Commodities

“The government convenes the greatest highway bidding in the country’s history.”[1] That announcement in Lima newspapers in March 1964 presented the Tarapoto-Río Nieva road to the public in a fashion typical of development boosterism—brash, bold, and only partially true. Tarapoto, nestled as it was in the remotest corner of the Huancabamba Depression, was only reachable by air on its western approach, and the new highway promised at last to connect coastal markets with the vast arable lands of the Huallaga Valley. The Huallaga, a diverse and dynamic area of the Western Amazon, was the site of rich, transnational imaginings for a host of actors ranging from national planners and global construction giants, to early climate scientists, campesinos and cocaine cartels. The highway was the lynchpin in President Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s pet project, the Carretera Marginal de la Selva,[2] which enlisted Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in a quixotic enterprise aimed at colonizing the eastern Andean flank through one vast road network. Billed as a response to worries of demographic explosion and concentrated land ownership, politicians and international boosters resorted to racial and gender imaginaries to tout La Marginal as a crucial motor of economic growth and regional interdependence that hinged specifically on exploitation of the subtropical dry forests that dotted valleys like the Huallaga. La Marginal represented the reigning development doctrine’s imposition on the Huallaga landscape and a critical component of its construction was a scientific appropriation of the region’s socio-ecological realities. One phenomenon that fed this boom in Huallaga development was the early introduction and utilization of aviation as a means of transport and study.    

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.

Author: 
McCook, Stuart

McCook, Stuart George. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. 1º ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

The physical space created in this narrative ranges across the Caribbean, looking at agricultural pursuits in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela. But more specifically, this is not a story of imperial exploitation that renders local actors passive (as is the case in Tucker). Instead, McCook draws on the innovations of Close Encounters of Empire and conceptualizes scientific institutions like Harvard’s Atkins Gardens at Cienfuegos, Cuba, the Escuela Superior de Agricultura de Medellín, Costa Rica’s National Museum, etc. as contact zones producing “creole science” something unique to the plant sciences of these countries because ecological variation rendered the imposition of U.S. scientific hegemony useless.

The periodization spans the broad period of late-nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century liberal reforms, and tells a story of the technocratic transformation of nature in the service of liberal states, beginning with export-oriented monocropping and the plant sciences’ treatment of the problems it posed and intensification efforts—especially in the sugar and coffee sector—and ending with the reorganization of the plant sciences during the Depression. The narrative’s general arch not only marks the reorganization of nature and the domestication of forests, but the production of “nationalist floras,” as botanists made local floras known to science, they also contributed to national positivist projects by giving plants a “civil status” and making them legible to the state.

Author: 
Tucker, Richard

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

Rooted firmly in the raubwirtschaft genre, Insatiable Appetite looks at the impact of America’s “ecological empire” in the first half of the twentieth century. It frames things in dichotomous terms (i.e. American capitalists and their local lackeys decimating tropical nature) and bestows agency upon the capitalists.

The value of this work is almost strictly empirical, although I would say that even in that sense, it suffers from the same weaknesses that Mosquito Empires does; namely that the net is cast so far that the empirical detail is more broad than deep. So this book gives accounts of the domestication of forest to make way for cane production in Cuba, Hawaii and later the Philippines. But it does not look at the role played by local actors in that process like McCook does. It gives details about the impact of the green revolution, explaining how shifts in cultivated species (Gros Michel to Cavendish), increased reliance on chemical fertilizer and pesticides (1950s) and migration (Honduras / Costa Rica to Ecuador / Colombia / Venezuala) resulted from the banana industry’s struggle against Panama Disease. But it does not give the kind of compelling vignettes of contaminated field workers that Miller does, or the very local-ness of United Fruit Co. enclaves in Colombia that Catherine LeGrand describes. It does, however give interesting detail on Firestone’s Liberia plantations, something that is grossly lacking in the other treatments of rubber history that I have looked at and written about here. (The extended first edition also has a sub-chapter on Fordlandia).

Grandin, Greg. The Blood of Guatemala: a History of Race and Nation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

I want to focus on one page in particular from Greg Grandin’s The Blood of Guatemala. In his discussion of how education curricula and scheduling served to widen the class divide between rural K’iche subsistence farmers and urban principales, Grandin argues that the school year was planned around the needs of the coffee-based export economy. He shows how this fed the class divide by structuring time around the demands of the agro-production cycle. (172)

This scenario, however, makes me think about an ongoing quandary that I’ve yet to put to rest. As part of the effort to complicate nature-culture binaries, environmental historians have highlighted the agency of non-human actors, and broken down such monoliths as wilderness and nature to show how they are socially constituted. Likewise, non-human actors have been shown to complicate matters of scale, forcing us to problematize political boundaries like the city, state or nation by asking how dynamic environments influence or condition socio-political life. Yet the closest we have come to an equivalent watershed regarding temporal scale involves embedding human events within longue durée treatments of geological and climatological transformations. In these cases, however, there still exists a stark separation between what we may call “natural” (i.e. geological and climatological) and “cultural” time; temporally speaking, though juxtaposed, history is still anthropocentrically isolated from the natural history that surrounds it.

This may be because the environmental longue durée (remember, it didn’t mean geology and climate for Braudel, 1960) requires such a wide-angle view that the historical event is smoothed over; seen from a distance its “lumpiness” (Sewell 1996, 843) disintegrates.

However, disturbance theories and patchwork models have shown that non-human time doesn’t need to be equated with a leap to the geological longue durée (Zimmerer 1994). So I wonder if, rather than reverting to geological time when looking for a non-human temporality, we can instead talk about “plant time,” the meristematic temporality that bestows some order on plant events—photosynthetic moments, budding germination, reproduction.

Sawyer, Suzana. Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Discussions I’ve had about this book tend to orbit around how bad it is. I don't think it is that bad, but I do see some shortcomings. So rather than simply summarize it, as I would usually do in a post like this, I want to examine a few of its strengths and weaknesses.

I think that as a study of environmental justice its merit lies in the idea that Sawyer develops of the mosaic of alternative nationalisms that are at play in the OPIP struggle against Texaco and an Ecuadorian state that increasingly abandoned its representative role and took on the role of fiscal manager. I think that her analysis of Oswaldo Guayasamin’s mosaic in the presidential palace becomes her metaphor for the idea of plurinational space that was espoused by the indigenous movement in Ecuador (and I would say uncritically embraced by Sawyer). Yet unsurprisingly, Sawyer’s personal commitment to the indigenous struggle poses a problem for her critical engagement with important concepts at play. I think is is very difficult—and commendable—to tread that thin line between political commitment and scholarly distance, but it will almost inevitably raise critical concerns.

For instance, Sawyer fails to problematize race. Sundberg has struggled to point out how Latin American environmental justice literature has failed to look critically at race and I think Crude Chronicles is a case in point. While Sawyer does take race as something that is constituted and masked through official spatial discourses, what she centers on is the negation of identity (50-51).

Author: 
Santiago, Myrna

Santiago, Myrna I. The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938. Cambridge [U.K.]: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Santiago blends social and environmental history to explain transformations in the Mexican oil industry leading up the Cárdenas' nationalization in 1938. The guiding concept she uses to bring these two fields together is the notion of an "ecology of oil," which addresses interwoven patterns of land tenure and use with social structures.
The major transformations she describes, then, fall along these three axes: tenure moving gradually from communal to private; use moving agricultural (subsistence and ranching) to drilling and refining; and the social landscape shifting from Huasteca to mestizo, as the industry attracted labour and the instability of the revolution—then post-revolutionary clientelism—pushed labour to the Vera Cruz.

Regarding tenure, the transformation she describes follows a common progression in which commonly held Huasteca land eventually became the property of foreign firms like Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell. However, unlike the situation Melville describes in the Valle del Mezquital, this progression is stunted and interrupted by the nature of the Huasteca landscape and the social transformations of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period. Although consolidation of ownership did occur in the lead up to the revolution, land was not fully privatized by an invasion of ranching-focused hacendados, partly because the dense jungle and tar pits spotting the land were not conducive to large-scale ranching. Moreover, as foreign firms moved in to search for and exploit reserves, the instability of the revolutionary period made it more reasonable to rent from hacendados instead of purchasing land outright.

Author: 
Dore, Elizabeth.

Dore, Elizabeth. “Environment and Society: Long-Term Trends in Latin American Mining,” Environment and History 6 (2000): pp. 1-29.

From the outset this article takes on the tensions of capitalist production: namely the tendency to promote technical innovation, and alleviate worker exploitation, while at the same time driving to maximize absolute surplus production through continuous expansion, which has tended to deteriorate social conditions. Dore exploits this contradiction to theorize a relationship between labour and environmental conditions in which she suggests that as capitalist production expands, negative externalities are displaced from the work force onto the environment.

Pre-Conquest she echoes Cleary and relies on Denevan to debunk the pristine myth and argue that the Maya collapse, as well as destabilization across pre-Columbian Latin America may very well have had ecological dimensions. Also following Cleary, she defends the idea that the demographic collapse ushered in as part of the Conquest actually reigned in environmental decline, although she intimates that this may have helped the Amazon forests survive, rather than—as Cleary argues—allowing for the growth of secondary forest.

Her description of the colonial mining enterprise stresses the impact on the labour force. She hits all the big marks—Toledan reforms, Murcury amalgamation, patio process, mit’a, etc—and frames them as evidence of few technological advances and increasingly brutal exploitation of workers.

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