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States of Nature

States of Nature
Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940

This book traces the history of the intersections between nature, economy, and nation in the Spanish Caribbean through a history of the agricultural and botanical sciences.

Series: Environmental Studies Endowment (NEH)

May 2002
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216 pages | 6 x 9 | 6 photos, 3 line drawings, 1 map |

The process of nation-building in Latin America transformed the relations between the state, the economy, and nature. Between 1760 and 1940, the economies of most countries in the Spanish Caribbean came to depend heavily on the export of plant products, such as coffee, tobacco, and sugar. After the mid-nineteenth century, this model of export-led economic growth also became a central tenet of liberal projects of nation-building. As international competition grew and commodity prices fell over this period, Latin American growers strove to remain competitive by increasing agricultural production. By the turn of the twentieth century, their pursuit of export-led growth had generated severe environmental problems, including soil exhaustion, erosion, and epidemic outbreaks of crop diseases and pests.

This book traces the history of the intersections between nature, economy, and nation in the Spanish Caribbean through a history of the agricultural and botanical sciences. Growers and governments in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, and Costa Rica turned to scientists to help them establish practical and ideological control over nature. They hoped to use science to alleviate the pressing environmental and economic stresses, without having to give up their commitment to export-led growth. Starting from an overview of the relationship among science, nature, and development throughout the export boom of 1760 to 1930, Stuart McCook examines such topics as the relationship between scientific plant surveys and nation-building, the development of a "creole science" to address the problems of tropical agriculture, the ecological rationalization of the sugar industry, and the growth of technocratic ideologies of science and progress. He concludes with a look at how the Great Depression of the 1930s changed the paradigms of economic and political development and the role of science and nature in these paradigms.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Science, Nature, and Development during the Export Boom, 1760-1940
  • 1. Commodity and Country: The Rediscovery of Nature in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1890
  • 2. Giving Plants a Civil Status: Scientific Representations of Nature and Nation in Venezuela and Costa Rica, 1885-1935
  • 3. Building Creole Science: Science and Ideologies of Agricultural Development in Cuba and Puerto Rico, 1898-1930
  • 4. Agricultural Science and the Ecological Rationalization of the Caribbean Sugar Industry, 1780-1930
  • 5. Promoting the "Practical": Technocratic Ideologies of Science and Progress in an Age of Fragile Prosperity, 1924-1930
  • 6. Conclusion: The Great Depression, the Plant Sciences, and Changing Paradigms of Agricultural Development, 1928-1940
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Stuart McCook is Associate Professor of History at the University of Guelph.


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The process of nation building in Latin America transformed the relations among the state, the economy, and nature. As Latin America became integrated into the world economy between the late eighteenth century and the early twentieth century, nature took on new roles and meanings. It became the raw material for national economic and political development. Natural objects—plants, minerals, and even guano—were transformed into primary commodities to be exported to global markets. In the Caribbean basin, the most important export commodities were plants. Coffee and bananas fueled economic growth in Central America; sugar, tobacco, and coffee in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico; coffee, cacao, and bananas in Colombia and Venezuela. Nation, economy, and nature thus became deeply intertwined. The words of the Cuban sugar planter José Manuel Casanova, "Sin azúcar, no hay país" (Without sugar, there is no nation), succinctly capture the ideological, economic, and political roles of nature in forming nations.

This book traces the history of the intersections of nature, economy, and nation in the Spanish Caribbean through a history of the agricultural and botanical sciences. The power of governments, planters, and, later, scientists depended on their ability to control the natural world and shape it to their models of development. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, governments and planters sponsored some research into the region's key crops and landscapes. The political and economic tumult of the wars of independence, however, stopped most scientific activity. Later in the nineteenth century, as the Spanish Caribbean entered the global economy, public and private sponsorship of the plant sciences revived and strengthened. During the liberal era (roughly 1870-1930), dozens of botanical gardens, natural history museums, and agricultural experiment stations were founded throughout the region. They were funded by state and national governments, by agricultural associations, by transnational corporations, and by afffluent planters. The plant sciences offered these groups the tools to extend their control over the natural world and thereby consolidate their own political and economic power.

In the aftermath of independence from Spain, the new governments sought to extend their power over corporate institutions and citizens. Their models of nation building reflected prevailing liberal ideologies, which advocated the regulation and standardization of all aspects of public and private life. They took censuses to measure the size and composition of the citizenry. They wrote constitutions that aimed to make all citizens—at least in theory— equally subject to the law. These efforts to regulate, standardize, and subjugate extended to the nations' wild and domesticated landscapes. Liberal governments used science and technology to subjugate all facets of the natural world, from mosquitoes to mountains. To eradicate the mosquitoes that carried yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical diseases, governments hired physicians and biologists. To overcome mountains and other geographic barriers, they hired engineers to build railroads. To bring their nations' plants under the control of the state, they turned to the plant sciences. They turned their gaze toward the seemingly limitless wild landscapes and wondered what kinds of timbers, fibers, and other potentially lucrative plants lay within. They hired botanists to nationalize landscapes by conducting botanical inventories and publishing floras. They hired agricultural scientists to ensure the continuing production of export crops.

The control of nature through science also helped the region's agricultural elites to sustain their economic power, which depended on their ability to continue producing crops for export. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, planters first increased crop production through a strategy of extensification, of clearing new agricultural lands and improving the technologies of harvesting and transportation. Gradually, planters also began a strategy of intensification, of improving the yields per acre. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, the natural world began to slip from their control, thereby jeopardizing their power. Planters expressed mounting concern about impediments to cultivating their plants. They worried about deforestation and declining crop yields, about floods and drought, about insects and rodents and myriad other problems that threatened to reduce or put a stop to export growth. In their single-minded pursuit of increasing production, they created many of these problems themselves. They cleared extensive tracts of forest, which generated new environmental problems, such as declining soil fertility, widespread erosion, and even local climate change. Epidemic crop diseases also began to affflict many of the region's major export crops. Planters felt that it was essential to enlist scientists to bring these environmental problems under control. Agricultural chemists could advise them on the appropriate fertilizers; plant pathologists and entomologists could rid their fields of diseases and pests; plant breeders could find new ways to increase agricultural production.

The control of nature was also important to the scientists themselves. Their ability to obtain public and private support for scientific institutions depended on their ability to produce results that their sponsors found "practical" or "useful." During the early nineteenth century, governments and agricultural interests had funded specific research projects but had been reluctant to provide sustained funding for research institutions. As the environmental problems of production became more acute, they began to fund more scientific research. In spite of the scientists' financial dependence, however, their views were not reducible to those of their sponsors. The plant scientists belonged to a broader "republic of rational agriculture," whose primary goal was to promote biologically sound agriculture everywhere. They were, therefore, sometimes critical of government policies and agricultural practices that they saw as environmentally destructive. The scientists also saw themselves as belonging to the international scientific community, dedicated to the universal pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Unlike their counterparts in the United States in this period, however, no scientist in the Spanish Caribbean ever advanced a plea for "pure science," unsullied by practical considerations. They saw no incompatibility between the pursuit of scientific knowledge and the pursuit of practical goals.

Planters, government officials, and scientists could all agree that science was necessary to solve the environmental problems of development, especially agricultural development. They often disagreed sharply, however, over who had the power to decide what the main agrarian problems were and how best to solve them. Each group perceived the relative importance of biological problems, and the role of science in solving them, quite differently. These debates were often couched in terms of what constituted "useful" or "practical" science. Planters wanted scientists to help them solve biological problems of production. Most often, they saw such problems as just one part of a wider array of agrarian problems, induding shortages of labor and capital. For them, how the problems were solved was not terribly important. A good solution to a biological problem was one that allowed them to sustain or increase production, whether or not it involved scientific research. In contrast, scientists contended that the region's most pressing agrarian problems were biological and could best be solved through basic scientific research. They also tried to get planters to adopt more environmentally rational agricultural practices, although their success in this was mixed. At first, government of ficials were interested only in sponsoring scientific research projects. Their interest deepened during the 1920s, however. Many government officials saw the plant sciences as offering technocratic solutions to the region's increasingly acute agrarian problems, both in export agriculture and in food production.


This story offers some insights into broader issues in Latin American history, the history of science, and environmental history. Combining these three historiographies offers new perspectives on key issues in each. For Latin American history, this story highlights the importance of nature as an analytical category: as a variable that requires explanation rather than as a constant that does not. The natural world has often appeared in Latin American historical writing as land, as property, as commodity. Yet each nation's nature shaped its path of development, although it did not strictly determine it. The particular configurations of nature in each nation (which economic historians describe as the "commodity lottery") presented a distinct set of economic opportunities. This process was further complicated by the fact that the natural world itselfwas constantlychanging. The introduction of new economic systems could transform nature, which in turn transformed the economic systems. Elinor Melville has shown, for example, how the introduction of sheep in central Mexico after the conquest dramatically transformed the landscapes and its subsequent patterns of development. In several articles and books, the late Warren Dean explained the constantly changing interactions between ecosystem and economy. Brazilian planters, for example, transformed many of Brazil's rich tropical forests into highly profitable coffee plantations. When the coffee trees and soil were exhausted, the land was abandoned by the planters and became impoverished pasture. Such dramatic changes could often occur within two generations. To fully understand power in these agrarian societies, then, it is essential to understand nature.

The existing literature on the history of science provides few tools for understanding the transnational character of science in Latin America during this period. Recent works by Richard Grove and Richard Drayton have explored the role of the plant sciences in the development of formal or informal empires. They have presented—rightly, I think—the natural sciences as an essential tool for the construction of empires and for shaping how agents of the metropolitan powers understood nature. These and other works have studied scientific research in the tropics, but they have done so largely from the perspective of the metropole. Given the large role that the United States assumed in the Caribbean during this period, it might be tempting to tell this story in terms of U.S. imperialism. After all, most centers for plant research in the Spanish Caribbean were modeled after institutions in the United States. Moreover, many U.S. scientists worked at these institutions, and many Latin American scientists at the same institutions had been trained in the United States. The United States was the primary market for most of the crops they studied. But even so, it is impossible to explain the growth of science in terms of the United States alone.

Drawing on recent literature on the cultural history of U.S.-Latin American relations, I present an alternative way of speaking about transnational scientific activities in Latin America that seeks to dissolve the sharp distinction between "imperial" and "national" science. Scientists at research institutions in the Spanish Caribbean during the time I study developed a set of ideologies and practices that I call "creole science." I am building deliberately on the ambiguity and tensions between the English creole—a hybrid, like a creole language—and the Spanish criollo—which in contemporary Spanish describes things of local origin. Creole science was at once transnational or hybrid in its form and practice and distinctively local in its goals. The models for scientific institutions were selectively appropriated from abroad, primarily the United States, and adapted to local environmental, economic, and political conditions. Scientists in Latin America frequently drew on an international network of scientists and institutions in the pursuit of local goals. As Latin Americans had done with the doctrine of positivism, they appropriated foreign models and transformed them into something distinctively Latin American. Although the relations between the United States and the Spanish Caribbean nations were significantly unequal, scientists often found ways of using the formal and informal bonds of empire to pursue their own ends.

Finally, many scholars have examined the environmental impacts of the Spanish conquest and colonial period and the years following World War II. But, for reasons that are not entirely clear, few historians have explored the environmental history of the liberal period or tried to measure the environmental impact of the export boom. Yet the liberal era saw what was arguably the largest environmental transformation of Latin America since the conquest. Economic historians have described this period as the "Second Conquest of Latin America"; this term applies equally to its environmental history. Prevailing liberal ideas about the state and economy produced new ways of imagining and representing the natural world. Elites in the liberal era tended to see the natural world in terms of economic production, particularly in terms of export commodities. They paid special attention to plants and landscapes that could somehow contribute to the production of export crops and comparatively little attention to those that did not. They also saw the natural world in terms of state building, seeking to "nationalize" the natural world by producing national botanical inventories and ecological maps.

Looking at Spanish Caribbean landscapes through the eyes of plant scientists highlights a hidden history of catastrophic environmental transformations. The planters' single-minded pursuit of profit generated a host of environmental changes. To expand export crop production, planters cleared extensive tracts of forest. Deforestation unleashed other environmental problems, including large-scale erosion. I devote particular attention to the widespread outbreak of epidemic crop diseases, some of which had originated on the other side of the globe, that assailed the region's export crops with increasing frequency and severity during the late nineteenth century. I contend that this phenomenon was a consequerlce of the way in which planters had organized their landscapes to maximize the production of export crops. The epidemic crop diseases also point to the limits of the power of governments, corporations, and scientists to control the natural world. Some stricken landscapes fell out of production entirely; others required constant care from scientists to remain productive. While scientists were able to control a viral epidemic in sugarcane, they could only watch helplessly as fungal diseases wiped out most of the region's commercial cacao plantations. Even the United Fruit Company, with its deep financial resources and large technical staff, could only manage the banana diseases; it could not eradicate them. In short, the export boom produced sick, deteriorated landscapes over large swaths of the Spanish Caribbean.

The chapters in this book focus on particular episodes in the broader history of science, nature, and development in the Spanish Caribbean. My method has been to follow the migrations of specific people, plants, and pathogens from one country to another. I follow the Swiss botanist Henri Pittier in his wanderings between Costa Rica, the United States, and Venezuela. The national floras he produced in Costa Rica and Venezuela symbolically nationalized the natural world in each nation. I pursue varieties and hybrids of sugarcane in their slow journeys around the globe and the distressingly rapid journey of the sugar mosaic virus along the same routes. The former helped to increase the economic power of sugar planters everywhere; the latter threatened to undermine it completely. The Puerto Rican plant pathologist Carlos Chardón traveled through most of tropical Latin America; here I concentrate on his work in Puerto Rico and Colombia. His role in combating mosaic disease in Puerto Rico gave him and his Department of Agriculture considerable power on the island. His attempts to reproduce Puerto Rican institutional models in Colombia, however, were less successful. Following these migrants, large and small, allows me to compare the similarities (and differences) among nations more systematically. I concentrate on five nations in the Spanish Caribbean: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Costa Rica. But processes similar to those I describe here took place throughout the Spanish Caribbean.

Latin America's elites began supporting the plant sciences for both practical and ideological reasons. Their interest can be traced to the loosening of trade restrictions and the rapid growth of Latin America's agricultural colonies in the late eighteenth century. Many governments embraced the philosophy of positivism, which, under the rhetorical banner of "order and progress," envisioned societies organized by the state along rational, scientific principles. These liberal ideologies were not simply abstractions; they were also fundamentally practical in character. Latin America's political elites enlisted science, technology, and medicine to promote liberal models of economic development and state formation. Engineers built railroads, which helped to speed tropical commodities from the countryside to the ports. Doctors carried out urban sanitation campaigns in the ports and the countryside. "Railroads, urban plazas, and public buildings, water and sewage systems, electricity, telegraph, and their ancillary services," argue Vincent Peloso and Barbara Tenenbaum, "meant quantitative changes in the Latin American economies and qualitative changes in the state-building debate." As planters in Latin America began to confront large-scale agricultural problems in the late nineteenth century, then, it is not surprising that they too turned to scientists for help.

Liberal projects of state building included defining and controlling the national space. Agricultural and botanical research helped the states to nationalize and commodify the region's wild landscapes. Between 1880 and 1930, almost every country in Latin America undertook a national inventory of its plants. These floras sought to impose a rational order on the natural world by identifying plants and giving them standardized scientific names. Naming plants gave them a "civil status," in the telling words of Henri Pittier. In addition to this civil function, the floras also fulfilled an economic function. They commodified the nations'wild nature by identifying plants with potential commercial value. They also generated new representations of the nations' nature. For example, the late-nineteenth-century floras of Costa Rica represented it as a biologically singular place, with an unusually large diversity. The scientists who produced the floras also began to describe and measure the large-scale environmental destruction that had begun to plague the region. These floras were also fundamentally nationalist: botanists sought to repatriate the knowledge that foreign naturalists had extracted over the previous centuries. To do so, they had to develop innovative ways of working with foreign scientists and scientific institutions.

The wave of institution building began in earnest after the turn of the twentieth century. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, as elsewhere in the Spanish Caribbean, most plant research institutions were modeled after the new nationally funded agricultural experiment stations in the United States. Nonetheless, neither the U.S. institutional model nor U.S. research agendas could simplybe replicated in the tropics. All centers for plant research in the Spanish Caribbean had to adapt—to "creolize"—their research agendas and institutional forms to fit the local institutional and agricultural ecology. For example, scientific research agendas primarily reflected the prevailing elite ideas about economic and agricultural development. This meant that research in the Spanish Caribbean focused primarily on export crops even while some U.S. colonial officials and scientists tried unsuccessfully to promote the development of domestic food crops. Agricultural knowledge is also not as easily transportable as engineering knowledge. North American expertise on temperate crops was of little use in tropical Latin America. All scientists who worked in the region—be they Latin American or foreign—commented on how little was known about Latin American plants.

State building also entailed managing the region's agricultural landscapes. Plant scientists played a key role in this process, helping to address emergent environmental problems caused by the export boom. In the pursuit of economic growth, Latin America's planters and governments had promoted the transformation of wild forests into domesticated, homogeneous, and profitable "new forests" of export crops. They remade Latin American landscapes to reflect the prevailing ideologies of economic development. Among the most apparent and dramatic environmental problems created by the radical simplification of nature into monocultures were epidemic crop diseases, which affected most of the region's major export crops—including bananas, cacao, rubber, and sugar—between 1880 and 1930. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these epidemics; one caused the collapse of Ecuador's cacao industry in the early 1920s, and another prevented Brazil from developing commercial rubber plantations. In the late 1910s, planters feared that a new epidemic of sugarcane, known as the mosaic disease, would wipe out Cuba's and Puerto Rico's cane industry. A small group of scientists working in Puerto Rico identified the vector of the disease and were able to bring it under control by introducing new, hybrid sugarcanes. These scientists, led by the young Carlos Chardón, celebrated their victory over the disease and proclaimed that science finally had a legitimate place in Latin America. Chardón began to promote Puerto Rico as a model for science-based agricultural development in tropical Latin America.

Transferring models of science-based agricultural development from one country to another within the Spanish Caribbean, however, proved to be just as difficult as transferring North American or European models had been. Agricultural organizations and governments throughout the Spanish Caribbean sought Chardón's help in organizing agricultural research centers of their own but often wound up disagreeing sharply with Chardón's plans. The reasons were ideological as well as agricultural. Chardón argued forcefully that the most pressing problems in Latin American agriculture were biological and could be solved through original scientific research. While this may have been true for Puerto Rico's sugar industry, it was less true of most other agricultural export regimes. For example, Colombia's agricultural associations wanted to rationalize their agriculture and make it more scientific, but they did not feel that basic research was as essential as Chardón claimed. Coffee growers were more interested in improving basic agricultural practices than they were in research. Colombia's politicians, on the other hand, were attracted to the technocratic aspects of Chardón's model, which appeared to address agricultural problems in a way that could avoid social conflict.

The Great Depression ended the export boom, and with it the liberal paradigm of economic development that had dominated the Spanish Caribbean for much of the previous century. By the early 1930S, the goal of increasing export crop production no longer dominated paradigms of national development. But the depression marked a transformation, not a rupture. Even though they did not enjoy the robust growth of previous decades, export crops remained important in most Spanish Caribbean economies. Governments continued consolidating and integrating their nations' citizens and territory. They used the tools of science and technology—the symbols of liberalism—to try to solve the problems left by the collapse of liberal models of development. Ideas about development—particularly the idea that Latin America's most pressing problems had scientific or technical solutions—had become firmly rooted in Latin American thought.



“McCook writes in a clear and effective style. His approach to the subject is neither overly theoretical nor oversimplified.”
Bulletin of the Pacific Circle


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