Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Latin American History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 24 February 2024

The Environmental Crisis in Latin Americafree

The Environmental Crisis in Latin Americafree

  • Guillermo Castro H.Guillermo Castro H.Guillermo Castro H. Panamá, 1950. PhD in Latin American Studies, Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM), 1995. Vice President of Research and Learning at the City of Knowledge Foundation, Panama.


An environmental crisis is neither the result of a single factor nor of a combination of such. On the contrary, it results from a complex combination of modes of interaction between natural and social systems, operating for periods in time and space. This holds true for the environmental crisis in Latin America, understood within the context of the first global environmental crisis in the history of our species. The combination of facts and processes with respect to the crisis in Latin America is associated with three distinct and interdependent historical periods: (1) The first period, one of long duration, marks the interaction with the natural world of the first humans to occupy the Americas and encompasses a timespan of at least 15,000 years before the European conquest of 1500–1550. (2) The second period, one of medium duration, corresponds to European control of the region between the 16th and 19th centuries, a timespan that witnessed the creation of tributary societies grounded in noncapitalist forms of organization, such as the indigenous commune, feudal primogeniture, and the great ecclesiastical properties, which were characteristics of peripheral economies that existed within the wider framework of the emerging modern global economic system. (3) The third period, one of shorter duration, extended from 1870 to 1970 during which capitalist forms of relationships between social systems and natural systems in the region developed. This period was succeeded, beginning about 1980, by decades of transition and crisis, a process that is still ongoing.

In this transition, old and unresolved conflicts reemerge in a new context, which combines indigenous and peasant resistance to incorporation into a market economy with the fight of urban dwellers for access to the basic environmental conditions for life, such as safe drinking water, waste disposal, energy, and clean air. In this scenario, a culture of nature is taking shape, which combines general democratic demands with values and visions from indigenous and African American cultures and those of a middle-class intellectuality increasingly linked to global environmentalism. This culture faces state policies often associated with the interests of transnational corporations and complex negotiation processes for agreements on global environmental problems. In this process, the actions of the past have led to the emergence of a great diversity of development options, all of which are centered in one basic fact: that, in Latin America as elsewhere around the word, if we want a different environment we need to create different societies.


  • History of Latin America and the Oceanic World
  • Environmental History


At first glance, the environmental crisis facing Latin America today is reminiscent of the one experienced in northwestern Europe in the early 19th century as a result of the first Industrial Revolution: a combination of economic growth with social decline and environmental degradation that was characterized by the overexploitation of natural resources, disorderly urban expansion, and massive pollution of air, water, and soil. Nevertheless, differences in scale, time, culture, and function in the development of the modern world system go beyond this comparison.

Indeed, at that time Great Britain, France, and Germany had a combined population of around 60 million inhabiting an area of just over one and a quarter million square kilometers. Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution that was concentrated there also helped to accelerate the process of organizing the first global market in the history of mankind, structured around a center-periphery relationship, one that consisted of the nations of the North Atlantic at the center and Latin America, Africa, and Asia at the periphery.

Latin America and the Caribbean then counted about 15 million inhabitants, of whom more than 90 percent lived in rural areas spread over a territory of more than 21 million square kilometers. The route that would eventually become a major supplier of minerals, food, and raw materials for the North Atlantic economies, then in the process of becoming the world’s industrial workshop, was just opening up. Without a doubt, the ecological footprint associated with the European process, which would eventually generate the global environmental crisis that the world now faces, was felt in Latin America as early as the 16th century. It intensified in the mid-19th century, as the region became a supplier of food, minerals, and other raw materials then in demand by the nations that composed the industrial workshop. They continue to play that role today and these products are in demand by those economies that have followed the model set by the North Atlantic countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

Nevertheless, the present situation is, in fact, entirely new. Latin America now has a population of nearly 600 million, of whom about 80 percent live in urban areas, and the continent includes four megacities—Mexico City, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro—where, in total, more than 55 million people reside. In addition, since the mid-1990s the region has become the most important resource frontier in the global economy through a process of massive transformation of the natural heritage of the indigenous and rural populations into natural capital to serve the global economy.1

As part of this same process, Latin America has also evolved into one of the most important centers in the development of new environmental thinking, which draws on three main sources: a tradition of examination into and research on the economic and social problems in the region that can be traced to the late 18th century and that finds expression today in important international institutions, such as the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which was created in 1948; the existence of a middle-class intelligentsia that is closely linked to the increasingly dense fabric of global environmentalism and to the new social movements in the countryside and urban fringes that have seen remarkable progress, especially in the defense of access to rights to natural resources and to a healthy environment. Hence, understanding the environmental crisis in Latin America involves two tasks: to explain it within Latin America and, at the same time, to understand it in the context of the global crisis. This article tackles that dual effort.

The Stages of Time

In his now classic 1990 essay “Transformations of the Earth,” environmental historian Donald Worster identified the need to combine three levels of analysis, all of them interdependent, when addressing environmental problems from a historical perspective. The first consists of “the structure and distribution of natural environments in the past.” The second includes production technology as it interacts with these environments and that stems from the concept of mode of production, which consists “not merely in organizing human labor and machinery but also in transforming nature” in a process that, in turn, leads to the restructuring of society itself. The third encompasses the “ideologies, ethics, laws and myths [that] have become part of an individual or group’s dialogue with nature.”2 This approach has great utility for the topic at hand.

The Space and Its Resources

The environmental crisis in Latin America is unfolding over an area of 22 million square kilometers, and it directly affects approximately 600 million people. The history of this area’s ecosystems dates back to the formation of the land we know today, which—following the breakup of Pangea some 200 million years ago—culminated some 4 million years ago in the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, the physical link between the continental masses we know today as North America and South America. Latin America today encompasses a vast and complex diversity of ecosystems, ranging from extremely dry deserts to humid tropical rainforests and from marine-coastal wetlands to highlands some 4,000 meters in elevation.3

Describing these ecosystems in relation to the global environmental outlook is not simple, and requires reference to a wide variety of sources.4 For instance, the United Nations Population Fund notes that the region has “1995 million hectares, of which 576 million are arable reserves.” The agency notes that, in 2000, the region had “25% of the world’s forest areas, 92% of such located in Brazil and Peru,” while Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela are “among the nations considered as biologically mega-diverse, and house between 60 and 70% of all life forms on Earth.” Furthermore, the agency notes that Latin America “receives 29% of the world’s rainfall, and has a third of its renewable water resources.” The GEO 5 report, on the other hand, notes that the region contains approximately “23% of the world’s forests; 31% of its fresh water resources, and six of the 17 mega-diverse countries in the world.”5 Meanwhile, a report by ECLAC and UNASUR indicates that Latin America has important mineral and hydrocarbon reserves, and that its water reserves represent about 70 percent of the entire Western Hemisphere’s reserves.6

At the same time, the region’s most pressing environmental problems in the 21st century include vast and complex processes of soil degradation due to erosion and pollution; forest loss; decline of biodiversity due to habitat loss and fragmentation; deterioration of watersheds and watercourses related to increases in the demand for water; deterioration and overexploitation of coastal and marine resources; and accelerated deterioration of urban areas, which is manifested in an increase in the demand for basic services—water, sewer, power, waste collection—and translates into an ever-increasing ecological footprint.7 These issues, in turn, interact with—and are exacerbated by—a persistent combination of economic growth and social inequality, with the result that poverty persists among approximately 30 percent of the population. This results from an income distribution structure that, as indicated in a World Bank report, finds between 40 and 47 percent of the total income is concentrated among the wealthiest 10 percent of the population, while the poorest 20 percent own 2 to 4 percent of the total income.8

The Species and Its Development

The circumstances described above shape the conditions found in Latin America in a global crisis that, according to organizations such as the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere—an international coalition of scientists headquartered in Stanford University, California—poses five key threats to our species: climate change, extinctions, loss of ecosystem diversity, pollution, and increasing human population and resource consumption. The global nature of this crisis, and the part played by Latin America in it, calls for a historical approach that can be divided into three separate stages, which, when taken together, make up the background to the crisis that confronts the region.

The first of these stages corresponds to the lengthy period of the human presence in Latin America. This presence, in fact, dates back to more than fifteen thousand years of development prior to the European conquest of 1500–1550, which, through a wide range of modes of interaction with the environment, led to important developments in civilizational processes, particularly in Mesoamerica and the Andean altiplano. The second stage, of shorter duration, corresponds to the period of European control of Latin America. European colonial rule extended from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The interest, first, of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies in increasing income from their American colonial possessions and, then, of the dominant groups in their possessions to take on this task for their own benefit led to the breakdown during the period between 1750 and 1850 of tributary societies grounded in noncapitalist forms of economic organization, such as the indigenous commune, feudal primogeniture, and large church properties. For this reason, as well, such control operated where the conditions—manpower, resources, and access to communication routes with Europe—that made it possible and necessary existed, but they did so only nominally where they did not.9

Finally, the third stage—shorter but much more intense in regard to its environmental consequences—covers the period between 1870 and 1970 and corresponds to the development of capitalist forms of interaction between the social systems and the natural systems in the region. A process of crisis and transition began about 1980, one that is still ongoing. The starting point for this third stage is the liberal reform efforts undertaken by the newly independent regimes following the revolutions of 1810, which by 1875 had succeeded in creating the land and labor markets needed to make way for capitalist ways of organizing the relations between the new national societies and their natural environment. Hence, the growing demand for commodities in the nations of the North Atlantic was met by means of entirely new mining and agricultural enterprises, especially in areas that had often, up to that point, been marginally important. Such was the case in Guatemala, which saw the transformation of large areas of cloud forest into coffee plantations, as described by José Martí in the well-known writing that he dedicated to Guatemala in 1878.10

This process saw sustained economic and technological expansion throughout most of the 20th century under very different forms of political, economic, and technological organizations that ranged from semi-servile peonage in oligarchic holdings to the creation of foreign capital enclaves and protected markets for state-owned enterprises. The consequences of these developments were summarized by Chilean geographer Pedro Cunill:

During the historical period comprised between 1930 and 1990, a sustained settlement process of the Latin American geography, which covers 20 446 082 km2 of continental and insular lands, became evident. We see a persistent tendency to concentrate consolidated and sub-integrated cityscapes, as well as significant spontaneous occupation of traditionally unpopulated areas, particularly in the interior and southern parts of South America. These geo-historical transformations have put an end to the collective illusion of preserving Latin America as a whole, a territory with extensive, virtually untouched, landscapes and unlimited natural resources.11

This development, adds Cunill, brought the end of “the unlimited and inexhaustible Latin American spaces,” which have ceased to function as barriers to economic development. “National societies,” he states, “when configuring their boundaries, framed in their historical evolution, with progresses and contradictions, have even gone beyond the apparent natural boundaries, which until the late forties seemed insurmountable, especially in the South American interior.”12 From then on, a dual process of urban growth and transformation of the inner regions into resource frontiers began, one closely associated with the power structures that perpetuate the uneven access to the fruits of economic growth, a scenario that is at the very core of the current environmental crisis in Latin America.

The greatest difficulty in understanding this crisis lies in how all the stages of the historical process that has led to the transition period expressed by such crisis are operating. None of the above processes are, in fact, self-contained. On the contrary, each one provides premises and consequences that help define the next one. So, for instance, the fact that the Western Hemisphere was the last to be occupied by humans in their expansion across the planet, and the fact that this happened some ten thousand years before humans developed agriculture and sixteen thousand years before the use of metals is a contributing factor to the role of natural resource reserve that Latin America plays in the global environmental crisis.

In addition, when these changes took place in Eurasia and Africa, humans in the Americas were already isolated from the rest of the world and so had to acquire skills without the benefit of technological and cultural exchange, which favored those living in these other regions so significantly.13 Thus, when the European conquest started, the most advanced native societies were just beginning their transition into the use of metals and, thus, mineral deposits in Latin America were virtually intact. Also, the domestication of large animal species did not occur, although the modification of the natural ecosystems by a relatively late, but already very sophisticated, agriculture, especially in the Mesoamerican and Andean civilizational cores, was quite advanced. Moreover, all forms of relationships with nature that emerged prior to the acquisition of the use of metals—save for pastoral nomadism—were present in Latin America, which therefore included an amazing diversity of cultures and social and political organizational types ranging from nomadic bands dedicated to hunting and gathering to state formations that some have deemed as “Mesopotamian-like,” grounded on the labor of agrarian communities.

The conquest had a significant demographic, social, political, cultural, and environmental impact, which manifested itself in the radical transformation of the region’s land use and landscapes. In this regard, estimates of the native population of in the Americas at the time of first European contact vary from a maximum of 90 to 150 million people to a minimum of 40 to 60 million. In any case, agreement is general about the magnitude of the decline that took place. The indigenous population is estimated to have been reduced by about 75 to 95 percent over the first one hundred years of the conquest. Other estimates indicate that, at the moment of contact, the American population represented close to 20 percent of all humanity, which was subsequently reduced to 3 percent a century later, only to begin a recovery in the mid-18th century.14 Even so, this overall reduction had a lesser impact on the areas of greater cultural development and a greater impact on those areas that were less developed, with consequences that extend to the present day.

In any case, after a complex transition process, which for native societies took on an apocalyptic character, the new Iberoamerica came to be organized “from the outside and from the top,” into a network of human settlements organized around centers of economic activity—mining, at first, and then also agricultural—that relied on servile labor, in places such as Mesoamerica and the Andean altiplano, or slave labor, especially in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic coast of Central and South America. The new societies that emerged from this process can be grouped into four major types.

One of them had, and undoubtedly still has, a clear Indoamerican character. Both the feudal culture of the conquerors and certain features “of pre-Hispanic political organization in the core areas,” contributed to its formation as well as “the stratification of their societies with marked differences between the elite and those they ruled over,” which “facilitated colonial domination.” The peasant masses of Mesoamerica and the Andean altiplano, aside from constituting the largest concentrations of people at the time of the conquest, were accustomed to obeying and paying tribute to the various administrative agencies of the local rulers. Wars of plunder and conquest were common among pre-Hispanic chiefdoms. They often fell under foreign rule and were forced to pay tribute, to accept settlers and new ruling dynasties, and to adopt different religious cults.15

The fact that “due to the high population density in the core areas (Mesoamerica and the Andean Region), a major demographic remnant” survived, “from which a new population increase was subsequently initiated,” also contributed to this incorporation, while “in the regions inhabited by tribal groups and chiefdoms,” the combination of overexploitation, epidemics, and breakdown of all previous ways of life led to “the near extinction of the indigenous population, of which only isolated groups survived.”16

The importation of African slaves to compensate for the loss of indigenous labor, particularly in the Caribbean and in northeastern Brazil, accelerated between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries to meet European and North American demand for goods such as sugar, coffee, and cocoa, and it resulted in the formation of an African American society with particular sociocultural and productive characteristics.17 Two other societies emerged: a mestizo society with a strong European presence, found in the agro-livestock areas of the lower Río de la Plata Basin and in the center of Chile, and a society that appeared in vast areas of the interior that were transformed into places of refuge for indigenous, mestizo, and Afro-American populations, where, free from colonial control, they returned to nonmarket forms of production and consumption.

A vast resource frontier emerged in these inner regions—some resources remained unexploited while others were restored, such as the forests that began to appear in areas that had been previously cultivated in Darién in Panama, the Mesoamerican Atlantic coast, Amazonia, and the southern tip of Argentina and Chile. Except for the latter area, which was annexed by their respective nations between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of these inner regions would remain outside the market system until the mid- to late 20th century, as Pedro Cunill points out.

The Culture

The crisis currently faced by Latin American societies in their relationship with the natural world also includes a crisis of views. Just as the crisis engendered by the 16th-century contradictions and conflicts between the cultures of the conquered and the conquerors reemerged, after the liberal reforms from 1825 to 1875, in the conflict between expropriators and expropriated, so the increasingly important role played by large North Atlantic and Asian corporations as the main organizers of the exploitation of natural resources in the region shapes today’s crisis.

The dominant feature in the Latin American culture of nature has been, and to a large extent still is, the obvious disjuncture between the views of those who dominate and those who are dominated with respect to the organization of relations between societies and their natural environment in the region. This contradiction is manifested in the coexistence—usually passive but sometimes antagonistic—between a dominant culture that has evolved around ideals that are aligned with North Atlantic views—such as, first, civilization versus barbarism; then progress versus backwardness; and, finally, development versus underdevelopment—and a set of subordinated cultures—especially with indigenous and African American roots—that have evolved from other roots during a constant struggle against the dominant views.

In this regard, another important role was played by the fact that, as noted by Antonio Gramsci in the early 1930s, the basic structures of cultural organization in Latin American societies up to the early 20th century corresponded to “the Spanish and Portuguese civilization of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, characterized by the Counter Reformation and militarism.” In such structures, he adds, the dominant intellectual categories were “the clergy and the army,” to which can be added the scholars serving in the state administration. Under such circumstances, in societies organized around large land properties, with a very limited industrial base and lacking complex superstructures, “the majority of intellectuals are of the rural kind … linked to the clergy and to large landowners.”18

In contrast to the North Atlantic world, in the 18th and 19th centuries Latin America lacked a vigorous and well-educated intellectual middle class, one able to express the general interests of the region’s societies. These kinds of social groups had been present in North Atlantic societies since at least the late 18th century, and produced scientists from modest backgrounds, such as Alfred Russell Wallace, who, on the basis of their achievements, could act as interlocutors with their peers from higher social origins, such as Charles Darwin. Indeed, in Latin America, the concentration of land ownership in the hands of an oligarchic caste blocked the development of the kind of rural middle class that produced intellectuals like Gilbert White in Great Britain and Henry David Thoreau in the United States, during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Thus, the birth of a culture of nature in Latin America witnessed a division between a dominant oligarchic view, centered on a vision of civilization’s struggle against barbarism, and multitude popular views, which are close to animism and have a strong community character. Hence, in the great works produced by those who exemplify the dominant view, which depict the formation of modern national identities—from José Rivera’s La Vorágine [The vortex] and Romulo Gallegos’s Doña Barbara to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Mario Vargas Llosa’s La Casa Verde [The green house]—nature is portrayed as a menacing element, which in the end escapes all rational control. On the other hand, popular culture displays a more celebratory tone, which in the early 21st century is exemplified in the exquisitely expressive music of artists such as the Dominican Juan Luis Guerra, or in the rich and dense dialogue between man and nature in the works of Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas.

The big exception in this split scenario is found, undoubtedly, in the works of José Martí, who employs more polished expressions—especially in Nuestra América [Our America], written in 1891 and a work that marks the true birth certificate of our contemporary life—that characterize nature as a cultural and political category to be constructed from the reality it expresses. Yet, Martí’s work is exceptional, reflective of his exile in New York between 1881 and 1895 during which he maintained a constant dialogue—“from the standpoint of the Latin American liberalism crisis of the time”—with the culture of nature as expressed in the works of authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, who were clearly linked to the best democratic traditions of North American society.19

In Latin America, modern intelligentsia of the type represented by these authors took shape only with the industrial expansion and urban development that characterized the second half of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1980s, this intelligentsia became active, and its worldview rejected the notion that mere economic growth offered evidence of the fruits of progress and advancement toward civilization through development. Instead, it expressed a growing concern about the obviously unsustainable nature of such development, based as it is on the continuous expansion of the export of raw materials to other economies.20

In the 21st century, this process of cultural maturity has intensified. From the top, so to speak, the region has seen remarkable growth in the quality of its environmental institutions, which, in turn, has taken—without solving it—the conflict between extractive economic growth and the sustainability of human development to the very heart of the societies. From the bottom, resistance by indigenous and peasant populations to the expropriation of their natural heritage, and the fight for their political rights, is joined by the struggle of the urban middle and lower classes for their basic environmental rights. These efforts promote the development of a nonconformist environmentalism, which, in Latin American societies today, can look to a mythical past prior to the European conquest when harmonious relationships with nature prevailed and which is able to confront the processes of economic growth that have brought with them social deterioration and environmental degradation.21

In this context, an active intellectual activity is ongoing in Latin America, one that, from the standpoint of the humanities, the sciences, and the arts, expresses what Enrique Leff has deemed the region’s “new environmental thinking.”22 Formed on the basis of the best Western academic traditions, and in close contact with the new social movements in the region, this intelligentsia has joined Latin American environmentalism with global environmentalism, on the one hand, while, on the other, it has done the same with the processes of political, social, cultural, environmental, and economic transformation that are underway in the region.23 Today, this intelligentsia is involved, alongside colleagues from around the world, in the development of new fields of knowledge, such as environmental history, political ecology, and ecological economics, and its products in all of these fields are already an integral part of the environmental culture that has emerged from the global crisis.

Growing with the World, to Help It Change

The environmental crisis is part of unprecedented historical developments consequent to the rise of the modern world system, which manifests itself as a change of time rather than a time of change. With respect to Latin America, the environmental crisis is part of a transition period in which old, unresolved conflicts have reemerged, in the context of entirely new situations, and a new culture of respect for nature is taking shape, one that combines broad democratic claims with values ​​and visions from indigenous, African American, and mestizo cultures, and from a middle-class intelligentsia that is increasingly linked to global environmentalism.

Such culture is shaped both by dialogue and by confrontation between its own components as much as by confrontation with state policies, often closely associated with the interests of international financial organizations, and by complex processes to seek agreements on environmental issues within the interstate system. In this double transition process, all the past acts at all present moments. The technical legitimacy advanced by state policies confronts the historical and cultural legitimacy of the movements pitted against them, resulting in a process that generates development options with extraordinary vigor and diversity.

From this perspective, the cultural dimension of the crisis, that is, the source of the new questions that generate innovative responses, is not the mere sum of the ecological, economic, technological, social, and political dimensions, but of the interactions among them.24 From such a synthesis there now emerges in the Latin American culture of nature as a factor of decisive political importance a conclusion that can be as comforting to some as it is unsettling to others, but one that is, nevertheless, unavoidable for all. Indeed, to the extent that the environment is the result of the interactions between society and its natural surroundings over time, if a different environment is desired, the creation of a different society is needed.

This is the main challenge posed by the environmental crisis in Latin America, as in every society elsewhere. Precisely for this reason, the transformations, conflicts, ruptures, and possible solutions that are currently taking place in the Latin American socio-environmental order also define the terms under which Latin America participates in the global environmental crisis, and they pose problems that need to be solved from within the region through dialogue and cooperation with other societies around the world. We grow with the world, so we can help it change.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholarship trends in the debate concerning the environmental crisis in Latin America are concentrated in three main fields: environmental history, political ecology, and environmental economics. There are two main trends in the environmental history of Latin America. One trend, of regional origin, is the Latin American environmental history that has emerged as a field of study in conjunction with the development of the region’s culture of nature in close association with the new social movements of the 21st century. Guillermo Castro’s Naturaleza y sociedad en la historia de América Latina, José Augusto Padua’s Un sopro de destruçao, and Reinaldo Funes’s De los bosques a los cañaverales: Una historia ambiental de Cuba, 1492–1926, are prominent examples. Research in this trend in Latin American environmental history is characterized by a broad, systemic approach to the subject, an importance given to long-term and middle-term processes, and an emphasis placed on regional and subregional aspects of these processes as well as on the relevance of sociocultural aspects in this development. These characteristics are, of course, indebted to the legacy of the French École des Annales and to traditions of dialectical thinking present in the works of authors such as José Martí as early as the late 19th century.

A much wider and better known trend is the environmental history of Latin America that has been developed by authors from this and other regions in close association with the North Atlantic research and academic systems. Its characteristics include an in-depth analysis of specific situations, a more quantitative approach, the assumption of the nation-state as a unit of analysis, and a much more modest approach to theoretical elaboration from the results of historical research. An example of this trend is J. Timmons Roberts and Nikki Denetria Thanos, Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crisis in Latin America, which approaches the crisis through a description and analysis of several different cases. It is important to note that the establishment of the Latin American and Caribbean Association of Environmental History (SOLCHA), open from its beginning to participation by historians from the North Atlantic region, has facilitated collaboration of member researchers, who have authored books, such as Naturaleza en Declive, edited by Reinaldo Funes, that provide an interesting example of the results that can be attained by interaction of scholars associated with both trends.

With respect to the field of political ecology, one especially active since disenchantment by environmentalist social movements with the failure to achieve practical results following Rio 92, at least three new currents of thought and intellectual output have emerged in the region. The most visible is made of a varied set of trends and intellectual personalities, which Mexican philosopher Enrique Leff designates as the “new environmental thinking.” This current of thought is characterized by a deep ethical character, both culturally and politically, reclaiming the role of rural and urban poor community organizations as agents in a process that aims to create a different environment by building a different society. The school of thought joins together figures such as Catalan economist Joan Martínez Alier, Mexican humanist Victor Toledo, Argentine popular educator Carlos Galano, and Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, who, through their work, are shaping to a cultural movement of extraordinary vitality.

The other two currents include, first, one inspired by neoliberal thought, which advocates addressing environmental problems through the use of technology, allowing the market to allocate resources with the least possible interference from the state, and the promotion of the so-called green economy. Its prominent proponents include Gabriel Quadri from Mexico. The other current could be called neosocialist—some call it eco-Marxist. It views the environmental crisis as the manifestation of the general crisis of capitalism on a global scale. This trend considers the relationship between society and nature as an expression of the socioeconomic structures prevalent in the region, and it promotes social control of public management by strengthening the capacity and authority of organizations of manual and intellectual workers, both from the countryside and from the cities. Noteworthy publications reflecting these viewpoints include Herramienta [tool] magazine, published in Argentina.

However significant their differences may be, Latin American neoliberalism and neosocialism share some key features, which include a tendency to combine abstract generalization and pragmatic particularization in their analyses. Adherents of both schools in Latin America also maintain close ties with their counterparts in other regions of the world: on the one hand, with the global network of think tanks associated with international financial institutions and, on the other, with academics linked to neo-Marxist currents in North Atlantic countries, such as U.S. economists James O’Connor and John Bellamy Foster. The key issue, in any case, is their link with the entirety of Latin American environmental thought through the contributions they make to the debates that encourage the further development of that thought.

Primary Sources

In quantitative terms, the two most important primary sources essential in research into the problems associated with the environmental crisis in Latin America are, first, the series of Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) reports published since 2000 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and second, the various statistical series, articles, and compilations on environmental issues published since 1980 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). In both instances, however, the reader should note that these are intergovernmental agencies that gather information according to their own policy agendas, which center on the major themes of international research, such as climate change, sustainable development, and the so-called green economy.

Further Reading

  • Boff, Leonardo. Ecología: Grito de la tierra, grito de los pobres. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2011.
  • Burkart, Rodolfo, Beatriz Marchetti, and Jorge Morello. “Grandes ecosistemas de México y Centroamérica.” In El futuro ecológico de un continente: Una visión prospectiva de la América Latina. Edited by Gilberto C. Gallopín, 101–163. Mexico City: Editorial de la Universidad de las Naciones Unidas, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.
  • Castro Herrera, Guillermo. Naturaleza y sociedad en la historia de América Latina. Panama City: Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Justo Arosemena, 1995.
  • Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe and Unión de Naciones del Sur. Recursos naturales en UNASUR: Situación y tendencias para una agenda de desarrollo regional. Santiago de Chile: United Nations, 2013.
  • Cunill, Pedro. Las transformaciones del espacio geohistórico latinoamericano, 1930–1990. Mexico City: El Colegio de México/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.
  • Damascos, María A., Nélida M. Gazia, and Gilberto C. Gallopín, eds. “Consecuencias de la transformación de los ecosistemas de la América Latina. Estudios de caso.” In El futuro ecológico de un continente: Una visión prospectiva de la América Latina. Edited by Gilberto C. Gallopín, 11–121. Mexico City: Editorial de la Universidad de las Naciones Unidas/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.
  • de Ferranti, David, Guillermo E. Perry, Francisco H. G. Ferreira, and Michael Walton. Desigualdad en América Latina y el Caribe: ¿Ruptura con la historia? Washington, DC: World Bank, 2003.
  • Fondo de las Naciones Unidas para Actividades de Población. “Población y desarrollo en América Latina.” Accessed August, 2014.
  • Funes Monzote, Reinaldo, ed. Naturaleza en declive. Valencia, Spain: Fundación Instituto de Historia Social. 2008. The anthology includes essays by Guillermo Castro Herrera, Sterling Evnas, Reinaldo Funes, Stefania Gallini, Manuel González de Molina, Antonio Herrera, Regina Horta, Paulo Martinez, John McNeill, Antonio Ortega, John Soluri, David Soto, and Tortolero Alenjandro.
  • Gallopín, Gilberto C. “Medio ambiente, desarrollo y cambio tecnológico en la América Latina.” In El futuro ecológico de un continente: Una visión prospectiva de la América Latina. Edited by Gilberto C. Gallopín, 483–539. Mexico City: Editorial de la Universidad de las Naciones Unidas/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.
  • Gallopín, Gilberto C., ed. El futuro ecológico de un continente. Una visión prospectiva de la América Latina. Mexico City: Editorial de la Universidad de las Naciones Unidas/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.
  • Gallopín, Gilberto C. Sostenibilidad y desarrollo sostenible: Un enfoque sistémico. Serie Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo No. 64. Santiago de Chile: CEPAL, División de Desarrollo Sostenible y Asentamientos Humanos, 2003.
  • Gelman, Jorge. “Senderos que se bifurcan: Las economías de América Latina luego de las independencias.” In Institucionalidad y desarrollo económico en América Latina. Project document compiled by Osvaldo Kacef and Pablo Gerchunoff. Santiago de Chile: CEPAL, 2011.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. “Apuntes de filosofía. Materialismo e idealismo.” In Cuadernos de la Cárcel. Notebook 4: 1930–1932. Edición crítica del Instituto Gramsci. Mexico City: Ediciones ERA, 1999.
  • Kalmanovitz, Salomón. “Las consecuencias económicas de la independencia en América Latina.” In Institucionalidad y desarrollo económico en América Latina. Project document compiled by Osvaldo Kacef and Pablo Gerchunoff, 47–69. Santiago de Chile: CEPAL, 2011.
  • Leff, Enrique, ed. Ética, vida, sustentabilidad: Pensamiento ambiental latinoamericano. Mexico City: PNUMA, 2002.
  • Lentz, David, ed. Imperfect Balances: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
  • Martí, José. “Artículos varios.” In Obras completas. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975.
  • Martí, José. “Guatemala.” In Obras completas. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975.
  • Martí, José. “Nuestra América.” In Obras completas. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975.
  • Martí, José. “Serie de artículos para La América.” In Obras completas. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975.
  • Martínez Alier, Joan Manuel. El ecologismo de los pobres: Conflictos ambientales y lenguajes de valoración. Barcelona: Icaria, 2010.
  • Marx, Karl. Elementos fundamentales para la crítica de la economía política (Grundrisse), 1857–1858. Vol. 1. Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores, 1972.
  • Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin, 1973.
  • McNeill, John R. Algo nuevo bajo el sol: Historia medioambiental del siglo XXI. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2003.
  • Melville, Elinor. Una plaga de ovejas: Consecuencias ambientales de la conquista de México. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1999.
  • Millenium Alliance for Humanity & the Biosphere. “Scientists Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century>.” Accessed August, 2014.
  • Morello, Jorge. “Grandes ecosistemas de Suramérica.” In El futuro ecológico de un continente: Una visión prospectiva de la América Latina. Edited by Gilberto C. Gallopín, 21–100. Mexico City: Editorial de la Universidad de las Naciones Unidas/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995.
  • Pádua, José Augusto. Um sopro de destruição: Pensamento político e crítica ambiental no Brasil escravista, 1786–1888. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2002.
  • Porto-Gonçalves, Carlos Walter. La globalización de la naturaleza y la naturaleza de la globalización. Havana, Cuba: Casa de Las Americas, 2008.
  • Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente (PNUMA). GEO 5: Perspectivas del medio ambiente mundial. Panama City: PNUMA, 2012.
  • Roberts, J. Timmons, and Nikki Demteria Thanos. Trouble in Paradise: Globalization and Environmental Crises in Latin America. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Sauer, Carl. The Early Spanish Main. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
  • Solórzano, Juan Carlos. América Antigua: Los pueblos precolombinos desde el poblamiento original hasta los inicios de la conquista española. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial UCR, 2009.
  • Sunkel, Osvaldo. “Introducción: La interacción entre los estilos de desarrollo y el medio ambiente en América Latina.” In Estilos de desarrollo y medio ambiente en América Latina. Edited by Osvaldo Sunkel and Nicolo Gligo, 17–53. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980.
  • Sunkel, Osvaldo, and Nicolo Gligo, eds. Estilos de desarrollo y medio ambiente en América Latina. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980.
  • Toledo, Víctor. Modernidad y ecología. La nueva crisis planetaria. Barcelona: Icaria. 1992.
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). GEO LAC 3: Latin America and the Caribbean: Environment Outlook. Panama City: UNEP, 2010.
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): GEO LAC 3: Latin America and the Caribbean: Environment Outlook. Summary for Decision Makers. Panama City: UNEP, 2010.
  • Worster, Donald. “Transformations of the Earth.” In The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination. By Donald Worster, 45–63. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Worster, Donald. “The Two Cultures Revisited.” Environment and History 2.1 (1996): 3–14.


  • 1. In this regard, for example, Chilean geographer Pedro Cunhill would state by mid-decade that “because of the spontaneity in establishing the forms of the sub-integrated habitat, due to the degrading intensity inherent in the various uses of agricultural land and the exploitation of forest, mining, and energy resources, where everything is dominated by the desire for immediate profit, a prospective crisis of the Latin American landscape is taking shape, irreversibly diminishing the options to mobilize landscapes and natural resources in the short term. Thus, the transformation of Latin American geo-historical space in the period between 1930 and 1990 apparently modernized cities, mines and fields, and industrialized a significant portion of its territories, but damaged, for the immediate future of the twenty-first century, much of the potential for sustained and sustainable development” (Cunill, Pedro. Las transformaciones del espacio geohistórico latinoamericano, 1930–1990. Mexico City: El Colegio de México/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondence).

  • 2. Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth,” in The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 48–49.

  • 3. In this regard, see, for example, R. Burkart, B. Marchetti, and J. Morello, “Grandes ecosistemas de México y Centroamérica,” in El futuro ecológico de un continente: Una visión prospectiva de la América Latina, ed. Gilberto C. Gallopín (Mexico City: Editorial de la Universidad de la Naciones Unidas, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), pp. 101–163; and Jorge Morello, “Grandes ecosistemas de Suramérica,” in El futuro ecológico de un continente: Una visión prospectiva de la América Latina, ed. Gilberto C. Gallopín (Mexico City: Editorial de la Universidad de la Naciones Unidas, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), pp. 21–100.

  • 4. In this regard, for example, GEO 5, 2012; GEO LAC 3, 2010; UNFPA on Population and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean; CEPAL/UNASUR 2013.

  • 5. UNEP (2012), 319.

  • 6. Lithium, 65%; silver, 42%; copper, 38 %; tin, 33%, iron, 21%, bauxite, 18%, nickel, 14%, and oil, 20%. (Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe and Unión de Naciones del Sur. Recursos naturales en UNASUR: Situación y tendencias para una agenda de desarrollo regional. Santiago de Chile: United Nations, 2013, pp. 7, 36.)

  • 7. There are many descriptions and assessments of these environmental degradation processes, which usually tend to converge. In this regard, this article relies primarily on those from the GEO LAC 3 (2010) and GEO 5 (2012) reports, prepared by the United Nations Environment Programme, for their evident ecumenical character.

  • 8. David de Ferranti, Guillermo E. Perry, Francisco H. G. Ferreira, and Michael Walton, Desigualdad en América Latina y el Caribe: ¿Ruptura con la historia? (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2003).

  • 9. This decomposition process coincides, on a global scale, with the deployment of the trend in the development of the world market that Karl Marx described in the Grundrisse of 1857–1858 in the following terms: “Just as capital has the tendency on one side to create ever more surplus labour, so it has the complimentary tendency to create more points of exchange, i.e., here, seen from the standpoint of absolute surplus value or surplus labour, to summon up more surplus labour as complement to itself; i.e., at bottom, to propagate production based on capital, or the mode of production corresponding to it. The tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome … Commerce no longer appears here as a function taking place between independent productions for the exchange of their excess, but rather as an essentially all-embracing presupposition and moment of production itself.” And adds: “On the other side, the production of relative surplus value, i.e., production of surplus value based on the increase and development of the productive forces, requires the production of new consumption; requires that the consuming circle within circulation expands as did the productive circle previously. Firstly quantitative expansion of existing consumption; secondly: creation of new needs by propagating existing ones in a wide circle; thirdly: production of new needs and discovery and creation of new use values … Hence exploration of all of nature in order to discover new, useful qualities in things; universal exchange of the products of all alien climates and lands; new (artificial) preparation of natural objects” (Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy [London: Penguin, 1973], 408–409.

  • 10. “And just as the Government provides as requested, and here it gives away lands, and there it takes away rights, and calls upon this one with flattery, and protects that one with subsidies, Salama and Coban are celebrating, and every day they see how their already considerable amount of guests grows … And it is all about soon owning more land than the house of Zichy owned in Hungary, or that of Osuna has in Spain, and Hernán Cortés in Mexico. Who would not buy the unexplored wilderness, lush and full of promises, if they were sold at fifty dollars a stable? And as in that province they hold the just belief that raising cattle will soon be at the top of the fortune, who does not pack their books and papers—although not them, but they are friends of the soul!—and goes, with their plows and wire fences, on the road towards Alta Verapaz?” (Martí, José. “Artículos varios” In Obras completas. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975, VII, 133—translation by author).

  • 11. Cunill, Pedro. Las transformaciones del espacio geohistórico latinoamericano, 1930–1990. Mexico City: El Colegio de México/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995, p. 9—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondence.

  • 12. Cunill, Las transformaciones del espacio geohistórico latinoamericano, p. 15—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondence.

  • 13. In this regard, for instance, Juan Carlos Solórzano reminds us that since “the end of the last ice age, more than ten thousand years ago, and up until the arrival of Europeans in the late fifteenth century, the Americas was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. During these millennia of separation, the peoples of Latin America evolved independently from the civilizations that arose in Europe, Asia and Africa.” And he adds: “Complex cultures in the Americas emerged late when compared to those in the Old World, largely a result of the relative scarcity of grains and how long it took for them to evolve into high-yielding crops. Cultures in the Americas, for much longer than those in the Old World, were faced with task of developing crops that are difficult to domesticate, so the economic support needed for the development of a complex agricultural civilization was not feasible until around 2000 B.C. in South America and 1500 B.C. in Mesoamerica, whereas in the Middle East, this process began towards 6500 B.C.” (Solórzano, Juan Carlos. América Antigua: Los pueblos precolombinos desde el poblamiento original hasta los inicios de la conquista española. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial UCR, 2009, pp. 591, 592—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondence).

  • 14. Castro Herrera, Guillermo. Naturaleza y sociedad en la historia de América Latina. Panama City: Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Justo Arosemena, 1995, p. 125—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondence.

  • 15. Solórzano, Juan Carlos. América Antigua: Los pueblos precolombinos desde el poblamiento original hasta los inicios de la conquista española. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial UCR, 2009, p. 593—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondence.

  • 16. Ibid, p. 595—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondence.

  • 17. Various sources estimate, in broad figures, that about 10 million African slaves were imported into the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries. The largest contingent, around 2 million people, arrived between the late 18th century and the 1870s, coinciding with rise of the plantation economy in the Caribbean, along the coastlines, and in the southeastern United States. Hence, it can be said that the Caribbean constituted the central area where slavery and its accompanying manifestations occurred.

  • 18. Gramsci, Antonio. “Apuntes de filosofía. Materialismo e idealismo.” In Cuadernos de la Cárcel. Notebook 4: 1930–1932. Edición crítica del Instituto Gramsci. Mexico City: Ediciones ERA, 1999, p. 194—translation A. Tarté, personal correspondence.

  • 19. For instance, the mid-1885 remark that, in the late 20th century, would serve as one of the starting points for the development of a Latin American environmental history: “When studying an historical event, or an individual act, … one sees that human intervention in Nature accelerates, change or stops the work of such [natural forces], and that all History is just a story of adjustment, and of fighting, between the extra-human Nature and human Nature, these pretentious generalizations seem childish, derived from absolute natural laws, whose application constantly supports the influence of unexpected and relative agents” (Martí, José. Obras completas. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975, XXIII, p. 44; translation by author).

  • 20. Two anthologies that are characteristic of this period are Osvaldo Sunkel and Nicolo Gligo, eds., Estilos de desarrollo y medio ambiente en América Latina (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980), which brings together forty-five authors and includes thirty-seven articles, in addition to the introduction by Sunkel himself; and Gilberto C. Gallopín, ed., El future ecológico de un continente: Una visión prospective de la América Latina (Mexico City: Editorial de la Universidad de las Naciones Unidas/Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995), which includes nineteen articles in addition to the introduction by Gallopín. Worth mentioning is the depth and intellectual richness of their contents as well as the commitment of the authors to the region’s best interests, as they were perceived at the time of writing, and their perceptions of the growing concerns about environmental problems globally. Several of the authors in the volume edited by Sunkel and Gligo anticipated what would be stated in 1987 in Our Common Future—better known as the Brundtland Report—regarding the need for sustainable development. The volume edited by Gallopín provides a profuse source of information, assessing from the region’s perspective the major agreements reached at the Earth Summit organized by the United Nations at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and known as Rio 92.

  • 21. As noted by Juan Carlos Solórzano, “The affiliation between present-day Latin American societies and their pre-Columbian ancestors is, to a large extent, explained by their characteristics upon the arrival of the Europeans. For this reason, in the core areas of Mesoamerica and the Andes, the indigenous cultural heritage is remarkable, and today many of these countries claim the rich legacy of their ancestors” (Solórzano, Juan Carlos. América Antigua: Los pueblos precolombinos desde el poblamiento original hasta los inicios de la conquista española. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial UCR, 2009, p. 595—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondence). Such claim, used at the time by the dominant groups to justify their right to independence and self-government, is now exercised by the popular sectors to demand a participatory democracy and a much more inclusive economy, one that is linked to the welfare of the social majorities.

  • 22. One of the most characteristic manifestations of the starting point for this new environmentalism can be found in the Manifiesto por la Vida: Por una ética de la sustentabilidad [Manifesto for life: In favour of an ethic for sustainability], published as part of the book Ética, vidad, sustentabilidad [Ethics, life, sustainability], edited by Enrique Leff (Mexico City: PNUMA, 2002), and signed by some twenty intellectuals from across the region. It concludes stating that ethics for sustainability “are ethics for the common good” (Leff, Enrique, ed. Ética, vida, sustentabilidad: Pensamiento ambiental latinoamericano. Mexico City: PNUMA, 2002, p. 331).

  • 23. One of the most prominent spokesmen about this link between environmentalism and the new social movements, Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, expresses the basic nature of such a relationship in the following terms: “Until now, the dream of the western white man, made universal by globalization, was to dominate the Earth and subdue all other beings, in order to obtain unlimited benefits. Four centuries later, that dream has become a nightmare. More than ever before, the apocalypse may be caused by ourselves, this is what the great historian Arnold Toynbee wrote before his death. Hence, it is necessary to rebuild our humanity and our civilization through a different type of relationship with the Earth for it to be sustainable; in other words, in order to preserve the conditions of maintenance and reproduction that sustain life on the planet. This will only happen if we remake the natural covenant with the Earth, and if we consider that all living beings, carriers of the same basic genetic code, form the greater community of life. They all have intrinsic value and are therefore subject to rights.” And adds: “The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma, member of the Aymara indigenous group, continues to repeat that the twenty-first century will be the century of the rights of Mother Earth, of nature, and of all living beings. In his speech before the UN on April 22, 2009, he briefly listed some of rights of Mother Earth: the right of Mother Earth to the regeneration of its biocapacity; the right to life of all living beings, especially those threatened with extinction; the right to a pure life, because Mother Earth has the right to live free of contamination and pollution; the right to live well for all citizens; the right to harmony and equilibrium with and among all things; the right to connect with the Whole of which we are part” (Boff, Leonardo. Ecología: Grito de la tierra, grito de los pobres. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2011—translation: A. Tarté, personal correspondende).

  • 24. In this sense, the Latin American cultural contribution to the development of global environmentalism affects particularly the role of the humanities in understanding our relationship with nature, as stated by Donald Worster in pointing out that “at the very center of environmental history must stand the study of evolving world views, a study at least as important as investigating the reorganization of the landscape that has occurred. For that study in the history of ideas we emphatically need the humanities and all their expertise, their methods, their traditions. So we are opening the door in the wall that separates nature from culture, science from history, matter from mind. Where we are arriving is not at some point where all academic distinctions and boundaries disappear, where the categories of nature and culture have been completely abolished or subsumed, but one where those boundaries are more permeable than before. Nature has become less easy to isolate from culture than we once thought, and vice-versa. The two realms are linked together in an endless loop of exchanges, interactions, and meanings, so that they keep collapsing into one another. We try to make them distinct, and sometimes for good reason: we need to try to step outside of culture regularly and acknowledge, as Henry Thoreau once put it, ‘our own limits transgressed.’ On the other hand, we have to realize that what we mean by nature is inescapably a mirror held up by culture to its environment, a mirror reflecting itself. This is a paradox we humans cannot get out of. The door we open between the two cultures is finally a passage to that unresolvable paradox” (Daniel Worster, “The Two Cultures Revisited,” Environment and History 2, no.1 [1996], 13).