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  • From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492
  • Susan J. Fernandez
From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492. Reinaldo Funes Monzote. 2008. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 384 pp. Maps, photographs, tables, appendices, notes, index, bibliographic essay, glossary. $24.95 paper. (ISBN: 978-0-8078-5858-5)

Systematically and conscientiously, Reinaldo Funes Monzote tackles the challenge of determining the impact of sugar on the Cuban environment. Examining arguments regarding the "best" use of the island's woodlands in historical context, Funes has uncovered historic and timely debates about private versus public interest and sustainable development in Cuba.

Although the subtitle of the book is "An Environmental History since 1492," Funes mainly focuses on three distinct phases of colonial and early national Cuba. The first phase was the period of expansion and consolidation of Spanish colonialism, as Cuba became vital to control of the rest of the Americas. This period lasted to the early 1790s, and the first significant impact of deforestation resulted from the use of timber for "floating forests:" ship-building, prioritized by the colonial system. Funes details how, as settlement expanded, colonial governments attempted to negotiate among competing demands of the navy and settlers requiring building supplies and fuel and the less powerful interests of cattle ranchers and tobacco and sugar producers. At this point, the contexts for negotiation by the colonial power and emphases on conservation were limited to considering how to ensure long-term access to wood resources for strategic defense of Cuba and the empire. Funes details the varieties of wood resources and their specific uses and government efforts to regulate how, where, and in what quantities woodlands were to be cut in the Havana and Matanzas regions.

The second phase of significance to Cuba's woodlands began as the expanding interests of sugar growers in Cuba were enhanced after the Haitian Revolution and France's loss of its dominant sugar colony. Spain's decision over the next century to emphasize sugar exports altered the island economically, socially, and culturally, as many other researchers have explored. Funes' significant contribution to nineteenth century history is to detail contextually how, why, and to what extent the decision to support a primary export model in Cuba affected island topography. The way in which sugar contributed to deforestation, soil depletion, erosion, loss of flora and fauna, reduction in diversity, possible weather pattern changes, introduction [End Page 95] of non-native species, and food security limitations, Funes argues, resulted from patterns established during this era. The period of 1815 to 1876, he notes, represents "a rapacious world view with respect to human beings and the environment" and "is one of the best examples of a relationship with the environment based on a combination of slavery, economic liberalism, and early mechanization in the Industrial Revolution (128)." Previous disputes between the navy and island interests were settled in favor of sugar. New technology and slavery expansion in Cuba, along with a climate of free trade, had secured sugar's value in the international economy and to the crown.

Funes documents the early critics of forest use and sugar monoculture in Cuba, citing scientists, politicians, and journalists who, even before the nineteenth century expressed concerns that remain unresolved in the twenty-first: Who is best able to anticipate and implement conservation efforts—the government or private interests? How "private" is private property? Can environmental impact be analyzed on a cost-benefit basis? And to what extent should contemporaries feel responsible for future generations? Funes suggests that while nineteenth century analysts tended to view preservation in mainly romantic terms, they were acutely aware of the negative effects of sugar and the need for conservation of forests. They cited problems with flooding, soil erosion, and changing rain patterns resulting from prioritization of sugar fields and mills. Yet those knowledgeable of the means and alternatives for more sustainable systems were powerless to challenge the strength of sugar wealth.

In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Spain lost control over most of its colonial empire, but its efforts to direct the pace and impact of the sugar economy in Cuba...


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