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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder11. Latin America and the Caribbean: A history of environmental degradation
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIndigenous cultures
View the documentThe colonial period
View the documentExploitation of natural resources after independence
View the documentEffects of globalization on the environment
View the documentThe maquiladora phenomenon

The colonial period

After 1492, when the first Spanish expedition arrived, a dramatic change occurred. Before the end of the 15th century, the first Spanish explorers became conquerors, settling in several islands of the Caribbean - Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, etc. - and, shortly after this, the Portuguese founded their first colonies in Brazil. In Santo Domingo, the Spaniards treated the indigenous population as slaves, raped native women, and did not hesitate to kill whole communities when they offered resistance. After 50 years of Spanish occupation, only a few hundred indigenous people had survived these genocidal practices and the deadly European diseases. Finally, widespread suicide among the survivors resulted in the early disappearance of these ethnic groups. Similar developments occurred in the other Caribbean islands controlled by the Spaniards. In Brazil, the behaviour of the Portuguese was not much different. Thousands of indigenous people were put to work as slaves, and expeditions set out from the settled areas on the coast into the interior to obtain more labourers.

In the 16th century, the main purpose of the Europeans was to obtain precious metals and gemstones, such as gold, silver, and emeralds. The Spaniards invested much effort in exploiting existing mines and opening new ones. They developed silver and gold mines in Potosi, in upper Peru (present-day Bolivia), Taxco, Mexico, and many other areas. The financial gains from these mining activities funded a massive colonization effort.

Spaniards and Portuguese settlers reproduced the European feudal system in America. The settlers were awarded encomiendas, the equivalent of European fiefdoms. The production systems introduced by the Europeans were extractive and damaging. Widespread mineral exploitation and indiscriminate deforestation, overcultivation, and overgrazing without concern for sustainability were the rule. The impact was severe in many areas, and some ecosystems were destroyed beyond repair. Because of the limited number of settlers, however, a major portion of the natural environment remained relatively untouched.

In Andean farming areas, the landowners controlled large numbers of indigenous peasants who continued farming, more or less as before. except for having to work for long periods, sometimes many years, in the mines. In the grasslands, the land was awarded to settlers to raise cattle, which were introduced in southern South America in the 16th century. Cattle replaced the venado and other herbivorous prairie and’ mars, some of which became more and more scarce and, in a few cases, came close to extinction.