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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

Exploitation of natural resources after independence

At the beginning of the 19th century, most Spanish colonies declared independence, taking advantage of Spain’s preoccupation with Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian peninsula. About 20 new countries were formed in Hispanic America. A few years later, in 1822, the Portuguese colonies in Brazil also became an independent monarchy. Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under colonial rule until the end of the 19th century.

However, the old feudal-style colonial exploitation persisted in the recently formed countries. The new criollo elites were often the largest landowners, and the old social structure remained intact. Large farms and ranches were the successors of the old encomiendas and continued producing in much the same way as the old Spanish and Portuguese plantations had.

During the 19th century, countries of Latin America and the Caribbean fumed to the processing of various raw materials and food products for export, mainly to Europe and, especially during the last decades of the century, the United States. Exploitation of natural resources was ruthless, with little concern for environmental effects. In areas of high population density, such as mountain valleys or coastal zones, deforestation was intense, mining and quarrying proceeded at an ever faster pace, hunting drove many wild animals to the brink of extinction, and soil erosion was common in farming areas.

In the 20th century, these trends increased. Lands belonging to indigenous peoples were occupied with little recognition of their rights, and environmental damage continued. The economies of Latin American and Caribbean countries, which were export-oriented from colonial times, became even more so because of the establishment of railroads and the growth of major ports.

In Argentina and Uruguay, economic growth was based on beef, leather, wool, and wheat. The railway system of Argentina converged on the main export port, Buenos Aires. This city had grown very quickly in both population and commercial activity. In 1870, it had a population of more than 100 thousand; in the 1950s, it had “town to 8 million people. In Uruguay, the railroad system radiated from Montevideo, the only exporting centre, which also grew rapidly from 50 thousand inhabitants in 1860, to 300 thousand in 1900, to 1 million by 1960. This demographic growth was the result of a continuing influx of immigrants, mainly from Europe, which in large measure determined the ethnic makeup of these cities.

In Brazil, the export market was based in Sao Paulo and its port, Santos, and in Rio de Janeiro, which was the capital until the 1960s. The main exports from the Sao Paulo area were coffee, sugarcane, and timber (Brazil pine). From Bahia and the northeast, cocoa, copra, sugarcane, and bananas were exported from the main ports: Salvador and Recife. The Amazon region specialized in the production of rubber, particularly near the port city of Manaus. This product was an important source of revenue for several decades, until the rubber tree was introduced in Malaysia and Brazilian production declined.

Recently, the Amazon has witnessed a widespread gold rush. The garimpeiros (small gold miners) have moved into many potentially gold-rich areas, seriously affecting formerly pristine environments. River sediments are dredged and treated with quicksilver (mercury) to separate the gold. Mercury is carried by the rivers and eventually concentrates in plant and animal tissues. In several Amazon rivers, fish systematically show high mercury levels; their human consumers with similar symptoms. In the fishing community of Rainha, on the Tapajoz, hair samples from local villagers have shown mercury levels much higher than the WHO standard maximum of 6 ppm (Serril 1994). Similar conditions are routinely found in the Madeira, Xingu, and Negro subbasins. Amazonian indigenous groups, which largely depend on fish for their survival, are often the first victims of this process of contamination and poisoning.

The Pacific coast countries and Bolivia, which were exporters of precious metals (mainly silver) in colonial times, continued to produce minerals, such as copper and nitrates in Chile and tin in Bolivia. In this region, centralization was less marked. This was primarily because of the region’s geography - a long mountain range or ranges bordering narrow coastal plains and valleys. The main export outlets were the two oldest colonial ports: Valparaiso in Chile and Lima, Peru.

In Central America, the Caribbean, and the northern coast of Colombia, the main products were bananas, coffee, and copra. Often, export activities were carried out by American-owned companies that controlled production and access to foreign markets. The United Fruit Company, which was extremely powerful in Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, used its influence to change governments or induce American military interventions. The Central American republics at that time were, ironically, called “Banana Republics.”

In Mexico, the drive to export was somewhat slowed during the revolution of the 1910s, when dictator Porfirio Diaz was overthrown by a peasant revolution headed by Emiliano Zapata in the south and Pancho Villa in the north. This revolution radically changed the structure of land ownership in the country. By the end of the 1930s, with the nationalization of the petroleum industry by Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico’s main export product became nationally owned.

At the same time, the main cities of the continent began developing an important industrial base. In Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, exporting enterprises, such as textile plants, slaughterhouses, and tanneries developed. In other cases, industries were geared to national markets, and were usually sheltered from foreign competition by protectionist policies. The main industrial cities were Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City, but industrial areas also became established in Havana, Santiago, Montevideo, Bogota, and Lima.

This widespread economic trend toward exports and increasing industrial activities had a very strong effect on the already-damaged Latin American and Caribbean environment. Elimination of the forests and the spread of monospecific plantations increased the vulnerability of soils to water and wind erosion, and hydrological regimes changed everywhere, increasing the frequency of floods and droughts. The increase in urban and industrial activities produced a cumulative deterioration of natural water systems. Small rivers near the cities became open sewers, larger rivers and lakes received considerable volumes of contaminants, and aquifers became saline or polluted.