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date: 17 May 2021

Environmental History of Commodities in Central Americafree

  • Anthony GoebelAnthony GoebelUniversidad de Costa Rica
  •  and Andrea MonteroAndrea MonteroUniversidad de Costa Rica - History


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

Central America: Physical Characteristics

Central America is an isthmus that unites North America and South America and separates the Pacific Ocean from the Caribbean. It runs from Tehuantepec (in the south of Mexico) to the Atrato Valley (in the northeast of Colombia). It is a region composed of seven countries: Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. In paleogeographic terms, it was recently formed. The isthmus finished forming in the Pliocene (three or four million years ago) and has served as a bridge for the North-South passage for 10,000 or 12,000 years.1 Its location gives it particularity and converts it into a strip of land of contrasting landscapes that mixes mountain ranges, intermontane valleys (plateaus), drainage basins, and coasts.

The region is also characterized by its climatic diversity. A tropical and subtropical climate predominates, but the isthmus is particularized by microclimates. There exists an enormous contrast between the mountain zones (formed of hills, mountains, volcanoes, and plateaus) and the basins. In the intermontane valleys, where historically the largest part of the population has been concentrated, the altitude oscillates between 1,000 and 2,500 meters, temperature varies between 15 and 25º C, precipitation reaches 4,000 mm per annum, and there exists well-defined dry and wet seasons. In the Pacific basin, altitude ranges between 0 and 1,000 meters, temperature varies between 25 and 30º C, precipitation between 800 and 1600 mm, and there is a pronounced dry season. Finally, in the Caribbean basin, altitude is between 0 and 800 m, the temperature exceeds 25º C, precipitation is higher than 9000 mm per annum, and its rains throughout the year.2

Map 1. Physical Map of Central America.

This climatic diversity is reflected in the region’s natural wealth. It has various zones of life ranging from a very humid and rainy forest to the dry woodlands. Its condition as an isthmus makes Central America an area that inherits species of flora and fauna from both North and South America. Neo-artic vegetation can be observed up to Nicaragua, while neo-tropical vegetation appears from the south of Costa Rica onward. The region has also witnessed the evolution of endemic species favored by the isolation of the two principal mountain zones: one that crosses the isthmus from west to east (Guatemala, Honduras, and the north of Nicaragua) and another that crosses from northwest to southwest (Costa Rica and the west of Panama). The combination of species (north, south, and native) explains the vast biodiversity of the region.3 Costa Rica, Panama, and Guatemala are recognized globally for the biodiversity of their terrestrial flora and fauna; while in the Caribbean basin in Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, part of the Mesoamerican coral reef is found, the largest in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in the world.

Pre-Columbian Period: Ecological Originality and Its Limits

Climatic and ecological diversity have conditioned and conditions the patterns of human settlement in the isthmus since the pre-Columbian period. It is estimated that Central America was populated more than 11,000 years ago and that its original inhabitants initially consisted of small groups of hunter-gatherers. The pre-Columbian societies of present-day Central America had two areas of influence: Mesoamerica (formed by the current territories of central and southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, the west of Honduras, and the northwest of Costa Rica); and an Intermediate Area (formed of the current Caribbean territories of Honduras and Nicaragua, Costa Rica—except Guanacaste, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela). In the former area of influence, states emerged that allowed the development of civilizations such as the Maya. In the second area of influence, the more humid climates and the tropical forests propelled an extensive economy of slash-and-burn farming and gathering, which caused a fragmentation of settlements and sociopolitical organization.4

In the pre-Columbian period, indigenous societies developed in the intermontane valleys and in the Pacific basin. During the Pre-Classical period (2000 bce to 250 ce), these societies established the first settlements thanks to the development of agriculture. However, it was during the Classical period (250–900 CE), with the flourishing of the Mayan civilization, that it reached its greatest splendor in the level of economic, political, and cultural organization.5 Nevertheless, the cultural geography of the pre-Columbian period is complex; the isthmus was inhabited by heterogenous indigenous groups with their own dialects, customs, and forms of territorial organization (bands, tribes, states, and chiefdoms). Around sixty different groups have been identified and classified in different branches (Maya, Nahua, Zoque-Popoluca, Oto-Mangue, Misumalpa, and Chibcha). The region had thus been historically characterized by an extraordinary ethnic mosaic.6

Pre-Columbian societies were essentially agricultural. The weight of agriculture and the characteristics of the techniques of production varied according to the level of complexity of the distinct autochthonous groups and the ecological conditions of the spaces they inhabited, although the predominant cultivation technique was slash and burn. The ancient Mayans developed intensive cultivation systems through the drainage of swamps and the cultivation of land, while other indigenous groups used contour cultivation, drainage, and the planting of trees and orchards. Among the most important crops were maize, chili, squash, tomato, yucca, and cocoa, all complemented by gathering, hunting, and fishing.7 Much of the production was aimed at subsistence consumption and the local market, though there also must have existed an exchange of agricultural productions between different territories, similar to what existed for ceramics, jade, gold, and textiles.

By the time of the arrival of the Spanish, pre-Columbian societies had developed different cultivation techniques and domesticated numerous native species. The indigenous peoples manipulated the environment to increase their agricultural production to support their populations. Among the hypotheses proposed to explain the decline of the Mayan civilization (around 900 CE) was demographic pressure on natural resources.8 In Central America agriculture became one of the central causes of transformations of the bio-physical environment before the arrival of the Europeans. From the ecological point of view, American agrarian systems appear to have been remarkably efficient. Among other factors, this was due to the replenishment of nutrients in soils by materials generated by the agri-ecosystem itself (agricultural residues, ashes, and carbon resulting from the burning of wood and the cutting of undergrowth for the planting of crops). While these agrarian systems were hardly intensive in energetic terms, they were very extensive in territorial terms, meaning that in some cases the carrying capacity of the ecosystems was exceeded, especially because of the growing demand for agricultural products in the large population centers, which in this way expanded their ecological footprint on their hinterlands.

It is difficult to calculate the socioenvironmental consequences of these original agrarian systems. What is clear is that pre-Columbian societies presented a notable ecological originality and biological diversity (the parallel evolution of biological and cultural diversity, and mutual adaptation), visible in the various agricultural techniques with which they intervened in a decisive manner in ecosystems.9 These techniques would change completely after the conquest and during the colonial period. The new territorial organization was the first agent to transform the landscape, and the imposition of European agricultural systems was certainly more threatening to the ecosystems of the regions than those designed and implemented by the indigenous peoples.

Conquest, Colony, and the Productive Reorganization of the Territory

In Central America commercial agriculture and raising livestock became the principal economic activities of the colonial period. From the beginnings of the conquest to the middle of the 17th century, the economy of the isthmus revolved around two central economic poles: the commercial, shaped by the transisthmian axis of Panama-Portobelo-Cartagena; and the administrative and commercial axis, centered on Santiago de Guatemala, capital of the General Captaincy of Guatemala. The former could not function without the supply of food and mules from the provinces of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. In the latter, the exploitation of silver, cacao, and indigo occurred, and included subsistence products aimed at the internal market. In the middle of the 18th century, the influence of the Panama-Portobelo axis was replaced by the Portobelo-Cartagena axis, which implied the loss of commercial routes. However, at the same time, a new economic space emerged centered on Guatemala-San Salvador, which came to encompass the isthmus from Chiapas to Costa Rica.10

The agricultural system established by the Spanish was very different from that developed by pre-Columbian indigenous societies due to new cultivation techniques (use of the plough, machetes, hoes, draft animals, and the logic of monoculture), the incorporation of new crops, and the implementation of institutions to organize labor (enslaved, forced, and exploitative, depending on the moment in the colony). It is possible that the “new” agriculture, above all cattle rearing, had a big impact on indigenous peoples, who had not carried out this activity previously. Raising livestock was mainly carried out in the haciendas, large areas of land used for natural pasture for livestock (cattle, sheep, horses, and mules), pigs, and chickens. The animals were used for haulage, transport, and obtaining subproducts such as cheese, animal feed, leather, wool, meat, eggs, and manure. Many of the new livestock haciendas were located on land formerly cultivated by indigenous people. The demographic catastrophe in the 16th century and in the beginning of the 17th century led to the abandonment of agricultural activities, with this land then used as natural pasture by the Spanish for raising livestock. At the end of the colonial period, raising cattle had become an important economic activity on the Pacific Coast of the isthmus.

Apart from subsistence agriculture (maize, beans, squash, chili, bananas, sugar cane, tubers, fruit, and vegetables) and livestock, the Spanish also encouraged growing commercial crops. They principally grew and traded indigo (from which anil was obtained). Cacao, an important crop in pre-Hispanic societies that had mainly been exploited in the lowlands of Boca de Costa (Guatemala) and Soconusco (Chiapas), became, during the 16th century, the principal export product of the General Captaincy of Guatemala. In the 17th century, it was used to dynamize other provincial economies; in Costa Rica it was grown in Matina as well as in Rivas, Nicaragua. It was cultivated in both the large haciendas and the midsize fincas, with the principal source of labor on the plantations indigenous workers and slaves. Indigo expanded from the southwest of Guatemala to the isthmus of Rivas, though El Salvador was indigo land par excellence.11 A first cycle of growth was reported between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th; however, the real peak of anil occurred between 1750 and 1800, as a consequence of the demand for natural dyes in the context of the first Industrial Revolution.12 The crop was planted on small and large properties, creating pressure on landholding by permitting the consolidation and expansion of haciendas, with negative consequences for the indigenous communities.

The commercial exploitation of forests was also important in the region. Since the colonial period, forestry products had relatively short economic cycles, such as balsam (abundant on the coast of El Salvador) and sarsaparilla root (harvested in what is now Honduras). Pitch (used for medicinal purposes) and tar were obtained in pine forests in the mountainous region of Nicaragua. Pine was also used for the maintenance of ships. In Belize at the end of the 17th century, English loggers controlled exports, and this trade remained its principal economic activity for three centuries. When the exports of stain wood declined, the mahogany harvest for the 18th-century furniture industry began to replace it.13 Forestry exploitation allowed the commercialization of fine timber mainly aimed at the European market.

Note that the economic exchanges that emerged in the region after the anil crisis seem to have included an intensification of forestry exploitation. The nascent Central American states in which timber had not been a major part of their exports (Costa Rica) opted for forestry exploitation with commercial purposes as part of the efforts of their elites to link to the world market. Others in which the commercialization of timber was known (Honduras) continued this type of activity. The former was driven by the increasing requirements of the market, especially by some countries and regions that suffered from a shortage of wood after having experienced prior processes of massive deforestation as in Great Britain.

At the end of the colonial period, subsistence agriculture was the principal activity in Central America. The cacao and anil booms were conjunctural and depended to a great extent on the increase or decline in the demand for these products by the Crown.14 However, in the case of crops, other factors such as droughts, floods, volcanic eruptions, diseases, and pests could periodically affect harvests. Productive (subsistence or commercial) and extractive activities encouraged by empires (Spanish and English) in the current territory of Central America modified the landscape. Forests were cut down to export their timber, provide open land for agriculture and livestock, and to obtain natural carbon. Agriculture developed using European methods and techniques, which not only encouraged monoculture but also the use of tools and instruments that caused soil erosion. The processing of anil and other dye woods contaminated rivers and other sources of water, causing imbalances in the trophic chains of these aquatic ecosystems. Urban centers, towns, and villages emerged that housed populations increasingly demanding more environmental resources and services. At different rates, landscapes began to fragment, which led to the loss of biodiversity and the fragility of ecosystems.

The Agri-Exporting Economy, Agricultural Modernization, and Environmental Change: The Liberal Period, 1870–1940

After independence, the Central American republics sought to insert themselves in a stable manner in the global market, relying on economic activities inherited from colonial times and developing new ones. Honduras and Nicaragua continued with livestock and mining respectively and expanded their offer of sarsaparilla, precious woods, and rubber exports.15 El Salvador and Guatemala continued to rely on dyes, the former on anil and the latter on cochineal, until the appearance of synthetic dyes in the middle of the 19th century. Costa Rica found in coffee the principal product to enter the international market, breaking away from the colonial heritage (cacao and tobacco). Panama focused on raising livestock in the Pacific basin and continued to be an important commercial route. On its part, Belize continued to exploit hard woods, especially mahogany.

Despite the attempt to diversify production, coffee and bananas allowed most Central American countries to enter the global market through agri-exports. Coffee began to be grown in Costa Rica in the 1820s, though its connection with the European market only occurred in the 1840s. In the second third of the 19th century, cultivation expanded in Salvador and Guatemala, and at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, it also expanded in Nicaragua.16 The cultivation of bananas began in Panama in the 1860s, though its large-scale commercialization (done by transnational companies) was consolidated with the establishment of the United Fruit Company (UFCo.) in 1899. UFCo. ran a large part of the banana industry in Costa Rica, Panama, and Guatemala. Coffee and bananas were the most important export products in Central America until the 1930s. The countries from the isthmus found in agricultural commodities the key to economic “prosperity.”17

In Central America, coffee is grown at different altitudes, from 300 meters to 1700 meters, although highland coffee (above 800 meters) has predominated in the region, located in the highlands of the interior and the intermontane valleys, facing the Pacific basin. It was initially cultivated in communal land, ejido land, and in zones of the agricultural frontier, which ultimately would become private property. It was the expansion of this crop that accelerated the privatization of land, a process that followed distinct rhythms depending on the country, and consolidated agrarian capitalism in the region.18 Bananas were initially located on alluvial soils in the Caribbean basin, although from 1930s on, after the attack of Sigatoka disease, cultivation moved toward the Pacific basin (and would expand there later). It was planted on land varying from being very near to the sea to 600 meters high, while it principally expanded into ancient tropical and subtropical woods.

In Central America, coffee and banana ecosystems are very complex and differentiated. In the case of coffee, the initial expansion of production was based on the increase of the planted area. After 1950, in the context of the Green Revolution, production increased through the intensification of cultivation (it would also expand later). Banana cultivation also depended on expanding the area in which they were grown; since banana diseases (Panama disease and Sigatoka) attacked plantations, fruit companies used the logic of abandoning diseased crops and planting in new territories. In a context of an open agricultural frontier, the liberal Central American governments granted large concessions of land to banana companies to encourage cultivation. This was what allowed companies such as UFCo. to move their operations from the Caribbean to the Pacific basin in various Central American countries in the 1930s.

In the isthmus the organization of coffee production followed distinct trajectories. In Guatemala and El Salvador midsize and large properties predominated, while in Nicaragua and Costa Rica small and midsize properties predominated, though there were also large coffee plantations. Many fincas followed a polyculture logic, where coffee was the dominant but not the only productive unit. Within the same finca other crops (maize, beans, fruit trees) were planted which were the foundation of the peasant-family economy and even sold at a local scale.19 Other fincas tended to specialize, with coffee being the main crop accompanied only by bushes serving as shade. Coffee specialization in Central America was a slow and gradual process that acquired its own dynamics depending on the country, but in all of them, it came with the loss of self-sufficiency of energy and nutrients. Since the end of the 19th century, Central American coffee soils were becoming worn out due to the loss of nutrients, which caused the need to replenish them through the use of mineral fertilizers (guano and saltpeter) or green manures. Shade-giving bushes from the legume family were also used because they fixated nitrogen, one of the elements most required by the shrub.20

Coffee substantially transformed the Central American landscape between 1800 and 1950.21 However, when compared with other commercial crops such as bananas, its environmental impact in the cultivation phase tended to be lower, either because in many fincas the traditional polyculture system predominated or they were in a transition phase from an organic system (without external raw materials or only using organic fertilizers) to a semi-industrialized system (incorporation of mineral and chemical fertilizers). This does not mean that its cultivation did not have any impact; obviously, the activity simplified landscapes and caused ecosystem imbalances, though these were greater after 1950. While coffee seemed at the productive level to be more sustainable than other crops, the level of processing was not. From very early on, the Central American countries opted mainly to process wet coffee; this meant that during the harvesting months, processing involved using washing tanks for the coffee cherries, which after several stages was transformed into gold or parchment coffee.22 The hydric impact of the activity on the soil not only focused on the need to access water as a resource (which led to many conflicts of an environmental content between coffee processors and the civil population) but also on contamination of the wastewater (deposits from the fermentation of coffee dumped in river, ditches, or streams), which became a real public health problem.23

The productive organization of banana cultivation was different and initially was caused by large land concessions granted in the Caribbean basin to foreign companies, based on railroad contracts for construction companies, which later found in banana cultivation a lucrative business.24 Although this started in the final third of the 19th century in the hands of small producers, at the beginning of the 20th century, it passed into the hands of large capitalist countries.25 Most banana plantations occupied essentially poorly transformed lands, located in alluvial plains in river valleys that flowed into the Caribbean. Former forest coverage was transformed into banana plantations which followed a monoculture logic. Around the plantations were some land for pasture, residential areas for the banana workers, and administrative areas.26 The plantations expanded as the fruit companies were consolidating their markets, principally in the United States.

The appropriation of space by fruit companies provoked profound environmental transformations. These companies thought of the Central American spaces in their own operational terms when they created their banana divisions, which did not stick to the politico-administrative borders of the countries in the region but rather to the company’s commercial interests. In addition, they appropriated and expropriated space in accordance with the critical or favorable circumstances in the international market, when they decided to manage the plantations or lease their lands to small and midsize producers. The clear monoculture tendency of banana production caused the loss of the complexity of ecosystems and brought along with it other ecological transformations such as banana diseases.

In 1903 Panama disease (Fusarium cubense) began to attack the plantations of Bocas del Toro division. The fungus (which affected the stem and the root of Musaceae—the banana plant) spread quickly to the rest of the company’s divisions in the Caribbean region. For decades, the strategy UFCo. had used was the abandonment of plantations, so that banana cultivation became one of the most predatory activities in territorial terms among export crops. In the 1940s, UFCo. discovered that the fungus disappeared by leaving the land immersed in water for a period of three to six months. This led to the appearance of the inundation and fallow method, which undoubtedly caused drastic transformations in ecosystems. In 1940 Sigatoka (Mycosphaerella fijiensis), another disease produced by a fungus that attacked banana leaves, began to affect the plantations. To control it, fumigation was carried out with solutions of copper sulphate and lime in water in a compound called “Bordeaux mixture.” The human and environmental impact of its use was unprecedented, exposure to the chemical in the soil not only caused deaths due to poisoning and chronic respiratory diseases, but it also altered terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and left the soils infertile due to exposure to copper.27

Central American agri-exports were far from confined to coffee and bananas. Other important economic activities were forestry exploitation and livestock. Around the middle of the 19th century, timber was a well-functioning activity in the isthmus. In Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize there was a high level of organization in logging in relation to the export of hardwoods such as mahogany, cedar, or cocobolo. In the specific case of Honduras, US traveler E. G. Squier (who visited Central America in the middle of the 1850s) gave an account of the extensive reserves of mahogany and the characteristics and dynamics of forestry exploitation with commercial purposes in that country. He noted that mahogany grew in almost all of Honduras, especially in the alluvial valleys, highlighting the abundance of this species in the lowlands that bordered the rivers which flowed into Honduras Bay.

Logging was characterized by a delimited and defined relationship between the state (owner of most of the exploited lands) and the loggers who agreed on, through logging licenses, the percentage the government received for each tree and the areas used for logging. In terms of the organization of the “production” of timber, the establishments were temporary and moved after the quantity of trees decreased in a specific exploitation zone, with the exception of the positions established at the mouths of various rivers to receive, mark, and transport the timber as it flowed downstream.28 Despite the organizational logical just outlined and the delimitation of functions between the state and loggers, illegal logging was frequent in Central America. Limited state control over public forest assets and the desire of loggers to increase their profits at the expense of the public purse can be pointed to as the principal causes of this practice, notoriously extended to the forest lands of the region. In fact, as has already been analyzed for the case of Costa Rica, most of the conflicts faced by the state with individual actors around forests were motivated by the illegal exploitation of precious timber obtained from public forest.29

Central American timber was in demand for the manufacture of furniture, crafts, sporting objects, handles of tools, musical and scientific instruments, piano boxes, veneers, and plywood, among others.30 Other uses of timber were related to its strategic nature: shipbuilding, the construction of fortifications, and the preparation of various types of military supplies.31 Shipbuilding was one of the main uses of timber in the process of the consolidation of the European world economy from the 16th century onward and also in the formation of the global economy toward the end of the 19th century. The building of wooden ships can be considered one of the vital factors for mercantile expansion around the globe. Toward the middle of the 19th century, the commercial exploitation of timber in the region was an important economic activity. For example, in Costa Rica, timber and cacao vied for third place among the country’s exports until the 1920s.

In relation to raising livestock, this had been carried out since the colonial period on the Pacific fringe of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. However, from then until 1950, it had a traditional base in the region; although it had an environmental impact in relation to the creation of anthropic savannas, it was not as abrupt as what would occur later. In environmental terms, until the first half of the 19th century, Central American cattle raising can be characterized as relatively sustainable, in which raising semi-wild cattle did not require the massive destruction of the forest, and it was not surprising that haciendas combined livestock with small-scale agriculture.32 Between the middle and end of the 19th century, however, livestock became one of the driving forces behind the change in the landscape. It became an increasingly capitalized and liberalized activity, endowed with a greater productive inversion sustained by the sale of cattle both to domestic and international markets, which led to the consolidation of large-scale cattle properties. Between 1850 and 1950, cattle raising moved into the semi-deciduous forests, especially in the Central American Pacific, favored by the generalized introduction of African grasses (Para, Guinea, and Jaragua grass), improved breeds of cattle (Brahman and Nelore), and the generalization of barbed-wire fences in cattle regions.33

Coffee, bananas, logging, and livestock were the principal activities, but not the only ones, that transformed the Central American landscape in the agri-exporting context. The “commoditization” of economies was manifested in profound changes in soil use (the case of coffee as the dominant crop, extensive livestock) or total changes in its coverage (the case of bananas and the case of logging). The idea of progress used by Central American liberals was based on the dominion and control of nature. Human beings were seen as having the right not only to appropriate its resources but also to benefit from its services. “Agrarian reform” in the Central American liberal period caused irreversible socio-metabolic fractures when the traditional cultivation systems (polyculture and agricultural mosaic) were abandoned (either gradually or abruptly depending on the activity and the context), transitioning to semi-industrialized and, to a lesser extent, industrialized systems (dependent on external raw materials to replenish nutrients, and the use of chemicals to combat diseases). Central America became part of the first globalization wave through the export of “dessert” products, timber and some by-products of livestock.

From “Progress” to “Development”: Agricultural Development in Central America, 1940–1980

Coffee and bananas continued to be important crops, although their production systems were modified profoundly in relation to the previous period. It was also a moment when Central American states encouraged the planting of sugar cane and cotton, as well as raising livestock, in a global context of high demand for these commodities. Although the latter activities had already been carried out in the region, including during the colonial period, they had not achieved a commercial character. It was in the context of the “hamburger connection,” the Cuban blockade, and the Korean War that Central America became a key reason to produce cheap meat, sugar, and cotton, products exported principally to the United States. Furthermore, the dynamism of the agrarian sector was made possible by the agricultural policy implemented by Central American governments in collaboration with international cooperation agencies.

In the case of coffee, the sector underwent modernization that included the incorporation of the technological package of the Green Revolution. The importation of improved seed, small in size and with high yields; the use of chemical raw materials (manures, fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, nematicides); and the change in cultivation practices (new systems for planting, pruning, and shade) allowed Central America to achieve high productivities (fig. 1).34 Within the framework of the Cooperative Program for the Protection and Modernization of Coffee Production (PROMECAFE), established in 1978 as part of an initiative by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to make coffee production more technological in Latin American countries, the Central American countries achieved high yields per hectare between 1970 and 1980.35 Technological change led to an increase in chemical raw materials imported and even manufactured in the region in the context of the Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI). In 1963 Fertilizantes de Centroamérica (FERTICA) was founded, based in Costa Rica, responsible for producing fertilizers for the entire region.

Figure 1. Banana production and banana areas in some Central American countries (1960–1980).

Source: Prepared by authors based on the database of FAOSTAT. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Although the small fincas maintained their traditional cultivation systems (under shade, without fertilizers, tall varieties), the majority of midsize and large fincas, as well as some small ones, moved toward modern coffee production. In times of price crisis in the international market (the rupture of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, coffee overproduction in 2001), coffee growers partially or totally abandoned the market, causing a fall in revenue. Recent crises in the international market have also caused a reconfiguration in the coffee production and commercialization chain. The most profitable links in the business (processing, exports, commercialization) are concentrated in transnational companies (Volcafe, Neumann Kaffee, ECOM). Many small coffee growers opted to sell their fincas, to abandon cultivation until prices improve, or to move to new more profitable crops in the market.36

Regarding banana activity, this followed an extensive logic in those banana divisions with an open agricultural frontier and intensive in those divisions where the agricultural frontier had been exhausted. In the latter case, the use of chemical raw materials was necessary (fig. 1). In the 1930s, after the Panama disease, many of the fruit company divisions closed down. In Nicaragua, large-scale banana plantations would not be reestablished; in Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. UFCo. moved its production to the Pacific basin, repeating the logic of enclave economics; Honduras was the only country where production continued centered on the Caribbean. The environmental impact of bananas intensified due to the fact that in the Pacific the land required irrigation, which implied the intensive use of water. Furthermore, to control Sigatoka, the use of chemical raw materials was increased, even reaching a certain sophistication in the way they were applied (from backpacks or fumigation pumps on fumigation backpacks).37

In the 1950s, the Cavendish variety of banana (resistant to Panama disease) allowed the reestablishment of cultivation in the Caribbean. However, its vulnerability to being hit and to bruising led to it being exported in wooden crates, an innovation that incurred enormous costs in the consumption of timber (for the crates) and plastic to wrap the fruit. Its vulnerability to Sigatoka meant that huge amounts of water had to be used to wash the banana in packing houses due to stains caused by chemicals.38 Similar to coffee, the most profitable links in the chain (commercialization and distribution) are controlled by transnational companies (United Fruit, Standard Fruit, Del Monte).39 Production is mostly in the hands of small and midsize growers who run the highest risks in the case of losses of harvests, meteorological events, diseases, or pests. Bananas continue to be one of the crops with the highest use of agrochemicals. This has caused a series of environmental conflicts in producing regions pitting the large fruit companies against the civil population. Contamination of aquifers had led complete populations to depend on the supply of water from cisterns (the case of Costa Rica), while intoxication continues to be recurrent among workers and among those who live near plantations due to aerial fumigation.40

Cotton growing gained impetus in the 1950s. It was planted in the Pacific plains, mainly in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and to a lesser extent in Honduras and Costa Rica. It followed a dual logic of territorial expansion and the intensive use of external raw materials. Different actors participated in this, such as the traditional coffee elites, transnational companies, and the urban middle class who decided to invest in the “new” enterprise. At the end of the 1950s, cotton was the principal export of Nicaragua and the second most important in Guatemala and El Salvador after coffee. However, in the 1980s and 1990s the activity entered crisis, due to the political situation the countries faced. Like other agricultural commodities, it also caused an enormous environmental impact; its vulnerability to pests left the industry dependent on chemical raw materials that contaminated soils, aquifers, people, and flora and fauna in general. In the postwar period and with the rise of new chemicals, cotton plantations were fumigated with DDT, a pesticide that effectively killed a wide range of insects and caused serious repercussion on the health of agricultural workers, who had to deal with episodes of poisoning and even death.41

In relation to livestock, this was one of the activities that acquired great dynamism after 1950. The increase in the consumption of meat and the development of a fast-food industry in the United States propelled the search for new sources of cheap cattle. Foot-and-mouth disease, which attacked cattle in South America, allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to certify meat plants in Central American in 1957, thereby triggering an expansion in livestock.42 This expansion occurred in both old and new peasant fincas, although much of it occurred at the expense of forest land. The cattle herd began to expand in the dry lands of the Pacific, in the highlands of the Central American mountain range, and in the lowlands of the Caribbean.43 In addition to the territorial cost, there must be added the excessive increase in methane levels caused by cattle, as well as the increase carbon dioxide emissions via cutting down and burning forests and savannahs for the planting of pasture.

Between 1950 and 1980, the area dedicated to pasture tripled, and the cattle herd rose from 4.2 to 10 million heads (fig. 2.). Regional meat production was aimed at the international market, but there was also a high demand for it in the internal market.44 For example, between 1976 and 1983, per capita meat consumption in Panama reached 26 kg and in Costa Rica 20 kg.45 During this period, the beef chain tended toward concentration. In Costa Rica, ranchers sold their animals directly to slaughterhouses (slaughter cattle), through livestock auctions, or through intermediaries who continued to fatten the cattle and then resell them. In Guatemala breeders sold the animals through intermediaries to cattle feeders who would fatten them, with the price set depending on genetic quality and the corporal condition of the animal based on its age. Later the cattle feeders would sell them directly to local suppliers (butchers) or through intermediaries. Large producers also existed (who were breeders and cattle feeders) who sold cattle directly to suppliers in the capital. In Honduras the majority of producers depended on intermediaries and the demand for animals by industrial slaughterhouses. Finally, in Nicaragua livestock was supplied to auctions and slaughterhouses through intermediaries who visited individual fincas and purchased animals.46

Figure 2. Area and cattle herd in Central America (excluding El Salvador), 1950–1991.

Source: Prepared by the authors based on David Kaimowitz, “Livestock and Deforestation: Central America in the 1980s and 1990s: A Policy Perspective” (discussion papers 9, Jakarta: Center for International Forestry Research, 1996).

Sugar cane was another activity that gained dynamism after 1960, as a result of the Cuban blockade. Its growth expanded in the premontane zones of the isthmus both on the Pacific and the Caribbean side of the isthmus. It was grown on land previously used for subsistence agriculture but also at the cost of deforestation. The activity went through a process of modernization and productive intensification that can be considered similar to coffee, with the irruption and generalization of agri-chemicals and an accelerated process of mechanization which led to the gradual disappearance of the trapiches (artisan and little mechanized infrastructure) and the concentration of sugar mills (industrial and strongly mechanized infrastructure). The sugar cane area in Central America rose from approximately 152,600 hectares in 1960 to 342,868 hectares in 1980; and, although it fell slightly in the 1990s, due to a decline in the market price of sugar, it recovered in the 2000s, becoming one of the principal crops in the isthmus. Yields per hectare increased in almost all countries, doubling from an average of 21,800 kg/ha in 1960 to 43,387 kg/ha in 1990.

Sugar cane followed a monoculture logic, both extensive (large sugar cane haciendas) and intensive (intensified midsize fincas), which translated into a combination of a territorial cost and a high dependence on external raw materials (manure and fertilizers). Crops in the Pacific basin require irrigation, which adds another environmental cost, due to the high water requirements used especially through the drip technique. Likewise, in Central America the pre-harvest burning system predominates, causing enormous environmental impacts on terrestrial and aerial ecosystems. Fire is one of the most important disrupters of the environment, as it kills dominant vegetal species, disturbs animals, reduces the pH of soils, destroys micro-fauna, and returns few minerals to the soil, thereby allowing leaching, which directly results in the impoverishment of soils. The burning of a hectare of sugar cane produces approximately 1.3 tons of carbon monoxide in twenty minutes between burning and reburning.47 Added to the environmental impact is the human cost, especially among sugar cane workers exposed to high environmental temperatures and higher thermal sensations during harvest. Sugar cane cutters are among the most affected by chronic kidney disease of a nontraditional origin (ERCnT).48

Forestry activity also underwent profound transformations due to the fact that the commercial exploitation of timber acquired a distinct territorial and mercantile dynamic. While exploitative extraction remained, commercial forestry was guided by a combination of the sale of “cheap” timber and wood obtained from forest cultivation. In the case of plantations of wood, most important was the consumption of balsa, which was useful in the construction of various military supplies during the Second World War.49 The increase of the demand for forestry products was also associated with the dynamization of the publishing market in the United States and the expansion of suburban housing characteristic of the middle class in that country.50 The region also went through a transformative process based on forestry cultivation (tree plantations). Biodiversified forest was cut down to plant uniform forests with a single species, generating the loss of many of their ecological functions. In addition, the massification of forestry production, together with the development and intensification of productive and extractive activities in the region, meant that between 1940 and 1980 two-thirds of Central American forests disappeared, to such an extent that the total destruction of forest cover between 1950 and 1980 was greater than in the previous 500 years (fig. 3).51

Figure 3. Forest area in Central America.

Source: Prepared by the authors based on David Kaimowitz, “Livestock and Deforestation: Central America in the 1980s and 1990s: A Policy Perspective.” Discussion papers 9. Jakarta: Center for International Forestry Research, 1996.

Central America reached one of the highest levels of deforestation at the global level.52 In 1974, within the framework of the first Central American conference on administering natural and cultural resources, the states of the region created a countrywide system of national parks and protection areas with the aim of preserving natural resources, especially forestry ecosystems. Costa Rica had already enacted the first national park legislation in 1969, the other countries did this in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990, Central America had 240 protected areas (including national parks, forestry reserves, biological reserves, and wildlife areas), which in total amounted to 70,000 km2 (13 percent of regional territory). These areas were principally established in territories where forestry coverage still predominated, much of which had been disturbed little or not at all by human activity, and in indigenous lands.53 However, throughout the region there predominated a land-sparing logic, in other words, forestry protection areas are isolated from agricultural areas, which causes fragmented landscapes with little possibility of ecosystemic exchange.54 Forestry exploitation (for extractive purposes or for agriculture) had a decisive impact on the irreversible alteration of trophic chains and the hydrological cycle, the intensification of erosive processes, and the fragmentation of forests, which implied the reduction of area and the loss of biodiversity and territorial connectivity.

Current Challenges and Responses: Economic Liberalization, Socio-Environmental Change, and Perspectives on the Future

Central America has undergone profound transformations since the 1980s. Central American countries have had to face the debt crisis, which implied changes in the economic structure due to stagnant incomes, the reduction of imports, galloping inflation, and massive unemployment. Countries from the isthmus had borrowed from international creditors to launch Import Substitution Industrialization and the agri-export commodity boom. When the crisis occurred, they were incapable of paying off their debts and had to face a series of measures imposed by some of the various international financial agents in the framework of the so-called Washington Consensus to once again achieve “economic equilibrium.” In response to these measures, they had to abandon the industrialization model (which in the Central American case was always weak) and instead rely on growth oriented toward agri-exports, only this time they had to try to diversify the offer of agricultural products and explore new markets. The great difference in relation to the previous period is that in this new commodities boom, states would only participate weakly, since in the neoliberal context the free market and the privatization of services previously offered by governments were once again advocated. The isthmus continued to be an agri-exporting region, although the relative importance of agriculture in production and exports fell, principally due to the growth of other sectors of the economy, especially the tertiary sector.

The Central American agri-export portfolio underwent some variations after 1980 when new crops such as pineapples, oil palm, and ornamental plants were encouraged. The case of pineapples is the one which generated most social conflict, especially in Costa Rica and Honduras, the leading countries in the production of this fruit (fig. 4). It has gradually displaced the cultivation of bananas in the Costa Rican Caribbean and also extended into the Huetar Norte Region (San Carlos). In Honduras its cultivation is concentrated in Atlántida, Cortés, Copán, and Ocotepeque. The pineapple chain follows a logic similar to bananas: cultivation is in the hands of small and midsized producer, while commercialization and distribution is in the hands of transnational companies (Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita). In both countries a monoculture logic is followed which implies enormous territorial costs. Furthermore, the accelerated increase in productivity is associated with the use of a chemical compound that causes contamination of soils and water, intoxication (workers and the civil population), soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and the aggressive fragmentation of the landscape.55 Area and production of pineapples in Central America (1980–2015).

Figure 4. Area and production of pineapples in Central America (1980–2015).

Source: Prepared by the authors based on the database of FAOSTAT. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Sugar cane continues to be a very important crop in the region, especially in Guatemala and Costa Rica, where high yields per hectare are obtained due to the use of a chemical compound. Coffee and bananas continue to be most important in terms of area, though yields have fallen in relation to the previous period. Central American countries have tended to specialize in certain crops in a combination of traditional and new products. Agri-exports from Belize have centered on sugar cane, bananas, and citric fruits; those from Guatemala on sugar cane, bananas, and coffee; in Honduras coffee, banana, sugar cane, and palm oil; coffee, sugar, and tuna in El Salvador; coffee, beef, and sugar cane in Nicaragua; in Costa Rica bananas, pineapples, and coffee; and in Panama bananas, pineapples, and watermelon.56

The weight of agri-exports in Central American GDP is differentiated; while its economies are increasingly less dependent on the primary sector, due to the impulse that has been given to the secondary sector (this is due to the so-called maquilas) and the tertiary sector, the weight of agriculture in the economy of the region is located in an interval ranging from 3 percent in the case of Panama to 17 percent in the case of Nicaragua.57 Although the percentages appear low, we cannot ignore that at the regional level thousands of peasant families and agricultural workers depend on the evolution of the sector and the prices of these products in the international and domestic markets. Agricultural exports continue to be essentially traditional, in other words, no value is added in the transformation stages. In addition, it continues to be an agriculture dependent on external raw materials, due to the commitment to intensification.

Between 2005 and 2009 the region imported around 183,000 tons of pesticides, with Honduras, Costa Rica, and Belize being the largest importers (fig. 5). Many imported pesticides are highly toxic, such as paraquat, methyl bromide, chlorothalonil, metam sodium, terbufos, ethoprophos, methamidophos, endosulfan, oxamyl, and fenamiphos. Costa Rica, a country in a region that has been relying heavily on the tourist sector since the 1990 and which sells itself to the world as a green country, is actually one of the largest consumers of agri-chemicals. Between 2006 and 2012 the average amount of fertilizers used for each 1,000 hectares was 85 tons; it was followed in importance by El Salvador (65 tons) and Guatemala (46 tons). The countries with the lowest consumption were Nicaragua and Panama (12 tons). In 2013 Costa Rica was one of the ten countries in the world with the highest use of fertilizers per hectare, and it is estimated that consumption increased around 28 percent between 2010 and 2013,58 and in 2017 a record figure of 18,000 tons of imported pesticides was reached.59 The Central American agricultural sector continues to be responsible for the contamination of soil and bodies of water, erosion, the increase of emissions, and losses of ecosystems and biodiversity.60 Use of pesticides in Central America (1990–2016).

Figure 5. Use of pesticides in Central America (1990–2016).

Source: Prepared by the authors based on the database of FAOSTAT. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Central America continues to lose forest soils. With the exception of the paradoxical Costa Rica, the process of the loss of forest has continued. Between 2005 and 2010 forest soils declined by approximately 1,246,000 hectares as a result of pressure from extractive activities, illegal logging, forest fires, and agriculture. In 2015 Panama, Belize, and Costa Rica were the countries with the highest forest coverage in the isthmus (62 percent, 59 percent, and 54 percent respectively), while Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were the countries with the lowest coverage (41 percent, 33 percent, 26 percent, 12.8 percent respectively). Despite the terrible loss of forests, in the region the forest cover is 40 percent higher than the global average and the OECD countries, though lower than in Latin America and the Caribbean. On the whole, the highest portion of timber used in the region comes from forest plantations. In Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama, around 60 percent of the harvested volume of timber comes from planted forests, while in Honduras and Nicaragua more than 90 percent comes from natural forests. The preservation of forest soil is threatened by constant pressure from the population to carry out extractive and productive activities, as well as use of firewood as the principal source of energy in Central American homes. In 2014 the region consumed 42 million m3 of firewood, while Honduras and Nicaragua represent together 80 percent of regional consumption.61

As mentioned, since the 1970s Central America has been encouraging state and private initiatives for conservation, which need to be evaluated in future research. Protected areas have increased in the region; in 2014 one-quarter of the terrestrial surface and 14 percent of the marine area was covered. At that time, Belize was the country with the highest portion of protected territory (37 percent), and El Salvador was the lowest (8 percent). While Nicaragua had the highest protection of its marine resources (38 percent), Honduras was the one which had the least (3 percent). The greatest regional conservation effort occurred in 1997 with the approval of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a system of territorial organization consisting of natural areas under special administrative regimes, core areas, buffer zones, multiple-use zones, and areas of interconnection that provided a set of environmental goods and services to society by providing spaces. While some initiatives have been launched, the recovery of forest coverage is threatened by the lack of management and compliance with conservation policies in the region by different social actors.62

A brief environmental history of Central America has been offered in this article, looking at the principal commodities, since the production and commercialization of these commodities has been responsible for profound changes in the landscape of the region and its ecosystems. The connection of the isthmus with the international market led to an extensive and/or intensive productive system (depending on the historical situation and moment) that provoked territorial fragmentation, the loss of connectivity, ecosystemic fragility, and the loss of biodiversity. Future research will probably concentrate on other components not considered here. One example is the environmental impact of industrialization, as this has caused modifications in the urban structure in the principal cities, which expanded without planning and demanded a series of environmental resources and services that have left an enormous mark on the isthmus. Also pending is addressing the human impact on marine resources, a theme absolutely neglected in the rare Central American environmental literature. Hopefully, this article will serve to call attention to one of the richest regions from the point of view of biodiversity and, at the same time, the poorest in academic research with an environmental perspective.

Discussion of the Literature

Central American historiography has had an incipient, though promising, nature for many years. Since the first works produced in an environmental history conscious of itself and with relatively clear theoretical-conceptual and methodological foundations—although expanding at an increasing rate—there is still much to do, especially in respect to its process of institutionalization as a historical field of work. This will invariably occur upon its decisive incorporation in the Central American historiographic agenda.63

Many of the difficulties and challenges that limited the development of a regional environmental history, and which some authors clearly identified since around the turn of the 21st century, are still present: poor coordination between institutions and countries, work carried out more by individual effort that through properly formed research teams, lack of regional integration and with the Caribbean, and lack of resources (economic and institutional).64 However, this does not imply that the production of historical-environmental research within the region, or about it, has stopped. In fact, the particular case of tropical commodities is one of the areas that has most received recent contributions and, furthermore, is characterized by an increasing sophistication and theoretical-methodological expansion.

Most of the work is concentrated on the period between the 19th and 21st centuries, since a relative opacity had survived in the colonial period and even more so in the human-environmental relations of pre-Hispanic societies, beyond what has been written in many valuable synthesis works for Latin America as a whole.65 A large part of recent production has centered its attention on the “spearheads” of agrarian capitalism in the region: coffee and bananas.

In the case of bananas, in addition to the fundamental work of Soluri about the socio-environmental transformations associated with banana production in Honduras and its relationship with plant breeding and mass consumption in the United States,66 there is also the work of Montero and Viales about the environmental impact of banana-related activity in Costa Rica, from the perspective of landscape change and social metabolism, in the two principal economic cycles of the fruit which this Central American country has been through.67 In turn, coffee has been the subject of a profound socio-environmental analysis in various works by Gallini for the case of the Cuca Coast in Guatemala and Montero for the Central Valley of Costa Rica.68 Recently, the research of López and Picado and Infante-Amate and Picado has analyzed in depth the features of the socio-ecological transition of coffee growing in the Costa Rican case,69 which undoubtedly will encourage similar works for other countries in the region.

In relation to other tropical products, Clare’s in-depth analysis of oil palm in Costa Rica is one of the most significant,70 though other studies remain to be done, analyzing in depth and with a historical perspective other commodities of undeniable relevance in regional environmental history, such as cotton or pineapple. Other activities, such as livestock, have received attention in recent times, especially in the work by Soluri, Leal, and Pádua, in which the complex dynamic of livestock activities in Latin America and their socio-environmental consequences are analyzed, with the Central American region occupying an important place. Likewise, a 2017 work by Clare studied changes in landscapes and productive systems in the Pacific north of Costa Rica between the middle of the 18th century and the end of the 19th.71

The exploitation and trade of timber, as an expression of the economic pressure that world markets placed on forests in its consolidation process, has been analyzed by Goebel. More recently, the same author has produced a work in which, from the same analytical premises, he gives a general overview at the regional and global perspectives of the aforementioned process.72 Similarly, in relation to a more recent period, the work of Kaimowitz stands out. This analyzes the relations between livestock rearing and deforestation in the 1980s and 1990s.73 These are added to works that have included regional deforestation, its causes, and socio-environmental impacts, as part of the broader contexts, such as the “tropical world,” in Tucker’s landmark study.74

Other extractive activities have received little attention in Central American environmental history, despite that their impact on the shaping and reconfiguration of human-environmental relations in some countries in the region is undeniable. This is the case of mining, despite the profound and visible transformations in ecosystems and in the landscape in countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua and to a lesser extent El Salvador, it is still waiting for an environmental historian to unveil its past.75

This brief overview—which does not claim to be exhaustive—of some of the most notable studies in the environmental history of tropical commodities, does not appear to leave doubts about the limits and the challenges of Central American environmental history, though also about its undeniable possibilities for future development. Production, as has been seen, is unequal, whether by countries or by activity or product. Costa Rica, which has environmental history research teams in the principal public universities in the country, concentrates the majority of the production, which in turn also concentrates on coffee, bananas, and, to a lesser extent, forestry, as objects of historical study when only taking into account tropical commodities.

In this way, the future of Central American environmental history as a field of historical work seems to involve overcoming the disparity in production both between countries and between themes. For this it is fundamental to abandon certain preconceived ideas about what environmental history is and what it represents. Certain common areas still survive, one of which is the consideration of the environment and awareness of the environmental problematics that our planet currently faces, -as a sort of sophisticated sensitization of the wealthy sectors of capitalist centers and local elites. The environment, on the contrary, is a space of interaction between all human production (social, political, economic, cultural etc.) and the biophysical environment associated with this interaction and which in part explains it. Its study, in a historical perspective, therefore, is vital to better understand where it is going as a region.


Translated from Spanish by Eoin O’Neill.

Primary Sources

For some historical periods, the environmental history of Central America is difficult to reconstruct. What can be done is a reading of the distinct sources that analyze agricultural, forestry, economic, and demographic themes. As a result, environmental readings of the region, especially before the 1950s, oblige researchers to engage in a creative exercise of analysis and interpretation. For the pre-Columbian period, archaeological findings are the principal resource for dealing with the hypothesis that have been established in relation to the appropriation on the part of indigenous groups of environmental resources and services. The chronicles of the first colonizers and colonial clerics are particularly useful as they describe various aspects of social organization, geography, natural resources, and systems for administering the production of the indigenous groups who were conquered and colonized.

For the liberal period, the sources are little more abundant, due to the reports prepared by travelers-scientists who were in charge of describing in great detail geographic, geological, hydrographic, landscape, and sociocultural aspects. Many of these reports were accompanied by cartography, which allow one to understand how the Central American space was perceived. Its nature as a bridge made the isthmus a space coveted by different empires, and there exist primary sources in the distinct archives in the region that can be consulted by researchers interested in the theme. Similarly, liberal governments were interested in discovering the geographic space to “dominate it” and “conquer it,” involving different positions and ministries, so that there are reports, journals, and bulletins whose contents are more economic but which can adopt an environmental reading. In the same way, systematized statistical sources, such as yearbooks and agricultural statistics contained in them, and the first agricultural censuses, which despite being characterized by their dispersed and discontinuous nature (with differences between the various countries in the isthmus) allow the reconstruction of basic aspects of regional environmental history, especially those related to the features of agricultural modernization and its expression in the changes in the use of agricultural soils, specifically those related to agricultural production and its raw materials, both in economic terms and ecological-energetic ones.

From the second half of the 20th century onward, more official information is available, in view of the fact that ministries in charge of environmental issues were emerging. Quantitative and qualitative information is available from these institutions about terrestrial, marine, and aerial natural resources. Likewise, the countries of the isthmus began to draw up and implement distinct political rhythms for conservation and preservation, with the emergence of forest reserves or wildlife refuges, sources which are valuable to make a critical and analytical reading of the scopes and limitations of conservation strategies, the actors who participated, and the environmental conflicts, or those with environmental content, that have emerged. After Rio 92, the theme of sustainability began to be debated in various public and private forums, whether regional, national, or local. There has been increasing participation of environmental groups that generate positive pressure, demanding that real measures be taken to protect the environment, but sectors have also emerged that have tried to silence these initiatives, causing the death of brave men and women who confronted the political power and groups with economic power, as in the case of the Honduran Berta Cáceres and the Costa Ricans Jairo Mora and Jerhy Rivera. In 2018 Latin America—and Central America was not an exception—was the region of the world with the highest number of murders of environmentalists.76

Since 1999 at the regional level, there has existed the report on the State of the Region wthat takes into account a series of political, economic, social, and environmental aspects. The first was published that year and considers the theme of the challenge of water; the following was made in 2003, and centered on environmental management; the third in 2008, analyzing the regional challenge of protecting natural heritage; the fourth in 2011, dealing with a broad perspective in an environmental panorama; the fifth came out in 2016, and also focused on an environmental panorama contemplating the themes of agriculture, conservation, energy, and urban growth. These reports provide valuable data to understand the problematics and challenges facing the isthmus as a whole. In addition to these reports, there exist databases that can be downloaded from the official site of the State of the Region for Central America. As more researchers become interested in studying the region, the documentary collection that students, academics, and the general public can consult in the future will increase.

Further Reading

  • Browning, David. El Salvador. Landscape and Society. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
  • Castro, Guillermo. Naturaleza y Sociedad en la Historia de América Latina. Panamá: Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos (CELA), 1996.
  • Clare, Patricia. “Cambios en los paisajes y sistemas productivos del PacíficoNorte de la actual Costa Rica (1750–1892).” In De colonia a República: economía, política e iglesia en Costa Rica (siglos XVIII-XIX), editado por Alejandra Boza, Manuel B. Chacón, Esteban Corella, David Díaz, Verónica Jerez, Elizet Payne, and Carmela Velásquez, 61–94. San José, Costa Rica: Fundación Museos Banco Central de Costa Rica, 2017.
  • Díaz, David, and Ronny Viales. El impacto económico de la independencia en Centroamérica, (1760–1840): Una interpretación desde la historia global. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, Serie Cuadernos de Historia de Centroamérica, 2016.
  • Edelman, Marc. La lógica del latifundio: Las grandes propiedades del noroeste de Costa Rica desde fines del siglo XIX. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Universidad de Costa Rica, 1998.
  • Fernández Molina, José. Pintando el mundo de azul: El auge añilero y el mercado centroamericano, 1750–1810. San Salvador: Dirección de Publicaciones e Impresos, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y el Arte CONCULTURA, 2003.
  • Gallini, Stefania. Una historia ambiental del café en Guatemala: La Costa Cuca entre 1830 y 1902. Guatemala: AVANCSO, 2008.
  • Goebel, Anthony. Los bosques del “progreso.”: Explotación forestal y régimen ambiental en Costa Rica: 1883–1955. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Nuevas Perspectivas, 2013.
  • Goebel, Anthony, and Ronny Viales. “Blaming It on the Weather: The Role of ‘Inclement’ Rainfall in Society-Nature Relations in Liberal Costa Rica (1860–1940).” Global Environment 6 (2011): 8–67.
  • Gudmundson, Lowell. Costa Rica antes del café. San José, Costa Rica: EUNED, 2010.
  • Gudmunsond, Lowell, and Héctor Lindo. Central America, 1821–1871. Liberalismo before Liberal Reform. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.
  • Hall, Carolyn, Héctor Pérez, and John Cotter. Historical Atlas of Central America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.
  • Infante-Amate, Juan, and Wilson Picado. “Energy Flows in the Coffee Plantations of Costa Rica: From Traditional to Modern Systems (1935–2010).” Regional Environmental Change 18, no. 4 (2018): 1059–1071.
  • Kaimowitz, David. “Livestock and Deforestation: Central America in the 1980s and 1990s: A Policy Perspective.” Discussion papers 9. Jakarta: Center for International Forestry Research, 1996.
  • McCook, Stuart. “The Global Rust Belt: Hemileia vastatrix and the Ecological Integration of World Coffee Production since 1850.” Journal of Global History 1, no. 2 (2006): 177–195.
  • Miller, Shawn William. An Environmental History of Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Myers, Norman, and Richard Tucker. “Deforestation in Central America: Spanish Legacy and North American Consumers.” Environmental Review 11, no. 1 (1987): 55–71.
  • Pérez Brignoli, Héctor. El laberinto centroamericano: Los hilos de la historia. San José, Costa Rica: Vicerrectoría de Investigación/Centro de Investigaciones Históricas de América Central, 2017.
  • Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente (PNUMA) and Comisión Centroamericana de Ambiente y Desarrollo (CCAD). GEO Centroamérica. Perspectivas del medio ambiente 2004. México: PNUMA y CCAD, 2006.
  • Sandner, Gerhard. Centroamérica y el Caribe Occidental: Coyunturas, crisis y conflictos 1503–1984. San Andrés, Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Instituto de Estudios Caribeños, 2003.
  • Soluri, John. Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.
  • Soluri, John. “People, Plants, and Pathogens: The Eco-social Dynamics of Export Banana Production in Honduras, 1875–1950.” Hispanic American Historical Review 80, no. 3 (2000): 463–501.
  • Soluri, John, Claudia Leal, and José Augusto Pádua. A Living Past: Environmental Histories of Modern Latin America. New York: Berghahn, 2018.
  • Tucker, Richard. Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  • Utting, Peter. Trees, People and Power, Social Dimensions of Deforestation and Forest Protection in Central America. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, 1993.
  • Van Ausdal, Shawn, and Robert W. Wilcox. “Hoofprints: Cattle Ranching and Landscape Transformation.” In A Living Past: Environmental Histories of Modern Latin America, ed. John Soluri, Claudia Leal, and José Augusto Pádua. New York: Berghahn, 2018.
  • Viales, Ronny, and Andrea Montero. “Una aproximación al impacto ambiental del cultivo del banano en el Atlántico/Caribe de Costa Rica (1870–1930).” In Costa Rica: Cuatro Ensayos de Historia Ambiental, ed. Ronny Viales and Anthony Goebel, 83–124. San José, Costa Rica: Sociedad Editora Alquimia 2000, 2011.