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  • From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492
  • Jorge Pérez-López
From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492. Reinaldo Funes Monzote. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. illus, tables, maps, glossary, append., bibl., index, 357 pp., $24.95, paper. (ISBN 978-0-8078-35858-5).

Reinaldo Funes Monzote's From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492 is a meticulously researched and thoroughly engaging history of the tensions between the use of forest resources and the expansion of the sugar industry and their ultimate effect on the island's landscape. To be sure, there are other excellent histories of the Cuban sugar industry or of Cuban economic and social development that cover much of the same ground as Funes Monzote's. However, the present work is unique in looking at Cuba economic history through the lens of the environment, and more specifically, the interplay between forests and the sugar industry. Originally written in Spanish (De bosque a sabana: Azúcar, deforestación y medio ambiente en Cuba (1492-1926), México, Siglo XXI, 2004), it has been superbly translated by Alex Martin and published as part of the "Envisioning Cuba" series of the University of North Carolina Press. The author is associated with the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre and the Department of History at the Universidad de la Habana.

Although the subtitle refers to being an environmental history of Cuba since 1492, the volume concentrates on forests and on the period from the mid-18th century to the first quarter of the 20th century, the time span of ascendancy of the sugar industry. The book is structured around five phases, delineated by the author, of the relationship between forests and the sugar industry: (1) 1772-1791, tension between shipbuilding and the sugar industry over the use of forest resources; (2) 1792-1815, struggle over the ownership of forests; (3) 1815-1876, freedom to clear forests; (4) 1876-1898, centralization of the sugar industry; and (5) 1898-1926, age of U.S. investment. Each of these phases is carefully analyzed, using a very effective combination of historical statistics, anecdotes drawn from contemporary travel logs, maps, photographs, and illustrations. The volume begins with an overview of Cuba's environmental situation at the time of discovery. Contrary to statements attributed to early colonizers, the island was not totally forested at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, with substantial areas covered by sabanas or prados naturales. There is consensus, however, that a large share of the island's territory was covered with forests. It is the very existence of rich forestry resources that led to the establishment of a vibrant shipbuilding industry around the port of La Habana as early as the 16th century. Similarly, forestry products became an important export category, with Cuban precious woods –ebony, mahogany, ácana, quiebrahacha-- exported to Spain for the construction of important projects such as the monastery of San Lorenzo el Real (El Escorial) and Madrid's Palacio Real. As population and settlements grew, competing interests began to contest the ample forest resources. Funes Monzote illustrates the contestation through a regulation issued by the City Council of La Habana in November 1550 –most likely the first conservationist regulation ever enacted in the [End Page 183] island– that prohibited blacks from felling mahogany and cedar trees (which they used to build troughs, flat-bottom boats, and other rudimentary items) within a two-league radius and established stiff penalties for the transgressors and their masters.

Sugar cane began to be cultivated in Cuba toward the end of the 16th century, in small plantations in the Eastern end of the island. It was in the plains near La Habana, however, that cultivation of sugar cane and sugar production and exports took off in the 17th and 18th centuries, encroaching on forests in three principal ways: forested land was cleared for the construction of mills, establishment of sugar cane fields surrounding the mills, and construction of transportation infrastructure; hard woods harvested from local forests were used to build mill structures...


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