Edited by Michael R. Redclift and Graham Woodgate
Chapter 25: Environment and society in Latin America
’ Tirn Allrnark In Latin America the relationship between environment and society has always been intimate, In Tierra del Fuego the diet of the Yamani consisted exclusively of fish. Language and settlement patterns developed in relation to their wetlands environment (Chatwin, 1977). The mountain dwellers of the central Andes also adapted to their environment. Their bodies evolved greater lung capacity. Some developed nomadic societies, following the food cycle of the llamas and vicuiias, or colonizing the desert oases of the Atacama for a few months a year. Social institutions followed suit. On the Altiplano the miners worshipped the earth while the farmers worshipped the sun. The plants of tropical forests were exploited for food and medicine but also served social functions to mark rites of passage or to reinforce authority. The size of communities within the rainforest was regulated by the exigencies of migratory cycles whose effect was to maintain overall population density and ecological equilibrium. When looking for a way to characterize how the environment has conditioned society in a continent that is so physically fragmented and diverse, one of the most useful concepts is that of fragility. Fragile lands are those which are ‘potentially subject to significant deterioration under agricultural, silvicultural and pastoral use systems’ (Denevan, 1989: 11). Fragile land types include tropical forests and savannahs, wetlands, arid lands and mountainous terrain. The principal stress factors to which they are susceptible are poor soil fertility, pests, flooding, desertification, slope and frost. Fully 87 per cent of Latin America’s...
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