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  • Territories, Commodities and Knowledges: Latin American Environmental Histories in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
  • Brenda Baletti
Territories, Commodities and Knowledges: Latin American Environmental Histories in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Christian Brannstrom, editor. London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2004. xiii and 323 pp., maps, figures, tables, and references. $19.95 Paper (ISBN 1-900039-57-5).

An increasing number of studies are being conducted on historical human-environment relationships in Latin America, yet scholars continue to struggle with how to define parameters and approach the topic. The challenge of fostering the interdisciplinary nature of the research, while still maintaining a coherent perspective with a regional focus has spawned much debate.  Territories, Commodities and Knowledges engages this debate, articulating an agenda for Latin American environmental history that addresses issues specific to the region, and, at the same time, remains part of the larger discussion about environmental history. This incisive volume offers the reader a critical examination of Latin American environmental history, and also addresses timely topics confronting environmental history as a field.  

In the introductory chapter, Brannstram and co-author Stefania Gallini assess the state of environmental history, highlight current academic debates within the field, define the book's theoretical approach, and acknowledge its limitations.  In an attempt to clarify current understanding of the field, they offer an operational definition of environmental history as " works of research on past human-environment relations that display some of the following characteristics; reworked sptial scales; environmental readings of written evidence or actual measures of past environments; and attempts to situate nature conceptually within historical research" (p.4).  It is this last category, nature's place within historical research, which sparks the most contentious debates. The authors' position, that both nature and humans are actors shaping history, is made clear.  Brannstrom and Gallini examine other compelling debates in environmental history, such as ecocentrism versus technocentrism, recentism, and the relevance of environmental history for contemporary public policy.  The research framework, labeled "territories-commodities-knowledges," suggests that human-environment interactions and the coinciding environmental change during this period can be best understood through a study of the territorial and environmental aspects of commodity production.   By incorporating an understanding of nature's agency into the examination of (1) inter-related phenomena of the territorial expansion of nation-states, (2) integration of export commodities into world markets, and(3) increasing scientific knowledge and technological development, they suggest that Latin Americanists have a distinctive opportunity to contribute to the existing environmental history literature.

The volume presents nine case studies by individual authors and situates them within the larger conceptual debates outlined above.  All of these theoretically thorough and empirically rich chapters grapple with one or more of the themes raised in the introduction, though some do so more directly than others.  While the introductory research framework effectively unites the themes presented in the chapters, it is questionable whether any one study integrates all three elements completely.  The book is divided into three sections, each bearing the name of one part of the research framework.  Part 1, "Territories: States, People, Environment" examines the territorial expansion of states, the environmental constraints on this expansion, and the impacts on local people and environments.  Stefania Gallini's insightful chapter explores the manner in which Maya Mam agro-ecosystems influenced the development of coffee production in Guatamala, and how the coffee revolution, in turn, marginalized the Mam people and produced landscape degradation. Karl Offen's chapter analyzes how distorted environmental narratives [End Page 116] representing the resources and inhabitants of the Mosquitia region led to the Nicaraguan government's attempts to annex the territory, and, ultimately, had adverse impacts on the development of export economies. Nikolas Kozloff's chapter describes the deleterious effects of the oil boom on a small Venezuelan town on the shores of Lake Maracaibo and its ecosystem.

Part 2, entitled "Commodities:  Export Booms and the Environment" addresses environmental alterations implemented to facilitate commodity production, and the social and environmental repercussions of that change.  Alejandro Tortolero Villaseñor's engaging chapter on the transformation of the central Mexican waterscape delves into the way that urban modernization discourses shaped environmental ideology, policy, and practice in the hinterlands, creating...


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