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Hispanic Studies
Project Proposal

The Amazon Parrots of the Caribbean: An Environmental Biography

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (Hispanic Studies)

Project Description

This multidisciplinary project weaves environmental history, post-colonial and ecocritical theories, conservation science, and archival research to construct the narrative of one family of endemic Caribbean birds against the background of the political, economic, and social forces that led to its decline and (perhaps in a handful of cases) recovery. It traces the Caribbean Amazon’s parrots history through the archeological record; the relationship to the indigenous populations; their role as colonial IOUs, symbolically standing as representative of the wealth of the Indies; the impact of deforestation and the plantation on the species; their evolving relationship to the peoples of the region; their emergence as national symbols since independence; and the efforts to restore the Caribbean forests as necessary to the preservation of the various species.

Today among the most endangered bird species in the world, the Caribbean’s Amazon parrots survived the last ice age only to be pushed onto their slow but (until recently) seemingly inexorable path towards critical endangerment and extinction following the arrival of European settlers in 1492. For the parrots of the Caribbean, the European encounter represented an ecological revolution, an “abrupt and qualitative break with the process of environmental and social change that had developed in situ." The history of colonization in the Caribbean, in fact, can be read as a story of extinctions, given that in the face of the catastrophic habitat collapses brought about by colonization, small island ecologies experienced “substantial species’ losses” from the earliest stages of European presence in the region. This ecological revolution—the starting point of the region’s own peculiar Anthropocene—can be measured in terms of biodiversity losses that have led to the disappearance of thousands of flora and fauna species in the Caribbean, some dating back to the earliest decades of the colonization and conquest of the Indies. 

As a result, all endemic Caribbean Ara macaws (perhaps as many as twelve species) are now extinct. Amazona parrot extinctions have taken place throughout the Caribbean region, where only 12 of as many as 28 Amazona species recorded in the first centuries after the European encounter have survived, some pushed to the very brink of extinction. 

This story of extinctions and habitat collapse is balanced by the remarkable work of scientists, forestry officials and the people of the various islands of the Caribbean as they battle to rebuild the forests and preserve species that have become symbols of nationhood since becoming independent nations in the 1970s. In islands like Dominica (Amazona imperialis), St Lucia (Amazona versicolor) and St Vincent (Amazona guildingii), aggressive campaign to link nationhood to the survival of the local endemic species have led to significant increases in the number of endangered parrots still in the wild and to conscious efforts to expand the birds’ habitat through the reduction of deforestation and the protection of mature forests.

Anticipated Project Activities

In additional to archival and database research, we will undertake visits to parrot aviaries in Cuba (Amazona leucocephala), Dominica (Amazona imperialis)and/or St. Lucia (Amazona versicolor). At each site, we will speak to scientists, aviary personnel, forestry officers and other stakeholders to get a full picture of conservation efforts to date, habitat conditions and limitations, type and size of the predator population, nesting conditions, breeding patterns in the wild, the extent and success of captive breeding programs, protocols for the release of captive birds, and breeding success of captive birds released into the wild. At each site, we will seek to learn as much as possible about current and expected impacts of climate change.

Preferred Student Qualifications and Skills

Some archival research experience and familiarity with scholarly databases and Wordpress would be helpful, as would some knowledge of Spanish.

Anticipated Follow-up Teaching/Professional Activity for Student

  • Incorporate materials from research project into syllabus for HISP seminar to be taught in Spring 2018 (Climate Change in Latin American Literature and Art)
  • Creation of information website co-authored with Ford Scholar on Caribbean macaws and parrots on Wordpress platform
  • Presentation by Ford Scholar in HISP seminar

Project Location

New York, Cuba, Dominica, St Lucia

Project Duration

Eight weeks

Project Start Date

May 29, 2017

Project End Date

July 21, 2017