitrates, Peruvians and Mexicans copper.49 Mexicans were drawn into cross-border networks in mining and agriculture, supplying U.S. industrial and consumer markets.50 Some studies challenge the emphasis on proletarianization in this literature to highlight the vibrancy of peasant agriculture in supplying coffee and other export markets.51

In the first decade of the 21st century, historians began to explicitly delve into the links between labor and environmental issues in these export booms. Perhaps an important precursor was Florencia Mallon’s Defense of Community (1983), which documented the role that pollution by the Cerro de Pasco copper mine in highland Peru played in undermining peasant agriculture and accelerating proletarianization. Two pathbreaking studies appeared in 2006: Myrna Santiago’s Ecology of Oil and John Soluri’s Banana Cultures. Santiago explores how workers’ bodily experience of the oil industry’s assault of labor and nature contributed to a class-based environmentalism that became a major force for the nationalization of Mexico’s oil industry in 1938. Soluri’s history of banana production covers a longer time span (through the late 20th century) while pushing the field of commodity studies to examine how environmental factors, including the nature of the fruit plant and its susceptibility to disease, shaped the productive and labor system in Honduras. Sterling Evans takes an explicitly transnational approach in Bound in Twine (2007), looking at the “wheat-henequen complex” that connected conquered Yaqui Indians from Sonora and dispossessed Mayan peasants in the Yucatán to grow henequen then manufactured into binder twine by U.S. prison labor and massively used by wheat farmers who plowed up the plains in the Unites States and Canada.52

Like Soluri, several subsequent works take a long view of labor and environmental histories, with significant attention to the late 19th century. Thomas Rogers (2010) examines how its colonial roots in plantation slavery shaped work and landscape in Brazil’s sugar region in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thomas Klubock (2014) instead focuses on a new economic frontier, Chile’s southern forest, where starting in the late 19th century the state and large landholders collaborated to turn a subsistence region into a sea of exotic pine plantations and nature preserves that forced Mapuche and mestizo peasants to become tenants and workers. Klubock’s case highlights the ways that elites used environmental rhetoric and projects as part of a vision of economic development that dispossessed peasant producers.53 The vibrancy of these studies suggests the potential for future labor and environmental histories of the rural export economies of the liberal era.

The Populist Interlude

Latin America’s export boom suffered a devastating blow when the Great Depression undermined global production and thus global markets for Latin America’s products. The collapse of extractive and productive industries brought some environmental respite, while the threat of social unrest, especially in urban areas, brought populist governments to power in Mexico and much of South America. Social welfare and import-substitution industrialization projects enlarged and benefited the urban working class, while incorporating unions into corporatist politics. A flood of rural migration led to rapid urban expansion, which along with the growth of industry brought new forms of environmental degradation that have as yet been little studied; the labor history of this period has attracted greater attention. Workers also became consumers, developing new relationships with the private sector and with state-subsidized and socialized production.54

Especially in Mexico, public policy and public works projects implemented environmental visions that took the rural and urban poor into account. The revolutionary government of Lázaro Cárdenas introduced what Christopher Boyer terms “revolutionary forestry”—local, peasant management of forest resources and extraction. Cárdenas also promoted a system of national parks aimed at rural and urban working people, connecting conservation to social justice rather than wilderness preservation Although these projects were undermined by new economic development priorities in the 1940s, the revolutionary ideas behind them made “it possible to imagine rural people’s use of their own woodlands as an expression of social justice.”55As the Depression gave way to war and postwar growth in Europe and the United States, demand for old and new agricultural export crops surged. Postwar state-sponsored rural development brought a new surge in export agriculture and new environmentally destructive technologies, often with harsh labor conditions and further undermining of subsistence peasantries.

The Mexican revolutionary government promoted agricultural development projects like the expansion of cotton along the Texan border, making the period from 1945 to 1960 “the age of white gold.”56 Mexican peasants foraged for and later produced a wild yam used by U.S. pharmaceutical companies to produce synthetic hormones, including for birth control pills, starting in the 1940s.57 Mexican production was bolstered by new state-sponsored irrigation and Green Revolution projects. Angus Wright showed how the Green Revolution created dual environmental disasters in northern and southern Mexico, in which “the growth of industrially based agriculture in the Culiacán Valley . . . contributes mightily to the environmental and social ruin of regions like the Mixteca”—conveniently, since industrial agriculture depended “on the cheap labor produced by ongoing social and environmental disaster in other regions.”58

In Brazil, schemes beginning in the 1950s “opened” the Amazon to economic development through roads, land grabs, and massive deforestation.59 In Chile, state-sponsored export projects of this period laid the groundwork for the Pinochet-era export booms of the 1970s and 1980s.60

In most of Latin America, rural workers remained alienated from populist developmentalisms. Oppressive peonage, tenantry, and sharecropping systems kept much of the countries’ fertile lands in the hands of landed elites. Reformist government colonization and development schemes frequently led to new forms of rural conflict. Rural struggles for land reform underlay revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and their fierce repression ushered in the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. The labor and environmental histories of many of these processes remain to be told.61

The Third Conquest

The third, or neoliberal, wave of empire belongs to the late 20th century. The Brazilian coup in 1964 and the Chilean coup of 1973 marked a shift away from democratic government, and away from the nationalist and populist economic development policies of the mid-century. Right-wing military dictatorships presided over economic “miracles” that severely repressed labor and intensified extraction from nature, invoking “free markets” and favoring elites and foreign investors. During the 1980s, even as democracy retook root, international financial institutions became more aggressive in enforcing structural adjustment programs that cut back government services and insisted upon investor-friendly labor and environmental policies. Globally, consumption of Latin America’s resources skyrocketed, while post- and neocolonial powers like the United States exported polluting industries and abusive labor conditions.62 The United States led industrializing countries in the collapse of the manufacturing and the public sectors and increasing inequalities, while China began to supplant the United States as Latin America’s biggest investor. Nevertheless, American global power and its status as the world’s prime consumer remained unchallenged. Neo-extractivism, along with transgenetic and nontraditional crops, pushed mining, plantation agriculture, land loss, and proletarianization into even further reaches of Latin America’s subsistence territories.

In the core industrializing powers, efforts to counter the environmental degradation caused by economic development and industry resulted in new forms of sanitation, environmental protection, and regulation. Legal protections covered large segments of the workforce. In Latin America, rural people especially were more the victims than the beneficiaries of economic development, and different forms of protest emerged. In both the second (industrial) and the third (neoliberal) waves of empire, rural, subsistence peoples offered a critical analysis of global capitalism as exploitative and destructive of traditional lifeways and the natural environment. In her study of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, Wendy Wolford argued that “peasants are—and have always been—Capital’s true subaltern, the ‘other’ that both legitimated and enabled industrialization, colonization, and postwar development.”63 In the 21st century, peasant movements with explicit environmental agendas converged and coalesced in new ethnicized ways.

By the end of the 20th century, Latin America’s political pendulum swung back, and democracy brought the left to political power in much of the continent. Free market fundamentalism gave way to redistributive priorities. International financial institutions shifted away from the neoliberal Washington Consensus and began to promote poverty reduction programs, and multinational corporations offered a newfound adherence to corporate social responsibility. International agencies and legal structures, as well as NGOs, became important actors that local organizations relied on or clashed with. In Latin America, regional integration trumped U.S. goals of a free trade area of the Americas, and indigenous and minority rights became more politicized and gained traction throughout the hemisphere. In Ecuador and Bolivia, new constitutions incorporated the Andean indigenous-inspired concept of sumak kawsay, or buen vivir (good living) as a challenge to capitalist economics. Buen vivir places human needs and the rights of nature above traditional economic development notions based on private enterprise, profit, consumption, and economic growth. Even in Colombia, where the left has remained marginalized, a progressive constitution in 1991 enshrined some of these goals.

Yet at the same time, multinational institutions and corporations, and Latin America’s governments from right to far left, pursued economic strategies now termed neo-extractivism. Extractivism—economic development based on the extraction and export of natural resources—is as old as Spanish colonialism in Latin America. Neo-extractivism, however, responded to the 21st-century global context. Old imperial patterns had shifted. Increased global demand for resources, as hyperconsumption spread both in the traditionally industrialized countries and in China, Brazil, and others, was accompanied by decentralizing sources of foreign investment.64 A “post-peak” mentality pushed resource extraction into ever more remote and inaccessible areas.65 These environmentally fragile regions were also frequently home to relatively autonomous indigenous peoples, from the Arctic to the Amazon. Thus neo-extractivism operated in a context of increasing global challenges to the extractivist model, as indigenous and environmental movements, and the realities of climate change, highlighted some of the perils of this economic path. Yet populist and 21st-century socialist governments relied on the continued and expanded extraction of natural resources to fund their development model. Meanwhile, some international environmental NGOs chose to collaborate with polluting enterprises or corrupt governments in the interests of saving “nature,” often against the will of local peoples and organizations, in what Molly Doane termed “accumulation by conservation.”66

Labor and Environmental Movements in the Neoliberal and Postneoliberal Era: Challenging Extractivism

Studies of labor and environment in this period have been more the province of anthropologists, geographers, political scientists, and sociologists than historians. Many have focused on the peasant and indigenous movements that surged onto the political scene at the end of the 20th century to challenge austerity and neoliberal agendas with radical new concepts that drew on old traditions.67

In the late 20th century, theorists identified “new social movements” of the post–Cold War period that drew on cultural identity rather than traditional political categories like class and distinguished themselves from earlier revolutionary movements in their rejection of Marxist categories and analysis and their indifference to seeking state power. By the end of the century, though, “21st century socialists” rose to govern in country after country, and ideologies like vivir bien / buen vivir, food sovereignty, and plurinationalism entered the halls of political power and illuminated continuities between the new and the old. Labor and environment were cornerstones of these ideologies and movements. They posed profound questions about how, and in whose interest, economic systems should work.

Far from disintegrating after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, Latin America’s traditional left, strongly based in its labor unions, experienced new vigor and new opportunities. In Brazil, unionist and Workers Party (PT) leader Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva was elected president in 2003, promising social and environmental justice. While Lula himself came from a traditional industrial sector, the steel workers union, the PT drew support from two newer, and interrelated, social movements: the Amazonian rubber tappers and the Landless Workers Movement (MST), based in southern Brazil. In the Amazon, migrant rubber tappers from Brazil’s drought-stricken northeast and indigenous peoples worked in and depended on the forest. In the 1970s, the military government offered Amazonian land to ranchers and to land-hungry small farmers from the south whose agitation for land reform seemed a revolutionary threat. Rubber workers drew on socialist and indigenous backgrounds and Catholic liberation theology in what became known internationally as an environmental struggle to save the rainforest. Although leader Chico Mendes was assassinated in 1988, his concept of “extractive reserves . . . as an alternative to the model of predatory exploitation that had dominated development projects in the Amazon region” gained region-wide and global significance.68 The land would be protected as a workscape for those whose labor depended on preserving, rather than destroying, the forest.

In the south, landless peasants drew on some of the same political and ideological sources in the 1980s and, like the rubber workers, engaged in direct action, in this case, land “invasions” to carry out a land reform from below. The MST fought for a completely different model of economic development, based on collective production, small farming, and food sovereignty. While the MST has not attracted the attention of international environmental groups the way the Amazon has, its project of revolutionizing agriculture took it to the forefront of international food sovereignty and agro-ecology movements that formed the Via Campesina, a global movement of small farmers and rural workers.69 “Via Campesina may be a model for linking social and environmental struggles,” writes William Robinson. “Via Campesina’s struggle to transform agrarian social relations is inseparable from the struggle for environmental justice.”70

Elsewhere in Latin America, coalitions between the older and newer lefts responded to the challenges of the neoliberal era. In one of the few historical accounts of contemporary indigenous movements, Marc Becker shows that the 1990 indigenous uprising in Ecuador “was not the birth but the culmination of years of organizing efforts” and of decades of “continual cross-fertilization between urban left-wing intelligentsia and rural Indigenous activists, and a fluidity in activist thinking that has consistently foregrounded economic needs as well as identity issues.”71 Becker emphasizes the extent to which ethnic and class identities have been fused in Ecuador’s indigenous movements. Demands for cultural and national recognition were one and the same as demands for territory and agrarian reform. “There will be no solution to the Indigenous problem unless there is a solution to the land problem,” explained indigenous leader Luis Macas.72

Thomas Klubock also traces the historical roots of a contemporary indigenous movement, in southern Chile. Until the 1990s, forest workers’ unions led the struggles for land reform. Pinochet-era repression and structural shifts in the labor force (subcontracting, proletarianization) undercut the union movement by the end of the century, leaving southern Chile’s indigenous Mapuche as protagonists of the most recent incarnation of the peasant struggle for land, now identified as part of the continent-wide indigenous movement rather than a labor movement.73

In Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala, indigenous movements have challenged megaprojects that prioritize production, exports, and economic growth over the territorial and subsistence rights of the people who live on the land. In Colombia Afro-descended peoples too claimed territorial rights that incorporated arguments about their cultural attachment to the land and their historically harmonious relationship with nature. In Suriname, Saramaka Maroons fought in the forests and in the courts to protect their lands and livelihoods from logging and mining concessions.74 In Nicaragua, Atlantic coast Sumo communities used the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to protect land rights against multinational logging.75 In El Salvador and Honduras, rural movements not specifically identified as indigenous made similar arguments about multinational mines as threats to sovereignty, territory, and nature. El Salvador enacted a moratorium on mining in 2008, prompting lawsuits by mining companies claiming lost profits.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) became the locus for the struggle for indigenous rights, including territorial rights—also increasingly conceptualized as environmental rights—in the 20th century. Luis Rodríguez-Piñero explains the curious evolution of an organization initially concerned with the treatment of “native labor” in Europe’s colonies and newly acquired territories after World War I that moved after World War II into the rights of the indigenous in independent states as well, in particular in Latin America, where it had absorbed ideas from the indigenismo of the earlier part of the century. ILO Convention 169 (1989) guaranteed limited rights to indigenous peoples over their territories—in particular, the right to prior consultation before any economic development projects could be carried out in their lands. Fifteen of the twenty-two countries to ratify ILO 169 are Latin American. Until 2007, this labor convention remained the prime instrument of international law protecting indigenous rights.76

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples expanded the notion of consultation in 2007 to implement the concept of free, prior, and informed consent, effectively giving indigenous peoples the right not only to be consulted but to veto projects that they opposed. All of the Latin American countries except for Colombia, which abstained, voted in favor of the UNDRIP. (The United States, along with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, offered the only four negative votes. Colombia reversed its position and endorsed the declaration in 2009.) The UNDRIP also tacitly acknowledged that child labor, forced labor, and labor discrimination still plagued indigenous peoples, and explicitly forbade these abuses. Indigenous peoples from Mexico to Argentina turned to ILO 169 and the UNDRIP to defend their territories against development projects, and in particular extractive enterprises, turning these protections of human, labor, and ethnic rights into a defense of environmental rights and attracting the attention of international environmental movements.

Labor is involved in these struggles in complex ways. Mining and other megaprojects create work in their establishment and productive process, while undermining the work that local rural people formerly engaged in, including farming, foraging, hunting, and fishing. In today’s highly technological extractive industries, those employed are usually not the same people as those displaced, since most job categories require higher levels of training than those generally accessible to Latin America’s rural poor. Many join informal labor markets directly or indirectly dependent on the same industries. Politicized extractive industry workers may be harsh critics of environmental and labor abuses by multinationals and have led political struggles to nationalize these industries. Their critique of extractive industries’ environmental depredations is based on political economy rather than an abstract love of nature: it is a critique of imperialism. Yet they find themselves engaged in more complex politics when the state is running nationalized industries.77

Latin America’s leftist governments today, as in the past, have generally increased the state role in these megaprojects, whether through joint ventures, taxation and royalty rates, or increased regulation. The redistributive and poverty-reduction programs of governments like those of Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, which clearly benefit the working classes, rely heavily on the rents of mineral extraction. With economic development under the control of the state, political leaders argue that foreign environmental concerns were merely a ruse to prevent Latin American economic development.78 “I don't want any gringo asking us to let an Amazon resident die of hunger under a tree,” Brazil’s President Lula said. Peru’s President Alan García accused indigenous communities threatened with displacement of suffering a “Dog in the Manger Syndrome” for opposing extractive projects that would benefit others.79

Latin American and Latino Histories

The historiography of U.S. Latinos and that of Latin America each has its own coherence and trajectory, but they are also deeply intertwined. The histories of the U.S. southwest, the U.S.-Mexico border, and Puerto Rico straddle and create dialogues between these different historiographical traditions. Transnational labor and environmental histories look at labor migrations and border regions from an environmental perspective. The long and contested U.S.-Mexico border, with its history of economic integration, has been particularly conducive to such histories.

Borderlands histories like Samuel Truett’s Fugitive Landscapes, Thomas G. Andrews’s Killing for Coal, Benny J. Andrés’s Power and Control in the Imperial Valley, and Monica Perales’s Smeltertown link labor and environmental histories by focusing on natural resources and the people who work extracting and processing them. Truett looks at the “copper borderlands” and shows how state and corporate attempts to impose their visions were stymied by natural and human challenges. Perales traces the history of the vibrant Mexican American community of Smeltertown outside of El Paso, drawn to work in the giant copper and lead smelting works. Andrés shows how agribusiness sought to subjugate an inhospitable desert environment and unruly migrant workers on both sides of the California-Mexico border. Andrews revisits Colorado’s 1914 coal wars “as a window into the still richer and more intriguing set of relationships that connected different groups of people—particularly capitalists, consumers, and coal mining families—with the natural world.”80 Andrews includes Mexican and Mexican American workers among the multiplicity of ethnic groups that work in the mines, but pays less attention to the Mexican past that haunts the region, visible in place names from Colorado itself to towns and counties like Pueblo, Huerfano, Las Animas, and Costilla.

Because many Latino workers in the United States labor in the lower sectors of the labor market, their jobs place them in environmentally dangerous and toxic positions. Angus Wright in 1990 and Seth Holmes in 2013 looked at the impact of changing pesticide regimes on Mexican migrant farmworkers in Cuilacán and California (Wright) and in Washington State (Holmes). Wright shows how environmental campaigns against persistent pesticides like DDT led growers to shift to nonpersistent—but more immediately toxic—chemicals, with devastating effects for farmworkers. Holmes examines an array of health disasters that continue to afflict farmworkers and the ways that the medical system naturalizes ill health among indigenous Mexicans. Other studies have looked at farmworkers’ labor struggles against pesticides as exemplary of movements for environmental justice that protest the ways in which the poor, precisely because of their class position and work situation, are disproportionately exposed to environmental dangers.81

Latin Americans who work for foreign multinationals in their own countries, or as migrants within Latin America, are similarly exposed to environmental dangers. Susanna Bohme looks at a different kind of transnational pesticide poisoning, of Costa Rican banana workers laboring for an American company exposed to DBCP, an American chemical banned in the United States but still exported to Central America.82 Myrna Santiago shows how Mexican oil workers’ class position made their experience of nature very different from that of their American bosses and how this experience contributed to their radical nationalism.83

Steve Striffler looks at working conditions for Mexican workers in the poultry industry, in an industry-giant Tyson plant in Arkansas. While the environmental and labor depredations of factory farming may be better known, Margaret Gray’s Labor and the Locavore shows that labor conditions are not necessarily much better on small farms. She calls for what she terms a “comprehensive food ethic” that goes beyond romanticized agrarian notions of the “local” to incorporate labor issues, noting that Mexican migrant workers in New York’s Hudson River valley small “family” farms suffer from low pay, paternalism, exploitative labor contractors, and poor conditions, even as these farms are championed by environmentalists for their organic, small-scale, and animal-friendly character. In a comparable vein, Brinda Sarathy looks at Mexican migrants in federal forest restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest. Sarathy and Gray’s works show that even the most environmentally conscious projects are still imbedded in structures of racial and socioeconomic inequality. On the other side of the border, Suzanne Simon looks at the failure of NAFTA’s labor and environmental side agreements to create viable mechanisms for workers and residents in the Matamoros maquiladora zone to challenge labor and environmental abuses. Workers in all of these industries continue to experience an “industrial hazard regime” that apportions risk to the least powerful.84

Working Peoples’ Environmentalisms: A Latin American Perspective

A strong tendency in U.S. environmental thought has been based in valuing a “wilderness” uncontaminated by human activity. This romantic construction of nature, many argued, emerges in industrialized societies as humans are progressively alienated from the natural world. Although most histories attribute this type of environmentalism to urban, comfortable classes, studies by Chad Montrie and Lawrence Lipin show that 19th-century mill girls in Lowell, Massachusetts; mid-20th-century auto workers in Detroit; and forest workers in Oregon all created and participated in movements to preserve and enjoy nature.85

Ideas about conservation (limiting and rationalizing the use of natural resources in the interest of long-term sustainability) and preservation (designating area defined as wilderness and prohibiting human access or economic activity there) related to Latin America’s labor and environmental history in the 20th century. Urban peoples and international environmental NGOs tended to seek to preserve nature from human interference, while rural peoples and indigenous organizations emphasized living in harmony with nature. These latter pointed out the irony that those whose consumption levels wreak the most havoc on the natural world also self-righteously claim to be nature’s saviors. Radical Latin Americans pointed out that capitalism, industrialization, and First-World living standards have brought the planet to its current environmental crisis. For these critics, environmentalism is about global political economy.

Indigenous people maintained an ambiguous relationship with long-held white stereotypes of the “ecological Indian.” Historians debated to what extent the indigenous peoples of the Americas had lived and labored in harmony with their environment prior to 1492. Europeans sometimes claimed that America represented an “untouched” wilderness, while other historians dismissed that idea as a romanticized notion and emphasized that indigenous labor had significantly transformed or marked the natural environment everywhere on the continent. While rejecting ahistorical notions of indigenous peoples as living in timeless (and, implicitly, nonlaboring) harmony with nature, indigenous groups have emphasized alternative cosmologies and the relationship of their cultures with their territories. And they place their environmental claims in the context of struggles for political autonomy and a radical critique of capitalism.

Bolivia’s indigenous president, Evo Morales, advanced this critique when he convened the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in 2010. “The world must recover and re-learn ancestral principles and approaches from native peoples to stop the destruction of the planet, as well as promote ancestral practices, knowledge and spirituality to recuperate the capacity for ‘living well’ in harmony with Mother Earth,” read the “People’s Agreement” resulting from the conference. The declaration rejected the “commodification of Mother Earth,” agribusiness, megaprojects, and capitalism, and called for

a profound shift in agricultural practices toward the sustainable model of production used by indigenous and rural farming peoples, as well as other ancestral models and practices that contribute to solving the problem of agriculture and food sovereignty. This is understood as the right of peoples to control their own seeds, lands, water, and food production, thereby guaranteeing, through forms of production that are in harmony with Mother Earth and appropriate to local cultural contexts, access to sufficient, varied and nutritious foods.86

The declaration exemplified the interconnections between capitalist forms of production, labor, and consumption and environmental destruction, and posited indigenous ways as the alternative to create social justice and reverse climate change. Five years later, the first Latin American pope, Francis, echoed many of these themes in his 2015 “Laudato Si” encyclical, in which he blamed “our present . . . models of production and consumption” for the planet’s crisis, critiqued “false or superficial ecology” that ignored the systemic nature of the problem, and emphasized the “ecological debt” that the world’s wealthy owe the poor.87

Ideas about preserving and using nature are bound up with ideas about work, about sovereignty, and about how, and in whose interest, the economy should function. States and economic elites, whether local or global, have clashed with each other and with working people over these questions. Latin American historians and social movements have taken important steps in articulating the deep connections between labor and environment.

Primary Sources and Future Research

Because labor and environmental history encompasses such diverse geographical, chronological, and conceptual scope, almost any archival collection could contain holdings relevant to investigating this area. Even well-used collections and documents can reveal new insights when approached with labor and environmental history in mind. Many aspects of this history have been little explored, and even among the sources cited here, only a few directly engage with the connection between labor and environmental history. Rather, I have included them because they shed light on the connections when read, as it were, “against the grain.”88 As evidenced by the works cited here, labor and environment in the contemporary period have received the greatest attention from both historians and nonhistorians. The recent flourishing of environmental history in Latin America, with the first Simposio de Historia Ambiental Americana held in 2003 and the founding of the Sociedad Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Historia Ambiental in 2006, opens a new potential for fruitful work in labor and environmental history to emerge.

Further Reading

Barca, Stefania. “Laboring the Earth: Transnational Reflections on the Environmental History of Work.” Environmental History 19.1 (2014): 3–27.Find this resource:

International Labor and Working-Class History 85 (Spring 2014). Special issue on Environment and Labor. Edited by Kate Brown and Thomas Klubock.Find this resource:

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

Robins, Nicholas A. Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Rogers, Thomas. The Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Sackman, Douglas. “‘Nature’s Workshop’: The Work Environment and Workers’ Bodies in California’s Citrus Industry, 1900–1949.” Environmental History 5 (2000): 27–53.Find this resource:

Santiago, Myrna I. The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900–1938. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Latin American Research Review 46. Special issue on Contemporary Debates on Ecology, Society, and Culture in Latin America. Edited by Marianne Schmink and José Ramón Jouve-Martín, 2011.Find this resource:

Soluri, John. Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Wright, Angus. The Death of Ramón González: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma. 2d ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.Find this resource:


(1.) William Cronon, “Introduction: In Search of Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 20.

(2.) Richard White, “Are You an Environmentalist, or Do You Work for a Living?” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), 171–185.

(3.) In his study of “Zomia,” James Scott focuses on the South Asian societies that have evaded incorporation into states and their economic development processes. Latin America offers many historical parallels. See James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

(4.) There is an overview of this process in Aviva Chomsky, “Labor History as World History: Linking Regions over Time,” in Workers across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History, ed. Leon Fink (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 23–32.

(5.) See Emilia Viotti da Costa, “Experience versus Structures: New Tendencies in the History of Labor and the Working Class in Latin America: What Do We Gain? What Do We Lose?” International Labor and Working-Class History 36 (Fall 1989): 3–24; Barbara Weinstein, “The New Latin American Working Class History: What We Gain,” International Labor and Working-Class History 36 (Fall 1989): 25–30; and Mark Carey, “Latin American Environmental History: Current Trends, Interdisciplinary Insights, and Future Directions,” Environmental History 14 (April 2009): 221–252.

(6.) See Brian Obach, Labor and the Environmental Movement: The Quest for Common Ground (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004).

(7.) See Chad Montrie, A People’s History of Environmentalism in the United States (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011); and Montrie, Making a Living: Work and Environment in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

(8.) Joan Martínez-Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2002).

(9.) Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt, “The End of Shorter Hours,” Labor History 25 (Summer 1984): 373–404; Hunnicutt, Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988); David R. Roediger and Philip Sheldon, Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (New York: Greenwood, 1989); and Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). “During the war and with great fervor after it,” Cohen writes, “businesses, labor unions, government agencies, the mass media, advertisers, and many other purveyors of the new postwar order conveyed the message that mass consumption was not a personal indulgence. Rather, it was a civic responsibility designed to improve the living standards of all Americans.” Cohen, “The Consumer’s Republic: An American Model for the World?” in The Ambivalent Consumer: Questioning Consumption in East Asia and the West, ed. Sheldon M. Garon and Patricia L Maclachlan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 46. Other accounts see working class consumption in more progressive terms. See Lawrence Glickman, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).

(10.) See, for example, Florencia Mallon, The Defense of Community in Peru’s Central Highlands: Peasant Struggle and Capitalist Transition, 1860–1940 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), or Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (repr., New York: Penguin, 1986).

(11.) Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2d ed. (Washington, DC: Island, 2010). See also Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca, eds., Confronting Consumption (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

(12.) Aviva Chomsky, “Empire, Nature, and the Labor of Coal: Colombia in the 21st Century,” Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas 13.4 (December 2016), citing Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 5, 6; Douglas Sackman, “Trafficking Nature and Labor across Borders: The Transnational Return of US Environmental History,” International Labor and Working Class History 85 (Spring 2014): 188; and John Soluri, “Labor, Rematerialized: Putting Environments to Work in the Americas,” International Labor and Working Class History 85 (Spring 2014): 173.

(13.) Thomas Rogers, The Deepest Wounds: A Labor and Environmental History of Sugar in Northeast Brazil (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 5. See also Samuel Truett, Fugitive Landscapes: The Forgotten History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), who describes “a landscape of extraction” on the U.S.-Mexico border (2).

(14.) Christopher R. Boyer, Political Landscapes: Forests, Conservation, and Community in Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 10.

(15.) Thomas Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 125.

(16.) Christopher Sellers and Joseph Melling, eds., Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

(17.) Roldan Muradian, Martin O’Connor, and Joan Martínez-Alier, “Embodied Pollution in Trade: Estimating the ‘Environmental Load Displacement’ of Industrialised Countries,” Ecological Economics 41.1 (2002): 51–67. Erik Loomis calls it “outsourc[ing] industrial risk” or “outsourcing catastrophe.” See Erik Loomis, Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe (New York: New Press, 2015), 11.

(18.) Laura Pulido, Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), xv.

(19.) Ramachandra Guha, How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

(20.) Although not explicitly a labor or environmental history, Irene Silverblatt’s Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) provides rich detail on these issues in the Andes.

(21.) Geographer Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin, 2005) offers the most extreme version of an environmental explanation, while archaeologist Arthur Demarest questions the whole notion of “collapse” in Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).The debate continues.

(22.) The concept of three waves of empire draws on Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (reprint; New York: Henry Holt, 2007); Steven C. Topik and Allen Wells, The Second Conquest of Latin America: Coffee, Henequen, and Oil during the Export Boom, 1850–1930 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998); and Steven Topik, Carlos Marichal, and Zephyr Frank, From Silver to Cocaine: Latin American Commodity Chains and the Building of the World Economy, 1500–2000 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006). Germán Palacio expands upon this idea in terms of frontiers, deeming the late-20th-century push into the Amazon the “third conquest,” but also reminding us that expansion into frontiers is not always a permanent or one-way process, Palacio, “An Eco-Political Vision: Toward a Latin American and North American Research Partnership,” Environmental History 17 (October 2012): 730. Others have suggested alternative ways of conceptualizing such a periodization. John Brooke identified two “super-cycles” of intensified economic growth in the global industrial economy, the first (1870–1914) corresponding to Latin America’s “second conquest” and the second (World War II–1970s) fitting uneasily with Latin America’s chronology of “conquests.” Brooke, Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 11. Christopher Boyer, looking at Mexico, organized his anthology around cycles of centralization and economic intensification (the period of the Bourbon reforms, 1765–1810; the Porfiriato, 1876–1910; and the Mexican miracle, 1940s–1982, the last corresponding to Brooke’s second super-cycle), and decentralization and economic decline (postindependence, 1810–1876; revolution and reconstruction, 1910–1940), followed by what he calls a new phase of “savage decentralization” accompanied by intensified production after 1982, corresponding to Grandin’s “third conquest” (12). Boyer shows that while economic intensification brought negative environmental impacts, the state centralization that accompanied it also meant greater regulation and environmental protection. Boyer, “Cycles of Mexican Environmental History,” in A Land between Waters: Environmental Histories of Modern Mexico, ed. Christopher R. Boyer (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012).

(23.) Cuba’s early-19th-century sugar boom responded to the political crucible of Latin American independence, while Peru’s guano boom preceded the “second conquest.” Reinaldo Funes Monzote, From Rainforest to Canefield in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), chap. 2; Brooke Larson, The Trials of Nation-Making: Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810–1910 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 150–151. Henry Ford’s rubber-producing experiment in Brazil began in 1928. See Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (New York: Metropolitan, 2009).

(24.) See William N. Denevan, ed., The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, 2d ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992); and David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

(25.) Linda Newson, “Indian Population Patterns in Colonial Spanish America,” Latin American Research Review 20.3 (1985): 41–74; Newson, Life and Death in Early Colonial Ecuador (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).

(26.) Some classics include Lesley Byrd Simpson, The Encomienda in New Spain: The Beginning of Spanish Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950); Charles Gibson, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964); Nancy Farriss, Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984); Steve J. Stern, Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640, 2d ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993); and Brooke Larson, Cochabamba, 1550–1900: Colonialism and Agrarian Transformation in Bolivia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

(27.) Nicholas A. Robins, Mercury, Mining, and Empire: The Human and Ecological Cost of Colonial Silver Mining in the Andes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 185–186.

(28.) Elinor K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 13, 115.

(29.) See Karl W. Butzer and Elisabeth K. Butzer, “The ‘Natural’ Vegetation of the Mexican Bajío: Archival Documentation of a 16th-Century Savanna Environment,” Quaternary International 43–44 (1997): 161–172; 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 (1998): 508–528.

(30.) Angus Wright, The Death of Ramón González: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma, 2d ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), chap. 5.

(31.) Manuel Moreno Fraginals, The Sugarmill: The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba, 1760–1860, trans. Cedric Belfrage (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976), 76–77.

(32.) Funes Monzote, From Rainforest to Canefield, 265. Like Moreno Fraginals, Funes Monzote has less to say about the labor involved in Cuba’s environmental transformation.

(33.) Rogers, Deepest Wounds.

(34.) Sidney Mintz, “The Question of Caribbean Peasantries: A Comment” Caribbean Studies 3 (1961): 31–34; and Mintz, “Reflections on Caribbean Peasantries,” Nieuwe West-Indische Gids/New West Indian Guide 57.1/2 (1983): 1–17.

(35.) Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 2.

(36.) Kenneth F. Kiple, The Caribbean Slave: A Biological History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 13.

(37.) Robins, Mercury, Mining, and Empire, 5; Mintz, Sweetness and Power.

(38.) Richard M. Morse, “Claims of Political Tradition,” in Politics and Social Change in Latin America: Still a Distinct Tradition? ed. Howard J. Wiarda and Margaret MacLeish Mott, 4th ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 101.

(39.) Friedrich Katz, “Rebellion and Revolution in Rural Mexico: Patterns of Victory and Defeat since Pre-Colonial Times,” in Riot, Rebellion and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico, ed. Friedrich Katz (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 56. Brooke Larson agrees, writing that “the late nineteenth-century liberal assaults on indigenous forms of subsistence and community threatened, as perhaps only the European conquest had done, the intricate webs that bound most Andean peasantries to their mountainous world” (Larson, Trials of Nation Making, 21).

(40.) Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 11–12.

(41.) Andrews, Killing for Coal, 50.

(42.) Richard P. Tucker, Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World, rev. ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

(43.) Sellers and Melling, Dangerous Trade.

(44.) Marshall Sahlins called Stone Age systems “the original affluent society,” pointing out that “poverty” is a product of rising wealth and inequality, rather than simply a low level of consumption. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972).

(45.) See Topic and Wells, Second Conquest of Latin America.

(46.) See Julie Greene, The Canal Builders: Making America’s Empire at the Panama Canal (New York: Penguin, 2010); Aviva Chomsky, West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, 1870–1940 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994); Lara Putnam, The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); John Soluri, Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006); and Miguel Tinker-Salas, The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

(47.) Grandin, Fordlandia; Michael Edward Stanfield, Red Rubber, Bleeding Trees: Violence, Slavery, and Empire in Northwest Amazonia, 1850–1933 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998); and David McCreery, Rural Guatemala, 1760–1940 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996).

(48.) Gallini explores this process in detail in Guatemala’s Costa Cuca, as liberal policies dismantled indigenous workscapes that they identified as unproductive lands, then employed former inhabitants as migrant laborers. Stefania Gallini, Una historia ambiental del café en Guatemala: La Costa Cuca entre 1830 y 1902 (Guatemala City: AVANSCO, 2009. Thomas Andrews reminds us that many of the “causes” of migration—like high food prices, falling incomes, and lack of access to land—themselves have ecological roots (Killing for Coal, 107).

(49.) Mallon, Defense of Community; Kendall W. Brown, A History of Mining in Latin America from the Colonial Era to the Present (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012); and Thomas Miller Klubock, Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile’s El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904–1951 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

(50.) Sterling Evans, Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the Canadian and American Plains, 1880–1950 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007); Truett, Fugitive Landscapes; Gilbert G. González, Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County, 1900–1950 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Douglas Cazaux Sackman, Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); and Katherine Benton-Cohen, Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

(51.) Aldo A. Lauria-Santiago, An Agrarian Republic: Commercial Agriculture and the Politics of Peasant Communities in El Salvador, 1823–1914 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999); and Julie Charlip, Cultivating Coffee: The Farmers of Carazo, Nicaragua, 1880–1930 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2003).

(52.) Mallon, Defense of Community; Myrna I. Santiago, Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900–1938 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Soluri, Banana Cultures; Evans, Bound in Twine.

(53.) Rogers, Deepest Wounds; and Thomas Miller Klubock, La Frontera: Forests and Ecological Conflict in Chile’s Frontier Territory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). A large critical literature frames wilderness preservation as an exclusivist project that displaces indigenous or peasant livelihoods. See Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Conservation and Native Peoples (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

(54.) See Eduardo Elena, Dignifying Argentina: Peronism, Citizenship, and Mass Consumption (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011); Natalia Milanesio, Workers Go Shopping in Argentina: The Rise of Popular Consumer Culture (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013); and Heidi Tinsman, Buying into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

(55.) Emily Wakild, Revolutionary Parks: Conservation, Social Justice, and Mexico’s National Parks, 1910–1940 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011); and Boyer, Political Landscapes, xiv–xv. Matthew Vitz, “‘The Lands With Which We Shall Struggle’: Land Reclamation, Revolution, and Development in Mexico’s Lake Texcoco Basin, 1910–1950,” Hispanic American Historical Review 92.1 (2012): 41–71, shows how Cárdenas similarly privileged peasant interests in Mexico City’s Lake Texcoco reclamation project in the 1930s.

(56.) Casey Walsh, Building the Borderlands: A Transnational History of Irrigated Cotton along the Mexico-Texas Border (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), 7.

(57.) Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

(58.) Wright, Death of Ramón González, 245.

(59.) Susanna B. Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon, rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 111.

(60.) Klubock, La Frontera; and Tinsman, Buying into the Regime.

(61.) See, though, for Central America, William Durham, Scarcity and Survival in Central America: Ecological Origins of the Soccer War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979); and Robert G. Williams, Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986).

(62.) Loomis, Out of Sight; Suzanne Simon, Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA: Development, Politics, and Participation on the US-Mexico Border (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014); and Aviva Chomsky, Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

(63.) Wendy Wolford, This Land Is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and the Meanings of Land in Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 70.

(64.) Kevin Gallagher and Robert Porzecanski, The Dragon in the Room: China and the Future of Latin American Industrialization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).

(65.) Breglia describes “post-peak” as a frame of mind and a business model as much as a literal measurement of the resource deposits remaining.

On the downslope, frontline communities face the insecurity of life and livelihood conditioned by resource depletion. In post-peak life, the end of oil often means more rather than less production. The downward slope entails ramped-up secondary and tertiary recovery in existing fields using invasive chemical techniques to stimulate wells. It means living with consequences as oil industries turn to nonconventional energy resources—extra-heavy crude, tar sands, oil shale, and deepwater oil—which are technically difficult and costly to obtain. Energy exploitation on the downward slope is dirty, expensive, and dangerous.

Lisa Breglia, Living with Oil: Promises, Peaks, and Declines on Mexico’s Gulf Coast (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 17.

(66.) Molly Doane, Stealing Shining Rivers: Agrarian Conflict, Market Logic, and Conservation in a Mexican Forest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 164. See also Joe Kane, Savages (New York: Vintage, 1996); and Dowie, Conservation Refugees.

(67.) See Anthony Bebbington and Jeffrey Bury, eds., Subterranean Struggles: New Dynamics of Mining, Oil, and Gas in Latin America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013); Derrick Hindery, From Enron to Evo: Pipeline Politics, Global Environmentalism, and Indigenous Rights in Bolivia (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013); Moises Arce, Resource Extraction and Protest in Peru (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014); Breglia, Living with Oil; Patricia I. Vasquez, Oil Sparks in the Amazon: Local Conflicts, Indigenous Populations, and Natural Resources (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2014); Andrew Gray, Indigenous Rights and Development: Self-Determination in an Amazonian Community (Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1997); and Kane, Savages.

(68.) Lise Fernanda Sedrez, “Rubber, Trees and Communities: Rubber Tappers in the Brazilian Amazon in the Twentieth Century,” in A History of Environmentalism: Local Struggles, Global Histories, ed. Marco Armiero and Lise Sedrez (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 160; and Hecht and Cockburn, Fate of the Forest.

(69.) For a full discussion, see Wolford, This Land Is Ours Now, chap. 3.

(70.) William I. Robinson, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 232.

(71.) Marc Becker, Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 3.

(72.) Becker, Indians and Leftists, 177.

(73.) Klubock, La Frontera.

(74.) Richard Price, Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

(75.) S. James Anaya and Claudio Grossman, “The Case of Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua: A New Step in the International Law of Indigenous Peoples,” Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law 19.1 (2002): 1–15.

(76.) Luis Rodríguez-Piñero, Indigenous Peoples, Postcolonialism, and International Law: The ILO Regime, 1919–1989 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(77.) Breglia, Living with Oil; Santiago, Ecology of Oil; Aviva Chomsky and Steve Striffler, “Labor Environmentalism in Colombia and Latin America,” WorkingUSA 17 (December 2014): 491–508.

(78.) See Sergio Díaz-Briquets and Jorge Pérez López, Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000). Dean makes a parallel argument about Brazil’s independence spurring republican leaders to “attack [the forest] with redoubled energy and enthusiasm” (Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995], 141), while post–World War II economic development ideologies posed “a terrible new threat” to the Atlantic Forest (265). He also describes nationalist resentment of foreign environmentalists (280, 292, 308, 331, 332).

(79.) Associated Press, “Brazilian President Says ‘Gringos’ Must Pay to Protect Amazon,” Guardian, November 27, 2009; Larry Rohter, “In the Amazon: Conservation or Colonialism?” New York Times, July 27, 2007; and Arce, Resource Extraction and Protest, 105.

(80.) Andrews, Killing for Coal, 15.

(81.) Montrie, Making a Living; and Pulido, Environmentalism and Economic Justice.

(82.) Susanna Bohme, Toxic Injustice: A Transnational History of Exposure and Struggle (University of California Press, 2014).

(83.) Santiago, Ecology of Oil.

(84.) Steve Striffler, Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Margaret Gray, Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Brinda Sarathy, Pineros: Latino Labour and the Changing Face of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012); and Simon, Sustaining the Border.

(85.) Montrie, Making a Living; Lawrence M. Lipin, Workers and the Wild: Conservation, Consumerism, and Labor in Oregon, 1910–1930. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

(86.) “People’s Agreement,” World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, April 22, 2010, Cochabamba, Bolivia.

(88.) Walter Benjamin introduced this concept in “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” See Carlo Ginzburg, History, Rhetoric, and Proof (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999), 24.