Environmental Degeneration and Response: Wildlife Destruction in the Americas and Pan American Preservation, 1900-1945

By Sheinin, David | MACLAS Latin American Essays, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Environmental Degeneration and Response: Wildlife Destruction in the Americas and Pan American Preservation, 1900-1945


Sheinin, David, MACLAS Latin American Essays


In 1940, representatives of the American republics reached agreement on a draft convention for nature protection and wildlife preservation. Questions of environment degradation, landscape, and nature had arisen in several contexts within the Pan American Union as early as the first years of the century. In 1916, Great Britain (for Canada) and the United States had signed a Migratory Bird Treaty. A similar agreement in 1937 between Mexico and the United States served as a partial basis for the 1940 draft convention --the first comprehensive inter-American agreement that set out provisions for the preservation of hundreds of species of flora and fauna. The agreement was one of several indicators of the growing strength of the US within the Pan American movement, and more important, the ability of Americans to establish policy direction for the Pan American Union. The Draft Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere also marked the resurgence of the American conservation movement during the 1930s after two decades of comparative weakness, and a heightened sense of crisis in Latin America after generations of environmental decay. Furthermore, the convention suggested the importance of cultural and scientific concerns within Pan Americanism. As in the arena of inter-American strategic concerns, US cultural and scientific influences in the Pan American Union increased on the eve of the Second World War and were reflected in the 1940 Convention.(1)

Mandated in 1938 by delegates to the Eighth Pan American Conference (Lima) to reach an inter-American accord on the preservation of wildlife, a committee of scientific and other experts from seventeen countries began work almost immediately tabulating species to be preserved, and identifying means of conservation. The American representative on the committee was Dr. Alexander Wetmore, Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. When completed in early 1940, the draft Convention had the unanimous backing of those who worked on it and, in an unusually aggressive vote of confidence in its efficacy, contained an article that provided for the convention to enter into force only three months after five ratifications had been deposited in the Pan American Union. The fifth ratification came from Haiti on 31 January 1942 (preceded by El Salvador, Guatemala, the United States, and Venezuela). The committee of experts acted on their mandate "to protect and preserve in their natural habitat representatives of all species and genera of their native flora and fauna, including migratory birds in sufficient numbers and over areas extensive enough to assure them from becoming extinct through any agency within man's control." The committee also recognized as its task the protection of scenery of "extraordinary beauty, unusual and striking geologic formations, regions and natural objects of aesthetic, historic or scientific value, and areas characterized by primitive conditions."(2)

Working from earlier international agreements,(3) as well as equivalent designations in the United States the committee distinguished between national parks, national reserves, nature monuments, and strict wilderness reserves. As in the US, the distinction between each of these categories was not entirely clear. The term "national park" referred to an area in which "superlative scenery, flora and fauna of national significance" would be preserved and protected. Parks were meant as preserves for public enjoyment and in which citizens might benefit as a result of government control of the land. "National reserves" were implicitly commercial designations; they were to be regions designated for "conservation and utilization of natural resources under government control." Here, protection of wildlife would be afforded only in so far as consistent with the primary natural resource utilization objective of reserve. "Nature monuments" were entirely in keeping with equivalent designations in the US. …

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