Geography of Latin America Research Paper

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Geographers have made major contributions to the study of urban and regional development, environmental resource management, and cultural patterning in Latin America. Geographic research on Latin America during the 1970–2000 period was dynamic and innovative, but often marked by clear continuities with earlier research and indeed has shown a renewed interest in the collection of data (including the reading and interpretation of texts) from earlier periods. This is consistent with geography’s nature as a discipline that combines methodologies from the sciences, social sciences, engineering, and the humanities, and that relies on both historical and contemporary data for its analyses, synthesis, and relevance to contemporary problems.

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Before 1970, geography had established several strong traditions of research in Latin America, often focused on productive and charismatic scholars. Carl Sauer at Berkeley had trained numerous students in the ‘Berkeley School,’ emphasizing field work, the study of the cultural landscape, attention to long-term processes and native Americans, and a critique of modernization in cultural and ecological terms. Karl Troll in Germany had focused on mountain geoecology of the Andes, Preston James at Syracuse (among others) had developed regional geography, and Raymond Crist in Florida had focused on migration issues. There were many national schools of geography in Latin America, focused around such figures as Javier Pulgar Vidal in Peru, and Horacio De Frieri and Francisco de Aparacio in Argentina, for example.

The remainder of this research paper will consider more recent developments in regional geography and planning, political geography and ethnogeography, other varieties of human geography including human– environment relations, physical geography, and mapping. It will conclude with a discussion of recent institutionalization of geography within Latin America.

1. Regional Geography, Planning, And Development

By 1970, regional geography and planning were well represented in national geographic institutes in Latin America (often associated with the military), and were also stressed in the work of Latin Americanist regional geographers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France. Much of this traditional regional geography was qualitative and/oriented toward the needs of geographic education and journalism, as well as the needs of national administration and foreign policy.

The ‘quantitative revolution’ in Anglo–American geography between 1965 and 1978 absorbed theories and methods from other social sciences, and resulted in new approaches to the comparative study of migration, regional inequalities, innovation diffusion, urbanization, and regional development in Latin America. This emphasis resulted in work exploring the spatial patterns and processes of economic modernization. Large-scale projects such as the Trans-Amazon highway and the Ciudad Guyana growth pole created a sense of the importance of regional planning involving geographic analysis. A key Latin American center for development research was Santiago, Chile, where the United Nations had a think tank at CEPAL/ILPES. Scholars included John Friedmann, who had studied geography as well as planning at the University of Chicago, and who published important works on development planning in Venezuela and Chile. Peter Odell (at the London School of Economics), Walter Stohr, and Poul Ove Pedersen were other significant geographers working and publishing in this context. Much of the funding for geographic research on these themes came from the United Nations, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and United States programs such as the Alliance for Progress.

The 1973 Pinochet coup acted to disperse the Santiago group, while the 1973 Yom Kippur war in the Middle East led to the energy crisis and a period of economic problems in Latin America. Together, these events acted to slow and, at least temporarily, demoralize the integrated geographic study of development as modernization in Latin America. Key intellectual figures in Anglo-American Latin Americanist development geography either moved to the political left (Friedmann), to other regions of the world, or to other areas of geography, including urban studies. However Odell supervised British Latin Americanist dissertations by Alan Gilbert, David Slater, and Allen Lavell, all of whom were to continue to work on development issues. David Preston, Arthur Morris, Peter Ward, and Ray Bromley and Rosemary Bromley continued the British tradition of development geography into the 1980s and 1990s, while Christoph Stadel, Bromley and Ward moved to the United States, helping to support interest in the geography of development in that country. Ohio geographer, Lawrence Brown, and his students, among others, also supported the study of contemporary development from bases in the United States. All of these geographers have tended to emphasize the role of social factors and globalization in conditioning such spatial processes as migration, transportation development, and innovation diffusion.

Although over time the ‘big project’ focus of Latin American development came to be discredited intellectually and economically, somewhat less affordable, major government agencies such as ONERN in Peru and SIP in Mexico continued to dedicate funds to the production of planning documents, maps, and regional surveys for a variety of purposes. These provided employment for cartographers, remote sensers, and a variety of consultants, many of them geographers. French geographers such as Jean-Paul Deler not only helped support international research and development projects for mapping, resource analysis, and urban and regional planning, but also produced important original research on a variety of topics, including all branches of physical geography, agricultural and resource geography, and distinctive studies of the ‘management of space’ in various countries, regions, and time periods. Generous French support for geographic training (with funding from ORSTOM, now IRD—Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement) has led to a growing base of French-trained geographers in many Latin American countries.

2. Marxism, Political Ecology, And Ethnogeography

Marxist and structuralist approaches to understanding the geography of Latin America built on both Latin American and extraregional sources. Andre Gundar Frank’s Development of UnderDevelopment was an interdisciplinary stimulus to this work, but the Brazilian geographer Milton Santos’ (1975) work on the two circuits of the urban economy (published in French in 1975 and later translated into English) also had a major impact. John Friedmann and David Slater contributed to critical and radical geography of Latin America during the later phases of their careers. In much of Latin America, as well as in some circles in Europe and the United States, many geographers came to accept at least some of the tenets of dependency approaches as helping to explain the persistence of spatial inequality within and between Latin American regions; and some also saw political economy as a useful tool for explaining the environmental impacts of development. Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn’s book Fate of the Forest (Hecht and Cockburn 1990) provided a long-term examination of the role of political and economic factors in Amazonian deforestation. Radical geography continued into the 1990s with the diffusion of the work of the Colombian scholar Alberto Escobar, who was a frequent attendee of geography meetings in the United States. Escobar’s work provided a radical critique of the notion of development itself, including its ‘sustainable’ variant, and argued for a ‘postdevelopment’ attention to local cultural and political processes of autonomy in a decentralized ‘socioepistemological space.’ His work has influenced such recent scholars as Juanita Sundberg, who has developed the critical concept of an ‘NGO landscape’ through study of the Peten in Guatemala.

The emergence of nongovernmental organizations in the 1980s attracted the attention of geographers who analyzed the rise of ‘social capital’ and civil society in the creation of a sustainable context for local livelihoods in particular places and regions. The Chicago-trained geographer Sheldon Annis was a pioneer in this work, helping to found the seminal journal Grassroots Development published by the Inter-American Foundation. More recently, Anthony Bebbington has conducted numerous studies of the new, more diverse social fabric of development in Latin America, and has encouraged development organizations to be more flexible in dealing with a greater variety of local actors at different spatial and social scales.

Movements for indigenous rights gained international attention in the 1990s. Many of the indigenous struggles revolved around claims to land and even territoriality. The Berkeley geographer Bernard Nietschmann (1973), working in Nicaragua, was an early advocate of the salience of indigenous claims for enabling a culturally and environmentally sustainable development. His earlier work was highly controversial, however, as it was seen by many social scientists as undermining the legitimacy of the Sandinista regime. The availability of GPS technology allowed for the development of innovative participatory mapping projects, especially in Central America, led by geographers such as Peter Herlihy; these have had a major impact on national policy affecting indigenous rights, although some have begun to critique some of the limitations of the technology. Geographers have also continued their earlier intellectual tradition of studying and mapping spatial patterns of indigenous groups over time, using archival and archaeological evidence, as well as documenting indigenous environmental practices, past and present. For example, William Denevan (1992) studied the distribution of native population prior to the Spanish conquest, suggesting high population counts with correspondingly high impacts on the environment. Geographers such as Karl Offen have worked on the more theoretical issues of the generation of ethnic identity and its relation to space, place and territory; their work is strikingly relevant to contemporary ethnic politics.

Geographers have also begun to redress the neglect of the role of women in Latin America, as resource managers, migrants, and workers in the space-economy of towns and cities, as well as beginning to examine their role in the historical geography of the region. For example, Diane Rocheleau has developed the method of ‘counter-mapping’ using women’s perspectives on resources in the Dominican Republic.

3. Varieties Of Human Geography

Since 1960, cities have experienced explosive growth, and increasingly geographers have been attracted to study them. Ernest Griffen and Larry Ford developed an influential schematic and qualitative model of Latin American urban structure which has subsequently been amended and critiqued as perhaps underestimating the diversity of influences on urban form. Urban geographers have been influenced by a variety of Marxist and other social science approaches in developing tools for dealing with such urban issues as the informal economy, migration, and the impacts of globalization. Influential scholars have included the Spanish-born and French-trained sociologist Manuel Castells, who authored numerous works on society and economy in urban places. The British-trained geographer, Peter Ward (1998), has published extensively on housing and urban geography of Mexico. Lawrence Brown and his student Victoria Lawson have provided innovative analyses of urban migration and economy. The distinction between urban and rural has increasingly become blurred as geographers see similar sociospatial development processes at work in both realms.

Geographers have worked on the political geography of Latin America, which, although not as dynamic as that of Eastern Europe, has exhibited considerable tensions. Carlos Reboratti (1987) has analyzed the geopolitical myths surrounding proposals for a new Argentine capital, while Cesar Caviedes (1995) and Jack Child (1985) have examined the salience of geopolitics in guiding policy in South America. Outside of academic geography, geopolitics has also been a popular subject for military officers, and even dictators such as Augusto Pinochet.

Geographers have also been concerned with studying how Latin America has been perceived and represented by both insiders and outsiders, by different interpretive communities, and how these spatial or locational perceptions interact with systems of power and knowledge. For example, Karl Zimmerer (1996) has examined how different groups interpret soil erosion in Andean Bolivia, thus creating potential for confusion in conservation planning. This is an exciting area with considerable growth potential.

4. Human–Environment Relations

The interest in global environmental change has led to the creation of projects to study the impact of climate change on Latin American environments and societies. British geographer Martin Parry, working with teams in Ecuador and Brazil, coordinated a pioneering project modeling the impacts of projected climatic changes. His methodology involved using specialists to model various systems (social, economic, environmental), and then to model the interactions between these systems. Many geographers have worked to document human dimensions of environmental change at a variety of scales, from the local to the regional (Steve Walsh and his colleagues in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Bill Turner and his colleagues in Yucatan, Diana Liverman and Karl Butzer (1992) in Mexico).

Latin Americanist geographers have continued to do research on the relationships between populations and their social and environmental resources, following the earlier tradition of Carl Sauer, James Parsons (1989), and Robert West. This has included research in the very rich (and still largely underexplored) archives of geographical data, and maps in the Americas and Spain. Colonial patterns and processes have been studied by David Robinson (1990), Linda Newson, George Lovell, Karl and Elisabeth Butzer, and other historical geographers. Many geographers, including William Denevan (1992) and his students, have continued to study the implications of the Conquest for regional population collapse, either using evidence from historical records and abandoned settlements, and agricultural fields, or mathematical models (Thomas Whitmore). The collapse in turn has implications for environmental change; William Denevan has challenged the ‘pristine myth’ of an American environment primarily impacted by post-Colombian processes, pointing out that the post-Colombian population collapse led to a resurgence of native forests.

Investigations into agricultural intensification and agricultural landforms have been pursued by many geographers. These studies have documented and reinterpreted the rationales of agricultural terracing (Robin Donkin), irrigation (William Doolittle), raised fields, shifting cultivation, floodwater farming, and other practices. William Woods and Joseph McCann have shown that ‘black earth’ soils are widespread in the Amazon, and indicate the importance of sedentary settlement away from the rivers in that region. Geographers such as Zimmerer and Knapp have amended earlier environmental and ecological models by Holdridge, Joseph Tosi, and Javier Pulgar Vidal to better characterize the ‘strategically relevant environment’ for groups with multiple crops and complex field systems. Much of this work combines contemporary ethnographic field interviews with research into the archives and attention to archaeological data of fields, settlements, and road patterns. Progress has been made in documenting the rich ethnogeographic lore and perceptions of environment by local peoples, whether of soils (Barbara Williams) or of traditional maps or quasi-maps (William Gartner).

5. Physical Geography And GIS

Physical geographers have increasingly been attentive to human–environment relationships, helping to break down the barriers between social, earth, and biological science. Ken Young and Blanca Leon, for example, have documented contemporary biodiversity at a variety of spatial scales, in the context of human activities. Tom Veblen and his colleagues have studied disturbance regimes along environmental gradients in northern Patagonia, and shown that both humanhistorical and natural disturbances need to be studied in tandem to explain vegetation patterns at the scale of landscapes. Carol Harden’s work on soil erosion has shown that abandoned land and roads trails are especially critical in accelerating erosion in Latin America’s mountain regions. Work by Karl Butzer, Paul Hudson, and others is showing that Latin American watersheds need to be studied as units, and in the context of both human and natural impacts, to fully understand river behavior and aid in water resource management decisions.

By 1970 the survey and mapping of Latin America was well underway, with the use of the tools of air photography and (increasingly) remote sensing. The recent rapid expansion of Geographic Information Systems and other technologies, in conjunction with remote sensing, gives geographers a set of powerful tools for addressing environmental and planning problems. Numerous GIS facilities have been established in Latin America to analyze a wide range of social and environmental problems.

6. Academic Geography Within Latin America

Within Latin America, there has been a vigorous development of academic geography, especially since the 1970s. Most academic programs in geography, as well as geographic institutes, in Latin America have tended to have a strong focus on contemporary urban and development issues, physical geography, and geographic techniques. Brazilian geography is strong, influenced both by the critical tradition of Milton Santos (1975) and by the vigorous national planning infrastructure. Mexican geography has been best developed at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) which has a variety of geography programs and an active publication series focusing on contemporary applied and urban geography, but also including physical geography. In Argentina, a numerous and lively younger generation operating out of centers in Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Tucuman, and elsewhere provides a diverse geographical scene. Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Chile also have strong local geographic communities. In Peru, Ecuador, and other countries, local geographic societies and small academic communities are supplemented typically by a strong representation of international geographers resident or doing research in these nations. Historically, Latin Americans have found it easier to network with colleagues in Europe or North America than with other Latin American countries, but this is changing as Latin Americans develop their own international meetings and contacts.

Most Latin American nations have geographic societies with local publication activities and meetings. Geographers, especially European geographers, have been strong participants of the International Congress of Americanists. Geographers also participate in the national Latin Americanist organizations, such as the American Latin American Studies Association. The major organization of Latin Americanist geographers in the US has been the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, founded in 1970. It publishes a refereed journal, conducts international meetings, and provides support for international contacts and special projects. It includes a significant Latin American and European membership. More recently the Latin American Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers has served the needs of the (mostly American) members of that association. Until recently, many Latin American geographers have found it difficult to attend international meetings, but this is changing.

7. Conclusion

At the time of writing, Latin Americanist geography is healthy, with a variety of methodological and theoretical approaches, new computer techniques, and an enhanced focus on environmental, cultural, and gender issues. The environmental focus is particularly noteworthy as helping to bridge the gap between the natural and human sciences. There is increased cross-fertilization between different national traditions, more collaboration between geographers of different specialties, and more stress given toward participatory research and empowerment. At the same time, Latin Americanist geography’s historic strengths in regional and historical analysis have never been more in evidence. The next ten years promise to exhibit more large, interdisciplinary projects focusing on socially significant problems of environmental change and global–local interactions, in which the geographer’s skills at studying the interaction between different systems on a variety of scales will be even more crucial.


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