Richard Melson

November 2005

Export Agriculture: book

Export Agriculture and the Crisis in Central America
by Robert G. Williams


The environmental repercussions of export agriculture

November 5, 2001

Williams' book deals with the issue of export agriculture in Central America and its repercussions on the economic, ecological, and social well-being of this troubled region. Williams divides the book into three parts, according to the main exports of Latin America. First, Williams deals with cotton's emergence as a cash crop and its positive and negative aspects. Second, Williams deals with cattle and the effects it has had upon the land and the men who till it. This book is interesting in the way it views the cash crops in an economic light and in the ways they affect farmers, large farmers, and the working class.

The environment has blessed Central America with some of the best land anywhere on earth. Central America's pacific coastal plain, for example, is ideal for growing cotton. The ecological consequences of growing cotton, however, are quite severe. The stress on the soil is severe, considering this crop is not for subsistence.

While the law requires that the land be cleared as to protect the land, it is nearly inevitable to prevent the volcanic soils to be vulnerable from wind and water erosion. In the rainy season, however, thunderstorms take their toll on the soil since they make the land prone to flooding. This damage is in addition to the fact that the best lands are used for the production of cotton, while simultaneously polluting the coastal eco-system.

The fertility of the soil was short lived in Central America, since after four or five years of consecutive cultivation the light soils of the coastal plain began to lose their natural fertility. This, in turn, led to the need to use chemicals to yield more crops per acre of land.

In regards to cattle, Williams argues that the emerging demand for beef in the United States as a result of the fast food business precipitated the need to make subsistence plots in Latin America land for cattle grazing. For institutions like the World Bank, AID and IADB cattle was seen as a pragmatic, quick way to achieve export led growth.

By most accounts, this land was carved from Central American forests. Swidden agriculture (slash and burn) practiced by indigenous allowed for the land to be regenerated after the patch had been abandoned. Under modern methods of forest clearing, the land is almost always relegated to remaining fallow. Modern methods of clearing have allowed for flatlands below the grazing grounds to become subject to flooding. Williams concludes that for those privileged enough to gain access to bank credit, the beef export boom meant a quick way to expand their fortunes, while for those who planted for survival it spelled impending doom.

Product Details:

November 20, 2005