Cover Image
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

Indigenous cultures

Human occupation of the American continents took place at a relatively late stage in the evolution of humankind, perhaps as late as 30 thousand years ago. Animal species in African and Eurasian ecosystems, where humans had been evolving for a long time, adapted to this effective mammal, and in most cases managed to survive. In America, humans found a different fauna, composed of animals not adapted to human presence and, frequently, an easy target for the arriving hunters and gatherers. Some of the large mammals (several species of Glyptodon, Toxodon, Mylodon, and Mastodon) were hunted to extinction in a few millennia. Therefore, from the beginning, humans provoked a profound upheaval in American ecosystems.

“Paleo-lndian” groups were soon forced to adapt to the changes that they themselves had produced. After many generations of migration and technological and social development, the new societies gradually developed sustainable social and environmental models, which, in general, conserved the main ecosystems without major changes for several millennia. A whole spectrum of cultures evolved in the various environments of the Americas and, by the time the European conquerors arrived, they were well established throughout the continents.

In the high valleys of the central Andes and Central America, numerous farming societies were organized into relatively large kingdoms or empires, such as those of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Tahuantisuyu in Peru. The Mexican states were organized around the cultivation of corn, chili peppers, and tomatoes, and the raising of turkeys and dogs. Their capital, at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, was the large island-city of Tenochtitlan. The Peruvian states of western South America based their economy mainly on potato, corn, and quinoa farming and raising llamas; their capital was the large Andean city of Cuzco.

In the northern Andes, the high valleys were occupied by agricultural societies (the Chibchas) who had also developed impressive skills in metallurgy. Chibcha groups were organized into small states ruled by a chieftain.

In the Yucatan and Guatemala, relatively prosperous farming towns have been established by the Mayas, who were in the process of economic and political decline when the Europeans arrived. Several larger towns were abandoned and apparently some of their inhabitants settled in the mountains not far from present-day Guatemala City.

The Caribbean islands had been occupied by many farming and fishing communities - originally the Arawaks, who had been displaced by the Caribs on some islands. Arawaks and Caribs were also present throughout the forests of South America.

The huge South American forests were the territory of the Tupi-Guarani cultures, who gradually became well adapted to these rich, but difficult, ecosystems. The Tupi-Guaranis extended from the Amazon to the Rio de la Plata and from the Andes foothills to the Atlantic Ocean. Their subsistence was based on itinerant farming of corn and cassava and various extractive activities, such as hunting, fishing, and the gathering of plants and small animals.

The grasslands of South America were inhabited by nonfarming groups of hunter-gatherer-fishers who lived by hunting the venado (a small South American deer), ostriches, and armadillos. These societies were organized politically in small groups and confederations. Similar groups, but larger and better organized politically, existed in the prairies of North America, where they relied on buffalo hunting and other extractive activities.

Finally, the cooler regions at the extremes of the continents were inhabited by various groups of hunters and fishers, such as the Tehuelches, the Onas, and the Fueguinos in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, and the Inuit, Dene, and Algonquins in the northern regions of North America.

In general’ indigenous societies were adapted to the specific conditions in local ecosystems; the ones that did not adapt, disappeared. In the rain-forest ecosystems, complex land-use systems developed. They included small plots for slash-and-bum farming, specific areas reserved for medicinal plants or animals, and zones for social activities and various religious or “magic” rites. On the whole, this system constituted a sustainable approach to forest management.

In the grasslands, hunting practices included taboos and respect for “totems,” ensuring that indiscriminate killing could not endanger the survival of the resource species. Both in southern and in northern grasslands, hunting groups followed the herds, which were extensive. There are many historical references to the huge numbers of buffalo roaming the North American central plains. Similar references exist on the abundance of venado in the Uruguayan grasslands; according to the Portuguese explorer, de Souza, in 1532 they “covered the land to the horizon.” Their numbers were more or less stable.

Farming activities in the mountain societies were also carried out in a sustainable manner. The farming systems in the Altiplano were (and still are) complex, including cultivation of several different types of crops at the same time and a rotation system, ensuring maximum production without irreversible losses of fertility or incidence of plagues.