Thursday, March 25, 2021

Ecological consequences of Spanish colonialism

Last year's The Americas published an article by Christopher Woolley, "'The Forests Cannot be Commons': Spanish Law, Environmental Change, and New Spain's Council on Forests". The abstract:

This article examines the sylvan political ecology of late colonial New Spain and the colonial government's attempt to address deforestation through the Council on Forests, the first body in the kingdom's history dedicated to the conservation of natural resources. Drawing primarily from the corpus of documents produced by and remitted to the council, this article gives a trans-regional perspective on colonial forest use and argues that the Spanish crown's usurpation of indigenous communities' eminent domain over forests was the first step in a process that over centuries progressively severed the cultural ties that bound communities and forests by converting common-pool resources into open-access commons. The catastrophic mortality of the Spanish invasion was the second step, which rendered conservation measures seemingly unnecessary among both woodcutters and officials. But it was during the eighteenth century that older Habsburg notions of protectionism intersected with economic and political changes associated with Bourbon rule to further compel this cultural severance. While previous works have studied the ecological impacts of mining, ranching, and flood control, this article moves beyond the study of a single industry to suggest some of the larger ecological consequences of Spanish colonialism.

Forest in the Sierra Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico (credit: Prsjl)

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