Roundtable A Social Turn in Latin American Environmental History?

AHA Session 182
Conference on Latin American History 42
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Houston Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Myrna I. Santiago, Saint Mary's College of California

Session Abstract

This roundtable discussion will be structured around a cross-section of leading edge projects in Latin American environmental history in a bid to assess whether the field is undergoing what could be called “a social turn.” The presentations represent works in progress that build upon pioneering works on the history of the Latin American environment, most of which describe ecosystems as something directly or indirectly acted upon by people. Alfred Crosby’s path-breaking work on the Columbian exchange, for example, demonstrated that the plants, microbes, and animals the Spanish unleashed on the Americas sparked epic and oftentimes tragic changes to the land and native societies the conquerors encountered. Likewise, Warren Dean’s influential history of the Brazilian Atlantic forest and Elinore Melville’s study of pastoralism in Mexico’s Valle de Mezquital both depict ecosystems fundamentally transformed by people and their animals.

            The histories presented here complicate this approach by examining the interaction of both human and non-human populations with different landscapes in Latin America. Without returning to an discourses of environmental determinism in which climate, resource endowments, or some other factor is seen as the primary driver of history, the presentations in this roundtable suggest that people both structure and are structured by their surroundings. Presentations will discuss a wide range of actors and ecosystems, including the relationship of post-revolutionary land reform with Mexican forests, the role of animals in the Southern Cone, the creation of a built environment of the Guanabara Bay alongside Rio de Janeiro, and the relationship of climate change and social change in the Andes.

            The presentations are intended to open a dialogue with the audience about the direction(s) that Latin American environmental historiography appears to be taking as well as the methodological and conceptual tools that its practitioners find most useful. Presentations will therefore be kept to no more than 7-10 minutes and function above all as catalysts for a discussion with the audience. The interactive component is particularly important because the panel is aimed in part at the impressive number of graduate students and younger scholars who have entered the field of Latin American environmental history and will hopefully add their own voices to the discussion.

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