Malaria, Landscape, and Society in Northwest Argentina in the Early Twentieth Century


Although mostly forgotten, malaria was once widespread in Argentina’s Northwest region and had a dramatic impact on public health and social development. This paper explores the malaria problem in the social, demographic, and environmental context of Argentina in the early 1900s, when prevalence of the disease was at its height. Using a diverse range of sources and a mixture of historical demographic, spatial analytical, and qualitative methods, the geographical distribution of malaria and its association with social and environmental factors is analyzed. Examination of the general epidemiology of malaria in the Northwest is complemented by case studies that demonstrate the complex dynamics of malaria in the city of Salta and the agricultural hinterland of Tucumán province. Although malaria was a widespread and commonplace illness in the region, and garnered much political attention, it was neither a leading cause of mortality nor a cause of demographic stagnation. Improvements in sanitary infrastructure and drainage helped facilitate the decline of malaria in urban centers, although the relationship of the disease with wetland hazards remains unclear. In rural areas, the tenuous and impoverished conditions of agricultural laborers helped to sustain malaria transmission, but permanent workers in sugar mills enjoyed better health conditions, generally. Overall, this paper demonstrates the utility of historical statistical and spatial analysis, complemented by more fine-grained qualitative research, in drawing out the social and environmental dimensions of past disease complexes.