Agriculture and Science (1000-2000)

Latin American ecosystems have produced some of the most rich and varied crops in modern memory, the production of which has, since the mid-sixteenth century, both tied Latin America to the global economy and resulted in extraordinary ecological change. Growing sugar, coffee, bananas, and other crops has combined with large scale natural resource extraction (oil, copper, timber) and the process of urbanization to transform Latin America in dramatic fashion, with significant consequences for humans, flora, and fauna. Agricultural science has been a key component to advancing the rate of crop production, as well as working to stem the worst effects of the ecological consequences. Agriculturalists have thus implemented measures to protect against erosion, the depletion of nutrients in the soil, and foreign pests.

Although the introduction of European agricultural practices transformed Latin America's landscape, economy, and society, farming had long been a fundamental part of many indigenous civilizations. Maize and legume farming fed the large civilizations of Mesoamerica and potato cultivation provided a nutritious staple for the Inca diet. Furthermore, Indian peoples created advanced agricultural techniques to adapt to their particular landscapes, like the chinampas and terraces seen in this topic's sources.

U.S. foreign policy between 1890 and 1930 emphasized interventionism in Latin American affairs to uphold the 1823 Monroe Doctrine--declaring the western hemisphere off limits to European colonization--and to advance U.S. economic interests in Latin America. Several U.S. owned companies, including United Fruit, Boston Fruit, and Dole Fruit, utilized this policy to their advantage. These vast corporations bought land in the Caribbean and Central America, cleared it and planted immense acreages of highly lucrative, labor intensive, and ecologically damaging crops. Once the crops were harvested, they were transported on U.S. built railroads to the coasts and onto ships heading for either Europe or the U.S. Money generated by the sale of sugar, tobacco, bananas, and coffee was then deposited into U.S. banks.

The ecological toll of large scale monocrop production was extraordinary. Forests were cut and burned to make way for new crops. Savannas and grasslands were plowed under and planted. The lack of crop diversification over centuries exhausted the soil resources and produced deserts, which were then irrigated and planted to feed this increased demand. The fundamental changes to the landscape caused by deforestation and irrigation are well depicted in the source 'Coffee Hacienda.' The end result was mass deforestation, depleted aquifers and contaminated water sources; and a shocking reduction in biodiversity.

Science has played an important role in both stemming the ecological consequences of large scale production and in improving production. As U.S. military and economic presence in Latin America expanded, scientists accompanied it. Scientists working with the U.S. Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum for Natural History, and others, also went to Latin America to collect plant and animal specimens for future study, to work with local governments to protect the environment and to assist plantation owners in improving crop yields, and preventing large scale ecological havoc.

This topic focuses on the role of science in the production of the major crops of the Caribbean and Latin America. The images depict the destructiveness of agricultural production, the process and results of experimentation, and some of the effects that monocrop agriculture has had on local society.

Questions for further exploration:

1. In this topic, there are several examples of the role of agriculture in transforming the environment. What problems are common to large scale agricultural production throughout Latin America?

2. How does the production of any single crop impact the environment and society of a particular Latin American country (e.g. tobacco in Cuba)?

3. How have scientists tried to address some of the more overt problems of soil exhaustion and erosion? 

4. Where are the problems resulting from agriculture most acute? How are they connected to globalization?

5. Discuss the role of geography in the larger theme of agricultural science in Latin America.

Aztec Chinampas

Date: c. 1500
Owner: Art Resource
Source Type: Images


This sixteenth century painting from the valley of Mexico shows Aztecs constructing chinampas, agricultural plots raised in the middle of a lake. After sounding the bottom for an appropriate spot, chinamperos began to pile up mud dredged from the lake on top of a lattice structure of reeds. Although they appear to rest on the surface of the water, earning them the nickname "floating gardens," chinampas were actually built up from the bottom of the lake.

There are several advantages to this system of farming, which began c. 800 CE, most obvious of which is the economical use of space. In effect, the Aztecs made new land in the water, a necessary feat to feed an urban center like Tenochtitlan, which was built in the center of the large Lake Texcoco. Plants sewn on chinampas were also guaranteed a constant source of moisture, as their roots grew directly into mud within the lake. This technological achievement allowed high crop yields despite the arid climate of central Mexico.

The Aztecs employed other farming technologies on these islands, including organic fertilizers, willow trees to control erosion, and seed nurseries, or almacigos, in which seeds were given time to germinate before being transplanted to the center of the isle. Chinamperos rotated the crops on these islets to prevent soil depletion and they were able to produce two or three separate harvests each year. These technological achievements, both in terms of agriculture and terraforming, helped support the massive population of the Aztec Empire and were a source of amazement for the Spanish conquistadors.

CITATION: Pico, Jose Muro. Construction of the Chinampas, garden islands in Mexico's lake. Detail of the Pilgrimage of the Nahuatlacas tribe. Oil on wood. Museum of the City of Mexico, Mexico City, D.F., Mexico. Nicolas Sapieha / Art Resource, NY. ID: ART12471.



Bordered Gardens

Date: c. 1615
Owner: Royal Library of Denmark, Copenhagen
Source Type: Images


This illustration, from Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala's Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno (1615), shows a woman tending an irrigated field in the Andes (which loom large in the background). Irrigation is an agricultural necessity in most of the northern Andes and archaeological evidence dates the region's earliest canals to around 3000 BCE. Large canals and their lesser diversions were carved into the landscapes, channeling water from the rivers of the high Andes to the arid regions near the coast. Reservoirs, such as the one on the left of Guaman Poma's drawing, collected and stored this precious water so that it could be used in the smaller irrigation systems of individual fields (the crisscross pattern of lines in this picture probably represents an irrigation network). Although this reservoir is built of stone blocks, most Incan and pre-Incan reservoirs discovered by archaeologists were made with earthen walls or dug directly into the ground.

The pre-Columbian canal system of Peru was both effective and vast; in fact, it may have provided water for 15-20% more of the coastal area than the modern infrastructure and most of the canal system has been abandoned. Tectonic events and wars, both between different Andean groups and with the Spanish, account partially for this, yet the major reason for the inadequate distribution of water in the modern era is mono-crop agriculture. Sugarcane and rice have become major cash crops in Peru and are monopolizing the water resources previously used to grow maize, potatoes, and cotton. Though the impact has been less profound in Peru than the Caribbean or Brazil, the market encouraging the mass production of a few staple crops has reshaped Andean society.


Denevan, William W. Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2003.

CITATION: Drawing 396. November: Time of watering the maize, of scarcity of water, time of heat. In Guaman Poma, Felipe. Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno. 1615. Courtesy of the Royal Library of Denmark.



Canal on Sugar Plantation

Date: 1890-1925
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


Sugar, as did most large scale crop production, required constant and steady watering. In Jamaica, agriculturalists experimented with different types of irrigation systems in an effort to improve yields and to geographically expand the acreage capable of sustaining sugar production. Irrigation techniques included digging trenches from rivers, lakes, or other water bodies, to potentially producing fields. Water was then distributed either by hand dug trenches or to manmade reservoirs to be held for future use. These techniques exponentially increased production of sugar, tobacco, bananas, and other exportable crops. But the canals were typically straight and narrow, and the velocity of water movement increased without the natural curves to slow it down. Moreover, water often evaporated in the heat of the Caribbean summers. Irrigation reduced water sources and natural aquifers exponentially, negatively effecting communities dependent on them. Finally, large-scale, monocrop production made possible by irrigation increased soil erosion and exhaustion, and lack of diversity weakened crops and increased incidents of disease, lowering the overall yields.

CITATION: Jamaica, irrigation canal on sugar plantation.  Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection. Copyright Publishers Photo Service, NYC. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-95074.


Coffee Hacienda

Date: 1890-1923
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This photograph shows coffee beans drying in rows in the sun on a Costa Rican plantation in 1923. Coffee production was extraordinarily lucrative for U.S. investors in Central America during this era of economic expansion. Enormous tracts of land in Central America and the Caribbean were bought by U.S. entrepreneurs, who then cleared the land for mono-crop agriculture -- bananas, sugar, pineapple, rubber, and coffee -- finally shipping the fruits of the harvest to Europe and the United States. This image depicts the juxtaposition of scientists, nature, and economic development in Latin America during the U.S. Progressive era, as U.S. scientists were contracted by companies to address some of the more pressing ecological problems associated with overproduction including soil exhaustion, erosion, and deforestation. Coffee production was particularly lucrative and was one of the key crops of the Central American nations, the Caribbean, and the northern nations of South America. It could also be highly destructive, as large acreages of land were cleared to make way for coffee trees. Deforestation and coffee production required highly intensive labor and resulted in mass erosion and water pollution. Scientists were contacted to develop more sustainable programs to increase the longevity of the resources. Look closely at this photograph and identify what, precisely, is going on in the image. What does this image tell you about early 20th century Central American coffee production?

CITATION: "Coffee hacienda, Costa Rica" Medium: 1 photographic print. Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection, copyright Publishers Photo Service. LIbrary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-97798.



Cuban Tobacco

Date: 1920
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This photographic image depicts a man inspecting tobacco in Cuba in the shadows of an enormous, manmade shelter. For nearly five hundred years, tobacco production had been a crucial component to the Cuban economy. Early production was extraordinarily destructive as deep furrows were cut into the soil, seeds planted, and irrigation systems rerouted water through the uncovered soil. By the end of the 19th century, plantation owners were confronted with a variety of pressing ecological problems, including diseased crops, soil exhaustion, and erosion. To address these concerns, plantation owners, such as the E. Atkins & Co., hired agricultural specialists from the United States to investigate methods of improving production. One of the strategies for reducing erosion was through crop diversification and another was by covering vast sections of tobacco crops with manmade tarps to shade the plants and the soil from the harsh Caribbean sunlight and to meter the rainfall. These tarps rested on pillars of wood cut from the surrounding area, then placed in holes dug at specific intervals to prevent the heavy tarp from falling onto the plants. This image depicts a man inspecting tobacco leaves at about twelve weeks, just before harvest. Notice the pillars placed in rows on either side of him as well as the cloth covering the plants. What are your initial impressions of this construction?

CITATION: Man inspecting shade tobacco in field, Cuba. 1 Photographic Print: 1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-96605. Digital ID: 3b42709.



Inca Bench Terraces

Date: 1460
Owner: iStock Photo
Source Type: Images


The Incas carved out these bench terraces, or andenes, to create level platforms for growing crops on the steep slopes of the Andes. The bench terraces shown here are located at Machu Picchu and would have been used to provide maize or potatoes for this remote city. Although andenes are just one of several types of terraced fields used in Peru, they are the most spectacular example of how Incan and pre-Incan Indian groups manipulated their environment to facilitate agriculture. Each bench terrace is about 5-15 meters wide, separated by a high, inward-leaning wall, and they often have built in irrigation systems that channel water from the highest level to the lowest. The rocks, and sometimes even the topsoil, used to build these terraces had to be transported by hand from the valleys below.

Some archaeologists date the oldest examples of Andean terracing back to around 2000 BCE, yet many shelves continue to be cultivated today. Like the chinampas used by Aztecs, bench terraces not only create arable land out of otherwise neglected spaces but do so in a way that encourages water distribution and high crop yields. Although they once supported empires, it is ironic that both andenes and chinampas are now necessary for many indigenous peoples who need to use these ancient technologies to produce food on the non-ideal lands to which they have been relegated. Large farms using modern technology have come to dominate much of the terrain, yet terraforming still allows marginalized peoples to earn a living.

Reference: Denevan, William W. Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2003.

CITATION: Denevan, William M. Inca Fields in Machu Picchu. Courtesy of iStockPhoto. File Number: 4122336.



Puerto Rican Mosaic Infection

Date: 1921
Owner: Journal of Agriculture of Porto Rico
Source Type: Images


This map of Puerto Rico illustrates the regions of the island most affected by the mosaic disease, a virus that began ravaging Puerto Rico's sugarcane industry in 1917. As the map makes clear, Puerto Rico was dominated by monocrop agriculture, namely of coffee, tobacco, and sugar (the sugar growing areas being located mostly along the coast), and its economy relied almost exclusively on their production. The necessity of protecting the cane fields from this virus attracted the attention of scientists from the United States and Puerto Rico.

The virus was a new concept in biology at this time, and scientists had difficulty pinpointing the nature of the mosaic disease as well as how it was passed from plant to plant. The U.S.D.A. sent cane specialists in an effort to protect their considerable interests in Puerto Rico and they were able to determine that the mosaic was a virus spread by an external vector (just as Cuban doctor Carlos Juan Finlay had realized that yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes). It was two Puerto Rican scientists, Carlos E. Charon and Rafael A. Veve, who figured out that the disease was spread by the corn aphid, an insect that did not normally eat cane but did so after weeds (their usual fare) were removed from the fields. As historian Stuart McCook notes, the mosaic virus is a prime example of the role humans can play in changing nature on a global scale. The virus came to Puerto Rico from the Pacific islands as planters sought to import new strains of cane. The mosaic disease still would not have thrived in the Caribbean's natural conditions, but weeding the cane fields made an artificial environment in which aphids were forced to eat (and thus infect) sugarcane.


McCook, Stuart George. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 

CITATION: Journal of Agriculture of Porto Rico, 1927



Source References

Web Sites

Aztecs: Farming and Agriculture (ThinkQuest Team 16325): Description of farming and agriculture and its importance in Aztec life.

Aztec Civilization (Truman State University): Concise descriptions of Aztec contributions to the arts and sciences and the importance of the Sun calendar and religion.

Horticulture of Pre-Columbian America (Jules Janick, Purdue University)

Chocolate: Modern Science Investigates an Ancient Medicine (Journal of Nutrition)


Ballou, Maturin Murray. Aztec Land. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 1942.

Coe, Michael D. "The Chinampas of Mexico." Scientific American. 211 (July 1964): 90-98, 144.

Cotter, Joseph. Troubled Harvest: Agronomy and Revolution in Mexico, 1880-2002. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

DeWalt, Bille R. "Appropriate Technology in Rural Mexico: Antecedents and Consequences on an Indigenous Peasant Innovation." Technology and Culture. 19 (1978): 32-52.

Delle, James A. An Archaeology of Social Space: Analyzing Coffee Plantations in Jamaica's Blue Mountains. New York: Springer, 2006. 

Dye, Alan. Cuban Sugar in the Age of Mass Production: Technology and the Economics of the Sugar Central, 1899-1929. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Glaser, Bruno and William I. Woods. Amazonian Dark Earths: Explorations in Space and Time. New York: Springer, 2004.

Hall, Michael R. Sugar and Power in the Dominican Republic: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Trujillos. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Harvey, H.R. Land and Politics in the Valley of Mexico: a Two Thousand Year Perspective. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Hurt, R. Douglas. Indian Agriculture in America: Prehistory to the Present. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Lehmann, Johannes and Dirse C. Kern, Bruno Glaser, and William I. Woods. Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management. New York: Springer, 2004.

Lopez, Raul Avila. Chinampas de Iztapalapa, D.F. Mexico D.F.: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, 1991.

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Vintage Press, 2006.

McCook, Stuart George. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. 

Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Rabiela, Teresa Rojas, ed.. Presente, pasado, y futuro de las chinampas. Mexico City: CIESAS, 1995.

Romero, Aldemaro. Environmental Issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York: Springer, 2005. 

Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Schwartz, Stuart B. Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Boston:  Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Soluri, John. Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Southgate, Douglas. Tropical Forest Conservation: An Economic Assessment of the Alternatives in Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 1998.

Striffler, Steve and Mark Moberg. Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Zanetti, Oscar and Alejandro Garcia. Sugar & Railroads: A Cuban History, 1837-1959. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.



Tobacco and Bananas

Date: 1916
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images


This photograph, taken by the Keystone View Company, depicts three individuals cutting tobacco in the shade of Cuban banana trees. Centuries of tobacco and sugar production in Cuba had resulted in severe soil erosion and exhaustion as acres of groundcover were removed, soil tilled, crops planted, and irrigation canals dug, leaving soil exposed to the harsh sunlight and rainfall and exhausted from the nonstop production of crops. Tobacco was particularly difficult because the leaves required shade from the sun, and farmers had experimented with large scale coverings to protect the fragile crops. With the turn of the twentieth century, however, scientists contracted by U.S. owned companies and by scientific institutions such as the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Chicago Museum of Natural History, advocated crop diversification, that is planting two or more crops together, in order to prevent the worst effects of production. One of the strategies presented was to plant tobacco plants in with banana trees as the more permanent root system of banana trees held soil in place and the large leaves provided a canopy which shaded the tobacco plants from the harsh tropical sun and rain. The combination of banana and tobacco production significantly reduced erosion and exhaustion, ultimately improving crop yields. As you look at this image, note the proximity of banana trees and tobacco plants, consider how that might affect labor.

CITATION: Cutting Tobacco in the shade of banana trees, Province of Havana, Cuba. 1 Photographic Print on Stereo Card: Stereograph, 1916. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-66912. Digital ID, 3b14393