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2 Latin America as Nature U.S. Travel Writing and the Invention of Tropical Underdevelopment The ill-smelling rum of the country is cheap and plentiful, tobacco grows everywhere, but these men neither drank nor smoked, nor swore—triple vices to be taught them by the first rush of AngloSaxon emigration, if there ever is one, for these people, when they live away from towns, seem quite free from grossness, both in customs and manner. Perhaps they were influenced by the knowledge that three strangers were within ear-shot; perhaps their simple lives, spent with nature in her loveliest and most majestic forms, gave the bent towards romance and sentiment. —S. Desmond Segur, “On a Venezuelan Coffee Plantation” (1895) Life in poor climes, then, is precarious, depressed, brutish. The ­mistakes of man, however well intentioned, aggravate the cruelties of nature. —David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998) In the August 11, 1895, issue of the Los Angeles Times, S. Desmond Segur offered readers a study of “the pessimism that hovers, black-winged, over countless wretched little towns lying stagnant on the surface of our planet, and to one of which I propose to conduct my readers for the benefit of contrast,” with the United States, of course. Unlike the dynamic United States, the “wretched little town” of Cariaquito, on a remote peninsula on the Caribbean coast of eastern Venezuela, is “stagnant ”; in contrast to their optimistic neighbors to the north, its people are trapped by a “pessimism” that Segur links metaphorically with one of the “black-winged” insects of tropic swamps. This stagnant pessimism, however, allows Segur to appreciate the majestic nature he finds there. Cariaquito’s people are gentle and innocent, he writes, and live in close contact with their beautiful natural environment. Ironically, though, the “romance” of that environment is lost on the people most familiar with 45 Latin America as Nature it. Cariaquiteños lack the ability to appreciate the landscape aesthetically. What’s more, its pristine beauty is passing. “So the little town lies,” Segur writes, “hopelessly unchanging, while people are born, grow old and die there, and the busy thousands abroad, down whose throats it yearly pours such a stream of coffee and chocolate, know nothing about it.”1 Segur’s combination of sad, aesthetic reverence and moralistic contempt for the culture wrought by the “tropics” is one of the more enduring conventions of Latin Americanist writing in the United States, both for travel writers like him and professional students of the region’s ecology and economy. In his 1915 study Civilization and Climate, Yale University ’s Ellsworth Huntington, a pioneer in what was then the new field of human geography, made a scientific study of the poverty of the tropics. Dispensing with the aestheticism of travel writers taken by the tropics’ natural beauty, Huntington interpreted the poverty of the global South as a consequence, not of its racial inferiority, but of its climate. A century later, David Landes’s best-selling The Wealth and Poverty of ­ Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor began to answer its subtitle’s question in much the same way. Huntington reframed familiar racist claims about “indolence” and “industry” as scientific consequences of climatic factors. Positioning himself against the pseudo-scientific geographic tradition established by Huntington, much as Huntington distinguished himself from the racial thinking of his own predecessors, Landes argues that “the law of heat exhaustion” applies to all. Landes’s opening chapter, “Nature’s Inequalities,” is at pains to frame his argument as one about “inequality,” not “incapacity,” and he is quick to disavow the racism of geographers who have found in climate a “natural” explanation for underdevelopment—but then again, so was Huntington. The second chapter of Civilization and Climate, after all, was called “Race or Place.” Its primary objective, Huntington wrote, was to minimize the effects of the former by concentrating on the greater power of the latter, “to separate the effects of race from those of place, heredity from environment.”2 Andrew Kamarck’s The Tropics and Economic Underdevelopment, a 1977 World Bank study on the connection between poverty and climate, also makes a point to distinguish its empirical analysis of tropical soil, rainfall, and the agricultural technologies employed in the South from the legacy of geographers like Huntington. “Tropical climate is not temperate in its essential sense of moderation,” writes Kamarck, committing the same confirmation bias as predecessors who...


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