Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Place Unbecoming: The Coffee Farm of Northern Latin America [*]

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Place Unbecoming: The Coffee Farm of Northern Latin America [*]

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. This article examines recent transformations of the coffee landscape of northern Latin America through the optic of "place as process." As coffee became the most important regional export crop, its "place" evolved. Coffee lands in northern Latin America now embrace 3.1 million hectares, often contiguous across international borders. Like many agricultural systems, coffee has succumbed to intensification, a process termed "technification" in the Latin American setting. The result is a landscape mosaic in which a traditional agroforest coffee system coexists with coffee lands transformed by modernization. The institutional forces behind this process, as well as some of its social and ecological consequences, are discussed. Keywords: biodiversity, coffee, landscape, Latin America, place, shade.

Coffee farms in Central America, Mexico, Colombia, and parts of the Caribbean provide a classic example of how the introduction of an exotic crop can, given suitable economic, social, and ecological conditions, result in the establishment, evolution, and expansion of a distinctive agricultural landscape. Agriculture often generates a specific space with characteristic features in far-flung regions, regardless of the characteristics of the actual site. Traditional coffee in northern Latin America qualifies as a commodity-defined physical and social landscape. [1] Whether in Antioquia, Colombia, or Chiapas3_2 , Mexico, the microclimatic conditions associated with the crop, the physiognomy of the shade trees, the general gestalt of the productive system itself, and the human--landscape interactions display a host of similarities. The labor regimes associated with its cultivation show distinct convergence as well.

The evolution of this system from country to country has taken a variety of paths, but the resulting agricultural setting is strikingly similar regardless of the actual coordinates. The "place" of coffee unfolded alongside the process of its becoming the regional export crop. Northern Latin America's coffee lands blanket 3.1 million hectares, often contiguous across international borders. Activities within the agroecosystem affect and reflect the livelihoods and economies of millions of Central American, Mexican, Colombian, and Caribbean people, as well as the consumption habits of millions more outside the region. The focal region in this study accounts for 30 percent of the world's coffee-producing area and 34 percent of global production (Tables I-III).

Traditional coffee lands often cross national boundaries and display an array of similar attributes. A distinct ambiance, definable in physical terms related to the coffee setting and the social interactions related to labor, evolved to become the coffee agroecosystem. A traditional coffee farm in many ways feels like a forest, albeit manipulated through human agency. Like many agricultural systems, coffee has succumbed to intensification. As with any landscape, the coffee landscape "is never entirely stable" but is "always in a state of becoming" (Mitchell 1996, 30). The "place" of coffee production has been contoured by forces leading to its "unbecoming" that traditional setting into which it evolved. The modern production system is referred to as a "technified" farm. [2] While being transformed into a different and more "modern" place, it has "unbecome" what it once was. For some countries, this undoing has occurred within a short time. For others, it is just beginning. For all, it is an example of place as process.

The theme of "place as [an] historically contingent process" (Pred 1984) has been examined theoretically via the marriage of time-place geography and structuration. "Place always involves an appropriation and transformation of space and nature that is inseparable from the reproduction and transformation of society in time and space" (p. 279). The transformation of nature in this case is key, as traditional coffee, with its mix of shade-tree species and its structural diversity, looks very much like a natural forest from above or afar. …

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