In This Article Agricultural Technologies

  • Introduction
  • Geography

Latin American Studies Agricultural Technologies
by
Angus Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0148

Introduction

The size and diversity of Latin America make it impossible to identify a characteristic “Latin American agricultural technology.” There are few types of agricultural technologies that are not used somewhere in the region. The exceptions are almost entirely traditional technologies that were developed within specific cultural contexts in other regions of the world or that are clearly inappropriate in the geographic circumstances of soil and climate found in Latin America. Many Latin American public research institutes, universities, corporate research facilities, and individual farmers are capable of locating and adopting technologies from anywhere in the world and adapting them to local conditions, although the institutions and farmers of some nations and regions in Latin America are far better equipped to do so than others. Liberalized trade, Internet resources, international organizations, and the expanding influence of transnational corporations have in general greatly facilitated diffusion of technological innovations. Agricultural technology as discussed here consists of all applications of human knowledge, methods, and tools, as well as plant and animal varieties used for production of agricultural goods. Chemicals, mechanical tools, and biological organisms must be employed in particular ways, and it is both the tools and the ways they are used that make up the technologies of production. It is also important to note that many technologies that are not particularly agricultural in nature have had enormous influence on the development of agriculture. Improvements in transportation, refrigeration, communication, and information processing often overshadow the influence of more specifically “agricultural” technologies. These will be considered here only as they established the context for specifically agricultural technologies. The purpose here is to provide an overview of the history of agricultural technologies in Latin America and an elucidation of current major perspectives and controversies about the best future paths for agricultural research and development.

Geography

Geographers and economic historians provide a good starting point for considering the diversity of agricultural technologies in context. Many Mexican, Guatemalan, and Andean farmers still rely heavily on technologies developed millennia ago in the same regions where those technologies originated. In contrast, an Argentine farmer is more likely to be working in a region where settled agriculture has been established for only one or two centuries, and to be using technologies, including genetically engineered seeds, nearly identical to those currently in use in Europe and the United States. A Brazilian farmer in the recently cleared thorn forests of the cerrado is using synthetic pesticides and new combinations of soil amendments to grow mechanically harvested soybeans, while Brazilian small-scale farms may be using techniques passed down from German, Italian, Japanese, or African ancestors. Clawson 2012 includes a chapter on agriculture in Latin America that surveys this diversity while necessarily being less than comprehensive. For a beginning at thinking of this diversity in a systematic way, Robinson 2003 updates the rather old-fashioned field of agricultural geography, by using a broad range of social-science literature and studies of current issues, including but not focusing on Latin America. Geographer Christian Brannstrom’s anthology (Brannstrom 2004) is distinguished by excellent articles by mostly younger scholars offering provocative viewpoints that span history and geography. Rumney 2005 offers a systematic look at the literature in agricultural geography, with a well-chosen annotated bibliography. Gallup, et al. 2003 considers the question of the degree to which Latin America’s development has been determined by its physical geography, which provides an interesting way to begin to think about how cultural factors, especially technology, have shaped the life of the region. A much-deeper and more sophisticated look at this question can be found in Engerman and Sokoloff 2011, working from the disciplines of history and economics. Fernandes, et al. 2007 provides a neo-Marxist Brazilian view of agricultural geography, of a sort very influential in Latin America, with an emphasis on popular rural movements in Latin America. Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, et al. 2011 gives an overview of current prospects for the agricultural economy of the region as a whole.

  • Brannstrom, Christian, ed. Territories, Commodities, and Knowledges: Latin American Environmental Histories in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Papers presented at the Workshop on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Latin American Environmental History held at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, on 2–3 November 2001. London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    An anthology that serves as an excellent introduction to controversies both over content and method in environmental history and historical geography, with a strong emphasis on agriculture and agricultural knowledge.

  • Clawson, David L. Latin America and the Caribbean: Lands and Peoples. 5th ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    An excellent standard geography text with a chapter on agriculture that gives an overview of many of the issues considered here.

  • Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The Outlook for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Americas: A Perspective on Latin America and the Caribbean 2011–2012. San Jose, Costa Rica, IICA, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Highlights rapidly changing prices for food crops and livestock related to Asian demand and biofuel competition for land and resources. Emphasizes the growing divergence of capabilities of the larger economies (e.g., Brazil, Argentina, Mexico) compared to smaller and poorer ones, and the need to address stark inequalities among and within nations in the ability to take advantage of information and computer technologies. Useful bibliography.

  • Engerman, Stanley L., and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. Economic Development in the Americas since 1500: Endowments and Institutions. NBER Series on Long-Term Factors in Economic Development. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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    A meticulously argued case that while institutions ultimately shape the nature of society and in the long run determine their success, institutions in the Americas were shaped by basic features of the environment such as climate and soils. Highly useful for rethinking the nature and consequences of technological choices, whether or not one agrees with the argument.

  • Fernandes, Bernardo Mançano, Marta Inez Medeiros Marques, and Julio Cesar Suzuki. Geografia agrária: Teoria e poder. Geografia em Movimento. São Paulo, Brazil: Expressão Popular, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brazilian scholars with substantial experience with social movements consider the development of agriculture from a left-wing perspective of a sort that is very influential in Latin America. A critique of agricultural geography as a field as well as a new theoretical formulation of it.

  • Gallup, John Luke, Alejandro Gaviria, and Eduardo Lora. Is Geography Destiny? Lessons from Latin America. Latin American Development Forum. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1596/0-8213-5451-5E-mail Citation »

    A starting point for thinking about patterns of development in Latin America, carefully considered but deliberately provocative as well. The emphasis on physical characteristics of the region highlights the key role of agriculture and technological possibilities.

  • Robinson, Guy. Geographies of Agriculture: Globalisation, Restructuring, and Sustainability. Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A much-needed effort to put new life into the somewhat musty subdiscipline of agricultural geography, by reaching beyond the discipline of geography into social science and historical literature.

  • Rumney, Thomas A. The Study of Agricultural Geography: A Scholarly Guide and Bibliography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Rumney’s book provides a way to think systematically about the diversity of agriculture, as well as containing a highly useful bibliography.

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