Land, Flora, and Fauna

While Europeans introduced plants and animals including cattle, horses, and wheat to the Americas, they also encountered new species—ocelots, jaguars, javelinas, xoloitzcuintlis, alpacas, açaí palms, ceibas, jacarandas, and many more. Recognizing the impact of fauna in a society is a deeply relevant way to understand cultural differences, traditions, and belief systems. Lauren Derby notes that “bringing animals into the analysis might move us closer to local understandings of the natural world and syncretism on the ground between European, Indigenous, and creole views and practices, enabling new ways of thinking about environmental change” (2011: 603). This can be extended to local flora as well.

Early cartography of the Americas often included local flora and fauna as a means of exotification. Compare Tabula geographica regni Chile (1646) with the Relación Geográfica de Gueytlalpa (1581). The former includes a fictitious sea monster as well as land animals that are not drawn to scale alongside humans. The animals, coupled with the massive tracts of land, are portrayed as unruly and in need of European order. Here, knowledge was produced to create a narrative that furthered the colonial enterprise. In the Relación Geográfica de Gueytlalpa, Indigenous mapmakers, tasked with depicting their surrounding areas, give us a map with both Indigenous and European components to it. The colors blue, green, and red are all made from local flora and fauna in the Americas (the Indigo plant, green mineral, and cochineal). Glyphs symbolizing hills are present alongside European markers like the exaggerated bulls. The insertion of bulls, a non-native and domestic animal, into the map as markers of European estancias demonstrates the growing privatization of land.

Europeans imported the privatization of land to the Americas as a means to solidify their power, not only over other cultures, but over nature. Another European tactic was to name and rename flora and fauna as a means of imposing order on it rather than live alongside it in cooperation. This is perhaps best seen with the anteater that inhabits parts of Central America and South America, highlighted in Historia natural ediar (1940). Its name in Spanish, oso hormiguero(ant bear), first recorded in approximately 1545, reveals the limits of European knowledge. The anteater is not related to the bear, but because Spaniards used a frame of reference within their cultural understanding at the moment of early encounter, the term oso hormiguero continues to be prevalent today. This misnomer might seem relatively harmless, yet it reinforces the power of the colonizer’s language to corrupt or erase knowledge, while revealing Western ignorance.

This blithe mindset toward nature continues to negatively impact the environment and communities to this day, as shown in reports from LLILAS Benson’s post-custodial partners in Brazil and Colombia that demonstrate widespread ecological destruction to the benefit of multinational corporations. In “Carta ao Senhor Secretario do Meio Ambiente do Estado de São Paulo” (1990), MOAB, an Afro-Brazilian community organization in Vale do Ribeira, protests government plans to construct a hydroelectric dam because of the environmental damage it would cause while displacing Afro-Brazilian communities. A similar concern is expressed in Colombia at the arrival of wire fencing.

The Afro-Colombian collective Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) describes this fencing as foreign to the community: “Aparición de cerco que no es nuestra cultura. Esa es una cultura de personas extranjeras que llegaron al Territorio y llegaron con este método. Esta foto resalta los cercos con Alambre de púa” (1998-1999). The letter and the photo reveal worldviews that compete with Western discourses of progress: living with nature, rather than dominating it by fencing off tracts of land as a means to ownership and privatization. Maribel Falcón contests this same notion in "Esta tierra es su tierra" (undated). These different perspectives prompt José Francisco Borges’s O Crime Ecologico (2006), a woodcut print on paper that juxtaposes the need for conservation alongside economic motivations as soy cultivation in Brazil continues to expand.

In addition to being utilized in narratives of environmental control and belief systems, flora and fauna have become appropriated as symbols of resistance and social justice, as seen in René Castro’s Hands off El Salvador (1981) and Sam Coronado’s Vote (undated). The dove, a symbol of peace, and the Aztec eagle, an homage to the United Farm Workers Union’s desire to connect with historic roots in support of Mexican migrant workers, here stand in as conveyors of messages that are tied to anti-imperial and anti-colonial sentiment.

Pablo Antonio Cuadra’s poems “Mitología del jaguar” (undated) and “La ceiba” (undated) express a deep and sacred connection to Central America’s flora and fauna. Cuadra draws on Indigenous reverence for the ceiba, a tree that in Maya culture connects the underworld (Xibalba) through its roots, the terrestrial plane through its trunk, and the sky plane through its high-reaching branches. Among Amazonian communities, the mighty ceiba serves as a home for several deities. It is one of several poems that Cuadra highlights in a poetry collection focused on trees native to Latin America. Likewise, the jaguar is present as a deity in all Mesoamerican Indigenous cultures and one of many animals imbued with cosmological relevance. By drawing on these symbols in his poetry, Cuadra vindicates Indigenous worldviews.