These two recently edited volumes focus on historical changes in the tropical forests of the New World. Both are useful, but for different audiences. The volume edited by Susan Place is part of a series of core texts for undergraduate courses in Latin American studies and history. It consists of 30 short selections from already published works, each introduced by a brief critical note. The collection by Harold Steen and Richard Tucker is a conference proceeding that presents a series of original research papers of uneven scope and quality.
Part 1 of Place’s book presents a variety of “Perceptions of the Rainforest,” including excerpts from the writings of novelists, naturalists, and anthropologists. The selections in part 2 (“Explanations for Deforestation in Latin America”) describe some of the economic and political forces behind tropical deforestation, including population pressures, cattle ranching, oil drilling, industrialization, and U.S. foreign policy. In part 3 (“Why Save the Rainforests?”) the articles discuss the impact of deforestation and arguments for reversing the loss of tropical forests. Part 4 (“Prospects for Development: Alternative Futures for the Rainforest”) reviews viable areas, extractive reserves, debt-for-nature swaps, and ecotourism. A final section suggests further study with an annotated list of 19 books, 9 films, and 7 popular-scientific journals. All the readings in this volume are well selected and edited, and the whole collection provides up-to-date review of the complexity of deforestation in the Latin American region.
The volume edited by Steen and Tucker presents 23 research papers divided into sections on keynote addresses, Central America, Mexico, Brazil and Amazonia, and timber extraction and forestry since colonial times. Steen’s cursory introduction explains that the conference was sponsored by the Forest History Group of the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO). The common theme of ecosystem change in the tropics ties together articles ranging from general overviews to highly technical papers on, for example, the long-term effects of sheep grazing in semiarid regions or the role of microfossils in historical analysis. Some engaging essays appear, such as Warren Dean’s strong plea for the incorporation of environmentalist arguments into Latin American history and Murdo McLeod’s critical review of Amerindian and Spanish resource use from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Nuanced discussions of traditional resource management are presented in Rhena Hoffman’s article on Mexico and in William Balée and Leslie Sponsel’s chapter on Amazonia. The articles generally are well written, and many provide useful case studies for specific regions or countries.
Available at an accessible price in paperback, these two books are both useful for classroom adoption in courses in anthropology, history, ecology, or Latin American studies.