Cultivating Environmental Reform: Competing Agrarian Politics in 20th-Century Latin America

AHA Session 258
Conference on Latin American History 57
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Carmen Soliz, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Tore Olsson, University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Session Abstract

In what ways is environmental reform political? Our panel considers this loaded question in the fraught context of twentieth-century Latin America. From Peru to Chile, Colombia, and the border between Bolivia and Brazil, struggles over agricultural modernization and land reform displayed an immense diversity of interests. The government and international actors who shaped the environment worked to consolidate state power in the domestic and transnational arenas, and they sometimes operated with their own moralistic utopian visions. Yet social actors—environmental activists, land rights advocates, and student revolutionaries—devoted themselves to competing notions of an equitable environmental and social future. Their varied modes of protest to state projects of management disrupt any historical narrative that rests on the inviolability of developmentalist goals, such as food security and conservation. Neither were social movements always inherently good. Yet protest has value to the historian: it indicates the importance of the social aspects of environmental history, which, Latin America shows, were fertile ground for political conflict and imagining different future possibilities.

Besides the recovery of environmental politics, our panel seeks to explore a set of methodological questions. First, we ask about agency. Environmental history has long been a fruitful arena to consider the way that facets of the ‘natural’ world, from animals to food crops to soil and weather, have impinged upon human action. Yet according non-human elements agency at the expense of social actors creates a number of tensions around the duty that historians have to remain faithful to depicting people with less power. By showing the disjuncture between state structures and self-determination, we seek to recover a more nuanced sense of human agency in tandem with environmental reform. Shaping visions for the environment matter, even if they did not come to pass, and the agricultural sphere demonstrates both environmental agency and meaningful human efforts at just politics.

Second, we ask about the role of Latin America in global history. Often left out of the construction of the postcolonial world due to its pre-twentieth century decolonization and subsumed to a North American hegemony that stretches from historical events to the scholarly imaginary, Latin America should be better recovered to the global historiography. Its environmental history is rich with a more complex narrative of global currents, from economics, to science and technology, to transnational developmentalism. Our papers consider the international shaping of high-yielding seeds, the architectural intervention of research stations, and the comparative and interactive politics of tropical borderlands. The insights of specific time and place can be surprising: they offer sometimes unexpected inversions of political interest and a set of broader historiographic lessons.

See more of: AHA Sessions