Civilizing the tropics: The highlanders' failed attempt to transform the Colombian Amazon, 1850–1930

German A Palacio Castaneda, Florida International University


The subject of this dissertation is the nature of the environmental transformations, both symbolic and physical, that took place in Colombia between 1850 and 1930. This period begins with the attempt by the Colombian elite to leave behind colonial ties, overcome economic disorganization, and link Colombia to the international market. These efforts were part of a general project to “civilize” this tropical country. The period closes with the transition toward an industrialization and urbanization process led by the Colombian state during the 1930s. Frequently, environmental studies as an academic field are dominated by biological concerns. However, most environmental thinking accepts their interdisciplinary nature. Under this framework not only spatial but also symbolic concerns are key elements in understanding environmental transformations. This study finds that despite several attempts to transform the Colombian landscape physically, most of the substantive changes were localized and circumscribed to the Andean region. Other changes were mainly symbolic. This dissertation thus uses the Amazon as one of several regions that did not experience significant changes in the forest canopy. While highlanders originally dreamed of the Amazon as an untapped El Dorado, their failed attempts to exploit the region caused them to imagine it as a nightmarish “green hell”. This dissertation concentrates on three pairs of concepts: tropicality/civilization, landscape/territory, and symbolic/material changes. It presents both a general vision of Colombia and case studies of three regions: Cundinamarca, and Cauca Valley are used to compare with the Amazon region that is developed at length. Whereas mainstream Colombian histories have either fixated on the Andean highlands or, in a relegated second place, on the Caribbean region, this dissertation attempts to significantly contribute to the historiography of Colombia by focusing on the largely neglected Amazonian region. To understand imageries about Colombia's landscape, the dissertation relies on travel writings, chorographic descriptions and maps. It also makes uses legal documents and other published primary sources, including literary pieces and memoirs.

Subject Area

Latin American history

Recommended Citation

Palacio Castaneda, German A, "Civilizing the tropics: The highlanders' failed attempt to transform the Colombian Amazon, 1850–1930" (2003). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI3125049.