Chapter Summary

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students will be able to:

  • Describe theories about geography and development
  • Criticize and evaluate theories that explain underdevelopment through geographic factors
  • Apply these theories to the case of Mexican development

Chapter Summary

This chapter starts the exploration of the impact of geography on development. In many ways geographical factors are beyond human control.

There are certain geographical characteristics that are shared by most LDCs that may help explain underdevelopment. For example, most (but not all) LDCs are located in the tropics. There seems to be a relationship between prosperity and distance from the equator. The chapter suggests that even in more developed regions, and within more developed countries, this seems to hold true.

Another commonality is the fact that the most developed countries, with few exceptions, exist within Eurasia. Being non-European seems to be a geographical disadvantage. Third, most LDCs are far from the world’s major markets; landlocked countries suffer a further disadvantage. The chapter next tries to explain why these three characteristics constitute a developmental disadvantage.

Claims that climate plays a role in development are not new. Some thinkers thought that perhaps heat contributed to capriciousness and indolence. Social Darwinism was used to establish racial hierarchies. It is not until relatively recently that renewed examination of geography and development could be considered outside racist discourse.

One factor in the tropical disadvantage seems to be the prevalence of tropical disease. Several diseases exist in tropical climates but not in more temperate areas of the world. Prominent among these is malaria. Diseases like this impair development not only through causing death and weakening people, but because families must care for the sick, countries must diagnose and treat, and because they can impair fetal and child development. Some of these diseases also affect animals which lowers agricultural productivity as well. One study estimated that over 100 years a malaria-free country is three times as wealthy as a malaria-rife country that started at the same development level.

Another tropical factor is that crop yields tend to be significantly lower in tropical areas than in temperate ones. Tropical soils tend to lose nutrients quickly in heavy rains for example. Hot dry tropical areas speed up water evaporation.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs notes that the interaction of disease and low agricultural productivity has often produced low population densities in tropical areas. This has several impacts. First, farmers have less incentive to produce agricultural surpluses, since they have little market to sell crops. Lack of urbanization has meant that sparsely populated areas are unable to specialize economically, so productivity cannot be improved that way.

Physiologist Jared Diamond argues that Europeans’ advantage related to development is related to some of the unique features of Eurasia. Compared to other continents, it had the widest variety of useful plants and domestic animals. This allowed the peoples of Eurasia to increase productivity, enabling specialization and the establishment of complex civilizations and political order. At the same time, because of increased population density and the proximity of domestic animals, people were exposed to more communicable diseases; over time, this meant epidemic survivors developed immunities that people in other parts of the world did not have.

Diamond’s argument is given some attention: for example he notes that despite the fact there is a wide variety of flora throughout the global south, only a few hundred have been domesticated and out of those, a mere dozen dominate crop production today. Eurasia has the wider variety of these types of flora. Even more significantly, very few large land mammals can be domesticated. Large domesticated land mammals provide meat, milk, fertilizer, draft power to work fields and skins for clothing. While people in most parts of the world domesticated some animals (including guinea pigs, chicken, etc.) large domesticable land mammals existed primarily in Eurasia. Therefore Europeans gained advantages from this in nutrition and agriculture.

Another advantage is the fact that Eurasia was situated close to the “fertile crescent” where agriculture was believed to be first developed. This proximity allowed for the diffusion of these innovations; additionally, these innovations could be applied easily because Europe and Asia shared roughly the same climate zone as the Fertile Crescent. This also explains why some areas Europeans colonized such as Argentina, the US, Canada, Australia and South Africa attracted Europeans and others in tropical climates did not. Europeans were able to bring their traditional crops and apply them in settings that were temperate rather than tropical.

Other analysts also look at geographical impact on transport costs. Transport allows specialization and trade. Geographical barriers to transportation inhibit development. Adam Smith noted that transportation by ship was cheaper and faster than land transportation, which remains largely true today. Europe’s jagged coast provided a large coastline, may islands and therefore many potential ports which encouraged coastal trade. It also has many navigable rivers. Africa, in contrast, has few major islands, and many impassable rivers. Further, much of the African population lived inland to gain some relief from tropical climate in the highlands. This made transport and trade much easier in Europe than in Africa. Other continents had similar difficulties to Africa.

In addition, the fact that European trading centers emerged first, gave a disadvantage to continents further from Europe. Exacerbating the difficulty is the fact that a number of LDCs are landlocked, meaning they cannot freely access the sea to engage in trade.

Critics of these approaches label this geographic determinism: attributing outcomes to the physical environment beyond human control. These critics contend humans have significant ability to shape their environment and overcome environmental constraints.

Critics of Sachs contend that disease remains common in LDCs because of poor decisions by humans. Rather than disease causing poverty, they argue that poverty caused bad governance which allows disease to continue. For example, human action has limited or eliminated the impact of previously devastating diseases. A similar argument is made about tropical soil productivity. New technologies and agricultural techniques could be used to make these soils more productive, but bad institutions, including aid, do not effectively encourage this. A final criticism is the fact that although geography does not change, over time advanced civilizations have arisen in parts of the global south were clearly equal to if not more advanced than European civilizations at that time.

Critics of Jared Diamond make some similar arguments. For example, within Eurasia, various civilizations have risen and fallen, despite the fact that they all supposedly had access to the advantages Diamond identifies. Dianond’s analysis cannot identify why Europe, as opposed to China or the Middle East, emerged as dominant without resorting to an explanation of human agency. Further, economic development in countries such as Botswana, China, South Korea and Japan cannot be explained by geographical determinism. Finally, even if Diamond’s ideas explain why Europe had an initial advantage, it cannot explain why colonized areas did not rapidly catch up with the West once domesticated large mammals were introduced.

Critics of geographical determinism also point out that distance is not always fatal to development. Some landlocked countries are among the wealthiest in the world.

Another geographical explanation of underdevelopment is the resource curse hypothesis. The argument tries to explain why many LDCs endowed with mineral wealth (like the Democratic Republic of Congo) wind up poor, while countries with few natural resources (like Japan and South Korea) have developed. Data show that resource–rich countries’ average income has increased by one-third while resource poor countries have increased average income by 80% between 1980 and 2009.

One explanation of the resource curse is the Dutch disease. A country that exports valuable minerals tends to have the value of its currency driven up. As a result, it is difficult for manufacturers to export from that country. This stunts industrial development within the country.

Mineral extraction also distorts the internal economy in other ways. For example an influx of foreign investment in the sector drives up wages within the sector attracting workers. Mineral extraction actually employs few workers and those require little education or training. This provides a disincentive for people to pursue education. These mineral operations often establish enclaves where workers live and support businesses thrive, but often this economic boom does not spread to the rest of the population. Much of the profit is extracted by foreign firms.

In addition, mineral prices tend to be volatile, making it difficult for a government to plan since it will be unsure of future revenue.

This has an impact on politics as well. Because LDCs often establish state ownership of many of these companies, the vast amounts of revenue can be easily plundered through corruption. Even if the government uses the money to fund government operations it tends to create an authoritarian system of governance. This is because rather than relying on taxes of its citizens (and their explicit support) governments rely on mining revenues and can more safely ignore citizen input. Disaffected citizens can “bought off” using this revenue.

This also tends to disempower women because few are employed in the mineral sector and the industrial sector, which in other LDCs is a source of income for many women, is constrained by the Dutch disease.

Critics of the resource curse thesis point out that at best it explains a limited set of problems in the global south; it does not apply to countries which lack a large resource sector. In fact, economist Paul Collier reports that known resource reserve in the more developed world far exceed those in the global south. Having resources does not seem like a curse in rich countries. In addition, some resource-rich LDCs such as Botswana and Chile have managed to develop.

One explanation is that the Dutch disease is not inevitable. In some cases, the enclaves can draw upon idle labor rather than labor in the manufacturing sector; in other situations foreign investment and government revenue from mineral sales can be used to stimulate industrial production. Critics also point out that corruption also occurs in non-resource-rich LDCs so other explanations must be explored.

The chapter then employs a case study of Mexico to examine the impact of geography on development. Mexico was at a disadvantage in relation to domestication of animals in comparison to the Spanish conquerors. This resulted in both a military advantage for Spain as well as an immunological one. Mexico also suffered from tropical diseases. Critics contend that while this may explain Spain’s advantage in the 1500s, it cannot explain why Mexico has struggled to develop in the last fifty years.