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In the late 1800s American entrepreneurs became participants in the 400-year history of European economic and ecological hegemony in the tropics. Beginning as buyers in the tropical ports of the Atlantic and Pacific, they evolved into land speculators, controlling and managing the areas where tropical crops were grown for carefully fostered consumer markets at home. As corporate agro-industry emerged, the speculators took direct control of the ecological destinies of many tropical lands. Supported by the U.S. government's diplomatic and military protection, they migrated and built private empires in the Caribbean, Central and South America, the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and West Africa.

Yankee investors and plantation managers mobilized engineers, agronomists, and loggers to undertake what they called the "Conquest of the Tropics," claiming to bring civilization to benighted peoples and cultivation to unproductive nature.
In competitive cooperation with local landed and political elites, they not only cleared natural forests but also displaced multicrop tribal and peasant lands with monocrop export plantations rooted in private property regimes.

This book is a rich history of the transformation of the tropics in modern times, pointing ultimately to the declining biodiversity that has resulted from the domestication of widely varied natural systems. Richard P. Tucker graphically illustrates his study with six major crops, each a virtual empire in itself—sugar, bananas, coffee, rubber, beef, and timber. He concludes that as long as corporate-dominated free trade is ascendant, paying little heed to its long-term ecological consequences, the health of the tropical world is gravely endangered.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520220874
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 568
  • Lexile: 1410L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard P. Tucker is Professor of Asian and Environmental History at Oakland University, and Adjunct Professor of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan. He is coeditor of Global Deforestation and the Nineteenth-Century World Economy (1983),World Deforestation in the Twentieth Century (1987), and other books.

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Read an Excerpt

Insatiable Appetite

The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World
By Richard P. Tucker

University of California

Copyright © 2000 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22087-0

Chapter One

Unsustainable Yields: American Foresters and Tropical Timber Resources

* * *

In a comprehensive and unified program of conservation, designed to replace scarcity with abundance, forestry and forest lands commonly occupy a key role. They may provide a continuing flow of products to satisfy human wants; and they may ensure the protection of soil, water flows, and local climate, without which food and agriculture in many lands will continue to deteriorate. They may, then, hold the whole task of conservation together.

Introduction: Tropical Timber Exploitation in the Twentieth Century

The global loss of tropical forests mounted slowly for several centuries, then began a rapid acceleration during the 1940s. The increase occurred for many reasons; the most important undoubtedly was the expansion of agriculture in all of its forms. Export crops and beef production degraded or replaced incalculable extents of tropical forest and wetland and savanna, as if the forest itself had no biological or even economic value. The benefits of these industries to investors and consumers have been enormous, constituting the primary driving force behind this great ecological transformation. But the value of the forest itself has also risen on local and global markets, primarily in the form of timber products. As the tropical timber products industry became industrialized, wood products joined foods as a major commodity that northern economies could harvest from tropical lands, and as light railways, heavy-wheeled vehicles for grading roads and hauling timber, and more efficient multipurpose sawmills became available to meet rapidly increasing global demand, forests retreated before the logger as well.

The United States provided markets for tropical hardwoods beginning in the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century the market for tropical hardwoods accelerated, but as a portion of total U.S. hardwood consumption, it was always minute. Domestic hardwoods like oak, maple, and walnut provided as much as 99 percent of each year's market. In terms of harvests in some tropical countries, the American market for tropical hardwood produced major ecological impacts. To make the picture more complex, the flow of timber between the United States and the tropics was reciprocal, for Pacific and Caribbean markets were important for American conifer lumber from the late nineteenth century on, when the U.S. timber industry began looking for foreign customers in order to diversify its markets and stabilize its operations.

Americans played four major roles in the expanding scale of tropical forest exploitation: as investors and consumers, and as loggers and foresters. Logging companies measured their effectiveness largely in terms of the expanding scale and efficiency of the extraction of wood products. A foreign mahogany logger was aware of his lack of knowledge, but he could recognize a tall, straight mahogany trunk even if he found only one per acre- and that was enough for him. Professional foresters saw their effectiveness increasingly in terms of managing the forests for a sustainable yield of wood products. Although foresters studied tropical ecosystems, coming over the course of decades to understand their complexity, fragility, and limited extent, most of their time was spent studying commercially important species, since no species had any "value" unless it was recognized by the buyers of finished products. Even more than agronomists and ranch managers, they struggled to understand how to maintain the forest for future human use. By the 1950s some of them had begun to wrestle with the social and ecological issues that are imbedded in forest use.

These foresters faced a profound dilemma, which even today is unresolved. Was it possible, by introducing more systematic exploitation of timber resources, to establish sustainable forestry in the tropics and contribute to social welfare into the future? Or would modern timber technology be yet another power in the hands of those who wanted quick profits at the expense of entire ecosystems? Through the work of pioneering American tropical foresters, we can glimpse what the forests of Southeast Asia and Latin American were like at various times, how the patterns of human pressure on them escalated, and how these ecological technicians envisioned the future of domesticated tropical ecosystems.

The Yankees' Tropical Woodlot: Timber Exploitation in the Caribbean Basin

Timber had been a profitable export from the Caribbean Basin since the time of the first Iberian settlements. When American loggers and timber buyers began working the hardwood forests of the Caribbean Basin in an extensive way in the 1880s, they entered a three-hundred-year-old competition among Europeans for capturing treasures like dyewoods and mahogany. Two major forest types were exploited over the centuries. One was lowland moist forest, which contained the precious dye and cabinet woods that grow as individual trees in the midst of many other species. The other was the higher, drier pine forest, useful primarily for inexpensive building lumber. The two stories had different histories, and each history had a distinctive American role.

High-Grading in the Lowland Forests

High-grading- felling only the finest trees- was practiced by the first Portuguese to intrude on the Bahia coast of Brazil in the early sixteenth century. These loggers were interested only in brazilwood, which they exported to Europe as a source of red dye. The dye was highly valued in the clothing industry, which was expanding to meet the demand generated by a rising and prospering population. By the end of the 1500s highgrading had reduced the forest along the coasts and riverways to economic insignificance. Constrained by the only timber transport method then available, a team of oxen, loggers rarely penetrated far from waterways or into steep hilly areas. The full diversity of the deeper forest remained.

During the same era, European dyewood hunters, or Baymen, discovered logwood, an equally valuable source of red dye, growing along the Caribbean littoral. A hardwood of the lowland moist forest, logwood grew prolifically from Campeche and Yucatán in Mexico through coastal Belize to the Miskito coast of Honduras and Nicaragua. In the 1600s, despite the Spanish navy's attempts to suppress them, British and other non-Spanish privateers generated a large-scale export of logwood for the cloth mills of northern Europe. This trade lasted for over 300 years. The Baymen's anarchic ways served them well in the turbulent political conditions that prevailed until 1670, when Spain and Britain agreed by treaty that Belize would become the British possession of British Honduras.

Even thereafter political instability was so severe and working conditions were so harsh that the loggers took what they could easily find and sailed away. Logs had to be floated to the coast in the rainy- the very rainy-season. One early traveler observed,

During the wet season, the land where the logwood grows is so overflowed, that they step from their beds into water perhaps two feet deep, and continue standing in the wet all day, till they go to bed again; but nevertheless account it the best season in the year for doing a good day's labour in.... When a tree is so thick that after it is logged, it remains still too great a burthen for one man, we blow it up with gunpowder.

The size of the logwood tree did not affect the extraction of dye, so the loggers took all available trees, large and small, ultimately depleting accessible supplies almost totally. The loggers were itinerant and the work was very difficult-modern ideals of sustained-yield forestry were beyond imagining.

As easily accessible stands of logwood quickly declined, the Baymen began using oxen for hauling and Garifunas (escaped African slaves from the British Caribbean islands) for laborers, thereby expanding the reach of their operations. Exports to Europe rose from 700 tons in 1800 to 35,000 tons in 1896. In Jamaica logwood supplies actually increased during the nineteenth century, because the species turned out to be an aggressive invader of deserted crop lands. When slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1834, large areas of fertile hill lands reverted to secondary woodland, which contained logwood. By 1897, at the beginning of the era when banana planters recleared those lands, logwood was Jamaica's most valuable export, exceeding sugar and coffee.

The era of logwood exports to Europe ended suddenly in the late 1890s when chemical dyes totally replaced dyewoods throughout Europe. Only 3,600 tons of logwood were exported from British Honduras in 1913. This was just one of numerous examples of industrial products replacing depleted tropical resources on international markets.

In the first century of the colonial enterprise, dyewoods were almost the only timbers exploited for European use. European navies changed that in the seventeenth century, as they began using mahogany in European and Caribbean shipyards. Havana was the major shipyard for the colonial Spanish fleet, and in the 1600s its forested hinterlands began to be combed for mahogany, an effort that continued well into the 1800s.

A major increase in the demand for mahogany occurred in the mid-eighteenth century, when it became the most fashionable furniture wood in Europe. Hepplewhite and Chippendale styles, whose elegant lines and elaborate detail required a fine-grained, easily tooled wood, were perfected by craftsmen working with mahogany. In more recent centuries, mahogany, or caoba (as it is known wherever it grows), has epitomized the commercial wealth of the rainforests of Central America and the Caribbean islands. Like most tropical hardwoods, mahogany grows scattered in mixed-species forests, not in easily accessible single-species stands. Mahogany logging inevitably was a matter of high-grading. Sawyers with their oxen searched the forest for single large trees of high commercial value, carving out logging trails as they went. Each great tree that fell shattered numerous smaller trees in its path. After the woodsmen left a logged mahogany forest, as many as a hundred other species remained standing, as did young, twisted, or old mahogany trunks. The best seed trees of mahogany were felled, and as the oxen dragged them to a nearby river for floating away, they damaged still more trees and tore the soil along the paths and riverbanks. Mahogany does not regenerate easily or grow rapidly; it can take up to one hundred years for a tree to mature. Thus, although a degraded mahogany forest was still ecologically stable, its quality as a sylvan community of species was damaged.

British loggers led the way in this phase of forest exploitation, searching the entire Caribbean coast from Campeche on for mahogany, Spanish cedar, and other precious cabinet woods. By the late 1700s the scale of mahogany extraction had become far greater than the dyewood trade had ever been. The logging was carried on in a setting of legal confusion: titles to land were cloudy and contract systems were rudimentary. Quarrels were frequent among the mahogany cutters, most of whom worked the forests without bothering to establish formal rights. During the last half of the nineteenth century, first small-scale Yankee loggers and then larger-scale Yankee timber companies became a major force on the islands and mainland coasts of the Caribbean. Their operations became the major pressure on the mahogany and pine forests outside the British possessions, intricately interweaving the U.S. forest economy with that of the Caribbean Basin.

The first Americans to appear were the hardwood purchasers, who were not lumbermen but shippers-middlemen between the loggers in the rainforest and the manufacturers of fine furniture in American cities from New Orleans to Boston. In the first decades of U.S. independence they imported mahogany mostly from Cuba, by way of their commercial offices in Havana, but also from Honduras and British Honduras. The East Coast markets thus provided profits for Cuban and Spanish speculators who cleared mahogany forests in central Cuba to grow the white gold of sugar.

As urban affluence expanded in the United States during the nineteenth century, an increasingly prosperous middle class demanded more tropical hardwoods for furniture, paneling, and other uses. Craftsmen used several rainforest species in their fine cabinetry, but mahogany dominated the market. Yankee timber importers began searching for mahogany stands and logging concessions throughout the region.

At first the Yankee entrepreneurs and speculators were a miscellaneous lot who made short-term investments in small concessions and organized the logging themselves; their operations are difficult to trace. Probably representative of them was Walter Wilcox, best known as a writer of wilderness camping books, who operated in the rainforest of Cuba. Shortly after Cuban independence, when American investments in Cuba became safer than they had been under Spanish rule, Wilcox bought a timber concession on the Bay of Pigs on the south coast, in an area of largely intact mangrove swamps and hardwood forests, where a few scattered local farmers scratched out a minimal subsistence. Wilcox saw himself as a resourceful frontiersman: a year after his first reconnaissance visit on a sailboat hired in the port of Cienfuegos he returned "with a force of carpenters and laborers and a cargo of lumber and tools. A place was cleared in the forest for a house, docks were built, gardens laid out, wells dug." He added almost parenthetically, "In all that time we were not molested by the natives."

Wilcox was typical for his time in his contradictory attitudes toward the forest. One feeling was admiration verging on awe at the forest that he was cutting. Echoing the prose of many other northern writers after their first exposure to its grandeur and mystery, he wrote in 1908 for the National Geographic that

the number of species of trees is very great, and, while including such splendid varieties as mahogany, sabicu, ebony, and Spanish cedar, there are many other hardwoods, probably 150 in number, some of which are very rare or quite unknown to experts in tropical timbers.... The mahogany and cedar are imposing trees, the latter sometimes reaching a diameter of seven feet. Their massive branches, hung with purple and yellow orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and other parasitic plants, are the resort of parrots and other birds of brilliant plumage.

For that audience, lovers of natural history, he presented a photo of teams of oxen hauling the felled mahogany logs to the coast. In a photograph on the next page, he showed a farmer proudly observing a field of corn; his caption blandly read, "Six months before this picture was taken the field was covered with a dense tropical forest."


Excerpted from Insatiable Appetite by Richard P. Tucker Copyright © 2000 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. America's Sweet Tooth: The Sugar Trust and the Caribbean Lowlands
2. Lords of the Pacific: Sugar Barons in the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands
3. Banana Republics: Yankee Fruit Companies and the Tropical American Lowlands
4. The Last Drop: The American Coffee Market and the Hill Regions of Latin America
5. The Tropical Coast of the Automotive Age: Corporate Runner Empires and the Rainforest

6. The Crop on Hooves: Yankee
Interests in Tropical Cattle Ranching

7. Unsustainable Yields: American Foresters and Tropical Timber Resources

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