Megan Raby: Ecology and U.S. Empire in the Caribbean

Megan Raby: American TropicsToday we welcome a guest blog post from Megan Raby, author of American Tropics:  The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity Science.

Biodiversity has been a key concept in international conservation since the 1980s, yet historians have paid little attention to its origins. Uncovering its roots in tropical fieldwork and the southward expansion of U.S. empire at the turn of the twentieth century, Megan Raby in American Tropics details how ecologists took advantage of growing U.S. landholdings in the circum-Caribbean by establishing permanent field stations for long-term, basic tropical research. From these outposts of U.S. science, a growing community of American “tropical biologists” developed both the key scientific concepts and the values embedded in the modern discourse of biodiversity.

American Tropics is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Ecology and U.S. Empire in the Caribbean

Today, tropical ecology is closely associated with conservation. It seems obvious that we should set the scientists who study the diversity of tropical life in opposition to those forces destroying it––the corporate and government interests that drive the transformation of the world’s tropical rainforests into monoculture palm oil plantations and cattle ranches. Yet, a more complex picture has emerged from my research on the history of ecological fieldwork in the circum-Caribbean. In fact, historically, research in tropical ecology developed in tandem with the exploitation of tropical environments and the southward expansion of U.S. empire.

As the science of ecology emerged in the late 19th century, its European founders emphasized the importance of studying living organisms within their natural environments––particularly in the tropics where many unique species and adaptations could be found. With the 1898 Spanish American War, members of the U.S. scientific community saw their chance to take part in this cutting-edge new science. They took advantage of expanding U.S. landholdings and transportation networks to establish field stations where they could pursue long-term, basic research in the tropics. These stations––in Cuba, Jamaica, Guyana, and Panama––acted as colonial outposts of U.S. science, enabling biologists from the North to access living tropical organisms in their natural habitats, while themselves living in comfort, health, and safety.

Unlike strictly agricultural or forestry stations, these new institutions emphasized basic biological and ecological research. (I’ll explain the scientific importance of such place-based research in a future post.) But they still depended on land and patronage provided by U.S. corporations or government agencies. For example, Harvard’s station in Cuba was located on the Soledad sugar plantation and sponsored by its owner, the Massachusetts sugar baron Edward F. Atkins. The station at Barro Colorado Island (now part of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) enjoyed the protection of the U.S.-administered Panama Canal Zone and travel concessions from United Fruit. These stations put tropical nature within reach of U.S. researchers––even students and young professors with small budgets. At the same time, they also created a supply of scientists who might go on to work for U.S. companies and government agencies that needed trained economic botanists and entomologists with “tropical experience.”

Few U.S. biologists had experience in tropical environments at the beginning of the 20th century, but by the start of WWII, field stations anchored an emerging community of “tropical biologists.” Securing this institutional stability, however, meant emphasizing the relevance of ecological research to applied tropical agriculture and medicine. To support their field stations, tropical biologists had to maintain connections to streams of funding, transportation infrastructure, sources of local labor, and access to suitable land. They succeeded not by “carving out” space for basic research, but by developing strategies to link support for basic tropical research to the concerns of the U.S. government agencies and corporations that dominated regional economies and politics.

To do so, U.S. biologists gradually began to argue that the diversity of tropical life was itself a resource. Rather than tie their professional concerns solely to a few economically significant commodity or pest species, tropical biologists framed the large numbers of unknown tropical species and their complex, little-studied ecologies as the most important source of untapped potential in the tropics. After all, who could say what new materials or medicines might lie undiscovered in the world’s rainforests? Today we are used to this argument as a rationale for global biodiversity conservation, but its roots lie in tropical biologists efforts to secure patronage in a context of U.S. hegemony in the circum-Caribbean.

Indeed, it was only after the political upheavals of the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s that tropical biologists vocally tied tropical species diversity to conservation. Harvard lost access to Soledad after the Cuban Revolution and Barro Colorado Island’s fate seemed uncertain during the renegotiations of the Panama Canal treaties. Only as U.S. hegemony faltered, did U.S. field biologists make substantial efforts to collaborate with Latin American and Caribbean scientific communities and, for the first time, emphasize the relevance of their research to conservation. As promoted by tropical biologists Edward O. Wilson, Thomas Lovejoy, Peter Raven, and Daniel Janzen in the 1980s, biodiversity in fact became a powerful rationale for U.S. and international involvement in tropical conservation––activities criticized by Third World activists and scholars as a new form of “green” imperialism. To scientists trying to conserve the places where they work and which they care about, such critiques may seem baffling, but they can be understood as part of the complex history of ecological science and empire in the Caribbean.


Megan Raby is assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.