An Environmental History of Nacre and Pearls: Fisheries, Cultivation and Commerce
Micheline Cariño and Mario Monteforte
Global Environment 3 (2009): 48–71
Pearls are the most ancient gems known in history. Nacre became an important raw material used in various industries during the nineteenth century. Both products came from the world's tropical seas, in pearling regions whose resources and people were exploited by local and foreign businessmen. We distinguish eleven pearling regions. These were opened to fisheries at different times in three historical periods, each marked by phases of wealth and scarcity.
The world history of nacre and pearl fisheries, culture, and trade is the history of the efforts of divers and sailors, the tenacity of scientists striving to elucidate the phenomenon of pearl formation, the ambition and greed of empresarios seduced by the luster and commercial value of pearls, as well as the marketing and selling techniques specific to these commodities. It is the history of environmental modifications induced by humans as they strove to gain profit from the most valuable natural marine resource that ever existed. In this essay we highlight the role played by capitalism in the intensification of pearls and nacre harvesting that brought the resource to speedy exhaustion. We also illustrate the positive results of the application of scientific research based on sustainability principles to production. Our historical approach to pearling has led us to two fundamental conclusions: 1. It is possible to aim at sustainability in the profitable use of renewable natural resources, and 2. Environmental history can reveal the conditions under which this has been possible. Our intention here is also to show that environmental history is an approach allowing historical syntheses, the incorporation of vast comparative analyses, and the fleshing out of explanations of economic and social processes with an understanding of the natural resources that sustain these processes. Finally, this work looks to filling up the great gap in knowledge that afflicts the history of the sea.
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