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From the earliest days of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule up until the late 19th century, banana cultivation in the Americas was carried out mostly by smallholders. That changed around 1880, when schooner captains based in Boston and New Orleans began to buy bananas in the Caribbean and sell them in the United States. In the geographically small countries of Central America, a couple of US-based banana companies have wielded enormous influence. The United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita) acquired so much power in Guatemala and Honduras that it came to function as a state within a state, giving rise to the notion of “banana republics.” The company consolidated its power through various means: it installed authoritarian civilian and military governments that gave concessions to land, railroads, and ports; it divided its labor force along ethnic and racial lines; it built hospitals, schools, workers’ barracks, and houses for its management; and it used massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides in a capital intensive effort to cultivate varieties of the fruit that North American consumers came to expect but which were susceptible to Panama disease and Black Sigatoka. Bananas and plantains are a dietary staple throughout the tropics, and the diseases that beset the Gros Michel and Cavendish varieties that are grown on monocrop plantations threaten a vital source of healthy and relatively cheap calories that much of the world has come to rely upon. In recent years, consumers and civil society groups have organized to demand more socially and environmentally responsible bananas, creating organic and “fair trade” alternatives to conventional “free trade” bananas.

Article

Anthony Goebel and Andrea Montero

One way of approaching the environmental history of Central America is through the analysis of the evolution of the main agricultural commodities. Until the present day, the economy of the isthmus still depends on agri-exports, while agriculture (whether extensive or intensive) continues to transform landscapes, fragment territories, and alter ecosystems. Agriculture has been an important agent of change in the Central American space from the time of pre-Columbian societies to the present. However, the way human societies have appropriated natural resources and services allows explanation of the socio-historic transitions that the different agri-ecosystems in the region have gone through, ranging from organic production systems to semi-industrial or industrialized production systems. This transition responds to a series of institutional factors linked to the international dynamic of tropical commodities and agricultural decisions taken in the region. Commercial agriculture has had an environmental impact in the area through distinct productive activities such as the production of coffee, banana, sugar cane, and cotton, and extractive activities such as forestry and cattle ranching.

Article

Eric Rutkow

The Pan American Highway, a successor project to the unfinished Pan American Railway, originated as an interwar initiative among member nations in the Pan American Union and is generally considered to comprise the longest road in the world. The highway network’s longitudinal through-route—complete save for the sixty-mile “Darien Gap” between Panama and Colombia—crosses eleven countries and, with the inclusion of its unofficial northernmost leg, covers more than 12,500 miles in total, from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay to South America’s Tierra del Fuego. Additional spur roads in the pan-American network radiate to the capitals of other South American nations, adding an additional four thousand miles to the system. While the nearly finished Pan American Highway never achieved the hoped-for goal of linking the Americas (and still faces constant maintenance challenges), it stands as a concrete symbol of pan-Americanism and a “trunk line” for the Western Hemisphere, an overland corridor for trade, tourism, cultural exchange, and migration throughout the region.

Article

Pulque, the alcoholic beverage of pre-Columbian highland Mesoamerica is the fermented derivative of aguamiel, the juice or sap of the agave known as agave pulquero—principally Agave salmiana. Aguamiel is a sweet, somewhat heavy juice that collects in a scraped out basin in the heart of the agave pulquero and, unless refrigerated, rapidly ferments into the alcoholic pulque. The agents of fermentation are ambient and plant-colonizing bacteria and yeasts. Fresh pulque is a frothy, cloudy brew with a slightly sour taste, usually containing around 2 percent alcohol or somewhat higher, meaning it can be drunk in large quantities without intoxicating the imbiber. Although it is a nutritious drink, consumption was condemned by Spaniards in varying degrees during the Colonial Period. Its popularity in contemporary southern Mexico is increasing after more than a century of persecution and public disparagement. Pulque figures prominently in pre- and post-Columbian Mesoamerican history. Production of tequila and mezcal is completely different from production of pulque. The former are distilled from the pressed juice (tepache) of macerated and roasted hearts of certain agaves. The juice is fermented in vats for several days, then heated in a still, evaporated, and condensed. Tequila, by law is made from A. tequilana, and mezcal by custom is made primarily from A. angustifolia. Both these distillates contain about 40 percent alcohol. Pulque is a naturally occurring product consumed by native peoples for at least two millennia. Tequila and mezcal are industrial products derived from processes introduced into the Americas by Europeans.

Article

Regina Horta Duarte

Modern zoos emerged as mass entertainment, spaces of public leisure and of culture. In the past, they served as monuments and expressions of the degree of “civilization” and progress of a city and its respective country. In Latin America, zoos date from the last quarter of the 19th century. The history of Latin American zoos is a political, cultural, and social history. The conditions of their creation and operation over the decades have conferred important specificities to these institutions. Since their inception, zoos in Latin America have reflected nationalistic aspirations, civilizational projects, and social transformation. Over the decades, the history of many zoos has blended with natural history in Latin America, as many zoo founders were important scientists. The development of new sensitivities toward animals also follows the history of zoos in Latin America from the beginning, because the first animal protection societies appeared at the same time. Today, zoos face vigorous claims from animal rights activists calling for their closure. In view of so many challenges, these institutions are reinventing themselves with an increased focus on conservation and environmental education, joining international zoological societies with high standards of quality. Among several of these societies, the Latin American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (ALPZA) stands out. Founded in 1990, ALPZA organizes, reshapes, and integrates Latin American zoos, establishing global connections. Various actors play a role in the defense and contestation of zoos, such as politicians, scientists, conservationists, animal protection societies, anti-zoo activists, visitors, administrators, officials, and, of course, thousands of wild animals from all over the world who have lived in Latin American cities for decades.