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.

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).

Horna, Hernan

Horna, Hernan “South America’s Marginal Highway.” Journal of Developing Areas, Vol. 10 No. 4 (1976): pp. 409-424.

This piece comes across as an apologist ode to Belaúnde, peppered with statistics—the same ones Denevan uses, drawn from Stokes—and resting on a toothpick foundation forged from press accounts—Peruvian Times, Time, The New York Times and Semana en el Perú. There are, however, some redeeming qualities. For instance, Horna, while absolving Belaúnde of any guilt in his administration’s 1968 lackluster performance, focuses not just on the APRA-UNO opposition, but also in the American backlash to Belaúnde’s modest protectionism. Also, Horna gives a cursory account of the ways in which the Velasco administration carried the Marginal mantle into the context of the 1970s Amazonian oil boom. Interestingly, here Horna seems to continue embracing the view that road colonization will assuage the social strife caused by demographic pressure placed on land, while at the same time recognizing that roads were mostly built because of their value on the international stage: securing boundaries and resources, integrating markets (Andean Pact 1971, LAFTA), etc. This unique local-transnational symbiosis seems to result in part from the exorbitant costs of jungle road construction—$200,000 / mile in 1967 (416)—and the dependence that generates on international lenders.

Two other valuable aspects of this piece are the brief mention of Colombian, Ecuadorian and Bolivian participation in the continental dimensions of La Marginal’s construction. Also, this article is littered with anecdotal delicacies: like Belaúnde’s 1963 birthday gift of 25,000 tools (415); The pomp and circumstance where the Bolivian and Peruvian sections of the road were joined (414); Velasco’s effort to connect La Marginal to the Trans-Amazonian (418); and the quixotic hope of continental completion by 1995 (420).

Dean, Warren

Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand the Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Pertaining to the raubwirtschaft—or plunder economy —genre described by McNeill (24), Dean’s With Broadax and Firebrand takes nature as a static baseline rather than a dynamic producer of the historical event. Dean’s theorization of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest as a “palimpsest of super-imposed forms and relationships” (18) in many ways paints the forest as a kind of revolving door for outside exploitation. By anchoring his reader in the Atlantic forest, Dean leverages vignettes of brazilwood extraction, gold mining, coffee cultivation and ranching to tell the story of the forest’s transformation. While he distinguishes his from the other major work of the Latin American raubwirtschaft variety—Galeano’s Las venas abiertas de América Latina—by showing the view from the forest, the events Dean identifies as significant fall squarely within the purview of human actors.

Anderson, Robin L

Anderson, Robin L.. Colonization as Exploitation in the Amazon Rain Forest, 1758-1911. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

In broad strokes, Anderson gives a diagram of colonization projects in Pará state beginning under the Directorate (1758-1798, when colonization was more widespread) and ending in the national period (when it was more concentrated in the Bregantina east of Belem). She explains how colonization went from being a rigid immutable state project under the Directorate, to almost not existing during the empire—thanks to the crisis of the Cabanagem—to finally reemerging as a source of fierce politicking by the end of the empire and into the first decades of the national period.

As a state project, colonization is looked at through the eyes of the policymakers, not the colonists themselves, nor the Indians they used as forced labour. I say “broad strokes” because Anderson takes on a lot here. And by doing so, she opens plenty of avenues for further work to be done.

First she locates internal colonization within a specific mentality (my word, not hers). She opens with a discussion of the similarities and continuities of colonization as a project. She draws parallels between the Spanish encomienda system, the mit’a system and the goals of settling colonists and assimilating Indians set out by the Directorate. Interestingly, in her epilogue she argues internal colonization embodies a series of phenomena—extractivism, racism, ecological degradation—that are not new, and I would argue based on the Peruvian example that it also relies on a set of practices—piggybacking on the work of missionaries, for instance—that have remained constant over time.  

McNeill, J.R.

McNeill,  J.R. “Yellow Jack and Geopolitics: Environment, Epidemics, and the Struggles for Empire in the American Tropics, 1640-1830,” in Rethinking Environmental History: World System History and Global Environmental Change. ed. Alf Hornborg, J. R. McNeill, and Joan Martínez-Alier. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. pp. 199-217.

As part of this volume’s larger project of integrating political ecology and environmental history, McNeil sets out to show how ecological change and epidemiological history were part and part and parcel of global imperial designs and the resistance they encountered. In condensed form, this chapter recapitulates the thesis of Mosquito Empires, arguing “[t]hose little Amazons, the females mosquitos Aedes aegypti, vectors of yellow fever, underpinned the geopolitical order of the American tropics from 1660 to 1780. After 1780 they undermined it. McNeil begins by approaching the issue of sieges and why, after Cromwell’s taking of Jamaica in 1655 they became less and less successful. The answer, he proposes, has to do with the introduction of sugar, and yellow fever along with it. While the Columbian Exchange decimated the Caribbean population (therefore leaving fewer vectors for yellow fever and food for A. aegypti), by 1640 the increasing population and increasing sugar cultivation provided ample room for yellow fever growth. A. aegypti could feed on sucrose and human blood—a necessary source of nourishment for ovulation (i.e. sustaining a population). And sugar plantations offered plenty of places where clean water would collect, making for a suitable home. Thus, as sugar export became an economy of scale, the yellow fever carried by female A. aegypti became capable of spurring epidemics in the Americas, starting in Barbados in 1647, then expanding through the Caribbean and Cenrtal America.

Galeano, Eduardo

Galeano, Eduardo. The Open Veins of Latin America. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997 [1971].

In a telling example of Latin American history as seen through a dependency lens, Eduardo Galeano writes:

"Latin America is a region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European—or later United States—capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centers of power … To each area has been assigned a function, always for the benefit of the foreign metropolis of the moment, and the endless chain of dependency has been endlessly extended."

Severing his narrative in two parts, Galeano uses the past to speak to his present, always stressing the impact of foreign intervention at home. In his first section he traces the pillage of natural resources from silver to sugar, guano to oil as though they represented an uninterrupted continuum from the time of the Conquest until the time of writing (1971). His next periodization begins with another foreign imperialism: that of English hegemony since the end of the eighteenth century. This section, rather than recounting the bleeding of material wealth, deals with the subjugation of the region to asphyxiating financial regimes—first British, then US—that paralyze national markets.

In both cases, the dichotomy of core-periphery remains in tact (the mines of Potosí, Huancavelica and Zacatecas fed the European core, and the loans from AID, EXIMBANK and the IDB were filtered back to the American metropole through contracts granted to US coprorations) but the imperium is no longer a fixed point from which the reader views Latin America. Instead the point of view is from Latin America, watching a revolving door of foreign intervention as it bleeds the region dry.