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Sugar Cane and Agricultural Transformations in Cuba  

Reinaldo Funes Monzote

For the greater part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cuba, the largest island in the Antilles, figured as the principal exporter of sugar cane, a product that dominated the country’s agro-industry. In this way, Cuba became illustrative of the economic, social, political, and environmental impact of basing an economy on monoculture in order to supply foreign markets. This does not mean, however, that sugar cane was the only major crop being grown in the Cuban fields, as there was no dearth of different plants destined for foreign markets, such as tobacco and coffee, or for local markets, such as yucca, plantains, corn, sweet potatoes, and rice, not to mention a long if little-known livestock tradition. However, the dominance of agro-industry almost always eclipses agricultural and economic alternatives that could become potential competitors, despite the periodic adverse circumstances that affect consumers. But, in the 1990s, the production and exportation of sugar suffered an abrupt fall, creating a vacuum that allowed diversification of land use and that prompted a search for alternative agricultural models.

Article

The “Arid Sertões” and the Climate Issue in the 19th-Century Brazilian Empire  

Gabriel Pereira de Oliveira

Brazil is the fifth-largest country on the planet, and about 90 percent of its territory is located within the tropics. This makes Brazil the largest tropical country and the most biodiverse on Earth. Especially since its process of state building in the 19th century, the image of the Brazilian nation has been intensely associated with the ideal of an exuberant and sumptuous nature, a land of fertility and abundance, like the Amazon rainforest. However, within this gigantic and diverse territory, there were many areas that differed from that nation ideal, like the semi-arid zone located mainly in the countryside of the region that from the middle of the 20th century became known as the Brazilian Northeast. Integrating this semi-arid zone - that is considered the largest tropical dry forest in South America - into the nation project headed by the Imperial Court in Rio de Janeiro was an important challenge in the construction of Brazil in the 19th century. The climate issue was a decisive key to guiding this process. Although the famous drought in 1877 still frequently appears as the starting point for the importance of the political debate on the semi-arid climate in Brazil, the relations between climate and power in this territory were made earlier. Since the beginnings of the Brazilian Empire in the 1820s, for example, policies to deal with these climatic phenomena were decisive to articulate the power between local elites and the empire. These policies were transformed from occasional succors like groceries especially to water reservoirs after the 1840s. Handling the rainless climate would be crucial to uphold the imperial order in that semi-arid territory. The empire sought to have control not only over the people but also over the weather. However, this relationship between the empire and the “arid hinterland” took shape within the political and environmental Brazilian puzzle at that time, rather than a mere imposition from the court.

Article

The Atlantic Forest During Colonial Brazil  

Marcelo Dias

The European conquistadors found a very different version of nature in tropical America. Colonization was possible only with the collaboration of the native peoples, who ensured the survival of the colonizers in this strange environment. In addition to sharing their food culture, the indigenous people showed them not only forest resources that were useful for building, navigation, and defense but also species with commercial value that would provide a payoff for the effort of European expansion, such as brazilwood (Paubrasilia) and other hardwood species (madeiras-de-lei). They also shared their agricultural techniques, which were subsequently used in commercial monocultures. As a result, the Atlantic Forest would become the ecological foundation for colonization; however, the vision of the forest as an open frontier with inexhaustible resources defined modes of exploration devoid of any environmental prudence. The expansion of the sugar mills, and a corresponding increase in the scale of slash-and-burn agriculture, caused so much degradation to the forests that political management of forest spaces by the authorities became necessary. This was intensified by the fact that both slash-and-burn farming and selective logging were viable in the same forest areas, where it was also possible to transport production via waterways. At the turn of the 19th century, the perception that the reckless and irrational exploitation of nature was compromising hardwood use instigated a debate on more rational ways of using the forest but without changing the old shortsighted and destructive practices. Nevertheless, the degradation that the Atlantic Forest experienced in the colonial period was limited to specific geographic zones with the strongest plantation, mining, and logging dynamics, and deforestation did not exceed one tenth of the total forest area.

Article

The Study of Ecology in Latin America and the Caribbean  

Megan Raby

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

Ubre Blanca and the Politics of Milk in Socialist Cuba  

Reinaldo Funes Monzote

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.

Article

Urbanization and Environment in Mexico since 1521  

Matthew Vitz

Urbanization and environmental change have worked in tandem over the course of Mexican history. Hinterland production, the establishment of market economies, and the intensive transformation of nature have fueled urban growth. The concentration of capital and expertise in cities has, in turn, enabled urban elites to rework the urban environment by creating industrial centers, executing technical-heavy infrastructure, building new subdivisions, and regulating hygiene. From the beaches of Cancún and the air and water pollution of Tijuana’s industrial parks to the prolific silver mines of Zacatecas and the henequen monoculture surrounding Mérida, Yucatán, rapid urban growth and profound changes to the environment within and outside cities have depended on and intersected with each other.

Article

Water and Environmental Change in the US–Mexico Borderlands  

Sterling Evans

Aridity, a significant characteristic of the U.S.–Mexico borderlands, has affected water use patterns for different groups of people in this region for thousands of years. From indigenous groups to European invaders and colonizers to 20th- and 21st-century farmers, ranchers, and policy-makers in Mexico and the United States, controlling the area’s scarce water resources has been a vital concern for survival and economic success. Given that an international border divides the region, national-era relations between the United States and Mexico often have been marked by water issues and the development of water projects and policies. And on both sides of the border these projects and policies have caused environmental changes that merit attention. Much of that history revolves around agricultural development with the need to ensure steady sources of water for irrigation. But industry and urban areas have also been enormous consumers of scarce water resources in the region, issues that are discussed here.

Article

Wildlife in Brazil: History, Threats, and Opportunities  

José Luiz de Andrade Franco and José Augusto Drummond

The rich variety of the tropical ecosystems and wildlife native to the current territory of Brazil has captured the attention of several groups of observers since the early 1800s. Wildlife and landscapes in particular generated a continuous stream of appreciation of their uniqueness and concern about their integrity. This perception affected government officials and foreign traveling naturalists of the 19th century, when dozens of French, German, Austrian, English, Belgians and North American naturalists traversed the immense territory of the former Portuguese colony that had been virtually closed to trained scientists. Throughout the 20th century, newly trained Brazilian scientists and again foreign scientists, besides government officials and activist citizens, continued to explore species, ecosystems, and landscapes of what now recognized as the largest tropical country of the world. More recently, the growing amount of information about the global distribution of biodiversity placed Brazil at the top of the ranking, as a truly “megadiverse” country. As a consequence, Brazil has engaged, through environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies, and foreign and locally trained scientists, in a remarkable series of successful projects aimed at the identification and protection of endangered species. The country has only recently built a cadre of wildlife and ecological scientists trained to initiate and manage these types of projects. Despite the fact that these efforts are still far from being a priority in terms of its national environmental policies, Brazil has been quite active and successful in the protection of some of its most endangered animal species and their habitats.

Article

Zoos in Latin America  

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.