The Meeting Of Two Natures

Columbus brought together ecosystems as well as cultures

FOURTEEN ninety-two initiated the meeting of two natures. The Old World was enriched by the flora and fauna of the New, and the latter with those of the former. As the 16th-century Jesuit naturalist Joseph de Acosta pointed out, species of plants and animals not identified in Greek or Latin would be seen for the first time: corn, the first kernels of which Christopher Columbus brought back to Spain on his first voyage; the tomato, chocolate (which Mexicans sold ground-up or used as coins - so wrote Herna n Cortes in his second letter to Charles V), tobacco, cotton, strains of peppers and beans; papaya, pineapple, and potato. The Europeans adopted the produce from the New World and made it theirs; it became part of their diet and habits, and in some countries solved problems of starvation.

Animals such as the anteater, the sloth, the condor, the boa, the cougar, the tapir, polecat, armadillo, vampire bat, toucan, quetzal, flamingo; breeds of parrot and monkey, eagles, turkeys, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds occupied a conspicuous place in the accounts, letters, histories, and memoirs of successive generations of explorers, conquistadors, missionaries, and settlers - the four principal categories of men the New World attracted.

On Sept. 23, 1493, preparing for his second expedition, Columbus loaded aboard his fleet of 17 ships wheat seed and plants, barley, radishes, onions, peas, melon, sugar cane, broad beans, lettuce, leeks and parsley, "To try out the ground, which appears most marvelous," as he put it in his "Memorandum" to Antonio Torres.

He took on domestic animals as well: cows, oxen, sheep, goats, hens, pigs, dogs and cats, "which grew over there to a superlative degree, pigs above all the rest," according to the references made by Michele de Cuneo in his narrative of the second voyage.

And since these appeared insufficient to him, Columbus continued asking for more rams, lambs, asses, and oxen "to be shipped on any available caravel for the business of planting, there being no such animals here which a fellow might use to aid him." The horse, adaptable for travel, battle, or field work, would be a deciding factor in the conquests of Mexico and Peru, and later conflicts in America.

These animals and plants the native Indians accepted and made their own "in such a way that the things of Europe take better there than the things of the Indies in Europe," according to De Acosta, the flora and fauna multiplying into a great abundance throughout the New World.

Next Oct. 12, the meeting between the Spaniards and the Antilleans, will surely be commemorated. That Friday in 1492, Columbus entered his first note on the nature of the Indies: "deep green trees, ample waters and fruits of divers kinds.... No beasts, barring parrots, dwell on this island." So, in this geography undreamed of by Ptolemy or the medieval cartographers, began the New World's age of explorations and - as Bartolome de las Casas, one of the first defenders of human rights in the world, reveale d decades later - its destruction.

From that day forward began the only documented, history-making discovery of the continent, which Martin Waldsemuller named America by mistake on his map. From that day onward we enter into an understanding of the planet and modern times. Far more so than the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Turks in 1453 which ended the Old World, 1492 redefined history as global. Columbus, about whom so much is known after his first voyage - and almost nothing before that - was the historic traveler who ope ned up the geographical exploration of America.

But now, 500 years later, what has become of the meeting and interchange of two natures? The protagonists are no longer the Old and New Worlds, but the first and third worlds, or the North and the South. The forests of America are disappearing at an alarming rate, victim to the insatiable desires of the first world for tropical woods, to its greed for gold and mineral wealth, sacrificed to make room for the descendants of those 15th-century cattle, often to provide hamburgers for overnourished inhabitant s of the first world. In the past decades alone, 20 million hectares of Latin American tropical rainforest have been reduced to livestock pastures.

Our flora and fauna vanish as forests, deserts, and seas are ransacked in search of birds, crocodiles, tarantulas, monkeys, cacti, plants, to turn into pets, shoes, trinkets, trophies, or profitable patented medicines. Nothing that walks, crawls, swims, flies, or grows out of the earth seems safe from the appetites for the life forms of our continent awakened five centuries ago.

Yet we ourselves are not innocent of the depredation of our own natural wealth. Dangerous accusations of environmental imperialism are utilized to justify nationalistic plans for the rape of our remaining resources. Sovereignty is invoked, and a progress which can only be shortlived, dooming future generations to a meager inheritance in a bleak, desertified area stretching from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, pocked with islands where the remaining species are kept alive in reserves surrounded by concrete an d asphalt under which once-limpid rivers now carry sewage away from over-populated, chaotic urban agglomerations.

Wrong-headed, unnatural antagonisms are being formulated: people or trees, children or plants. The buzz words "sustainable growth" are being used as a subterfuge for the eradication of forests and entire ecosystems, with scant provision for their replacement. Attempts at protecting migratory or widely distributed species are being challenged as "non-tariff trade barriers," or as coverups for "eco-imperialism." When a prominent Brazilian industrialist can declare that the Amazon is old and decrepit, and t hat no harm would be done by razing the forest and building giant dams, something is seriously wrong.

What if the will to protect the environment does not exist in a country? How can that will be nurtured? What can be given in exchange for ensuring genuine protection of irreplaceable ecosystems, treasure-troves of as yet undiscovered species, regulators of climate?

The free-trade argument, that each country is responsible for its own environmental policy which reflects its own values and priorities, is a fallacy. Governmental practices are too often at variance with the real long-term interests of a country and its present and future inhabitants.

The gospel according to GATT - that greater wealth ensures greater environmental protection - is not proven. It does not explain why the richest fifth of the world's population produces 75 percent of its pollution. If wealth is generated by cutting down forests, wiping out species, damming rivers, what environment will remain to protect with that wealth?

And what of the original inhabitants of the New World? Speaking the conquistadors' language and practicing their religion, the indigenous peoples of America carry their book of wrongs, past and present, to congresses and conventions organized around the theme of the "discovery" of America. In their terms, since that ominous day in 1492, their troubles haven't ceased; prior to that, none existed. Some reach the extreme of blaming Columbus for AIDS, the contras, the corruption of Latin American politicians , military dictatorships and all the moral, social, and economic deprivations they have endured for the past 500 years.

The truth is that the Indians' complaints are based on actual experiences and are, up to a certain point, unobjectionable. For, 500 years after having been "discovered," they continue strangers in their own land, coping with the twin havocs of ethnocide and ecocide. Their grievance against Columbus is their grievance against history.

But the lines blur between Old World and New, first world and third, when we contemplate the potential effects of global warming: The rising seas will cover Guanahani, where Columbus first stepped ashore after his voyage, and Palos, whence he set sail. Victims of massive species extinction will include monarch butterflies in Mexico and walruses in the Bering Sea, coral reefs and mangrove swamps. We must recognize our interdependence, of the fragility of the web of life, of the urgency for the industriali zed nations to stop squandering fossil fuels if they expect the poorer nations to save trees.

It is inevitable that many things separate us, but others unite us now and always will: our language and our blood. To keep on complaining into the 21st century and the third millenium about what happened 500 years ago may be cathartic, but it is also sterile. Spain will never be able to justify what was done to the indigenous peoples nor will it ever be possible to restore the American cultures to their original, prehispanic state.

What has to bring us together is common concern about the planet Earth, about the destruction of the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, the defiling of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and the resulting disappearance of plant and animal species. We of the Americas must accept our mestizo face, bestowed on us by the embrace of Cortes and the Malinche. And today, just as 500 years ago, we must be aware of the oneness of the world.

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