Latin America

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.

In The Blood of Guatemala, Greg Grandin poses a hypothetical: “Would the [Guatemalan] revolution have endured if the United States had not interfered or would internal contradictions have forced its demise?” Rather than pursuing the counterfactual, Grandin goes on to admit the answer cannot be known. But he nonetheless defends the question’s utility for it “shifts the focus to include the role Guatemalans played in the making of their own history.” Thus, while Grandin is interested in understanding how “larger structures of power articulate with local interests and tensions,” he ultimately contends that the best way to do that is by closely examining the local, for “if capitalism and imperialism think globally, they need to act locally if they are to succeed.”[1]

Grandin’s concept of the local, however, is not simply global capitalist imperialism’s Other, nor is it a unified national polity. Instead it lies at the interstices of three assumptions: 1) that Nation is produced through social relations and thus a cultural artifact, not a superstructure; 2) that as a cultural artifact, nation is produced by multiple and competing processes, and thus can be localized; 3) the local is not only a site where nation is negotiated, but it is where hegemonic processes encounter global structures.

In this essay I examine three general and interwoven literatures as well as how they reflect these three ideas underlying the local. Beginning with a discussion of nationalism and Nation, I outline how ideas of imagining have extended the local beyond a mere spatial category. As part of the New Cultural History, the local has become an enunciation; more than just a town, or “the street,” literature and performance have been treated as sites of contestation and resistance. Next I look at the interventions of Subaltern Studies and the ways that “decentering” has produced a shift to the local. Finally, I explore how concepts of the “contact zone” and the encounter have infused the local with a global hue.

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.

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).

Stokes, Charles

Stokes, Charles. "The Economic Impact of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva." Traffic Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4 (April 1966): pp. 203-226.

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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).

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).

Davis, Mike

Davis, Mike. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso, 2007.

Buda’s Wagon is a good read. It’s clearly oriented toward a more popular readership and thus is lacking the detail and evidence one might hope for, but the approach is exciting. Davis follows the history of the car bomb, marking significant developments—from the early “wagon bombing” of Wall street in 1920, to the Stern Gang’s deployment of the car bomb as a go-to weapon of choice against the British, to the introduction of ammonium nitrate-fuel oil bombs in Madison, 1970, to the siege of cities like Beirut, Lima and Belfast—in the car bomb's trajectory as part of the “poor man’s air force.” This book is chronological, spanning the entire twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and global in scale. What ties the narrative together is the constant development of evermore-destructive innovations in the car bomb’s implementation.