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Agriculture and Biodiversity in Latin America in Historical Perspective  

Angus Wright

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.


Chile: A Center of Global Astronomy, 1850–2019  

Bárbara K. Silva

By 2020, it is expected that approximately 70 % of the world’s surface astronomical observation will be located in Chile, considering both optical and infrared telescopes, belonging to international institutions. How did this happen? Can we explain the overwhelming importance of astronomy in this southern country only because of its geography? This process began when scientists from Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union went to Chile in the 1960s, and each one of them decided to build a massive observatory in the country. The atmospheric conditions certainly had a role in these decisions, but they were also related to Cold War politics and, indirectly, to the previous history of astronomy in Chile. The international dimension of astronomy in Chile had been preset since the mid-19th century, when the first modern astronomy initiative took place. An American expedition built the first observatory, which later became the National Astronomical Observatory. By the early 20th century, another American expedition had arrived in Chile, and this one stayed for more than twenty years. Decades later, the global dimension of astronomy took the decisive step in the southern country and set the milestone for the development in the hands of Europeans, Americans and Soviets. In the process, Chileans became involved with astronomy, trying to promote science, the country’s international relations, and to grasp the attractions of modernity.


COVID-19 and Digital Archives in Latin America  

Ian Kisil Marino and Thiago Lima Nicodemo

Historians devoted to telling the story of the COVID-19 pandemic should question the archival conditions involved. In this article, we approach the archival landscape in Latin America in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, which particularly unfolded in the digital environment. First, we suggest a review of archival digitization in Latin America, providing context for the conditions observed during the pandemic. Second, we discuss the emergence of digital memory initiatives that focused on COVID-19, showing typological relations that may arise from transnational analyses. Accordingly, we dive into some Brazilian archival initiatives with major ethnographic rigor since, in addition to closely representing the reality of the region, they provide us with a more accurate immersion into the agents, platforms, and challenges of this pandemic digital undertaking. Lastly, we point out the complex situation of public archives amidst the mass of documents resulting from the pandemic. This way, we pose questions about the increasingly important interface between history, archives, and a policy for transparency of data.


The Development of Nuclear Energy Projects in Mexico, 1938–1967  

Peter Soland

The early study of radioactivity (an important precursor to nuclear science) in Mexico was intertwined with a brilliant and determined woman’s arrival in the country. Marietta Blau Goldwin—Jewish by birth, a physicist by training, and a refugee by circumstance—helped pioneer nuclear emulsions by creating a portable technique that revolutionized the field. Blau, recommendation from Albert Einstein in hand, fled the Nazi’s invasion of Austria and arrived in Mexico City in 1938. There she initiated studies in atomic physics while teaching at the National Polytechnic Institute. This dramatic start to the country’s initial foray into the study of the atom illuminated how global political processes were inextricable from the development of nuclear science. Although her departure to the United States in 1944 impeded the momentum building behind atomic research, a core group of scientists at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) worked with government officials to promote nuclear technology during and after World War II. With the help of the Atoms for Peace program, this coalition of boosters succeeded in bringing a particle accelerator to the country in 1952. Argentina and Brazil developed nuclear programs that rivaled, if not surpassed, the scope and complexity of Mexico’s during the post–World War II era. These three nations vied for recognition as regional authorities between 1964 and 1967, as countries throughout Latin America sent delegates to Mexico City to grapple with the so-called nuclear question. Talks culminated in the 1967 Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America, commonly known as the Tlatelolco Treaty. The language of the agreement focused on curtailing the proliferation of nuclear weapons but also carried implications for nuclear power’s adoption as an energy source. The Tlatelolco negotiations led to the formation of two blocs: one, led by Mexico, championed a cautious approach to nuclear development, and the other, led by Argentina and Brazil, resisted limitations on such programs. Examining the varying trajectories of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil’s respective nuclear programs illustrates how Cold War issues took on distinctly regional characteristics as government officials reinterpreted them in ways that accounted for unique national agendas.


Digital Resources: Medical History of Latin America in the 20th Century  

Nicole L. Pacino

Scholarship on Latin America’s medical history has traditionally relied on collections located in specific countries that are housed in national and regional archives, universities, medical schools, and government institutions. Digitized source repositories and reference websites will make these materials more accessible for researchers and students, and it is likely that digitized content will become increasingly available in the coming years. In the 21st century, various institutions in Latin America and the United States have made a concerted effort to digitize materials related to the study of health and medicine in Latin America. This effort is the product of advancements in technology that make digital preservation of material possible, as well as a growing awareness that not all archival collections, especially in Latin America, are stored in optimal conditions. The push for digitization, therefore, is centered on two primary goals: first, to make resources more available to researchers and remove obstacles to the use of archival collections, including accessibility and physical distance or travel restrictions, and second, to preserve materials in danger of decay or neglect from storage in subpar conditions. The digitization of a broad array of materials, including historical documents, newspapers, popular culture, photographs, music, and audio recordings, fosters greater use of these collections by researchers, teachers, and students inside and outside of Latin America and enhanced interaction with the institutions that maintain the digital and original collections. While not exhaustive, these sites demonstrate the extensive range of digitized sources available for the study of Latin America’s medical history. Materials span from the pre-Columbian through modern periods; the priority is collections with significant 20th-century content, but those focused on the colonial period and the 19th century are noted. The collections tap into several historiographical themes and discussions prominent in Latin American medical history, including questions about individual agency and the role of the state in administering health and medical initiatives; race, gender, and discriminatory health practices; social issues, such as prostitution and alcoholism, as public health concerns; debates about who can produce medical knowledge; the creation of medical professionalism and medical authority; and Pan-Americanism and the role of United States influence on Latin American health programs. The pace of digitization has been uneven across Latin America. A country’s wealth and access to resources determines the extent to which materials can be digitized, as do political considerations and legislation regarding transparency. Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina are well represented in the entries, and the collections are either supported by national institutions, such as universities, libraries, or government archives, or sponsored by grants that facilitate the digitization of materials. For example, the collection from Peru relies on a UK-based charitable foundation for its existence. Digital collections based in the United States are located in archival institutions and research centers and focus on the activities of Inter-American, Pan-American, and philanthropic organizations, although not exclusively. Digitized collections greatly improve accessibility to sources related to Latin American medical history, but also depend on the user’s ability to navigate different interfaces and knowledge in how to limit and target searches. Many of the sites allow for keyword searches and the opportunity to browse collections; therefore, a user’s familiarity with the topic, scope, and keywords of a collection will determine the usefulness of search results. Where downloadable material is available, it is provided free of charge, and most of these repositories state a commitment to open access and to growing their digital collections.


Guano, Intensive Agriculture, and Environmental Change in Latin America and the Caribbean  

Gregory T. Cushman

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.


Photography in Uruguay (1840–1985)  

Magdalena Broquetas

Photography arrived in Uruguay in February 1840, a few months after the invention of the daguerreotype was publicly announced in Paris. Throughout the 19th century it was used for multiple purposes, in various historical contexts, and in different activities. In its initial stage, until the 1920s, photography was used for commercial portraits and was used by the state to create a national identity, reinforce patriotic sentiment, and monitor and control the population. In the 20th century, the artistic movements that brought together amateurs in photography clubs became better known. At the same time, the expansion of at-home photography brought with it an increase in the number of camera users and significant changes in compositional styles, as well as in social perceptions of photography as a means for memory and identity construction. Concurrently, photography found its way onto the pages of the leading newspapers, supplements, and illustrated magazines that from 1930 until the late 1970s were the main source of information and entertainment for most Uruguayans. Throughout this period, photojournalism influenced the formation of public opinion and the preservation of the political and social order.