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The Americas 58.4 (2002) 513-536

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'Giving Plants a Civil Status':
Scientific Representations of Nature and Nation in Costa Rica and Venezuela, 1885-1935

Stuart McCook
The College of New Jersey
Ewing, New Jersey

When a country directs its activities to the exact and direct knowledge of the territory it encloses and of the appearances which nature presents in both the inorganic and organic realms . . ., no effort will be wasted if we are firmly persuaded that time will reveal material interest and value to that which before had appeared to be mere curiosity or entertainment for intellectuals.

—Lisandro Alvarado, introduction to
Henri Pittier's Exploraciones, botánicas y otras,
en la cuenca de Maracaibo (1922).1

In a 1924 essay, the botanist Henri Pittier worried that many of Latin America's tropical products—particularly its plants—lacked a 'civil status.' By this, Pittier meant that they had not yet been identified and named scientifically. He likened the plants' lack of a botanical 'civil status' to a person's lacking a passport or credentials that proved their citizenship. This was more than a casual analogy. Over the previous half-century, many states in Latin America had begun to take inventories of their plants, just as they had begun taking censuses of their citizens, and surveying and mapping their national territories. These botanical inventories helped states establish control over the natural world, just as censuses helped the state establish control over civil society. Between 1885 and 1935, governments throughout Latin America began to fund botanical research institutions and to finance the publication of national floras. Pittier had been actively involved in this process: he had helped establish national natural history museums in Costa Rica and Venezuela, and wrote or edited three national flora: the Primitiae [End Page 513] Florae Costaricensis (1891-1901), the Ensayo sobre las plantas usuales de Costa Rica (1908), and the Manual de las plantas usuales de Venezuela (1926). National floras such as these were not simply 'entertainment for intellectuals' but also part of broader programs by Latin American governments to incorporate the natural world into the national political and economic order. 2

This government interest in botanical inventories was recent. For much of the nineteenth century, the study of Latin America's plants had been dominated by non-resident foreigners. After most of Latin America achieved independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, foreign naturalists began to visit the new republics, as part of a flood of foreign soldiers, miners, engineers, adventurers, missionaries and others. The botany practiced by these foreign naturalists was essentially extractive. They extracted botanically significant plants in much the same way that foreign corporations such as the United Fruit Company extracted bananas from Central America. They made brief collecting expeditions to the tropics, and took their collections back to Europe or North America. By the late nineteenth century, the most important herbaria of Latin American plants were to be found in Europe or North America, particularly at the Berlin herbarium, at Kew Gardens in London, and later in the nineteenth century, the U. S. National Herbarium in Washington and the New York Botanical Garden. These institutions began publishing detailed papers, and later botanical maps and floras, of tropical Latin America. 3

Beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, many Latin American countries began to produce their own botanical inventories and national floras. This growing official interest in the natural world coincides with the liberal era in Latin America, which lasted roughly from 1870 to 1930. National botanical inventories appealed to Latin America's liberal elites for ideological and practical reasons. During the liberal era, national governments pursued the goals of 'order and progress,' enlisting science and technology to help rationalize and modernize the state, the economy, and [End Page 514] society. They pursued economic growth through the export of tropical commodities—ranging from industrial commodities such as rubber and henequen to luxury foods such as coffee, sugar, and bananas. This meant that during the liberal era many Latin American...


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