by Denise DiFulco

Jennifer FrenchIt’s an inevitable question that Jennifer French is happy to answer: How, as a professor of Spanish, did she come to be named director of Williams’ Center for Environmental Studies (CES)?

A scholar of Spanish-American literature, French studied extensively the work of early 20th-century regionalist writers in Latin America—work that was influenced by the rapidly changing relationship between people and the land. Her first book, Nature, Neo-Colonialism and the Spanish American Regional Writers (University Press of New England, 2005) considered these regionalist texts as responses to Britain’s economic supremacy in the region and the resulting cultural, social and economic changes. Often those writers, including Horacio Quiroga and José Eustasio Rivera, made central to their narratives the deleterious effects of agriculture and other industries. In Rivera’s 1924 novel La vorágine (The Vortex), for instance, which some consider the seminal novel of Latin American modernism, the author pilloried the rubber extraction industry in the Amazon jungle and laid bare the exploitation of its workers.

“There is environmental value in many literary texts—the poetry of Wendell Berry, for example, or Quiroga’s stories—in their ability to move and persuade people,” says French, whose three-year term as CES director ends July 1, 2012. “Literary studies and other humanities fields have an important job to do in producing the kind of widespread cultural change necessary if we’re going to actually make progress in slowing climate change, for instance.”

CES, founded in 1967, is dedicated to the study of the relationship between humans and their environments and how those environments can be protected and maintained in a savvy yet responsible fashion. Of necessity, the environmental studies program itself is interdisciplinary, with courses in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts to prepare students for the complex issues associated with environmental decision making.

As director, French manages the academic program and, spurred by a recent $1.25 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is reassessing CES’s curriculum. (She’s also fundraising, as $1 million of the award is contingent upon CES’s ability to raise another $2 million to endow a second professorship dedicated to environmental studies.) Meanwhile she is continuing research that emerged from her study of Spanish-American literature, in which she found frequent references to the Triple Alliance War, fought from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the combined armies of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Among the causes of the war’s outbreak were Paraguay’s uncertain borders with its two larger neighbors and the perception that Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López had a negative influence on the region as a whole.

To this day, there is much controversy over the war and its significance, French says. There are especially fierce and passionate disagreements over López’s role and whether he led his country into a war it couldn’t win. Despite his dictatorial and violent rule, he was named a national hero in 1936. “The official apotheosis of López was a political maneuver to take advantage of a surge in popular nationalism,” French says. “Rightly or wrongly, that story was tremendously resonant, tremendously powerful.”

The regime of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 through 1989 cemented the revisionist view of López and Paraguayan national history for its own ends. Only recently have historians and scholars come to agree that the official history of the Stroessner years was more myth than reality, French says. In the meantime, generations of Paraguayans were taught a version of events that affected the way they understand their own lives and their potential. “I’m looking at how the social memory of the Triple Alliance War may have influenced people’s attitudes about the use of land and other natural resources in Paraguay, which even today has an extremely low rate of land ownership,” French says. “The problem goes back to the immediate postwar period, when the Paraguayan government was forced to sell off large tracts of land in order to pay reparations to the Triple Alliance, but it has also been significantly distorted by the nationalist mythology.”

It’s a case that clearly illustrates the complexity of environmental issues—that not everything can be explained, understood and changed simply with scientific tables and charts.

“It’s important,” French says, “that we begin to think seriously and systematically about environmental problems in terms of the cultural reasons for why we’ve gotten where we are.”

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Jon Roemer