States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940

States of Nature:  Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbea
Stuart George McCook
University of Texas Press,
Publication Date: 

paper, 201 p., $22.95

In States of Nature, Stuart McCook shows how the economy played a role in shaping botanical research in the Spanish Caribbean. McCook begins by describing the events that led to the boom of the Spanish Caribbean’s agricultural economies in the mid-18th century. During the economic boom period (mid-1800s to early 1900s), deforestation of large tracts of land caused agricultural havoc. Erosion and pests were among a myriad of problems that threatened to reduce export growth. During this period, botanists were hired to discover new plant species that had potential to be economically lucrative, and scientists were hired to solve a broad spectrum of agricultural problems. The bulk of the book describes the interactions that occurred between botanists and scientists, the environment, governments and the local economies. Chapters of the book focus on four areas:

  • The development of herbaria in Costa Rica and the difficult relations between foreign and local scientists;
  • The events leading to the publication of the Manual de las plantas usuales de Venezuela;
  • The development of U.S. research stations in Cuba and Puerto Rico, contributing little to the local scientific community; and
  • The creation of the sugar industry in Puerto Rico, including the introduction of hybrids that were disease resistant and building a Puerto Rican model of science-based agricultural development.

In conclusion, McCook discusses the impact of the Great Depression. During this period, plant sciences suffered in most countries throughout the Spanish Caribbean. The destruction of the valuable environmental resources were recognized at this time. The botanical research conducted during the boom period was used as a framework for further research and economic focus.

States of Nature is a thorough compilation of research, which in part fulfills the award of Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). A colleague, Dr. Martin Smith, once said, "The best literature review on a particular topic is that covered within a Ph.D. dissertation." Not only is the literature review in this book extensive, it is also highly credible.

Although not explicitly outlined, McCook's book contains two valuable lessons:

  • The results from research conducted within developing countries should be communicated, both verbally and in written form, to the local community. Foreign scientists have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that their research is made available to the local people and that communications are effective.
  • The state of the economy is often directly proportional to research activity. The examples outlined in this book run parallel to the state of scientific research in developed and other developing nations, regardless of time. States of Nature challenges the reader to ask whether research activity determines the state of the economy, or vice versa.

This book should interest those in the fields of economic botany, Spanish Caribbean agriculture and flora, and agricultural practices in developing nations.

— Lara Jefferson, postdoctoral researcher, Institute for Plant Conservation, Chicago Botanic Garden