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date: 23 April 2017

Mountain and Forest Communities and Their Changing Landscapes in 19th-Century Mexico

Summary and Keywords

For several years, some of Mexico’s most influential literary figures associated mountains with the presence of certain characteristics: wildlife, botanic variety, and most importantly, backwards and/or mysterious indigenous communities. Order and civilization, it seemed, for writers like Ignacio Altamirano and Manuel Payno, ceased to exist in mountainscapes. For these writes, mountains constituted social afterthoughts—places lacking history and dynamism, places that did not matter. They were, in Braudelian terms, the margins of civilization and factories that supplied human resources to cities.

Such portrayals were not derived from reality, however. Far from solely being dull or dangerous sites where banditry and romantic indigeneity prevailed, Mexico’s mountains were, between the colonial era and the Porfiriato, the places where dramatic transformations took place. Impresarios’ mastery of Mexico’s natural resources fueled the country’s economic growth during the 19th and 20th centuries. Concomitant with this growth came dramatic alterations of the country’s landscape that left much of Mexico’s environment in disrepair.

Mountains, thus, have histories. They are not landscapes where civilization parts ways with society. Such an argument has relevance in parts of the world like Latin America, where nearly half of the people who reside there live at elevations above sea level, and where only 7 percent reside under an elevation of 1,000 meters above sea level.

Keywords: mountains, literature, reality, environment, forest, Mexico, 19th century

When Spain’s monarchs asked Hernan Cortes to describe Mexico-Tenochtitlan’s landscape, Cortes made a demonstration to his patrons to illustrate his explanation. He took a piece of parchment paper and crumbled it. Then he proceeded to unfold the parchment on a table to make an analogy concerning Mexico’s landscape.1 This chapter’s ultimate goal is to explain how the creases in Cortes’s parchment, wrinkled with Mexico’s mountains and full of the country’s resources, transformed into the country’s wealth.

In doing so, I deviate from a trend that has had primacy in the historiography since the 1970s. For some decades, many scholars have perpetuated a core-periphery model for discussing mountain landscapes. Scholars have failed to counter certain portrayals of mountains; they have allowed mountains to be imbued with environmental marginalization and filled with static inhabitants. That is, mountains have represented fringe places that were populated with people who remained stuck in the past and who were prone to religious conservatism. This method of landscape presentation has its origins far earlier than the 1970s. Since the middle of the 18th century, scholars have perpetuated a catastrophic portrait of mountainous landscapes. For example, Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie contains a depiction of native inhabitants of an alpine Valais canton. According to the entry, filth, a lack of education, an excessively hot climate, and the water combine to transform the canton’s inhabitants into imbeciles.2 In Braudelian terms, the most enduring prisons are those of the mental sort, what the famous French scholar called mentalities. It seems high time for the image presented in the Encyclopédie and in other places to be modified in European and Mexican historiography. This is the task of this article.

Exploration of the literary images and geographic realities of Mexico’s mountains is the chief concern of this article. In its first half, drawing from some of Mexico’s most famous 19th and 20th century literary authors, I discuss the imagery that these men created of the mountains and the human inhabitants in these areas. These men manufactured certain idyllic and not-so-idyllic images to advance certain literary tropes that audiences accepted for many years. These depictions of mountains contrast with other representations that are discussed in the second half of this article. The second set of renditions from which I draw to underscore the fictional-versus-nonfictional dichotomy comes from sources like geographers and botanists who explored Mexico during the 1800s and 1900s, and entrepreneurs who funded and led the transformation of the country’s landscape over the same period.

Some definitions and delineations are necessary. Mountains are constituted by physical, human, and biotic factors. In terms of a physical space, a mountain should have at least 80 percent of its surface above 1,000 feet above sea level. It should also be a landscape with an incline of 20 degrees or more.3 The human element of mountains generally consists of a mobile indigenous group and the so called rancheros.4 In terms of biotic discourses, mountain spaces amount to a mosaic of biota and natural resources. In such a context, Mexico is considered one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, perhaps the third most diverse country, having between 8 and 12 percent of the planet’s species.

Mountains and Their Communities in Mexican Literature

Mexico is a country comprised of mountains. Two-thirds of its surface area lays at an elevation higher than five hundred meters, and about half of this area lays at an elevation of more than one thousand meters. The country is home to four major mountain systems: the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Sierra Madre Oriental, the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt (otherwise known as the Sierra Nevada), and the Sierra Madre del Sur. The first of these ranges runs parallel to Mexico’s Pacific coast and has an average elevation higher than 2,200 meters above sea level. Passing through the range’s mountains in the state of Durango at the end of the 1800s, journalist Wallace Gillpatrick wrote about his travels, and today we have an idea of the strong impressions that the landscape had on him. The person, he wrote, who has not traveled throughout Mexico’s mountains on horseback cannot understand the happiness that a sunset can evoke or the refreshing smell of a balsam tree or the joys of a bird’s songs. They also could not comprehend the dreams of mining wealth derived in the mountains.5 In Gillpatrick’s view, mountains were linked to joy and hope, but this imagery was not always so positive, as we find in Mexican literature.

In the novel La Navidad en las Montañas (1870), Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, one of Mexico’s literary giants of the 19th century, provides a glimpse into an idealized portrayal of mountains and the people who live in the space. One of the story’s protagonists is a Catholic priest. Altamirano makes a parallel between this character and the novel’s setting. Being a man of the Church, the father embodies a dignified and virtuous person who imparts religious purity in a receptive setting, a place that needed religion. Altamirano, thus, sees Mexico’s mountains as places where Catholic spiritualism finds a compatible physical atmosphere. Such is the case with Pablo, the novel’s main character.

Mountains, Altamirano leads one to believe, are settings with certain environmental characteristics. The facades of black mountainsides make mountain landscapes dark, in literal and figurative terms. Large, deep forests and rock formations that jut out at anyone who enters the mountains contribute to the environment’s obscurity. Fog and wind seem ubiquitous in Altamirano’s setting. To supplement these foreboding images, Altamirano makes his inhabitants susceptible to patriarchal tendencies, with inclinations towards idolatry, and vulnerable to gambling and drinking.

Such surroundings had shaped Pablo’s soul into something antithetical to anything remotely resembling the Holy Spirit. Altamirano would have readers believe that the isolation of the mountains from the remainder of society had endowed Pablo with a degree of crudity. An unforgiving climate had molded him into a person devoid of social courtesies. Socially and environmentally primitive surroundings had engendered a young man with deformed character traits, a social pariah.

Nevertheless, Altamirano made the protagonist of his novel worthy of redemption. An antidote existed to counteract Pablo’s isolation: liberal ideals and practices. Hard work, order, and military discipline were correctives to the qualities that mountains bequeathed upon those lived among them. These ingredients would transform Pablo. He would become an innovative and industrious farmer, capable of stripping the toughest patches of land and turning them into bountiful plots sewn with berries, fragrant violets, and other flowers. Consequently, Pablo would represent an exemplar to his neighbors. The bravery he displayed in hunting the wildest beasts of his environment and the devotion he showed towards work would translate into gaining the trust of other montañeses (Highlanders). The model that he personified would be potent enough to overcome his neighbors’ environmentally endowed “somber taciturnity.”6

This trickle-down social effect would take place in mountains. Outside of the centers of politics, in Mexico’s mountains, disputes between the State and the Church did not yet exist, according to Altamirano. The priest in his novel embodied the only source of ethical inspiration that Pablo and his neighbors needed. Moreover, it is in the mountains where the Robinsonian solitude will be transformed by liberal abilities in such a way that Pablo would become a diligent yeoman-like farmer. In Altamirano’s mountains, inhabitants like Pablo tamed the wilderness and became emblems of industriousness and generosity. They would also witness infant-like behavior giving way to the presence of religion and order. Mountains, then, became empty palettes where a priest could arrive and bestow residents with a spirit of self-help and diligence. People would begin growing their own food. Most important in the historical context of Altamirano’s novel, Highlanders would transform via love. It would be an unforced change, adopted by those who needed spiritual renewal, a methodology for change. Work, fatigue, and solitude would be transformed into love. In the mountains, Evaristo would find that Carmen’s famous love was intangible and unspoken, yet obvious.

Altamirano displayed a more advanced but still-unflattering regard towards mountains and their inhabitants in a later novel, El Zarco (1901). Mountains were outright scary and uncouth locales. They appeared amid giant stones, scattered hastily over the terrain. Among the almost bottomless gorges that the mountains brood over, lay the ruins of a former hacienda, Xochimancas, which was a refuge for Mexico’s famous silver bandits, known as los plateados.7 In effect, the mountains served as hiding places for runaways, soon-to-be prisoners, beggars, and menaces to society.8 The same place represented a dwelling for one of the novel’s main characters, Nicolás. From the town of Atlihuayán, he came from a decent family, despite having grown up in a savage setting.9

If his book is a story based on the legendary plateados, Altamirano exercises quite a bit of artistic license in his depiction of Mexico’s mountains. He does so to advance an image. His mountains bear little resemblance to reality. Xochimancas has no mountains. Situated at an elevation of 1,250 meters above sea level, the hacienda’s setting was far below the 1,600 meters mark that signals the elevation rise of the mountain range, which measures as high as 3,000 meters as it approaches Mexico’s Federal District. Altamirano’s exaggeration helps to develop the dangerous setting that he sought to illustrate. His mountains embody shadowy places filled with dark forests, with long and narrow roads that provided protection to misfits. The novel’s mountains amount to lairs, where gambling, carousing, rapto (the abduction of women), and ribaldry were common.

Such dismal associations with mountains explain quite a bit in Altamirano’s novel. His mountains could never be somewhere that spawned love, honor, and respect. Hence, El Zarco’s elopement from Yautepec (a city in the state of Morelos and the site of much of the novel) with his lover, Manuela, results in disappointment. While she expected that her lover from Mexico’s hinterlands might take her to a faraway cabin hidden in the woods or to a cave on the outskirts of Yautepec, she becomes disenchanted when the couple arrives in Xochimancas. She had no idea that the mountains were dens for prisoners and runaways. Manuela is surprised and repulsed when she arrives at the hacienda to find a den populated with drunken and ragged women.10

Contrasts between reality and Altamirano’s descriptions abound, however. When Altamirano wrote the novel, the Yautepec Valley was filled with fruit-bearing trees. Citrus, banana, and mamey trees had grown in the valley for some time. What is more, the Yautepec River, which runs through the valley, had for years supplied growers in the valley with water for their crops and had been the source of water for canals and ditches in central Mexico that supplied sugarcane haciendas. One of these haciendas was Xochimancas, the home to Altamirano’s den for misfits.

Other inconsistencies merit discussion. By the 1850s, rural bandits were not confined to geographical crevices like mountains.11 They had a presence in mountains and in the Yautepec Valley. The valley had no strong local source of power. Hacendados were more interested in helping national concerns faraway in Mexico City. Hence, bandits came to represent the foci of local power. To his credit, Altamirano alludes to the fleeting power of hacendados in his novel—although, he perhaps exaggerates their weak hold of power with his suggestion that just about anybody could humiliate and outrage them.12 Creating a setting in which the Yautepec Valley’s power vacuum is not as severe as it truly was at the time, Altamirano fashions two contrasting worlds that exist in the same place. On the one hand, the valley is lush and the home to upstanding men and women (e.g., Manuela). On the other hand, the mountains in the same region are places where criminals, vices, and dirty men and inhabitants are commonplace.13 Thus, we have Altamirano’s literary version of mountains in Xochimancas, despite the site being situated on Yautepec’s outskirts, and part of the climatically warmer part of the Yautepec Valley.

Manuel Payno and the Mountain Bandits

No author describes mountain bandits better than Manuel Payno. In his novel, Los Bandidos de Río Frío (1893), the descriptions of a mountain setting are so precise that one can draw a relatively accurate cartographic map of the Basin of Mexico.14 Dissimilar to Altamirano’s use of mountains, Payno’s mountainscapes primarily function as a physical setting upon which one can finds trails, flora and fauna, and humans who act on the environment.

Payno’s mountains, then, are geological and geographic spaces with the presence of anthropocentric factors. Payno provides readers not only with cartographic precision of mountains with accurate degrees of angles and geographic coordinates, but also with human actors who retain the ability to transform their environment. The inhabitants act with no measurable or reasonable logic. Payno’s actors are bandits who allow him to present mountains in a particular fashion.

A description of Payno’s setting is necessary. The story takes place in Río Frío, which is located near the highest spots of elevation of the camino real, the road between Mexico City and Veracruz that was built during colonial times. The town lies near the Cerro Telapón mountain peak on the outskirts of former haciendas, Zoquiapan and Coxtitlán. Near Río Frío could be found certain sources of water (El Venerable) and certain woodlands (Palos Grandes). El Venerable irrigated much of the tall green grass in the region, which, according to Payno, grew high enough to allow nearly a dozen men to walk on the banks of a road without being easily seen.15 Through such a hospitable and enclosed natural setting passed carboneros (charcoal makers), traveling Indian merchants, and the terrifying bandits of Río Frío.

Mountain and Forest Communities and Their Changing Landscapes in 19th-Century MexicoClick to view larger

Figure 1. Map of Río Frío.

Source: AGN. Instituciones coloniales/Colecciones/Mapas, Planos e ilustraciones 280, Cuautepec, Acuautla y Venta de Córdoba; Cuautepeque. Edo. de Méx. Ildefonso Iniesta y Vejarano, Julio 28 de 1749.

Payno’s choice of this setting is not happenstance. If Evaristo, one of the novel’s main characters, travels to the mountains with the goal of turning such a place into a home, it is because Payno uses the mountain to underscore a metaphor. Because Evaristo and his family manage to make a life among such inhospitable mountains and amid the dangers of the setting, he also has the fortitude to capture the heart of his beloved Cecilia. If he could defy odds by surviving in his environment, then he could become king of Cecilia’s heart and make his love the queen of the mountain.16 Neither of Evaristo’s challenges—conquering the mountain and capturing Cecilia’s heart—is simple. Bats, giant rats, wolves, coyotes, scorpions, rodents, and snakes make the mountain their home. These animals, Payno adds, devour the mule and horse that accompany Evaristo during the first night of his endeavor to conquer the mountains.17 Meanwhile, Cecilia, the novel’s heroine, is a formidable challenge herself. In her occupation as a guide on a trajinera (flat-bottomed boats designed for transporting produce and people across waters; the image that comes to mind are the watercrafts in the floating gardens in Xochimilco), she survives travel through the difficult waters of Mexico’s lagoons and lakes. What is more, her body and aura are known for enchanting all suitors.

In dealing with the challenge of the mountains, Evaristo is the beneficiary of other characters who help Payno’s image of mountains. Early in his trip, Evaristo becomes acquainted with wildlife other than snakes, rodents, and bats. He also finds friendly harmless rabbits, hares, deer, and birds. To help him navigate through the vagaries of the mountain, Payno tactfully gives Evaristo a traveling companion who knows the terrain best: the mountain Indian. Armed with knowledge and experience in the area, the Indian guide knows the paths and crossroads in the area, along with how to farm in such an unfavorable landscape. Payno dedicates several pages to underscoring the Indians’ lot in life. Indians are a considerable mass of thousands of people who have no land or fixed residence. They are wondering nomads, clad in thin cotton pants, straw hats, and cloaks made of palm leaves to cover their torsos. Accompanying the Indian men are their women and half-naked children. The women are covered with staves made of blue wool, and on their backs are the youngest children, whose heads sway from side to side while they sleep during the treks across the mountains. The women also carry a metates and other cookery items.18 Payno’s Indians are capable of working agricultural wonders with maize. When their time with Evaristo is done, the Indians return to a faraway, unidentified place where they fulfill their minimal needs. Payno describes how the Indian loves the mountains, how he enters their profound solitude without fear and never goes astray. As if he owns a hidden magnetic guide in his chest, he finds his way everywhere he goes. If nighttime comes early, he remains undeterred. Because beasts consider him one of them, they do nothing to the natural man. They sit with him at his fire and watch over him while he sleeps. In the mountains, the Indian easily locates a crystalline water spring, berry trees, herbs, and other items to nourish himself. Later, when he returns at night, he heats up his tortillas or a piece of jerky over his fire.19

With partners endowed with such abilities, Evaristo conquers Payno’s mountains. The Indians help him deal with the mountain’s scorpions and other animals. They help him break through thickets of mountain brush to eventually build a home and a life. On a soil that had never grown anything other than large mountain cedar trees, Evaristo and company build a productive farm. He also turns his indigenous co-habitants into the bandits of Río Frío.

Payno thus portrays mountains as scary, ominous places that Evaristo surmounts. They are composed of long, deep cedar canyons, hidden by dense masses of trees. A person entering a stretch of trees cannot be seen after walking thirty steps into a forest. Streams run throughout. Caves offer shelter from downpours. The winds are strong, and the climate is cold. In the mountains’ deepest spaces, birds, deer, and edible plants surround Evaristo. As he walks, he realizes the reverence of nature that surrounds him. He notes “the grandeur of the cedars measuring more than forty yards tall, along with the thick tissues of reeds, the hearts of palm, the orchids, the vines, and polychromatic wildflowers, the birds, and the thick clouds of color that took shape because of the butterflies.”20

Despite writing the book from Santander, Spain and Dieppe, France, Payno’s description of the mountains is convincing. It is evident that he had made the trip through such terrain between the coast of Veracruz and Mexico’s interior. His trips allowed him to vividly illustrate trails, canyons, and springs that marked the area. The trips also gave him the material to intensely describe the practices of the region’s residents. The mountain Indians, Payno implies, destroy forests. In Zoquiapan, they damage the area “for the petty product that is coal. They destroyed the beautiful trees and, day after day, laid waste to the infinite richness of the hacienda.”21

Payno’s image of declension and destruction brings us to the second half of this essay. More specifically, the remainder of this work begins with the abusive practices that different actors—indigenous charcoal collectors, hacendados who made their fortune from forest products, railroad entrepreneurs, and others—inflict on nature.

Before moving on to the second part of this work, it is necessary to highlight what mountains represented in 19th and early 20th century literature in Mexico. Contrasted with the emergence of ordered and lettered cities in Mexico between the 1850s and the seven decades afterwards, mountains symbolized chaos, disorder, and isolation. They were faraway havens where beasts lived, and where only the “natural person” (i.e., indigenous mountain inhabitants) knew how to survive and from which to capitalize. Hence, María Jipila and María Matiana, two characters in Payno’s novel who practice witchcraft, heal other characters’ physical ailments. Their lives in the mountains gives them familiarity with the ingredients from which to make concoctions: roots, herbs, gums, resins, rare plants, trees leaves and bark, tarantulas, lizards, chameleons, snakes, and thousands of kinds of rodents. This familiarity with mountains also explains why the women make requests for ingredients from different mountain ranges in Mexico (Mount Ameca, Mount Tenango, and the Tierra Caliente region). With these exotic ingredients from these exotic places, the women make their secret (and effective) brews that are unknown to anyone outside of their phenotype.22

Mountains also represented a city’s opposite in societal and moral discourses. While cities, indeed, own their share of mountains’ disorder and crime, only in the mountains did a person descended to certain lows. Not until an urban transgressor went to the mountains did he become a thief or a truely irredeemable misfit to society. As Payno writes, “[he is] a thief foremost. They all are. They will eventually take on serious crimes, like breaking in to houses. Soon enough they begin stealing from people along the Río Frío route.”23 Facing social rejection, a criminal’s last recourse in life lay in finding his way to mountains, where not even the army dared to enter.

From Literature to Realities: Mountains in Travelers’ Accounts, Archives, and Maps

Perhaps the first record that we could call a discussion of the reality of the mountains that Payno meticulously described comes from the famous Calderón de la Barca. For the most part, her records corroborate Payno’s depictions.24 But one can glean alternative descriptions of Mexico’s mountains from other sources. Together with travelers’ accounts, discussion of material from other sources allow for a more nuanced, and thus, realistic view of mountains. The spaces known among literary artists as the abodes for beasts and bandits appear in different lights.

Travel accounts offer detailed descriptions of mountain communities and their landscapes. Beginning with Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 notes to the detailed guides to 19th-century Mexico’s sites of interest for travelers, and in the subsequent visits to the country, one finds a presence of mountains and their landscapes. The earliest of these accounts came from people who sought to alter older ethnographic tradition in accounts that began with missionaries in Latin America, which retained influence into the 1750s. No longer solely dedicated to describing the peoples and cultural aspects of the people in Mexico, the authors of the new records, after the 1750s, adopted a more rational, empirical approach.25 By the 19th century, two approaches to these accounts emerged: on the one hand, they had a scientific nature, such as those of Alexander von Humboldt; on the other hand, records of a literary type by writers of Anglo-Saxon origins also surfaced.26 Humboldt portrayed Mexico as a place destined to become prosperous because of its soil. Written in French and published in Paris in 1805 (and in German in 1807), his impressions had a decisive importance on future travelers who sought to emulate his work.27 Among those accounts considered of an Anglo-Saxon-type, William Robertson’s History of America was very influential. Its first run was published in English in 1777 (London: Strahan). A French translation followed one year later. Robertson’s book influenced such celebrated works on Mexico, particularly William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico (London: Bentley), published in English and French in 1843.

Scientific accounts of Mexico reflected the views of authors who saw science as a body of knowledge and methodology that could transform societies.28 The origins of such accounts were found in the emergence of academies and erudite academic societies in Europe at the time.29 It was no surprise, then, that the publications under this heading mirror those of the scientific societies that organized and financed their writers’ trips.

Because of these sources, we know that the portrayal of Mexico’s mountains were written in comparison to tierras frías, those colder ranges with peaks measuring more 6,000 feet above sea level.30 Thus, tierras calientes trigger certain associations—the presence of plantations (coconut, coffee, sugarcane, and banana), fruit trees (apple, pears, peach, apricot, granado, lemon, and orange), abundant mangroves, and tropical creatures (birds, lizards, monkeys, etc.). Temperate areas connote other associations: cereal cultivation, transportation on horseback, mules, or draft animals. Finally, the colder climatic zones make up the hills and mountain ranges that are the Sierras (Occidental and Madre). This set corresponds to markers like the presence of pine trees, fresh air characterized by the smell of resins, sheep grazing, the presence of coyotes, and birds of prey. Present in accounts of the sierras are discussions of Mexico’s mining territory. Thus, one scientist, Raoul Bigot, asserted that, just as Cuba was the country of tobacco, Brazil the country of coffee, and Argentina the country of cattle, so Mexico was the country of silver. Its metal-producing zone was formed by the belt of the Sierra Madre, what Bigot called, the Mexican Andes, which appeared to form vertical paths to the clouds.31

Stairways to the Clouds or to Economic Growth?

These mountains and their surroundings were notably affected by human activities like mining and other industries (construction, resin production, railroads, and paper production), agriculture, and other processes. Since 1522, the year that mining efforts began in Oaxaca, until 1633, when mining activities could be found as far north as Sonora, mountains that had existed for centuries constituted a mining belt longer than two-thousand kilometers. It did not take long after these mining activities began for officials to notice the abundance of coal and the effects of its extraction. As early as 1542, Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza mentioned that the discovery of mineral deposits near Taxco had led to the destruction of the area’s surrounding forests. Later, another colonial official, Enrique Dávila, the governor of Parral, said that coal would be gone during his own lifetime. In the Santa Bárbara province, it took less than a century to transform the valleys of the Comarca regions into virtual deserts.

The same giant stairways to the clouds that Bigot discussed rather quickly transformed into deforested landscapes characterized by bald sierras and nude hillsides because of certain needs involved with mining activities, particularly wood. One mine consumed more wood than an entire town of five to ten thousand people. In San Luis Potosí, for example, one town of five to six thousand residents, consumed from 5.2 square kilometers to 6.7 square kilometers of forest trees per year, while mining consumed about 127 square kilometers of wood per year during the same period. As a form of comparison, the steel industry, which was responsible for destroying forests in Europe for decades, devoured three times less wood than Mexico’s mining industry.32 Mining consumed wood for practically every stage of its operation, from processing, to mineral extraction stage, to smelting. Companies used oak, mesquite, and pine trees for tunnel construction, terrace construction on hillsides, buildings, mills, and winches. Workers also used wood to make fire and to fuel the amalgamation process. It is not a stretch to say that the surface area of forests in modern-day Mexico was reduced in size by nearly 400,000 square kilometers between the colonial era and the first decades of the 19th century.33 The siege on resources slowed at the end of the century with the introduction of hydroelectric energy and the changes in levels of coal usage, but the effects of previous damage to areas where mining took place lasted years. Despite reforestation projects, in certain zones with little rainfall, like the northern reaches of Mexico, tree populations never recovered.

Urbanization and growth in the construction sectors also added to the loss of biomass. Manuel Payno, according to methodologies that he never shared, calculated that Mexico City’s population expended 650,000 trees on an annual basis. From the time of the Spanish conquest until the early years of the Porfiriato (1876–1880s), he estimated that more than 200 million trees were consumed. Such levels of growth and concomitant demands for trees likely explained the aridness of the Valley of Mexico that Humboldt discussed in his early works on Mexico.34

The growth of urban centers cannot take all the blame for the excessive consumption of timber products. On an annual basis, factories and railroads based in the Federal District consumed five million trees.35 Additionally, in 1856, six paper factories existed in Mexico—four in the Federal District, one in Guadalajara, and one in Orizaba—and each required large quantities of wood. The four factories in the Federal District routinely spent 262 million pesos on timber products every year and flew through 13.6 million slivers of wood that required a contingent of 850 workers for logging.36 Also in 1856, businesses in northern Mexico utilized wood as fuel. Ranches in Nuevo León, where 32 million cargas of piloncillo (unrefined brown sugarcane) were produced, used 70,400 cart loads of wood for fuel, which “deforested the region and increased prices for workers, beasts of burden, carts, and related equipment by about 30,000 pesos.”37

At the end of the 19th century, one company, Cia. Papelera of San Rafael, came to monopolize the paper industry, and the company’s operations underscored the process of how Mexico’s mountains became stark landscapes. Headquartered in the lower parts of the outskirts of the Sierra Nevadas, the company enjoyed the best waters from the runoff from nearby volcanoes, which were topped with snow twelve months of the year. Some of the country’s most lush forests surrounded the company’s headquarters. Company officials used water for blanching pasta noodles, as means for providing power, and for paper production. To make paper using artisanal methods, companies needed water amounts that oscillated between 1,000 and 2,000 liters per kilogram of product.38 To convert pulp into paper via modern methods, the pulp was treated and combined with water, which resulted in a product with a chemical volume makeup of 99.5 percent water and 0.5 percent wood pulp fiber.39 Because of the necessity of water resources in the production process, company owners insisted that the factory’s location had paramount importance. Hence, the company owners situated its operations near a beautiful brook among the foothills of the imposing Ixtaccihuatl Mountain. It enjoyed the purified waters off the mountain, which generated energy that the company used for electrical installations, which allowed the company to build other properties in a radius of 13,000 hectares.40 A company of this size, producing on such a large scale, invested in its own railroad network for transportation. In 1900, the circulation of the company’s timber products stood at 1.1 million tons. This circulation more than tripled, to more than 3.8 million tons a decade later. Paper products increased fivefold in shipping amounts—from 3.9 million tons in 1900 to 15.8 in 1911. Business on such a scale gave way to a landscape where deforestation and groundwater loss were part of a day’s work. Proof of such conditions can be seen in an image from Abel Briquet, in which he described the clearings in a forest. His description of the forest leads one to believe that to continue walking through the woods symbolizes how humans have transformed nature.

Mountain and Forest Communities and Their Changing Landscapes in 19th-Century MexicoClick to view larger

Figure 2. Cleared forest in Mexico. Briquet.

Source: De Golyer Library (Southern Methodist University), Dallas, TX; Ag1982.0112.

Rio Frio from Literature to Reality

The same tale of despoliation and consumption was evident in the oils and resins industry in the state of Puebla and in Iñigo Noriega’s haciendas. In this central state during the mid-1900s, the change from lard and root-based oils, which residents had used for illuminating urban areas since the 18th century, to oil of turpentine had severe implications on the population of trees. Turpentine oil was a product obtained from resin distillation or from the secretions of pine trees. Thus, the slopes of La Malinche volcano gradually morphed into a shadow of their forested hillsides because of the intense exploitation of trees.41

On his haciendas, Zoquiapan and Río Frío, Noriega took advantage of the surrounding mountain forests, indeed. Noriega kept meticulous records of tree inventories near his business operations. We do not know the methods utilized to keep an inventory of the trees, but Noriega mentions that the numbers in Río Frío were 13.1 million in October in 1910. Of these trees, nearly 6.5 million were ocote pines, and half a million of these were ready for exploitation.42 Missing from these numbers were counts from spots on faraway properties for which he was the proprietor, such as Huexotenco, Loma Grande, Tenaxco, El Salto, Las Majadas, El Tlalo, and Telapón, which together represented sites that likely contained at least eight million pines. Noriega’s inventory also had not accounted for other sites in Puebla. Sites in Papayo, Aculco, Coleto, and Contadero collectively had trees that added into the millions.

These arboreal troves of treasure served as the resource base for a resin firm that Noriega began in Zoquiapan and Río Frío. In the northern part of the Chalco District, he established an agricultural company supplied by the two haciendas, which covered 22,000 hectares. Of this expanse, pines occupied about 18,000 hectares. Noriega’s first projects with the trees involved rubber extraction. In 1872, results from such undertakings were fairly meager. His fortunes changed by 1910, as he realized the potential of his lands and built a factory for turpentine oil and rosin production. During the first year, company employees extracted 11,500 kilograms of oils and resins. Production soared over the next couple of years: 263,380 kilograms (1911); 453,180 kilograms (1912); and 1.1 million kilograms (1913). Of the more than 2.1 million kilograms produced over the four years for which records exist, about half went towards domestic consumption in Mexico. The remainder of the product was exported by German barges, which took it to Hamburg. Wanting to capitalize on such rapid success, Noriega merged with a Spanish company, La Resinera Española, in the attempt to open more than a dozen factories throughout Mexico. He calculated that if production stood at the 1913 level, with rubber extraction from 400,000 trees, followed by another two million in 1915, he stood to earn an annual profit of $390,000. Multiplied by the twenty sites that he sought to purchase around the country, Noriega stood to rake in a handsome profit.43 To pursue this undertaking, he founded a corporation similar to his Spanish partners. He named the outfit, Resinera Mexicana, with its mission being exploitation of forests in Zoquiapan and surrounding areas.44

Noriega’s plans unfolded fabulously. Resinera Española was a shipping group overshadowed only by a handful of U.S. and French companies. Company workers had learned that turpentine could be used as a grease solvent for products like paint, varnish, and for cleaning barges or equipment and machines used in the railroad industry. Rosin was prime material in the soap making business and could be used in the textile industry, and as lubricant manufacture for carriages, trains, and other machinery.45 Consequently, the marriage between Resinera Española and Noriega’s conglomerate became a profitable partnership for both interested parties.

To maximize profits and improve his operation’s efficiency, Noriega funded the construction of railroad tracks. The network of tracks shortened the distance between his bases in central Mexico and the branches of his enterprise by several hours and kilometers. Along with passing through some of the more picturesque parts of Mexico that other lines did not travel through, Noriega’s railroad network also allowed for more efficient communication among his subsidiaries around the country.

The Railroad Industry

Mexico’s national railroad industry was, to be sure, a goliath of a consumer of timber, with comparison, perhaps, only to India. For every kilometer and a half of Indian track laid, laborers laid 2,000 cross ties, which amounted to the consumption of 2 million trees in 1878. In Tehuantepec, Peimbert estimates that 80-pound rails required close to 1,500 cross ties per kilometer, and 56-pound rails required 2,000 cross ties per kilometer.46 If we can safely estimate that workers laid five to six million cross ties every year, and if we keep in mind that one tree is required for every two cross ties, then we can plausibly say that at least three million trees were consumed per year to construct railroad tracks throughout the country’s territory. One passenger of Mexican trains, H. Scowgall, commented on the amount of resources used to construct and maintain the railroad system. He pointed out that every mile of track called for 2,500 cross ties. With one tree yielding two cross ties, this meant that 1,250 trees were utilized for one mile of track or more than 1.2 million trees for every thousand miles of line. Such consumption of trees was compounded about every couple years, as cross ties needed replacement after six years.47 If we add the fact that locomotives were fueled by combustion that could require upwards of 5 million trees, then we get an idea of the depletion of Mexico’s forests and the subsequent alterations in the country’s mountainous landscapes.48

Other projects around the country from the late 1800s and early 1900s added to the exhaustion of resources. Telegraph lines at the end of the 19th century required three million trees. Completed in 1901, drainage lines in Mexico City came at a cost of 1.5 million meters of wood to the country’s timber areas.49 Add to these numbers other parts of these operations that required wood—cross ties, telegraph lines, poles for urban lighting, fuel for steam-powered machines and engines, paper production—and one gathers an idea of magnitude of changes that took place in forested areas around and in Mexico’s mountains.

Agriculture and Mountain Deforestation

Other factors contributed to the changes to the country’s landscape. For centuries, many indigenous groups had practiced (and continue to practice) the roza-tumba-quema (slash and burn) method of agriculture. According to this method, farmers stripped unused lands in order to lay their products, then later rotated or moved to another site for clearing. Groups employed the cultivation method in the mountains near Veracruz’s coastline, in Chiapas, and in other corners near the many mountainous areas, severely altering the terrain in these areas. In 1895, critics like government functionary Ricardo Ramirez spoke on the effects of such methods on the part of indigenous groups in these areas. He refused to bite his tongue when he said that it was vital to save at least two-thirds of the jungles—many of which are, today, desert-like and unproductive—before a farmer converts the ground into spaces for tillage.50 Another functionary, Fernando Altamirano, claimed that the cultivation methods of the poor, who, he added, burned forests spaces because of a lack of other lands of their own, had three detrimental effects: total destruction of trees, the creation of conditions for landslides, and accidental burnings in areas neighboring patches that indigenous growers had razed.51

Members of the Mexican delegation at the North American Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources in Washington, DC (February, 1909) elaborated on the effects of indigenous agriculture.52 The purpose of the conference was to generate conservation policy recommendations. Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, Mexico’s most well-known conservationist and the country’s authority on silviculture between 1890 and 1940, shared some of his ideas for dealing with problems with the country’s geological water basins. In a report to Gifford Pinchot, a conservationist with his own influence in the United States, Quevedo mentioned that the forest cover in Mexico’s Central Mesa region covered no more than 10 percent of the surface area, which compounded climatic (e.g., drought and soil depletion) and hydrologic (e.g., flooding) problems. Quevedo told Pinchot that two factors explained the depletion of central Mexico’s forests: land burnings and the search by indigenous growers for farm lands and pasture lands. The responsibility for such damage lay not with railroad companies or other industries; indigenous groups, Quevedo posited, were culpable. In another source, Quevedo shared his ideas on the rationale and effects of roza-tumba-quema:

As long as indigenous peasant groups do not have the most elemental needs in life and in culture, and as long as he does not take hold of his own education and intellectual improvement and that of the country in equal or greater efforts than the remainder of the country’s groups, the agricultural proletariat [i.e., indigenous farmers] shall remain a burden on Mexico’s progress. He will remain someone who the remainder of the country must sadly carry, someone who makes our national advance and order less secure and uncertain . . .53

If we consider the brand of ranching practices of the hacendados, which occurred at the same time as indigenous groups’ roza-tumba-quema farming, then we more easily observe a tale of environmental decline. Hacendados throughout Mexico, we know, required vast expanses of land on which their animals could pasture. The Huasteca region in Veracruz serves as a good case study for environmental change. According to historian Myrna Santiago, the soil on which Huasteca ranchers conducted their livestock business was once analogous to a tropical Eden, a place where the ideal met jungle and its creatures. In effect, if the Huasteca is made up of lakes, swamps, dunes, mangroves, and marshes, then the closest association to Eden that Santiago makes is the Biblical concept’s tropical attributes. This landscape changed with both indigenous agriculture and hacendado ranchers; later the area transformed even further in the 20th century, after the discovery of petroleum deposits.54

Progress and Development?

Household consumption of coal-based products increased the destruction of Mexico’s mountains and trees during the 19th century. In Puebla City between 1837 and 1842, in a city with a population that averaged a little more than forty thousand people, coal usage for cooking and other household uses surpassed more than eighty-three thousand cargas, with “a tendency to grow.”55 Explained in a different way, about seven thousand monthly cargas, a shade more than 230 cargas per day, equivalent to 37,950 kilograms (between 35 and 40 tons) of coal (usually in the form of charcoal) was consumed by households on a daily basis in a city with fewer than fifty thousand inhabitants.56 The statistics were high in nearby cities. Until 1920, residents in Mexico City used an annual average of 140,000 metric tons of coal, which would be equal to about 370 hectares of forests stripped on a monthly basis in central Mexico.57 The levels of coal-based energy in households has changed in during recent decades, but not much: liquid accounts for 37.8 percent of energy in households, firewood accounts for 35.1 percent, and electricity for 22.7 percent.58

In 1808, Alexander von Humboldt mentioned the transformation that the Spanish conquistadors carried out in what had once been the lush Valley of Mexico. The valley, he claimed, had become an arid landscape, denuded of vegetation like the lands in central Spain. In the Valley of Mexico, the Spanish cut trees in the basin as well as along the valley’s surrounding mountains. The latter had received far more of the brunt of the damage. The Spanish saw wooded spaces as sites for different purposes—places to clear in order to create farm land, sites for obtaining construction material, places for locating combustibles, and spots for obtaining stakes to build urban infrastructure—that laid waste to trees along hillsides and in the basin; the onslaught against trees at the end of the 19th century was part of a long, sustained period of destruction in the mountains.59

Looking at the process of change over time suggests that concepts like “progress” and “development” had severe consequences on Mexico’s landscape. If Mexico was a mining nation, then the fuel that drove the country’s industries claimed the forests as the largest victims. In the 19th century, emerging cities around the nation were connected to one another by a large network of railroads and industries, and again, forests represented the basis where these changes began. In figurative and literal terms, wood symbolized the main item of consumption for the emergence of cities and the industry.

More than a home to bandits and indigenous people, and more than places where disorder represented the order of the day, mountains were ground zero for the growth of modern Mexico. Entrepreneurs knew mountains well and exploited these spaces in the name of their own interests. Industrialists and businessmen—not literary characters like Pablo and Evaristo—were the true conquerors of Mexico’s mountains. They transformed the country from a place that, until the last third of the 19th century, many people considered a small-time republic, with only a little more profit potential than Central America, into an attractive investment opportunity for foreign and local investors who eventually made the country a continental player after a massive overhaul to its natural spaces.60

Changing Landscapes

This overhaul came at high cost, particularly to the country’s ecology. When the Spanish arrived the area covered in forests was nearly three-fourths of New Spain. Nearly three centuries later, Humboldt estimated, at the beginning of the 19th century, that only half of the viceroyalty could be classified as forests. In three hundred years, about a third of the forests were gone. This extended period of plunder natural resources only amplified during the 1800s, as I have discussed.61

The Cuenca de México (Mexico Basin) experienced much of this damage. According to estimates of the pre-Hispanic era, the basin’s surface was covered by 521,600 hectares of forests, 175,360 hectares of shrub, 161,140 hectares of pasture, and 10,200 hectares of bodies of water. Forests amounted to 54 percent of the valley’s surface, and among these trees could be found pines, oyamel (a fir species), and oaks. Just as diverse as the trees were the animals located in the basin: deer, rabbits, coyotes, tigrillos (tiger cats), and wild cats. In the basin’s lakes could be found 68 million cubic meters of vegetation that fed at least nearly a dozen species of fish, aquatic birds (109 species), other animals, and humans. By the 19th century, many of these bodies of water had disappeared. The forests of the Mexico Basin were barren, and its mountains were eroded. Such conditions triggered a reduction in the numbers of streams and a proliferation of torrential, uncontrollable watercourses and silting in rivers. In 1910 alone, logging reduced a forested area of more than half a million hectares to a little more than 37 thousand hectares.62 The state of Tlaxcala, which according to some estimates had an original surface area of forests of 350,000 hectares in 1949, had only 68,000 by 1978.63

Just as England’s industrial revolution involved a destruction of nature to locate coal deposits, 19th-century Mexico’s industrialization made an impoverishment of the country’s forests, and, like England, the policies for forest conservation were ineffective.64 Since the colonial era in Mexico, subjects made claims about the need for forest guards, “those soldiers who would be charged with guarding those who searched for wood.” Iñigo Noriega eventually hired his own uniformed guards, emulating French patrolmen with the same job, in the 1800s. With forests in the hands of people like Noriega, though, Mexico’s natural resources remained in the hands of their own predators.65

The cost of progress involved social costs, too. If one conceives of mountains similar to those described by Manuel Payno, then the environmental effects of industrial modernization on mountains affected human groups equally. Humboldt estimated that 60 percent of Mexico’s population was indigenous in 1810. A century later, this percentage dropped to 35 percent. Over the years, then, María Jipila and María Matiana—the two exotic mountain nurses in Payno’s novel who made requests for healing agents throughout Mexico’s mountains—were left with fewer correspondents in Ameca, Tenango, and the Tierra Caliente region.


A mountain is an abstraction made up of human, physical, and biological factors. I have examined how literature constructed an imaginary environment that imbued readers with visions of mountains as places where disorder and hazards governed. Authors like Altamirano and Payno made mountain landscapes places where only “natural man”—that is, indigenous inhabitants—could survive. Such readings of mountains have their origins in a core-periphery theory, in which the core (i.e., cities) symbolized the opposite of the geographic areas on its borders. This logic suggests that mountains constitute archaic, faraway corners and exist at the service of cities, which are the creative forces that comprise civilization and the places where innovation begins.

Such precepts inspired Fernand Braudel to describe mountains as a world at the margins of civilizations, akin to a human factory for people who worked outside of mountains. Mountains were places devoid of history.66 Such concepts were critiqued in Europe, where 64 percent of the population lived at an elevation less than one thousand meters, in the mid-1900s. The issue remains important in Latin America, because nearly half of the region’s inhabitants live at elevations high above sea level—only 7 percent reside at an elevation of less than 1,000 meters above sea level.67 Pre-Hispanic Cuzco, situated at 3,300 meters above sea level, counted close to one hundred thousand inhabitants in 1600; Both Cuzco and Potosí City, at 4,100 meters above sea level, were considered among the largest centers of population in the world. The pre-Hispanic Mexico Basin, situated at an elevation higher than two thousand meters, was one the most populated urban centers in the world, with 1.5 million people calling it home at the moment of conquest.68 The pattern of settlement in Spanish America, then, began at higher elevations, and population numbers decreased as one descended to coastal zones and other lower altitudes.

Thus, I challenge the literary trope that has influenced discussions of Mexico’s mountains. The portrayal of mountains, by some important writers, as bedlam and home to primitive peoples can be revised by writers of different sorts, such as scientists, travelers, and businessmen, and we can now plausibly argue that the former vision of mountains is not sustainable. If we study the transformations that occurred in Mexico’s mountains, we realize that these spaces do have histories. They supplied the raw material that fueled the growth of the country’s economy between the colonial era and the Porfiriato. Impresarios had a mastery of the resources that lay within mountains, and they exploited sites to advance their economic interests. In doing so, they transformed the landscape and contributed to a period of sustained environmental disrepair that characterized the 19th century. Mountains of timber became barren hillsides characterized by a lack of vegetation, pocked with craters and crevices—similar to the analogy that Hernán Cortés made with parchment paper to his royal sponsors.

Discussion of the Literature

For years, scholars of 19th-century Mexican history have not fully explored the theme of changes in the landscape caused by human activities in Mexico’s mountains and their communities. The field, in fact, remains almost entirely open to research. Only recently, with the work of environmental historians, have scholars approached the theme.

Before the work of environmental historians, the theme of anthropomorphic alterations to Mexico’s mountains was the domain of archaeologists and anthropologists. Thanks to the many works that they produced before recent years, we know plenty. For example, we learned that the changes to Mexican forests were a long, non-linear, and drawn-out process. Far from an overnight transformation, the country’s forests took centuries to occur. The work of archaeologists and anthropologists have taught us about human subsistence, particularly in the Mexican Basin. In the basin, we know, man relied first on nearby bodies of water. Later he relocated towards higher altitudes, and finally, he moved down into the valleys of pre-Hispanic Mexico.69

For several years, because of the work of archaeologists and anthropologists, many historians’ subscribed to a hypothesis that explained the rapid decline of pre-Hispanic civilization in the Mexican Basin. Indigenous groups, many historians posited, contributed to their own demise in what was Teotihuacan. Their cultivation and productive practices underwrote the massive deforestation and soil erosion in what today are the highlands of Mexico.70 Before Spanish arrival, then, the environmental offensive against New Spain’s forests had already begun because of the actions of indigenous groups. Such was the narrative.

In the 1980s, historians parted company with these findings. The arrival of the Spanish colonizers, catalyzed a dramatic transformation of the environment. Conquistadores arrived with new technologies, a different set of cultural and social mores, and conceptualizations of production. They also brought biological material, completely unknown in the Americas, which transformed Mexico’s ecosystems and became the source of one of the most telling demographic collapses in human history.71

People are familiar with the changes in the scholarship after the 1980s. After Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the Americas, the introduction of livestock, particularly beef, quickly facilitated soil erosion and an exhaustion of pasturelands. Pigs, rabbits, and horses arrived soon after the cattle. Elinor Melville methodically chronicles how the Mezquital Valley transformed after European arrival. From a densely populated area, with sufficient irrigation and a use of resources that integrated forests and pastures, the Valley quickly became a mesquite semi-desert, characterized by the presence of herds of sheep and barren forests. While not as dramatic a transformation as the Mezquital Valley, we know that the Puebla Valley also underwent post-Spanish-arrival change.72

Other research, from the 1990s and thereafter, discusses the history and significance of the human onslaught on natural resources in the Mexico Basin. European arrival in the basin reduced forest cover between 2,300 and 2,500 meters above sea level to practically nothing, in contrast with the region’s lush pre-Hispanic appearance.73 Antony Challenger and Lane Simonian, who opened discussions concerning environmental history, specifically about Mexico’s mountains, both relied on a limited number of primary sources, and much of the content of their works is rather general, not extremely intense nor specialized. Thus, while environmental historians made strong advances by the 1990s, room for improvement remained. With some exceptions, the scholarship lacked probing, intensive archival work and a degree of creativity on the part of scholars.

This trend ended by the mid-1990s. From discussions about the timber industry’s assault on central Mexico, came works by Rodolfo Huerta, Lucía Martínez, and Alejandro Tortolero.74 Later works dealt with geographic regions outside of central Mexico. We learned, for example, about forest exploitation that began during the late colonial period and continued through independence in states like Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz. Basing his work on material from Minantitlán, Veracruz, Héctor Zarauz described the commercialization of valuable woods, specifically cedar and mahogany, from the colonial period to the latter half of the 20th century. A welcome contributor to the historiography, Zarauz analyzed rural mountain settlements that humans morphed into desolate spaces by about 1900. After abandoning the area around 1900, exporting companies proceeded to lay waste to other forested areas in Chiapas and, later, areas outside Mexican territory (Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, and Guatemala).75

More than a handful of authors have explored the despoliation of forests provoked by the railroad industry. Such works generally have dealt with the damage derived from the laying of railroad tracks and, to a less degree, the transformations to the land. Sandra Kuntz’s work, with material from the Ferrocarril Nacional (from 1894, in particular), for example, offers a glimpse into the volume of timber products that passed through railroad stations in several large centers of population: Toluca, Lerma, Jajalpa, and Salazar. We learn that wood products were the most commonly shipped product (52.9 percent of the total), followed by construction material (24.9 percent), and grains (5.7 percent).76 In another example of advances to the historiography, Nancy Flores compiled data that underscores the shipment of commercial timber over the twenty-kilometer route from San Juan de las Huertas to Toluca during the early 1900s. Forest products were the most commonly shipped items, followed by agricultural produce. Wood was shipped in the form of fuel, beams, boards, and planks to Toluca and Mexico City, which was the commercial center of the country at the time.77 Bonifacio Díaz’s research deals with the introduction of railroads in the State of Mexico during the last decades of the 19th century, specifically the route from Toluca to Tenango del Valle and its stop at the Veladero Hacienda.78 While Díaz’s work discusses the railroad facilities that concessionaires built and maintained until about 1930, Nancy Flores’s work, again, underscores the weight of lumber passing over the route until 1920. The work of these scholars, combined with the works of María del Pilar and Humberto Morales, Lucia Martínez and Alejandro Tortolero, and Armando Rojas, amounts to a collection of scholarship that is well worth reading for their contributions to the studies about the devastating effects of the railroad industry on Mexico’s mountains.79

The mining industry added to the despoliation, and scholars have made great strides in describing this destruction. The most-often cited researches concerning the transformation that the mining industry ushered in are works by Gizbert Daviken-Studnicki, Juan Manuel Romero Gil, and José Alfredo Uribe.80 In 1542, the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza issued a royal decree concerning limits on timber exploitation on the outskirts of Taxco, Guerrero. This decree of limiting exploitation lasted more than two centuries. De Mendoza’s sponsorship also facilitated the extraction of about 50,000 metric tons of silver, along with hundreds of tons of gold, copper, and lead. Such numbers resulted in deforestation levels that rivaled environmental damage seen in Peru.81

Juan Juárez’s work, concerning industrial enterprises on the mountains of La Malinche, signals notable advances in Mexican environmental history, particularly the history of mountainscapes. From sources dating back centuries, we learn that the levels of timber consumption were industrial in scale. Companies utilized timber for wood and fuel to build tracks. Moreover, glass factories and iron foundries consumed enormous amounts of timber products to fuel their industrial furnaces. But it was resin industry that led much of the exploitation near La Malinche. The work involved in extracting industrial levels of turpentine from trees left scars on the skirts of Mexico’s famous mountain.82

In relation to the farther reaches of the Mexican states, specifically Yucatán and Chiapas, works by Martha Villalobos and Jan de Vos stand out. The former calls attention to how Mayan rebel groups during the Caste War (1847–1901) marketed products from the tropical forests that surrounded them to fund their insurrection against Yucatan government regimes. Via exchanges and sales of forest products to the British, the rebels in neighboring Belize defrayed the costs of a decades-long war against more well-funded and technologically better equipped counterparts. In a study based in Chiapas’ mountains, Jan de Vos researched commercial forest enterprises and mahogany logging companies, from the late colonial period through independence.83

Finally, several historians have dealt with the environmental consequences stemming from the conflicts between haciendas and neighboring pueblos. Margarita Loera Chávez and Armando Arriaga examine the political history of Calimaya, a small town in the state of Mexico. After detailing Calimaya’s history from the pre-Hispanic era through the Colonial Era, Loera and Arriaga focus on environmental changes that the town has experienced in recent decades. Deforestation, soil erosion, and other landscape changes originated in the excessive extraction of sand and pumice stone. Along the same levels of environmental degradation, both authors describe alterations made by humans to the original path of the Lerma River. In another microstudy of Calimaya and its surrounding area during the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, César Fernando Escudero and Gloria Camacho detail the damage done to the region because of logging and the extraction of raíz de zacatón (fibrous, grass-like plants used for making paper and bristles for items like brooms or brushes).84 María Luz Ayala thoroughly analyzes the conflict between haciendas and indigenous pueblos over natural resources like water and soil, from colonial days through the early 1800s. Utilizing archival records and other sources, Luz Ayala underscores the complexities involved in the transition between de jure, legalistic claims over land and resources versus previous conceptualizations of resources. Her work illustrates the tension-filled negotiations and legal disputes, which often resulted in violence, between indigenous groups with specific ideas of property ownership versus individually held properties. Using an environmental approach, Alejandro Tortolero discusses conflicts in the Chalco Valley over resources, highlighting the difficulties in what could be called Mexico’s Great Transformation.85

It is obvious that the quantity and quality of works vis-à-vis changes to Mexico’s landscape have increased and improved, but it is also worth noting that scholars still have room to further develop the field. Researchers generally adopt approaches that present natural Mexico in narrow fashion. The country’s landscape and environment come across as static abstractions that have been subject to the actions of humans. Scholars should not, perhaps, ascribe anthropomorphic agency to nature in their studies, and they should be cautious of presenting nature as a cognizant protagonist in their work; but the environment should not solely be an Arcadian palette on which humans determine historical processes by their actions. If we start with a premise that history is the study of change over time, then it seems logical that nature should not be considered passive or immutable. Moreover, as Crosby demonstrated years ago, when human processes—farming, consumption, modes of production—mix with ecological processes and conditions in a given setting, scholars have the ingredients for historical studies that truly capture dynamism. Thus, environmental historians are charged with studying the bidirectional relations between humans and the settings of the places where they reside. We have the task of analyzing the technologies employed by humans to transform their world, the forms of management that humans adopt towards their surroundings, and the productive orientation that humans support. As scholars take on these challenges, the future of the field appears promising.

Primary Sources

The Archivo General de la Nación (commonly known by the acronym AGN) preserves some of the most useful primary sources for studying the history of environmental changes to the countryside. The AGN’s Tierras section has several record groups about land disputes, often accompanied with maps. Similar records can be found at the Archivo del Tribunal Superior de Justicia and the Registro Agrario Nacional. In the event that a map does not accompany a set of documents, it can usually be found at the Mapoteca Orozco y Berra, which has an excellent array of sources.

Sources specifically related to the industrial offenses to Mexico’s environment are relatively accessible at different archives. Some AGN record groups have material from old railroad companies in Mexico. Some of these groups hold detailed financial records on companies and other documents that could be of service to an ambitious researcher. The U.S. Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Harvard Baker Library own important records related to Mexico’s Ministry of Communications and Public Works Projects. State archives in Mexico own potentially valuable material, such as documents vis-à-vis the Department of Development or other material under headings close to the Ministry of Communications and Public Works. If one wanted to study a topic like the volume of products that were extracted from mountains and shipped over Mexico’s rails, one would find comprehensive data from the latter part of the 19th century for timber, agriculture, the cattle industry, and mining.

Some mining companies left behind extensive, continuous records. Two examples are the Dos Estrellas company and the Real del Monte company.86 Records from former haciendas remain in certain archives, too. Studnicki-Gizbert and Schecter consulted two hacienda archives (Hacienda de Miguel Maldonado and Nuestra Señora del Carmen) in their excellent study.87 They also found valuable documents at the archives for the local Spanish royal treasury collection offices, which allowed them to generate estimates detailing timber consumption and deforestation caused by mineral extraction in their study of the environmental history about New Spain. Private archives also own company records. Records for the San Rafael paper company can be found at the Archivos del Mundo del Trabajo, in Roubaix, France, and at the company’s archives located at San Rafael, State of Mexico; although this material is difficult to access, the effort might be worth it for the determined historian.

Other company records are relatively easy to access at the AGN in Mexico City. The archive’s Caja de Préstamos wing holds many records for the Negociación Agrícola of Xico and Anexas company. This particular collection offers plenty of documents dealing with technological modernization on haciendas during the 19th century. Some lending records date back to the early 1900s. Surveys conducted by experts offer material about hacienda operations dating back to colonial days. These detailed reports include data that describe the devastation that economic modernization wreaked on the environment. Many of the reports in the collection deal with wooded areas, pasture lands, agricultural yields and output—all of which could be useful for further study of the history exploitation in Mexico’s forests and mountains.

Periodicals such as La Naturaleza are useful, and we can find many of them at the Biblioteca Nacional, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

In August 1868, the Mexican Society of Natural History was founded. The most relevant action that took place in this society was the edition of specialized journal The Nature, which appeared in June 1869 and resumed publication in 1914.88

Traveler’s guides and impressions are also useful. A good catalogue of European and French travelers includes the work of Numa Broc and of J. G. Kircheimer.89

Further Reading

Altamirano, Ignacio M. La Navidad en las Montañas. Editores Mexicanos Unidos, 2013. Originally published in 1871, by Imprenta de Ignacio Escalante.Find this resource:

Altamirano, Ignacio M. El Zarco. Editores Mexicanos Unidos, 2013. Originally published in 1901, by J. Ballescá y Compañía.Find this resource:

Arnold, David. La naturaleza como problema histórico: El medio, la cultura y la expansion de Europa. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2000.Find this resource:

Challenger, Antony. Utilización y Conservación de los ecosistemas terrestres de México: Pasado, presente y futuro. México City: CONABIO-UNAM, 1998.Find this resource:

Collantes Fernando. El declive demográfico de la montaña española (1850–2000)¿Un drama rural? Madrid: Ministerio de Agricultura, Pesca y Alimentación, 2004.Find this resource:

Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 1972.Find this resource:

Juárez, Juan José. “Malintzin Matlacueyetl: Bosques, alumbrado público y conflict social en la desarticulación de un entorno ecológico (Puebla-Tlaxcala 1760–1870).” MA thesis, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2005.Find this resource:

Juárez, Juan José. “Entre fulgores de ángeles y máculas de tizne: Energía, metabolismo y degradación ecológica en el valle de Puebla-Tlaxcala, 1530–1820.” Historia Caribe 10.26 (2015): 175–210.Find this resource:

Melville, Elinor G. K. A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Payno, Manuel. Los bandidos de Río Frío. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 2000. Originally published in 1893.Find this resource:

Ramírez, Fernando. “Legislación acerca de los bosques.” In Primer Concurso Científico Mexicano. México City: Secretaría de Fomento, 1895.Find this resource:

Simonian, Lane. La defensa de la tierra del jaguar: Una historia de la conservación en México. México City: CONABIO-UNAM, 1999.Find this resource:

Studnicki-Gizbert, Daviken, and David Schechter. “The Environmental Dynamics of a Colonial Fuel Rush: Silver Mining and Deforestation in New Spain, 1522–1810.” Environmental History 15 (2010): 94–119.Find this resource:

Tortolero Alejandro (Coord). Tierra, agua y bosques: Historia y medio ambiente en el México Central. México, City: CEMCA-I.Mora-UdeG, 1996.Find this resource:

Uriarte Ayo, Rafael. “La industrialización del bosque en la España interior: Producción y cambio técnico en la industria resinera (1860–1914).” Revista de Historia económica 13.3 (1995): 509–551.Find this resource:


(1.) Antony Challenger, Utilización y Conservación de los ecosistemas terrestres de México: Pasado, presente y futuro (México City: CONABIO-UNAM—Agrupación Sierra Madre, S.C)1998), 269.

(2.) “[Les crétins] . . . sont sourds, muets, imbecilles, Presque insensibles aux coups, portent des goêtres pendans jusqu’à la ceinture . . . La malpropreté, l’éducation, la chaleur excessive de ces vallées, les eaux, les goêtres meme, sont communs à tous les enfans de ces peuples.” See Denis Diderot et Jean d‘Álambert, Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers Vol. 4 (Paris: Briasson, 1751–1765), 459.

(3.) Fernando Collantes, El declive demográfico de la montaña española (1850–2000)¿Un drama rural? (Madrid: Ministerio de Agricultura, Pesca y Alimentación, 2004), 24. According to the Spanish Real Academy’s Dictionary, a mountain is considered “a natural elevation in a given terrain.”

(4.) The rancho was an estate of less than 2,500 acres. The ranchero represented a small middle-class variety of farmer. From the beginning of Spanish colonization, the best lands were occupied by the haciendas, while the small farmers were usually forced to settle in the more inaccesible districts, among the hills. They were mestizos, of mixed blood, many with a high percentage of aboriginal blood in their veins. See George M. MacBride, The Land Systems of Mexico (New York: American Geographical Society, 1923), 89.

(5.) Wallace Gillpatrick, The Man Who Likes Mexico (New York: Century, 1911), 49.

(6.) Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, La Navidad en las Montañas México (Mexico City: Editores Mexicanos Unidos, 2013), 86. This book was originally published in 1871.

(7.) Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, El Zarco (México City: Editores Mexicanos Unidos, 2013), 64; originally published in 1901.

(8.) Ibid., 70.

(9.) Ibid., 60.

(10.) Ibid., 71–72.

(11.) It should be noted that the plateados were not solely criminals. They were more of a mixed group of bandits, rebels, and guerillas closely linked to Mexico’s liberal forces. One of the chiefs of the plateados was also the Prefect of Yautepec in 1861. See Carlos Barreto, Rebeldes y bandoleros en el Morelos del siglo XIX (1856–1876): Un estudio histórico regional (México City: Gobierno del Estado de Morelos, 2012), 156.

(12.) Altamirano, El Zarco, 51. The novel mentions numerous stickups against foreigners and kidnappings of hacendados. In a letter to the state’s governor, a Yautepec judge said that “Without a doubt, we dealt with serious offenses committed by what could be called gangs, or more succinctly, by armies of evildoers that roamed these areas who you know well. Over the past year, we have suffered an assault at Mr. Escandon’s hacienda in Atlihuayan that involved sixty criminals. We have also dealt with another assault, with a bigger force, at the Villa Don Manuel Rubin business.” See Letter from José B. Espejo to the Estate of Mariano Riva Palacio, Yautepec, Archivo AMRP, Nettie Lee Benson Library, September 1857. For other incidents attesting to offenses committed against hacendados, see Carlos Barreto, Rebeldes y bandoleros en el Morelos del siglo XIX (1856–1876); Un estudio histórico regional (México City: Gobierno del Estado de Morelos, 2012), 154 and 155.

(13.) It is worth noting that Altamirano considered the ultimate influence of novels to be the advancement of the intellectual capacities and morals of the populace. A novel, he wrote, “is a powerful medium for delivering a message, for propaganda. Ultimately, they have the ability to teach and introduce good tastes and refinement. But a novel should not simply be a tool for hobby to idle people. It should rattle a reader’s sensibilities. Ultimately, a novel should be a study in morals based on historical facts.” Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, El Zarco, 8.

(14.) Payno described himself as an author who wrote about “people’s lives and actual portraits of Mexico.” This claim seems true, since the characters of his novels were based on actual persons. See Extracto de la causa del general Yañez y socios por varios as altos y robos cometidos en poblado y despoblado (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 1988); originally published in 1839.

(15.) Manuel Payno, Los Bandidos de Río Frío (México City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 2000), 463. First published in 1893.

(16.) Ibid., 443.

(17.) Ibid., 432.

(18.) Ibid., 438–439.

(19.) Ibid., 442.

(20.) Ibid., 446.

(21.) Ibid., 446.

(22.) Ibid., 46, 47.

(23.) Ibid., 134, 185.

(24.) Paul J. Vanderwood, “Los bandidos de Manuel Payno,” Historia Mexicana 44.1 (July–September 1994): 108.

(25.) For more on trips being seen by travelers as exercises in the accumulation of knowledge, see Bernard Lepetit, “En présence du lieu même: Pratiques savantes et identification des espaces à la fin du XVIII,” in Carnet de Croquis (Paris: Bibliotheque Albin Michel Histoire, 1999), 197. The essence and utility of trips were described as, “To know well is to describe. To describe is to develop a discourse in which one’s curiosities, along with arousing interests, constitute the emblem of an exotic space. In such a manner, the importance of a traveler’s account rests in the strength of their descriptions and what one presents. There is nothing more to be said about an account that generates the affinities of a reader. It organizes pictures into true accurate facts. It calls for duplication by others and challenges mere commentary. It offers all of the needed elements to positively know everything about the world.”

(26.) Chantal Cramaussel, “Imagen de México en los relatos de viaje franceses, 1821–1862,” México, Francia: Memoria de una sensibilidad común, siglos XIXXX, ed. Javier Pérez Siller (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma de Puebla/El Colegio de San Luis Potosí, CEMCA, 1998), 333–365.

(27.) As an example, see Roland Bonaparte et al., Le Mexique au début du XXe siècle (Paris: C. Delagrave, 1904), 327; by a distinguished group of scholars in the early 20th century. According to the authors, the book was “a work analogous to Alexander von Humboldt’s work written at the beginning of the century that has the title Ensayo politico sobre el reino de la Nueva España, which, in one form or another, introduced Mexico to the European world.”

(28.) Minguet summarizes the typologies of these travelers in the following manner: “On trouvait parmi eux, des voyageurs proprement dits, c’est a dire des home [voyageaient] pour leur plaisir, pour celui de la découverte d’horizons nouveaux ou du ‘pittoresque,’ des ‘trouristes’ avant la lettre . . . mais aussi des savants: naturalists, ingénieurs, médecins, géologues, historiens; des missionanaires, des diplomates (ambassadeurs et consuls), des militants (et an particular des marins), des émigrants économiques ou politiques, des commerçants et des négociants, des artistes, des proscritis, des hors-la-loi.” See Charles Minguet’s preface to Jean-Georges Kircheimer, Voyageurs francophones en Amérique Hispanique au cours du XIXe siecle (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1987), 74.

(29.) About one thousand scientific societies existed, with a membership totaling two hundred thousand in the 19th century. In 1910, the French Masons club counted thirty-nine thousand associates in 580 lodges. Such numbers indicate the importance of the scientific societies; for more discussion on the topic, see Mona Huerta, “Les voyages aux Amériques et les revues savantes françaises au XIXe siècle,” in Michel Bertrand and Laurent Vidal, ed., A la redécouverte des Amériques: Les voyageurs européens au siècle des indépendances (Toulouse, France: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2002), 76.

(30.) Humboldt said that the tierras calientes did not measure higher than 300 meters and had temperatures from 25 to 29 degrees Celsius. These ranges produced such products as sugar, indigo, cotton, and bananas. On the slopes of such mountains, at about 1,200 and 1,500 meters, lay a moderate climate, with temperatures of 20 to 21 degrees Celsius. Their soils were warmer, as well, and the land was conducive to the cultivation of fruit trees and certain cereals. At the top of these ranges, a level above 2,200 meters, the temperature averaged 17 degrees Celsius. See Alexander von Humboldt, Essai politique sur le Royaume, 75.

(31.) Raoul Bigot, Notes economiques sur le Mexique (Paris: Boyveau & Chevillet, 1909), 125.

(32.) During the 19th century in the United States, a typical blast furnace utilized at least 100 hectares of forests every year for its function, and a typical furnace from the same time period required the same amount of surface area of wood. See Clive Pointing, Historia verde del mundo (Barcelona, Spain: Paidós, 1992), 376. Also see Denise Woronoff, “Histoire des forêts françaises, XVIe–XXe siècles,” in Résultats de recherche et perspectives. Cahiers du CRH (1990), 6. Online at:

(33.) Daviken Studnicki and David Schechter, “The Environmental Dynamics of a Colonial Fuel Rush: Silver Mining and Deforestation in New Spain, 1522–1810,” Environmental History 15 (2010): 94–119.

(34.) Payno, Los Bandidos de Río Frío, 85. Charles Gibson estimates that towards the end of the colonial era about twenty-five thousand trees were cut annually for deep stakes that were part of construction projects. Such a method lasted until the 16th century. See Charles Gibson, Los aztecas bajo el dominio español, 15191810 (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1967), 312.

(35.) Manuel M. Villada, Concurso científico, Sociedad de Historia Natural. Discursos publicados en la sesión del día 1º de agosto de 1895 (México City: Oficina Tipográfica de la Secretaría de Fomento, 1895), 34–36. The author estimates that eight factories, by themselves, consumed one hundred twenty thousand trees every year, and the Federal District had no fewer than twenty-five during the period.

(36.) Daniel Cosío Villegas, Historia Moderna de México: La República Restaurada (Mexico City: Hermés, 1989), 86.

(37.) Ibid., 91.

(38.) Miguel Gutiérrez i Poch, “Trabajo y materias primas en una manufactura preindustrial: El papel,” Revista de Historia Industrial 4 (1993): 148.

(39.) Avi Cohen, “Technological Change as Historical Process: The Case of the U.S. Pulp and Paper Industry, 1915–1940,” The Journal of Economic History 44.3 (1984): 778.

(40.) Manuel León Sánchez, Homenaje de la Compañía de las Fábricas de Papel de San Rafael y Anexas S.A, al Congreso Mundial de la prensa (México City: Imp. de León Sánchez Manuel, 1931), 29–31.

(41.) Juan José Juárez, “Malintzin Matlacueyetl. Bosques, alumbrado público y conflict social en la desarticulación de un entorno ecológico (Puebla-Tlaxcala 1760–1870)” (MA diss., Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Iztapalapa, 2005).

(42.) Alejandro Tortolero, “Transformando paisajes. La silvicultura mexicana y la industria resinera: cultura, modelos y aprovechamiento.” In Old and New Worlds: The Global Challenges of Rural History. (International Conference, Lisbon, 27–30 January 2016.) For more on methodologies concerning tree inventories, see James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

(43.) Alejandro Tortolero, “Transformando paisajes. La silvicultura mexicana y la industria resinera: cultura, modelos y aprovechamiento.” By these areas, Resinera Española, founded in 1898, extracted enough quantities that made it among the top three producers in Spain. In 1910, the company extracted 4.7 million kilograms of turpentine oil and 15.2 million kilograms of rosins. This production involved the exploitation of a few more than nine million pine trees. Production began in 1898 with three million trees and rose to 9.8 million trees in 1909; see Rafael Uriarte Ayo, “La industrialización del bosque en la España interior: Producción y cambio técnico en la industria resinera (1860–1914),” Revista de Historia Económica 13.3 (1995): 544. Noriega thought of business on a gigantic scale, which explains why he had personnel from Resinera Española visit his business sites: “If the Resinera Española manager has returned from his trip to Greece and Turkey or other countries, and decides to make a visit here [Mexico] in October and November, we shall try, via correspondence, everything the items we discussed . . . there shall be a true joy to form some sort of merger with Resinera Española. Pines abound here. What we need is to exploit those trees that are have some rational use. Thus, freighters for export and lines of communication in the mountains, and good leadership are the essential factors that shall determine good or bad results.” In this same year, Noriega mentioned that he expected to process one million trees in the upcoming season. If Resinera Española could add another 70,000 hectares, Noriega, along with thousands of hectares of his own in La Compañía, Zoquiapan, Río Frío, and Ixtlahuacan, planned to extend his business ventures to northern Mexico by purchasing other acreage to his name; in Tortolero, Transformando paisajes . . . 1–10.

(44.) Tortolero, Transformando paisajes . . . 1–10.

(45.) For more on the Mexican resin sector, specifically Noriega’s enterprise, see Martínez Lucía, “D’Espagne au Mexique: Iñigo Noriega Lasso, un entrepreneur dans la vallée de Mexico (1868–1919)” (PhD diss., Université de Paris X-Nanterre, 1996); for the industry in Tlaxcala, see Juárez, “Malintzin Matlacueyetl”; for the business in Spain, see Rafael Uriarte, “La industrialización,” 509–545.

(46.) For statistics and information on Indian railroads, see David Arnold, La naturaleza como problema histórico. El medio, la cultura y la expansion de Europa (Mexico City: FCE, 2000), 164. For similar information concerning Mexico, Ángel Peimbert, “Estudio sobre la superestructura de las vías férreas,” in Memoria y revista de la Sociedad Científica “Antonio Alzate,” Vol. 26 (Mexico City: SCAA, 1907), 5–23.

(47.) Lucía Martínez, “Máquinas, naturaleza y sociedad en el distrito de Chalco, Estado de México a finales del siglo XIX,” in Tierra, agua y bosques: Historia y medio ambiente en el México Central México, ed. Alejandro Tortolero (Mexico City: Centre Français d'études Mexicaines Et Centraméricaines, 1996), 275.

(48.) Fernando Altamirano, “Necesidad de repoblación de los bosques,” in Concurso Científico Mexicano, ed. Ministry of Economic Development (Mexico City: Secretaría de Fomento, 1895), 18–41.

(49.) Francisco Calderón, “La república restaurada: La vida económica,” in Cosío Villegas, Historia Moderna de México: La República Restaurada (México City: Hermés, 1979), 568.

(50.) Ricardo Ramírez, “Legislación acerca de los bosques,” in Concurso Científico Mexicano, ed. Ministry of Economic Development (Mexico City: Secretaría de Fomento, 1895), 57.

(51.) Altamirano, “Necesidad de repoblación de los bosques,” 30.

(52.) Archivo, Centro de Estudios de Historia de México, CARSO, Record Group CDLIV, Folder 20, File 61, México, D.F., Mexico, March 5–20, 1909, f.6.

(53.) Miguel Ángel de Quevedo, Algunas consideraciones sobre nuestro problema agrario (Mexico City: Victoria, 1916), 9. Quevedo added that it was not hacendados who laid waste to mountainsides and indigenous lands, it was indigenous caciques. “Much has been said about the greed of hacendados . . . but few people to no one display more greed than the caciques and rancheros among our indigenous rural groups. Generally, they are the people who have made their lands at costs to the entire groups of the poor, thus taking advantage of groups’ miseries to divest them of their parcels of land far worse than the hacienda system.” See Ibid., 18. During his work as national Director of Forestry, while working with Mexico’s poorest rural groups, Quevedo commented that “. . . the biggest obstacle—better yet, the only obstacle—comes from those chiefs and wealthy people who abuse their situation and local influence, exploit community forests for their own profit, and make fraudulent cuts with work coming from the humble and poor Indian, who receives blame for the abuse to the mountains. The poor receive poor wages to take hundreds and even thousands heads of cattle mountains to graze on mountainsides. Thus, many of the poor take to encroaching on large tracts of land in national forests to grow their foods.” See Ibid., 19.

(54.) Myrna Santiago, The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900–1983 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Mountain transformations at the Huasteca are also studied by Emilio Kouri, A pueblo divided (Stanford University Press, 2004), see chapter 2.

(55.) One carga = 165 kilograms.

(56.) Juan José Juárez, “Entre fulgores de ángeles y máculas de tizne: Energía, metabolismo y degradación ecológica en el valle de Puebla-Tlaxcala, 1530–1820,” Historia Caribe 10.26 (2015): 175–210.

(57.) “Estamos acabando con nuestros hermosos bosques,” El Demócrata, June 14, 1923.

(58.) Rigoberto García Ochoa, “Hacia una perspectiva de sustentabilidad energética,” in Los grandes problemas de México, IV, Medio Ambiente, ed. José Luis Lezama and Boris Graizbord (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2012), 340.

(59.) A. Humboldt, Essai politique sur le royaume, 202. For discussion of colonial wood consumption and usage, and deforestation, see Gibson, Los aztecas bajo el dominio español, 311; and García, “Hacia una perspectiva de sustentabilidad energética.”

(60.) Raoul Bigot shared the same opinion in 1909: “A juger [ar les résultats merveilleux obtenus (pensez qu’il y a à peine un quart de siècle le Mexique n’était pas plus considéré financièrement et commercialement que l’une des quelconques petites républiques de centre-Amérique, sous le rapport du credit, tient la tête de toute l’Amérique Latine . . .” Raoul Bigot, Notes economiques sur le Mexique (Paris: Boyveau & Chevillet, 1909), 8.

(61.) Lane Simonian, La defensa de la tierra del jaguar: Una historia de la conservación en México (México City: INE-CONABIO, 1999), 63.

(62.) Memoria de Fomento (México City: Secretaría de Fomento, 1911), 664; and Beatriz Canabal, Xochimilco, una identidad recreada (México City: UAM-CIESAS), 1997, 29.

(63.) H. Manzanilla, “Breve análisis sobre el manejo de los bosques y las necesidades de desarrollo tecnológico en México,” in Ciencia Forestal 58.10 (1985): 17–35.

(64.) In England and Wales, between 1700 and 1850, the percentage of amount of forests, common and vacant, decreased from 34.2 percent in 1700, to 8 percent in 1850, in Enric Tello, La historia Cuenta (Barcelona: El Viejo Topo, 2005), 131; and Denise Woronoff estimates that fourteen million hectares of forests in 1380 decreased to about seven million hectares by 1820, and the numbers did not reach previous levels until 1980. See Woronoff, “Histoire des forêts françaises, XVIe–XXe siècles,” 6.

(65.) For more on discussions of colonial forests, see Cramaussell Chantal, “Sociedad colonial y depredación ecológica: Parral en el siglo XVII,” in Estudios sobre historia y ambiente en América, Vol. I, ed. Bernardo García and Alba Gónzalez (Mexico City: Colegio de México-IPGEH, 1999), 97; and for discussion on the 19th century, see Martínez, “D’Espagne au Mexique,” 1996.

(66.) “La montagne ordinairement, est un monde à l’écart des civilisations, creation des villes et des bas pays. Son histoire, c’est de n’en point avoir, de rester en marge des grands courants civilisateurs qui passent avec lenteur cependant . . . La montagne est une fabrique d’hommes à l’usage d’autrui.” Fernand Braudel, La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II (Paris: Armand Colin, 1949), t.1, 37, 56, and 447.

(67.) Population densities, according to altitudes, across three continents, 1958:


Number of inhabitants per square kilometer on productive soils

South America



The world

4,000 to 5,000 meters





3,000 to 4,000 meters





2,000 to 3,000 meters





1,000 to 2,000 meters





0 to 1,000 meters





Source: Hermann Hambloch, Der Höhengrenzsaum der Ökumene: Anthropogeographische Grensen in dreidimensionaler Sicht (Münster: Germany: Westfälische Geographische Studien, 19, 1966), 44.

(68.) Gibson, Los aztecas bajo el dominio español, 137.

(69.) Mari Carmen Serra Puche, Los recursos lacustres de la Cuenca de México durante el Formativo (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México-IIA, 1988). For a short periodization on Mexican silviculture history, see Tortolero, ed., Tierra, agua y bosques, 42–43.

(70.) Manuel González de Molina, Historia y Medio ambiente (Madrid: Eudema, 1993), see chapter titled “El hombre y los ecosistemas en la era preindustrial.”

(71.) See Alfred Crosby, El intercambio transoceánico: Consecuencias biológicas y culturales a partir de 1492 (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1991); and Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

(72.) See Elinor Melville, “Environmental and Social Change in the Valle del Mezquital, Mexico, 1521–1600,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 32.1 (1990): 24–53; and Elinor Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Jack A. Licate, Creation of a Mexican Landscape: Territorial Organization and Settlement in the Eastern Puebla Basin, 1520–1605 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

(73.) Antony Challenger, Utilización y conservación de los ecosistemas terrestres de México. Pasado, presente y futuro (Mexico City: CONABIO-UNAM, Agrupación Sierra Madre, S.C., 1998); and Lane Simonian, La defensa de la tierra del jaguar: Una historia de la conservación en México (Mexico City: INE-CONABIO, 1999).

(74.) Rodolfo Huerta, “Transformación del paisaje, recursos naturales e industrialización: El caso de la fábrica de San Rafael,” in Tortolero, ed., Tierra, agua y bosques; Lucía Martínez Moctezuma, “Máquinas, naturaleza y Sociedad en el distrito de Chalco, Estado de México,” in Tierra, agua y bosques: historia y medio ambiente en el México Central, ed. Alejandro Tortolero (Mexico City: CEMCA-I. Mora-UdeG, 1996); and Alejandro Tortolero, “Los usos del agua en la region de Chalco 1893–1913, del antiguo regimen a la gran hidráulica,” in Tierra, agua y bosques: historia y medio ambiente en el México Central, ed. Alejandro Tortolero (Mexico City: CEMCA-I. Mora-UdeG, 1996).

(75.) Héctor Zarauz, “Explotación maderera en el sur de Veracruz en el siglo XIX,” in Formación empresarial, fomento industrial y compañías agrícolas en el México del siglo XIX, ed. Mario Trujillo Bolio and José Mario Contreras Valdez (México: CIESAS, 2003), 269–297; and Jan de Vos, Oro verde la conquista de la Selva Lacandona por los madereros tabasqueños, 1822–1949 (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998).

(76.) Sandra Kuntz, “Los ferrocarriles,” in Historia General del Estado de México, Vol. 5, La República Restaurada y Porfiriato, ed. René Becerril, Romana Falcón, Maria Teresa Jarquín, Sandra Kuntz, and Manuel Miño Grijalva (México City: El Colegio Mexiquense, 1998), 268–288.

(77.) Nancy Flores, El Ferrocarril Toluca-San Juan de las Huertas, 1880–1920: Intento fallido por ampliar el mercado regional (PhD diss., Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, 2009). Although the work concerns a different area of Mexico (San Luis Potosí), Miguel Ángel Solís’s research also deals with the shipment of timber products. See Solís, “Ferrocarriles y recursos naturales: La construcción del ramal San Bartolo/Ríoverde, 1889–1902,” Entretejiendo el mundo rural en el oriente de San Luis Potosí, ed. Antonio Escobar Ohmstede and Ana María Gutiérrez Riva (Mexico City: CIESAS, 2009).

(78.) Bonifacio Díaz Longinos, “Ferrocarril Toluca-Tenango y su ramal a la hacienda El Veladero” (PhD diss., Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, 2004).

(79.) María del Pilar Pacheco and Humberto Morales, “Subvenciones ferroviarias y expansion del Mercado interno: El ferrocarril de San Rafael y Atlixco (1880–1927),” Deslinde 22.2 (1988); Lucía Martínez and Alejandro Tortolero, “Du local au global: Le chemin de fer dans le basin de Mexico à l’epoque du porfiriat (1880–1911),” Cahiers des Amériques Latines 35 (2003); and Armando Rojas, “El Ferrocarril de Tehuantepec, ¿El eje del comercio del mundo? 1893–1913” (PhD diss., Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, 2004).

(80.) Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, “Exhausting the Sierra Madre: Long-Term Trends in the Environmental Impacts of Mining in Mexico,” (accessed 17 April 2015); Studnicki-Gizbert and David Schecter, “The Environmental Dynamics of a Colonial Fuel-Rush: Silver Mining and Deforestation in New Spain, 1522–1810,” Environmental History 15.1 (2010); José Alfredo Uribe, Historia económica y social de la compañía y cooperativa minera ‘Las dos estrellas,’” en El Oro y Tlapujahua, 1898–1959 (Mexico City: UMSNH-CSIC, 2010).

(81.) For a discussion concerning Peru’s deforestation, see Daniel W. Gade, Nature and Culture in the Andes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999), 52–69.

(82.) Juárez, “Malintzin Matlacueyetl.”

(83.) Martha Herminia Villalobos González, El bosque sitiado: Asaltos armados, concesiones forestales y estrategias de resistencia durante la Guerra de Castas, (México City: CONACULTA-INAH, 2006); and Jan de Vos, Oro verde, la conquista de la Selva Lacandona por los madereros tabasqueños, 1822–1949 (México: FCE, 1998).

(84.) César Fernando Escudero and Gloria Camacho, “Industria y bosques en los pueblos del sur del valle de Toluca, 1880–1920,” Historia y políticas de desarollo en el Estado de México, ed. Nelson Arteaga Botello and Diana Birrichaga Gardida (Toluca, Mexico: Biblioteca Mexiquense del Bicentenario, Colección Mayor, 2009); César Fernando Escudero, “Desamortización y explotación de montes en el Distrito de Tenango del Valle, el caso de Calimaya, 1890–1915” (PhD diss., Universidad Autónoma Estado de México, 2010); Margarita Loera Chávez and Armando Arriaga Rivera, En las laderas del volcán: Medio ambiente y paisajes históricos en Calimaya de Díaz González (Mexico City: Escuela Nacional De Antropologia e Historia, 2010).

(85.) Ma. De la Luz Ayala, “La pugna por el uso y la propìedad de los bosques y montes novohispanos,” in Estudios sobre historia y ambiente en América I, ed. García Bernardo y González Alba (México City: El Colegio de México, 1999); and Alejandro Tortolero, Notarios y agricultores. Crecimiento y atraso en el campo mexicano, 1780–1920 (Mexico City: SIGLO XXI, 2008).

(86.) The mining company Real del Monte is located at the old mining district of Pachuca and Real del Monte in the state of Hidalgo, about 85 kilometers north of Mexico city. The great exploitation started during the 18th century, when José Alejandro de Bustamante y Bustillo and Pedro Romero de Terreros set up a company in order to work the mines. During colonial times, the family Romero de Terreros owned most of the mines, mills, and agricultural farmsteads. Later they were bought by British investors, who owned the mines from 1824 till 1849. Mexican investors headed by Manuel Escandón and Nicanos Beistegui founded the Sociedad Aviadora de las Minas del Real del Monte y Pachuca (1849–1906). The archives are located at the Archivo Histórico y Museo de Minería, in Pachuca, Hidalgo.

(87.) Studnicki and Schechter, “The Environmental Dynamics,” Environmental History (2010).

(88.) We can find many entries for Mexican mountains at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

(89.) Numa Broc, Dictionnaire illustré des explorateurs: Tome Amérique (Paris: Comité de Travaus Historiques et Scientifiques, 1988); and Kircheimer, Voyageurs francophones en Amérique Hispanique (1987).