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Editors' Foreword: Contemporary Debates on Ecology, Society, and Culture in Latin America

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 46, Special Issue
pp. 3-10 | 10.1353/lar.2011.0036

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For the past two decades, studies on ecology, society, and culture in Latin America have multiplied rapidly, mirroring the increasing importance of ecological and environmental debates worldwide. The environment has become the object of a multidisciplinary research endeavor in which the natural sciences, policy and technical sciences, social sciences, and humanities converge. This special issue of Latin American Research Review brings together some of today's most innovative social science and humanities research on environmental issues in Latin America and aims to make it more widely known to scholars working in other fields of Latin American studies and to the public at large. Contributors come from such diverse disciplines as political science, geography, history, anthropology, and literary studies and adopt a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches. From a geographical perspective, we have tried to be as broad as possible in our selection of articles to give readers a sense of contemporary environmental discussions in different parts of Latin America. Articles in this volume deal with Chile, Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, and particularly Brazil, which receives special attention because of its important role in contemporary conservation and environmental debates. Cases examined range from islands and aquatic environments to rain forests, agricultural fields, and protected conservation areas, from the rural-urban interface to the arenas of international policy making.

Latin America's historical dependency on natural resources, both for local livelihoods and to supply an evolving global market, has made environmental issues central in policy debates and in widespread contests over the meaning and use of natural species and habitats, carried out against the region's persistent legacy of inequality. Many scholars of Latin America have addressed these complex issues from the perspective of economic development and globalization, but perhaps less so through the lens of environmental conservation. Yet the two are intertwined. Conservation of protected areas has grown worldwide, as has the mobilization of citizens at different levels, often in unlikely alliances, to propose new, alternative models for the governance of natural resources that incorporate diverse perspectives and stakeholders in often complex transactions. As conservation has become internationalized, these debates have meshed with the development concerns long of interest to scholars of Latin American studies, through parallel streams of literature such as cultural ecology, environmental justice, political ecology, and environmental discourse.

Historical transformations in global economic, institutional, and ideological forces, as they play out in local and regional contests over resources and territories, underlie the complex ecological, social, and cultural relationships analyzed in this issue. These transformations take place within the framework of the region's global history, including the persistent legacy of inequality and changing responses to it at different times and places. Under current conditions of globalization, dominated by market-driven neoliberal policies, the distribution of benefits and costs among social groups in Latin America from both development and conservation has only worsened. At the same time, the growth of cross-scale socioenvironmental social movements and the increasing attention to alternative energy and development policies as a result of the global economic crisis have broadened the frame of both action and discourse at international forums. The articles gathered in this special issue focus on the environment as a contested domain of markets, livelihoods, rights, and identities, within a context of globalization, commodification of nature, inequality, and contestation. To frame the articles, it is useful to consider how paradigms of conservation and of development have evolved in complex and intertwined ways over the past two centuries (Mulder and Coppolillo 2005). In tandem with ideas and approaches to development, paradigms of conservation also have moved through distinct historical phases, whose goals, approaches, and protagonists are depicted in simplistic form in table 1.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, alongside the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of global capitalism, the earliest concerns with the protection of nature led to the setting aside of natural areas to be protected from human exploitation. Yellowstone National Park, created in 1870, became the icon of this top-down, protectionist approach to conservation, which has persisted to the present in different degrees. Other strands of conservation thinking that took a more utilitarian approach—protecting natural resources because of their usefulness to people—emerged in tandem with...

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