The Environment in Latin America

An Interdisciplinary Approach


by | Sep 30, 1998

This issue of the DRCLAS NEWS deals with some of the environmental problems of Latin America, one of the priorities of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. The challenges, as evidenced by the diversity of articles in this newsletter, range from promoting environmental education in the Dominican Republic to facilitating dialogue between indigenous groups and oil companies in the Amazons, from pest control in Cuba to traffic control on the Mexican border.

Natural resource degradation is a serious problem all over Latin America. It is an interdisciplinary problem, of great concern to experts in both the natural and social sciences. Here, in the pages of DRCLAS NEWS, you will find the voices of faculty, students, and community members, sociologists, biologists, educators, and theologians.

They share with me the belief that natural resource degradation is not only an ecological and agroproductive problem, but also an economic and social problem. Environmental degradation is a problem shared by both the public and private sector in Latin America. Our continent’s extensive lands with their natural and modified ecosystems hold its immediate future and its long-term destiny. Although the mechanisms of environmental degradation can be analyzed by the hard sciences, the explanation of its low level of perception by the society at large and the reasons why so few steps are taken to solve this problem, must come from the social sciences.

The study of land degradation is therefore a truly interdisciplinary issue and requires the use of social and natural science tools to explain what is happening within different ecosystems and to propose alternative policies.

Most published works on rural sociology deem the ecological environment as a more or less passive and static backdrop to the processes of change in the use of the land. For example, in my native country, Argentina, one of the most worrisome issues is soil degradation in the rich pampa region. Although many are aware of the problem and its gravity, little is being done to resolve it, even though it threatens the country’s major source of export earnings. Soil erosion has often been called the “quiet crisis” because its effects often appear removed in time from the acts that have caused them. And these actions are not necessarily restricted to the technology and behavior of the farmer, but can also be found in macro-economic government policies and in international commodity prices.

One problem that muddies an interdisciplinary vision of the degradation of natural resources arises from the fact that in Latin America, an invisible barrier stretches between the efforts of research and monitoring in the agricultural sector and those of urban planners, who–because of their training–scarcely perceive the ecological imprint of the vast transformation of the landscape hastened by the growth of mega-cities such as Mexico, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires.

Many of the authors in this issue of DRCLAS NEWS are concerned with breaking down those barriers, in understanding how the rural is linked to the urban, how the national links to the international, in building bridges, rather than barriers.

In the environmental field, we generally find two dominant academic visions. The “eco-geographical innocents” who assume that Latin America’s large reservoirs of potentially arable land means that resource degradation and in particular soil erosion can be dismissed, seem not to realize that soil erosion is taking place in the best lands, and that as agriculture expands into new areas it will encounter increasingly greater constraints, and even more fragile lands.

The “technological optimists,”on the other hand, who rely on an impressive array of technical solutions to counter the loss of biological diversity, soil erosion, nutrient loss, and water and soil contamination, do not realize that many of the technological solutions imply new and often costlier problems.

These “ecogeographical innocents” and the “technological optimists” each make strong academic arguments, but often do not hear the other’s point of view. This newsletter explores many different ways of seeing, studying, changing, and preserving the environment at Harvard and beyond. Here are the voices of a recent Kennedy School graduate involved with a natural reserve in Colombia, an Harvard undergraduate studying binational systems who experiences the reality of Mexican border traffic, a librarian who learns of the intriguing history of Harvard in a Cuban botanical garden, and an Argentine artist who finds the comfort of home in the raw materials from her native Pampas.

I applaud the DRCLAS efforts to initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue to develop more integrated solutions to the problem of resource degradation involving historians, educators theologians, sociologists, political scientists, economists, as well as natural scientists. Societies that do not husband their resources are societies that jeopardize their own wealth and blockade their own future.

Here, in these pages of DRCLAS NEWS, are the voices of some who are seeking these solutions and even perhaps the embryonic theme of a future InterAmerican conference on these issues.

Fall 1998


Jorge Morello is professor in the Centro de Estudios Avanzados of the University of Buenos Aires, and Emeritus professor of ecology of the Faculty of Natural Sciences. He was director of National Parks of Argentina from 1983-1989, and has held many other positions in and out of government. He was the Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor at Harvard in the Spring of 1995, and a participant in the DRCLAS conference on the future of the Paraná-Paraguay Hidrovi­a Waterway Project.


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