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Coffee has played complex and diverse roles in shaping livelihoods and landscapes in Latin America. This tropical understory tree has been profitably cultivated on large estates, on peasant smallholdings, and at many scales in between. Coffee exports have fueled the economies of many parts of Latin America. At first, coffee farmers cleared and burned tropical forests to make way for their farms and increase production. Early farms benefited from the humus accumulated over centuries. In Brazil, farmers treated these tropical soils as nonrenewable resources and abandoned their farms once the soils were exhausted. In smaller coffee farms along the Cordillera—from Peru up to Mexico—coffee farming was not quite as wasteful of forests and soils. In the mid-20th century, scientific innovation in coffee farming became more widespread, especially in established coffee zones that were struggling with decreasing soil fertility, increasing soil erosion, and new diseases and pests. In the 1970s, national and international organizations promoted large-scale programs to “renovate” coffee production. These programs sought to dramatically increase productivity on coffee farms by eliminating shade, cultivating high-yielding coffee cultivars, and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Renovation brought tremendous gains in productivity over the short term, but at the cost of added economic and environmental vulnerability over the longer term. Since the end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, the global coffee market has become much more volatile. New coffee pioneer fronts are opening up in Brazil, Peru, and Honduras, while elsewhere coffee production is shrinking. NGOs and coffee farmers have promoted new forms of coffee production, especially Fair Trade and certified organic coffee. Still, most coffee farms in Latin America remain “conventional” farms, using a hybrid of modern and traditional tools. Economic and environmental sustainability remain elusive goals for many coffee farmers, and the threat is likely to increase as they grapple with the effects of climate change.

Article

Bradley Skopyk and Elinor G. K. Melville

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