Ecology and the Poor


Martinez-Alier, Joan. “Ecology and the Poor: A Neglected Dimension of Latin American History.” Journal of Latin American Studies 23, no. 3 (October 1, 1991): 621–639.

After having read the The Environmentalism of the Poor the theoretical contribution of this essay seems repetitive. The argument in favor of ecological economics and the need for an historiography of political ecological economy in Latin America are covered in substantial detail in that book, so I would argue that the benefit of this article comes from the brief empirical accounts it deals with and the identification of historiographical holes that could be filled with an ecological economic approach.

In the opening sections Martínez-Alier defines the ecology of the poor, admitting that poverty does contribute to environmental degradation (interestingly he cites the consumption of crop seeds, negating the possibility of future production, as an extreme example; what about short-fallow-period swidden ag?), but not to anywhere near the same extent as affluence. Framing things in market terms, he argues that social movements that defend the survival of tribal, peasant or urban poor economies often assert a conservation agenda, though it may not have been explicitly stated. (Folchi, of course takes issue with this being unique to the poor.) Thus, by challenging export-oriented resource depletion, he argues, social movements of the poor contribute to the internalization of externalities. (622)

Two important and interwoven cases in which a socio-political consciousness did not result from ecological exploitation are those of guano extraction (1840-1880) and fishmeal production around 1970.

Considering my own interest in the Belaúnde-era program of Cooperación Popular, Martínez-Alier’s discussion of how Galindo and Burga’s idea of the Andean utopia figures into contemporary (in the case of this article, 1980s) Peruvian agronomy is worth note. He starts this digression by summarizing what is known of pre-Hispanic agricultural practices: Murra’s vertical archipelago, coastal civilizations rooted in alluvial plains, terracing and irrigation projects in the sierra, yet no mention of long-fallow-period swidden in the jungle (see Shoemaker), which he saves for a later point. All of these practices, he points out, existed in the absence of a monetized market system. Indeed, geography is used to explain the region’s natural resistance to capital investment when Martínez-Alier claims that, aside from the irrigated valleys of the Pacific littoral and the inter-Andean valleys of Cajamarca and the Mantaro, increase in agricultural productivity is tremendously difficult. The only exception to this is the raising of sheep in the punas. (631) Mallon, in her description of how the capitalist mode of production was articulated with the aforementioned practices, gives a few other examples, but they are based on the example of the Mantaro Valley. In any case, Martínez-Alier argues that contemporary agronomists drew from these non-monetized, pre-Hispanic examples to try and confront the crippling lack of food security in 1980s Peru (.19 hectares of cropland per person). The result being a kind of “agriculture based on traditional technology and communal peasant institutions, without state interference”, a form of pro-peasant socialism, or narodism, as Martínez-Alier likes to call it. (633) According to the pro-peasant form of agronomy, the benefits of the Green Revolution can only be considered such in a short interval; if seen along a longer time horizon, and when coupled with an energy analysis of agricultural production, the Green Revolution technologies and inputs—with their heavy reliance on fossil fuels—actually pose an obstacle to secure and sustainable food production. This argument, which I would tend to agree with, then brings Martínez-Alier to an explanation of how important the longue durée is in historical analyses and how it could be usefully integrated with Friedrich’s idea of Raubwirtschaft. While I think that it is worth noting how the Raubwirtschaft sub-genre of environmental history was already taking off when Martínez-Alier put out this call, it is the emphasis placed on the longue durée that I think is particularly useful, though it doesn’t seem to be the same longue durée conceptualized by Braudel. While Braudel seemed to envision a kind of history rooted in geological and climatic time, what Martínez-Alier is proposing emphasizes energy flows, and can therefore be much shorter in span, given the speed with which a Raubwirtschaft economy can deplete resources and diminish flows. But other than a reconfiguring of the longue durée, what does this combination offer? For one, is poses a counterpoint to Hardin’s flaccid tragedy of the commons model by properly valuing long-tem costs:

“The idea of Raubwirtschaft could therefore have been linked by geographers to a notion of 'tragedy of the enclosures' rather than 'tragedy of the commons' because, although private owners carry the full short-term costs of land degradation (compared to users of communal lands), as far as long-term costs are concerned (and this is a relevant consideration for deforestation and land erosion), their time horizons might well be shorter, and their implicit discount rates higher, than those of communal managers. Such 'enclosures' (as we see today in Amazonia) are not only a social tragedy in the form of loss of access to common lands and proletarianisation, they also become an ecological tragedy.” (638)