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Latin America is thought to be the world’s most biodiverse region, but as in the rest of the world, the number of species and the size of their populations is generally in sharp decline. Most experts consider agriculture to be the most important cause of biodiversity decline. At one extreme of policy argument regarding biodiversity conservation are those who argue that the only path to species protection is the establishment of many more and larger “protected areas” in which human activities will be severely restricted. On the remaining land agriculture will be carried out largely with the presently prevailing methods of “industrial agriculture,” including heavy reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, heavy machine use, large-scale irrigation schemes, limited crop diversity, and crops genetically engineered to maximize returns from these tools and techniques. Those who argue for these policies largely accept that industrial agriculture of this sort is severely hostile to biodiversity, but argue that the high productivity of such methods makes it possible to limit agriculture to a relatively small land base, leaving the rest for protected areas and other human activities. On the other side of the argument are those who argue that agricultural techniques are either available or can be created to make agricultural areas more favorable to species survival. They argue that even with a desirable expansion of protected areas, such reserves cannot successfully maintain high biodiversity levels if protected reserves are not complemented by an agriculture more friendly to species survival and migration. The policy arguments on these issues are of major human and biological importance. They are also very complex and depend on theoretical perspectives and data that do not provide definitive guidance. One way to enrich the debate is to develop a specifically historical perspective that illuminates the relationship between human actions and species diversity. In Latin America, humans have been modifying landscapes and species composition of landscapes for thousands of years. Even in areas of presently low human population density and extraordinarily high species diversity, such as remaining tropical rainforests, humans may have been active in shaping species composition for millennia. After 1492, human population levels in Latin America plummeted with the introduction of Old-World diseases. It is often assumed that this led to a blossoming of species diversity, but the historical evidence from 1492 to the present strongly suggests the combination of European technologies and the integration of agriculture into world markets meant more damaging use of soils, widespread deforestation, and subsequent decline in species numbers. The exploitation and consequent despoliation of Latin American resources were integral to colonialism and intensified later by national governments focused on rapid economic growth. High species diversity remained in areas that were too difficult to exploit and/or were used by indigenous populations or smallholders whose production techniques were often favorable to species survival. Many of these techniques provide clues for how agriculture might be reshaped to be more friendly both to biodiversity and social equity.

Article

Ela Miljkovic

As in many areas of the world, in Mexico ambient air pollution is a pervasive component of the lived experience. Most conspicuous in large urban centers, air pollution flows across the diverse Mexican terrain, unifying the country’s political geography while also routinely permeating international boundaries. In Mexico’s capital, air pollution is unyieldingly stagnant and often lingers in the valley for days during winter temperature inversions and periods of low wind activity. Although Mexico City has long suffered from seasonal dust pollution, a consequence of the slow, human-engineered desiccation of the lakes that once surrounded the city, as well as from pollution naturally generated by the relatively more sporadic volcanic eruptions known to afflict the city and its environs, the mid-20th century spawned an altogether different, more human pollution problem. Driven by state-sponsored industrialization, population growth, and a rise in the use of motorized transportation, a phase collectively known as the “Mexican Miracle,” from approximately the 1940s to the 1990s, Mexico City transformed into an industrial powerhouse and the most polluted city in the world, the latter status officially recognized by the United Nations during the Earth Summit in 1992. The state, dedicated to carrying out its comprehensive modernization project, had left Mexico City’s air pollution to fester for decades, framing the legal protection of the environment—atmosphere included—as antithetical to economic growth. This rhetoric pervaded the ways that antipollution laws, passed in the 1970s and 1980s, were enforced. Though they set into motion important classification and monitoring efforts, for the most part air pollution control laws were poorly executed due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and the collapse of the economy, which halted spending on environmental protection programs. Other spheres such as science and environmental activism were also important in the history of Mexico City’s experience with air pollution, as actors within these realms contributed to the creation of air pollution knowledge throughout the second half of the 20th century. In their own ways, scientists and activists discursively rendered air pollution a threat to human life and the ecological future of Mexico City. From the 1940s to the 1990s, then, dirty air connected politics, science, and environmentally minded citizens in important and intriguing ways.

Article

César Moscoso Carrasco (1904–1966), a central figure in Bolivia’s mid-20th-century public health system, wanted to liberate Bolivia from malaria. In a career that spanned three decades, he came close to achieving this goal, but ultimately did not live to see successful eradication. Moscoso was one of the first Bolivian public health specialists in malariology, and was recognized by the World Health Organization for his contributions to the field in 1963. At all stages of his career, he fortuitously aligned himself with the individual or organization that could help him accomplish his professional ambitions and his mission of eradicating malaria in Bolivia. He was the founder and director of the National Anti-Malaria Service in 1929, where he made a name for himself working to halt the spread of malaria in Mizque, in the Cochabamba region. In the 1940s, he secured a position with the Rockefeller Foundation, where he had access to resources beyond the scope of the Bolivian government and an international network of public health specialists. Finally, in the 1950s, he headed the newly formed National Service for Malaria Eradication, which was a Bolivian government initiative supported by international organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau. In the 1950s and 1960s, he came the closest to achieving his goal. Unfortunately, he died the same way he lived: fighting a disease, possibly malaria, which he contracted on a visit to Ceylon as a malaria expert and consultant. Moscoso’s life is a window into many aspects of Bolivia’s 20th-century history. First, his life story illustrates both the potential and limitations of the Bolivian healthcare system. Indeed, Moscoso often had to work with international or binational organizations to accomplish the work that he saw as necessary and important. Second, his career shows how political changes in Bolivia impacted healthcare. Since his career spans the Chaco War of 1932–1935, the politically tumultuous 1940s, and the 1952 National Revolution, it provides a personal account of how these events changed healthcare in Bolivia. His story demonstrates the hardships that Bolivian doctors faced as they worked to improve their healthcare system, including low pay, few resources, and little respect from their foreign colleagues.

Article

Bradley Skopyk and Elinor G. K. Melville

The onset of Spanish imperial rule in Mexico in 1521 had profound consequences well beyond the political and cultural spheres. It also altered Mexico’s environment, reconstituting the region’s ecology as new fauna, flora, and microorganisms were added and as the population dynamics of native Mexican biota fluctuated in response to Old World arrivals. While the consequences of myriad interactions between native and non-native species were vast and complex, it was the decimation of indigenous persons by pathogens that was one of the first biological consequences of colonization (in fact, occurring first in 1520, one year before the fall of the Aztec state) and one of the most important. Mexican human populations were reduced by 80 to 90 percent, effecting cascading ecological consequences across the physical and biological geography of Mexico. Forests regenerated, terraced slopes degraded, and much of the Mexican landscape lost its anthropogenic aspect. Simultaneously, ungulate introductions transformed Mexican flora and likely initiated soil erosion in some regions that, when transported to fluvial environments, disrupted the flow of rivers. On the other hand, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and other ungulates altered plant communities through selective seed dispersion. New economic pursuits such as brick making and silver mining increased demand for heat energy that, in an unprecedented manner, encouraged intensive forest usage and, probably, regional deforestation, although empirical data on historical forest cover are still lacking. Severe climate variability, of a scale not experienced for at least five hundred years and perhaps many millennia, occurred simultaneously with colonial-induced ecological change. A significant conquest-era drought was followed by one of the coolest and wettest periods of the Holocene; a strong pluvial in the Mexican context lasted from 1540 to around 1620. Subsequent anomalies of both temperature (cold) and precipitation (either wet or dry) occurred in the 1640s and 1650s, and from the 1690s until about 1705. Together, these climate anomalies are known as the core Little Ice Age, and initiated agrarian transitions, hazardous flooding, prolonged droughts, epidemics, epizootics, and recurring agrarian crises that destabilized human health and spurred high rates of mortality. Soil degradation and suppressed forest cover are also likely outcomes of this process. Although debate abounds regarding the timing, extent, and causes of soil and water degradation, there is little doubt that extensive degradation occurred and destabilized late-colonial and early-Republic societies.

Article

The semi-arid interior of Brazil’s northeast region, known as the sertão, has long been subject to droughts. These can devastate the agricultural and ranching economy and cause serious hardship for the area’s inhabitants, particularly those who labor on farms and ranches belonging to the landowning elite. A prolonged drought in the late 1870s led the Brazilian government to begin soliciting advice from engineers about how to redress the periodic crisis. In 1909 the federal government established a permanent federal agency, the Inspectorate for Works to Combat Drought, to undertake reservoir construction throughout the sertão along with other measures that would alleviate future droughts. In subsequent decades the activities of the drought agency expanded to include constructing irrigation networks around reservoirs and establishing agricultural experiment stations to teach sertanejo farmers improved methods of farming in semi-arid conditions. Although powerful landowners lobbied for federal aid to construct reservoirs, which helped to sustain their own cattle herds through drought years, they were often opposed to initiatives like the establishment of irrigated smallholder colonies around reservoirs, which threatened to alter the social order in the sertão. Support for the federal drought agency’s work waxed and waned during the 20th century under different presidential administrations. Often it would rise in response to a period of damaging drought, then diminish once the crisis abated. Droughts have affected the sertão at irregular intervals since at least the colonial era. They vary in temporal duration and geographic expanse. Their impact on human populations depends on how the area of reduced rainfall overlaps with human settlement patterns and land use. Over the 20th century the years in which drought most severely impacted human communities (including crops and livestock) in the sertão included 1915, 1919–1920, 1931–1932, 1942, 1951–1953, 1958, 1970, 1979–1983, and 1998–1999. These are the periods when local, state, and federal governments received the most persistent pleas for assistance from affected populations. The precise cause of droughts in the region is debated, but they are thought to be triggered by changes in major wind patterns, particularly the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), that prevent Atlantic Ocean precipitation from reaching the sertão.

Article

Brazil’s environmental history is often told as a tale of irresponsible exploitation and societal indifference. However, a broader perspective must consider the country’s diverging traditions of environmental thought and practice. During the 19th century, several naturalists wrote about the need for the rational use of natural resources, founding a conservationist cultural tradition. In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of naturalists from the National Museum produced various initiatives related to biological research and conservationism. In the 1950s, another group of scientists, agronomists, and journalists founded the National Foundation for the Protection of Nature, active until the 1980s. Although none of these initiatives led to a continuous environmental mobilization, they shaped public policies and cultural sensibilities toward the environment. Beginning in the 1970s, a new wave of environmentalism emerged in several cities—with protests against pollution, nuclear energy, and deforestation—but also in rural areas and forests, with demands from traditional peoples. Over the years, several conservation units and federal institutions were founded to implement environmental policies. Finally, the 1992 Earth Summit gave a special boost to these movements in an era of growing NGO activism. All of these fueled the feeling that environmental activism in Brazil had entered a golden age of dialogue and negotiation. Contrary to this view, some activists claimed that major political advances were still needed. Through the lens of socio-environmentalism and environmental justice, they denounced the displacement of communities by mining companies and the construction of hydroelectric plants, as well as the unhealthy and violent conditions faced by inhabitants of urban peripheries and areas where agribusiness was expanding. Skepticism toward gradual advances was warranted following the election of Jair Bolsonaro, whose administration threatened environmental legislation and institutions and prior achievements. To confront these perils, environmental activism must become a political, scientific, and cultural movement.

Article

Latin America and Latin Americans played a pivotal role in the 20th-century reconstruction of the global food system. This process is often remembered as the “Green Revolution,” a loaded phrase forged in the Cold War furnace of 1968 and referring to the adoption of high-yielding and disease-resistant seeds, petrochemical inputs, and mechanization in the agriculture of what was then referred to as the “Third World.” Here, the purpose is to introduce this process and the contentious politics of historical narrative that are inseparable from material stories about plant breeding. The Green Revolution in Latin America has a deeper and more complex history than the US-centric post–World War II narrative that long set the terms of the field. Beginning in the late 19th century, “creole pre-histories” set the intellectual and material principles for the later growth and internationalization of agricultural development work. An important shift occurred in the 1940s as the Rockefeller Foundation in particular turned to these preexisting sites of agricultural science and linked them via state partnerships in a new era of “coordinated country programs.” As the international Cold War matured, these country programs offered a network upon which to further globalize research agendas, in many cases disassociating agricultural research from the specific regional and political contexts at the sites of the scientific institutions. The resultant network of “placeless” agricultural research is perhaps best understood through the creation of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 1971, which at its 50th anniversary in 2021 maintained three important research centers with Latin American addresses, oriented toward the goals and funding mechanics of agricultural science on a global scale.

Article

Agrarian societies in Latin America and the Caribbean have accomplished some of the most important and influential innovations in agricultural knowledge and practice in world history—both ancient and modern. These enabled indigenous civilizations in Mesoamerica and the Andes to attain some of the highest population densities and levels of cultural accomplishment of the premodern world. During the colonial era, produce from the region’s haciendas, plantations, and smallholdings provided an essential ecological underpinning for the development of the world’s first truly global networks of trade. From the 18th to the early 20th century, the transnational activities of agricultural improvers helped turn the region into one of the world’s primary exporters of agricultural commodities. This was one of the most tangible outcomes of the Enlightenment and early state-building efforts in the hemisphere. During the second half of the 20th century, the region provided a prime testing ground for input-intensive farming practices associated with the Green Revolution, which developed in close relation with import-substituting industrialization and technocratic forms of governance. The ability of farmers and ranchers to intensify production from the land using new cultivars, technologies, and techniques was critical to all of these accomplishments, but often occurred at the cost of irreversible environmental transformation and violent social conflict. Manure was often central to these histories of intensification because of its importance to the cycling of nutrients. The history of the extraction and use of guano as a fertilizer profoundly shaped the globalization of input-intensive agricultural practices around the globe, and exemplifies often-overlooked connectivities reaching across regional boundaries and between terrestrial and aquatic environments.

Article

Christopher R. Boyer

Human interaction with nature has shaped Latin American ecology and society ever since the first people arrived in the Americas more than fifteen millennia ago. Ancient Native Americans made use of the region’s immense biological diversity and likely contributed to a massive extinction of large animals at the end of the last ice age. Over the ensuing centuries, their descendants took cautious steps to shape the landscape to suit their needs. Colonialism ruptured this process of ecological and social co-evolution, as Europeans conquered the Americas, bringing with them new plants, animals, and diseases as well as a profit motive that gave rise to two economies that further reshaped the environment: the sugar plantation complex and silver mining/hacienda complex. These socio-environmental structures foretold the dynamic of resource extraction and reliance on a single major export destined to more developed countries that characterized most Latin American economies and ecologies after independence. Although most nations sought to break away from this neo-colonial syndrome during the 20th century, they typically did so by increased reliance on agro-industry and the extraction of minerals and petroleum, all of which came at a predictably high ecological cost. At the same time, calls for conservation of resources and biodiversity began to be heard. By the turn of the 21st century, scientists, urbanites, and rural people had become increasingly concerned about the costs of economic “development” and alternative ways of coexisting with nature.

Article

Myrna Santiago

Before there was Mexico, there was oil. Millennia of organic matter that collapsed and liquefied into fossil fuel rested deep underground and underwater along the half-moon territorial formation that 19th-century geographers named the Mexican Gulf. Hidden by the lush tropical rainforests, marshes, and mangroves that occupied the landscape from the Pánuco River on the border between modern day Tamaulipas and Veracruz and the Bay of Campeche on the South, the oil seeped to the surface in small ponds, sometimes blackening the waters of streams and lagoons from Tabasco to the Huasteca. The human communities who inhabited that part of the globe thousands of years later knew about and utilized nature’s oozing sticky black tar. The Olmec, who flourished in southern Veracruz from 1200 to 400 bce, collected the viscous liquid. They used it to seal canoes and aqueducts, to paint and decorate clay figurines and knife handles, to pave the floors of their homes, and to glue materials. There is evidence they boiled and cooked the petroleum for better usage, a process that would become known as refining in the 19th century. At the northern end of the rainforest, the region called the Huasteca, the Teenek also gathered the syrupy fluid from its natural springs into the 15th century and used it in ways similar to the Olmec of yesteryear: as sealant for canoes, paint for pottery, perfume, gum for chewing and teeth cleaning, illuminant for torches, and aromatic incense for religious ceremonies. Yet it was the Aztec who gave petroleum the native name that survives to this day, chapopote, the hispanicized version of tzaucpopochtli, meaning fragrant (popochtli) glue (tzauctli). As humans did globally, those who lived with chapopoteras utilized what nature created and transformed it according to their cultural needs and inventions. There is no evidence that anyone living along the coastal range of the Gulf of Mexico in the pre-Columbian era went beyond collecting the oil that percolated from the subsoil naturally. In other words, there is no evidence of extraction of petroleum by indigenous people. Oil extraction, and its environmental consequences, is a 20th-century story, layered over a 15th-century ecological revolution.

Article

Emily Story

For much of its history, Brazil’s population remained bound along the coastline. Geographic features, such as coastal mountain ranges and a relative lack of navigable rivers, stymied efforts to settle and exploit the vast interior. Because of its inaccessibility to authorities based on the coast, the interior became a place of refuge for Indigenous communities and runaway slaves. During the colonial period (1500–1822) and several decades beyond, waterways and Indigenous footpaths (sometimes widened to allow for ox carts and mule trains) were the main routes for travel into the hinterland. Slavers and mineral prospectors known as bandeirantes founded scattered settlements in Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso. As the Industrial Revolution created new demands and technological possibilities in the late 19th century, efforts to connect the interior to the coast came via the telegraph and railroad. The rubber boom of that era precipitated greater settlement of the Amazon region and relied on riverine transport. Road building has intensified since the mid-20th century. The new capital, Brasília, centerpiece of President Juscelino Kubitschek’s (1956–1961) campaign to achieve “Fifty Years of Progress,” initiated a new network of highways, later expanded by the military regime (1964–1985). Those efforts aimed to promote economic development, redirect internal migration, and extend the territorial control of the central government. Migrants and entrepreneurs, traveling on official highways and illegal roads constructed along the way, set fire to grasslands and forests to convert them into pasture. Roads, both legal and illegal, thus opened the way for transformations of the ecosystems of the Brazilian interior. At the same time, they created conditions for intensified conflict between newcomers and those who had long called the interior home.

Article

Fieldwork in Latin America and the Caribbean has played a major role in the development of the modern science of ecology––the study of organisms’ relationships with one another and the physical environment. Since the colonial era, natural historical knowledge had grown and circulated through expeditions and naturalists’ encounters with indigenous and enslaved people’s environmental knowledge. Observations of the life histories, behavior, and geographical distribution of the regions’ species laid the groundwork for the emergence of ecology as a self-conscious discipline during the late 19th century. Major figures in the foundation of ecology were inspired by travel throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and especially by the large number and variety of species found in rainforests and other tropical areas. The growth of colonial and independent national scientific institutions––including botanical gardens, museums, and geographical surveys––also created important foundations for ecological research, although these were primarily oriented toward agricultural and economic improvement. As field stations specifically devoted to ecological research emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, long-term, place-based studies of living organisms became possible for the first time. Research at such institutions helped to shape key ecological concepts––including the ecological community, ecosystems, and species diversity––and contributed directly to the rise of the biodiversity ideal in conservation. Despite their historic importance, field studies in Latin America and the Caribbean remain significantly underrepresented in ecology in the early 21st century.

Article

In the summer of 1981 the cow named Ubre Blanca (White Udder), born on Isla de la Juventud (formerly Isla de Pinos) in the southern Cuban archipelago, became headline news for her high milk production. After achieving a national record, in the following months she was the focus of the country’s attention for her fast-track to becoming a world record holder, first in four milkings and later, in January 1982, as highest producer in three milkings, collection of milk in one lactation period, and fat content. For the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, and scientists from the cattle industry, it was important to emphasize that it was not only a matter of this incredible cow’s personal achievement but also the fruit of many years of effort to reach a radical transformation of the country’s cattle industry, from an emphasis on beef production toward the priority for milk production and diversification of animal protein sources. These politics required major changes in bovine herds from a genetic perspective, starting with major cross-breeding of Holstein cattle, of Canadian origin, with the Cebú, formerly dominant in Cuba, along with the creation of new infrastructure and other changes toward an intensive model of cattle ranching. Therefore, the history of Ubre Blanca is tied to that of the politics aimed at increased production and consumption of dairy products, presented as an achievement of the socialist Cuban model and with aspirations to bring dairy development to tropical areas and Third World countries. Although the ambitious goals announced in the 1960s were never reached, there was an increase in milk production and a general modernization of cattle ranching that, nevertheless, began a prolonged decline starting with the deep economic crisis of the 1990s.