I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here

From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492

Reinaldo Funes Monzote

From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba is a study of the affects of social and economic change on the environment of the island. Similar to Mart A. Stewarts assertions in “What Nature Suffers to Groe,” Monzote also examines the interrelationship between human and ecological change. The bulk of Monzote’s account focuses on the effect of the sugar industry on Cuba’s forests, as, he comments, ultimately it was the rich fertility of the forests that enabled the sugar industry to thrive. The sugar industry both had a direct impact on the environment and fostered a society, like the one in Stewart’s Georgia, which furthered the abuse and neglect of the natural landscape that encompassed it.

For the first two centuries of European settlement in Cuba very little was affected upon the landscape. The citizens during that time period practiced livestock husbandry, which probably resembled, although not as diversified, the mixed husbandry that was practiced in Concord, that Brian Donahue describes, in that it was based in a desire to ensure the long-term sustainability of the lifestyle. Shipbuilding and the sugar industry originated in Cuba at much the same time and both needed lumber resources, however the military carried the clout to win the resource battle and to ensure that the forests were reasonably managed and conserved so as to guarantee the proliferation of the industry, which limited, to their angst, the sugar plantation owner’s ability to exploit the forests around them. However, by the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, due to the weakening of the shipbuilding industry, the increasingly liberal economic climate, and the pressure brought on by the Haitian Revolution, the sugar industry was able to break free of its prior restraints in order to capitalize on the moment.

To Monzote, the sugar plantations of Cuba represent the model juxtaposition of wild versus domesticated nature. He believes that the plantations are one of the earliest examples of industrial agriculture and compares the havoc that the plantation’s wreaked on the environment to the process of strip-mining. They Royal Edict of 1815, which gave the sugar industry free reign in forest exploitation, started, according to Monzote, a sixty year period, during which the interconnected relationship of the environment, slavery, and technology are remarkably apparent. Steam technology played a double hit on the nation’s forest as it increased the need for fuel and made it possible for increasing amounts of land to be cleared and exploited for its fertility. The remarkable thing about this progression, according to Monzote, is that the dangers of the process of clear-cutting were well known, and very much a reality, but were purposefully ignored in order to satisfy the pangs of greed with momentary fiscal gain. The conservative efforts that arose in the 1920s and saved the final remnants of forest came far too late in the game to avoid the ill-effects of deforestation, such as climate change and decreased rainfall. In the end, Monzote’s account of the transformation of Cuba’s landscape is fueled largely by disdain for Cuba’s contemporary environmental and economic situation, a situation that could have avoided. The failure of those in the past to take heed of the signals around them is, to Monzote, unforgivable and completely unpardonable.

Feature Photograph: “Cuba Countryside” by Tobias Nordhausen

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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