Extracting Stories

Workshop: Environmental History of Latin America and the Caribbean – Saisama, Colombia, 8-10 June 2013

Post by Katie Ritson (Managing Editor, RCC)

Sasaima is in the Andean hills of the Magdalena valley, in the region of Colombia called Cundinamarca; walking through these rich, green hills is an object lesson in environmental history. You can see the remains of old plantations, and colonial roads, and fields where coffee is being tended; bananas being grown on smallholdings owned by families from Bogotá; pigs, cows and goats left free to graze at the sides of roads. And eucalyptus trees, huge areas of them, silvery-green against the sky – trees brought here from Australia by idealistic agricultural scientists with little awareness of the irreversibility and the possible consequences of their actions.

I was in Sasaima for a meeting of the authors of a forthcoming book and issue of RCC Perspectives on the environmental history of Latin America and the Caribbean. Within the first hour or two of this workshop, sitting in the book-lined meeting room in Sasaima with a view of the Andes, the term extractivism was being hotly debated. In the context of a projected book on environmental history of the region post-independence, what are the implications of talking about extractivism – and how can this word be employed to describe so many different economic and industrial processes in so many different places? Participants in the workshop were drawn from across the Americas, and their papers looked at regions and practices in South America ranging from Mexico to the Caribbean, from the rainforests to the Andes, and from mining and ranching to the birth of an urban population. The term extractivist has meant different things at different times.

This kind of debate, and the conclusions that volume editors Claudia Leal, José Augusto Padua, and John Soluri are able to draw from it, are shaping a critical and reflective look at the environmental history of a continent that was perceived by western colonizers as a veritable cornucopia of natural resources. Concentrating on a time period of only a couple of centuries, the volume’s geographical reach and its focus on landscapes and agro-industrial history, rather than on national stories, allow for a panoramic and environmentally-framed look at the region. The workshop is a key component of the project – by bringing these scholars together from their homes in California, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Canada, Kentucky, and Ecuador (to name just some), it gave them the opportunity to test their stories out in a wider context, and to debate both the common ground and the individual departures from it.

After three days of intense discussions that often continued over dinner and into the night, we climbed back into the bus bound for Bogotá, and days later, the participants were all back at their desks in different parts of the world. From Munich, with its alpine backdrop, the Colombian Andes seem a long way away. But the particular “Colombian exchange” in Sasaima planted ideas in people’s minds that will hopefully grow and bear new fruit. Extracting stories from a continent of abundance, is, it turns out, an intense but rewarding process.

The RCC Perspectives issue on the environmental history of Latin America and the Caribbean is due to be published in December 2013, and will be available in print and for free on the website www.environmentandsociety.org/perspectives.


All photos by Stuart McCook (University of Guelph, Canada)

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