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Insatiable Appetite

Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World

Richard P. Tucker
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 564
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnxtd
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  • Book Info
    Insatiable Appetite
    Book Description:

    In the late 1800s American entrepreneurs became participants in the 400-year history of European economic and ecological hegemony in the tropics. Beginning as buyers in the tropical ports of the Atlantic and Pacific, they evolved into land speculators, controlling and managing the areas where tropical crops were grown for carefully fostered consumer markets at home. As corporate agro-industry emerged, the speculators took direct control of the ecological destinies of many tropical lands. Supported by the U.S. government's diplomatic and military protection, they migrated and built private empires in the Caribbean, Central and South America, the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and West Africa. Yankee investors and plantation managers mobilized engineers, agronomists, and loggers to undertake what they called the "Conquest of the Tropics," claiming to bring civilization to benighted peoples and cultivation to unproductive nature. In competitive cooperation with local landed and political elites, they not only cleared natural forests but also displaced multicrop tribal and peasant lands with monocrop export plantations rooted in private property regimes. This book is a rich history of the transformation of the tropics in modern times, pointing ultimately to the declining biodiversity that has resulted from the domestication of widely varied natural systems. Richard P. Tucker graphically illustrates his study with six major crops, each a virtual empire in itself—sugar, bananas, coffee, rubber, beef, and timber. He concludes that as long as corporate-dominated free trade is ascendant, paying little heed to its long-term ecological consequences, the health of the tropical world is gravely endangered.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92381-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION A Consuming Passion The United States as Exploiter of Tropical Nature
    (pp. 1-12)

    Since the late 1960s a groundswell of changing consciousness has been shaping us as we assess the political and environmental dimensions of America’s global power. In earlier years the idea of the exploitation of Nature had strongly positive connotations, expressing our success in harnessing Nature’s abundance to fulfill human needs and desires. In contrast, to speak of the exploitation of certain social groups by others was more often a denunciation. In recent years we have begun to be collectively more self-critical of our interaction with our environment, as evidence mounts that social exploitation has been closely linked with a damaging...

  5. PART ONE Croplands

    • CHAPTER 1 America’s Sweet Tooth: The Sugar Trust and the Caribbean Lowlands
      (pp. 15-62)

      Sugar cane was the first tropical plantation crop grown in the Americas for European consumption, linking tropical land and vegetation systems directly with the global economic web of the mercantilist empires. Of all Latin America’s export crops, sugar cane has had the most influential role in the region’s history, transforming its economic, political, and societal structures. It was the first crop to arrive with the Europeans; it was associated with one of the most ruthless of all labor systems, African slavery; and it has been the most widespread in replacing tropical rainforests. Only bananas can rival sugar as a dominant...

    • CHAPTER 2 Lords of the Pacific: Sugar Barons in the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands
      (pp. 63-119)

      The American pursuit of the natural wealth of the Pacific began in the 1790s, almost as early as America’s penetration of the Caribbean, and it was a direct extension of the Caribbean trade. American commercial interests were closely linked with the country’s strategic expansion into those seas, and European rivals provided competition for commercial and strategic ambitions alike. Among the many natural products that contributed to American wealth and power, sugar cane was preeminent. King Cane led Americans into political, sociological, and ecological transformations of an oceanic world that some of sugar’s managers began to envision as an American lake....

    • CHAPTER 3 Banana Republics: Yankee Fruit Companies and the Tropical American Lowlands
      (pp. 120-178)

      The steadily increasing appetite of North Americans and Europeans for tropical fruit, especially bananas, produced impacts in the tropics that were very similar to those that resulted from the consumer demand for cane sugar. Bananas and cane thrive in the same setting, so, in the first half of the twentieth century, American fruit companies joined the sugar producers in their frontal attack on the rainforest lowlands of the Caribbean Basin and northern South America.

      In the mid-twentieth century, most of the bananas grown in the tropical world were destined for local consumption, not international trade. In the 1950s about 20...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Last Drop: The American Coffee Market and the Hill Regions of Latin America
      (pp. 179-225)

      Of all the tropical crops sold on world markets, the first in value is coffee. By the 1960s coffee had the second highest value of any internationally traded commodity, surpassed only by petroleum. It is grown across hill regions throughout the tropical and subtropical world—anywhere on the planet that does not suffer winter frosts. Of all the social and environmental consequences that have been the result of the commercial growth of tropical crops, the most varied have been the result of coffee production.

      Coffee contrasts with sugar cane and bananas in many ways. It is versatile in its habits,...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Tropical Cost of the Automotive Age: Corporate Rubber Empires and the Rainforest
      (pp. 226-282)

      The commercial cultivation of sugar cane and bananas had devoured the coastal lowlands of the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Coffee estates had eroded the mid-elevation hill regions of tropical and subtropical America. This process was continued by the corporate rubber plantations, which extended the domestication of tropical rainforest ecosystems into new regions: Indonesia and Malaya in Southeast Asia and Liberia in West Africa. The industry also made abortive efforts in Amazonia and other tropical American rainforest regions.

      The rubber industry, and the global consumer demand that it created and satisfied, attacked the moist...

  6. PART TWO Pasturelands

    • CHAPTER 6 The Crop on Hooves: Yankee Interests in Tropical Cattle Ranching
      (pp. 285-342)

      The European introduction of domestic livestock into the Americas was probably an even more radical shock to New World ecosystems than the introduction of European crops. When cattle, horses, sheep, and goats spread across the land, they were mobile and fecund, running wild and multiplying at a staggeringly fast pace. Livestock voraciously consumed native vegetation, and native plant and animal communities were reduced or eliminated. Indigenous grasses were replaced by hardier European species, which grew from the seeds that had hitchhiked across the Atlantic on the livestock. Unlike most plant crops, however, the mobile cattle—and the Old World grass...

  7. PART THREE Forestlands

    • CHAPTER 7 Unsustainable Yield: American Foresters and Tropical Timber Resources
      (pp. 345-416)

      The global loss of tropical forests mounted slowly for several centuries, then began a rapid acceleration during the 1940s. The increase occurred for many reasons; the most important undoubtedly was the expansion of agriculture in all of its forms. Export crops and beef production degraded or replaced incalculable extents of tropical forest and wetland and savanna, as if the forest itself had no biological or even economic value. The benefits of these industries to investors and consumers have been enormous, constituting the primary driving force behind this great ecological transformation. But the value of the forest itself has also risen...

  8. Conclusion The Ecological Cost of the American Appetite in the Tropical World
    (pp. 417-424)

    In 1914 the gigantic, newly completed Panama Canal stood as the embodiment of the American venture of speculation, technocracy, consumption, and strategic power in the tropics. The first ship that passed through its enormous locks that summer seemed to confirm to the American public that their civilization could accomplish any task it chose, anywhere in the world, no matter what the scale. Although decadent and corrupt Europe had failed to sever the Central American isthmus, they believed that no task of conquering tropical Nature was too great for Yankee ingenuity, determination, and integrity, backed by the rising power of Washington.¹...

  9. Appendix
    (pp. 425-436)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 437-484)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 485-524)
  12. Index
    (pp. 525-551)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 552-552)