The volume, by university teachers in the Latin American field, all British, contains nine studies, each dealing with a country or a regional grouping of countries. This diversified core is preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion, both jointly written by the editors, each of whom also has authored one region or country chapter.
Many informed and highly readable sections occur throughout the book, with thought-provoking discussions of particular processes and relationships.
Clearly, the undertaking was not meant to produce yet another regional text. The editors point out that there was no “attempt at a comprehensive geography of Latin America if that, indeed, were possible” (p. viii). The very title of the publication proclaims a plurality of geographic viewpoints; consequently, it absolves the editors from the need “to impose a uniform treatment” (p. viii) and the authors from the compulsion to, literally, “cover all the ground,” in the areas they deal with. Conversely, the title may lead some readers to assume that, given a free hand, all contributors would use the space available to them, to develop, in depth and with sophistication, a limited number of fresh perspectives, originating in their varying foci of areal or thematic concerns. For such readers, the book may prove somewhat of a letdown. Despite a number of good sections, when considered en bloc, the volume falls somewhere between the text that it was not meant to be and the collection of sharply focused essays that it might have been. The fact is that, “intended above all to present individual analyses of the various countries and regions of Latin America” (p. viii), the chapters, if not the book, do after all, exhibit a degree of comprehensiveness that in some cases dilutes the “detailed knowledge . . . and experience,” for which the authors were selected (p. viii), but that does not necessarily cover, wall-to-wall, the territory of individual assignments.
That the chapters are self-contained makes for iterations—as well as lacunae. Thus, the reader absorbs the flat claim that “Mexico has a greater range of natural conditions and a richer history than any of the countries in Latin America” (p. 19), goes on to read about “the diversity and complexity of both natural and human phenomena” in Venezuela and Colombia (p. 179, restated on p. 182), and notes that the “physical environments of the central Andean countries are highly contrasted” (p. 270). This kind of repetitiousness leads to a feeling of déjà vu and the desire for a somewhat heavier editorial hand.
One might wish that the introduction and the conclusions had been considerably expanded to provide adequate treatment of certain themes of continental or subcontinental dimensions. A case in point is the catastrophic decline of immunologically virgin indigenous populations in the face of introduced diseases, as touched upon in the chapter on Venezuela-Colombia (p. 206), and whose Central Andean expression (p. 280) has, as a matter of fact, been the object of a paper by one of the authors. This problem is especially germane in assessing the carrying capacity of some of the “empty” lowlands of the Latin American tropics. With respect to the alien diseases, although the lists cited (e.g., p. 206) presumably are no more than exemplificatory, it is worth noting that a growing body of evidence now points to the post-contact introduction of malaria, one of the most stubborn obstacles to settlement of the lowlands and a major cause for the decline of some Amerindian groups.
As is to be expected in a multiple-author book, the degree of craftsmanship varies from chapter to chapter. But there are also quality gradients within individual chapters, sloping from the “highs” of personal research to the “lows” of, at times, unsatisfactory compilations. As an example, I should like to examine one of these chapters, namely that dealing with Brazil, since it is the area with which I am personally most familiar.
Considering that Brazil represents almost exactly one-half of both the area and the population of South America, one must question the allocation of almost five times more space to the former Spanish colonial domain. Not mere territorial size nor number of inhabitants makes the case for giving greater attention to Brazil, but also the fact that this country leads the field in the headlong rush to reap the benefits—and, hélas, pay the costs—of western-style technological development.
The chapter on Brazil is written by J. H. Galloway. As spin-offs from a more than 400-page study of Pernambuco 1770-1920: An Historical Geography, submitted in 1965 to the University of London for the Ph.D. degree, this author has produced a couple of scholarly papers dealing with the historical geography and history of sugar plantations of Northeast Brazil. In them, he ably integrated travel accounts and censuses with archival materials located in England, Portugal, and Brazil. Working from the “beachhead” established on the Northeast’s sugar coast, Galloway in the present volume attempts to scan the vastness of the Brazilian half-continent and to organize the subject matter under three major historical headings: the period 1500-1800; the nineteenth century; and the twentieth century. The result is disappointing.
A clue to some of the chapter’s shortcomings perhaps may be found in the author’s bibliography. Although one would scarcely take issue with the relevance of most of the references given, the list is far too scanty, not catholic enough, and requires updating. Consider the heading “Physical Geography” (which also covers biogeography). There are only four entries, the most recent published in 1958. The late Kurt Hueck, included in the list on the basis of a short, 1957 paper on savannas, subsequently authored a valuable book on the forests of South America (1966), over 150 pages of which concern the vegetation of Brazil. With two (i.e., half) of the “Physical Geography” references devoted to the Brazilian savannas, one might assume some interest in this field on the part of the author. Why then does he not mention, for instance, the several cerrado symposia held in Brazil during the decade preceding publication of the Latin American Geographical Perspectives. In sum, current Brazilian publications in geography and related fields are inadequately represented.
The maps of climate, vegetation, and soils leave much to be desired—even in terms of “generalized outlines.” Surprisingly, the last two are drawn from the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ Physical Geographic Atlas of the World (1964). For the part of the world dealt with here, more immediate and authoritative compilations were available. Leaving aside detailed regional studies, the national atlas, published by the Conselho Nacional de Geografia, would have been an obvious source for the small-scale vegetation and soils maps. Among other possible sources: for the vegetation map, Veloso’s Atlas Florestal do Brasil; for the soil map, the representation by Beek and Bramão (in E. J. Fittkau et al., eds. Biogeography and Ecology in South America, 1968).
Unfamiliarity with the meaning commonly attributed to certain words can lead to confusion. It is disconcerting to find the word Triângulo repeatedly used (pp. 386-391) as a place name to designate “the industrial region roughly delimited by the cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte.” Obviously it is not incorrect to refer to this region as a triangle, in a purely geometric sense. Nevertheless, a person aware of Brazilian usage, looking up the toponym Triângulo in the general index, would normally think of the Minas Gerais panhandle, which lies between the Paranaíba and Grande rivers, and is best known for its production of Brahma cattle and rice. This Triângulo is an officially recognized “Physiographic Zone” and has been used, in the presentation of statistical data. Recognition of its identity, in fact, is so strong, that the region’s inhabitants have, at times, expressed a yearning for autonomy, and the name Triângulo has even been suggested for a new state in a proposed territorial-administrative redivision of Brazil.
By overextending himself in relation to personal experience and research, a scholar not only deprives the readers of the full benefit of his special insights, but also may produce an aperçu that falls short of already available overviews. Perhaps it is worth recalling the words of E. Estyn Evans: “Regional studies are most rewarding when they are pursued in regions small enough to be investigated intimately and absorbed through all the senses, including the soles of the feet.”
Given the size, population, and overall significance of Brazil, had Galloway concentrated on his long-standing interest, the historical geography of the sugar coast, other students must necessarily have been mobilized to work on the Portuguese-speaking half of South America, to which far too few pages are devoted, as it is. Assuming an all-British list of contributors, there are, I am happy to say, an adequate number of geographers with field experience in different regions of Brazil, researchers whose foot soles, in the manner prescribed by Evans, have scuffed the fine dust of terra roxa in the dry season or clung to sticky massapé in the rains; have sweltered on sun-seared rocks of the sertão, or sloshed through Amazonian mud. Five authors worked on the other half of South America; it is in the absence of such a division of labor and in view of what appears to have been, in time and place, a rather limited vivência (as Brazilians would say), that Galloway’s effort must be judged.
Taken as a whole, Latin America: Geographical Perspectives, despite some shortcomings and unevenness in quality, is a work worth consideration by students of Latin America.