Journalism from the center of the world
Coluna liternatura

Artwork: Anciã, by indigenous artist Moara Tupinambá

The first spark may have been in May 2000, when I published a travel book in which I warned that the volcanoes of three Canary Islands were still active and their eruption would endanger the thousands of people living in the corridors through which tsunamis were expected to flood, as well as the residents of hotels and apartments on the coastline, which could also be hit. An influential newspaper, hotels and tourism guilds, and the governing body of the Canary Islands, the Cabildo de Gran Canaria, launched a campaign against the book, which culminated in a demand for its withdrawal. Although the action was unsuccessful, this aggressive reaction stunned me deeply, and at the same time it alerted me to the lengths to which the tourism industry in my country (Spain) is willing to go in order not to lose a single client: they would deny the consequences of a volcanic eruption.

I carried on writing travel books about the Nile, New Zealand or the Chinese coast, and I soon noticed that journalists called me, especially in the summer, just before the vacations. As if the Sudanese, Chinese or Maori were only of interest as summer scenery. And then there was another spark: if other humans do not interest us on a regular basis and we view them as exoticism, how can we be interested in that other, that foreign species represented by trees, fungi or other animals?

I went looking for literature about these “others” and it turned out very little existed in Spanish. Whenever someone talked about books that foregrounded nature, the English term nature writing was always used. Resorting to a foreign expression demonstrated the distance that exists between the speakers of my language and almost any non-human form of nature, and in thinking up ways to bridge that gap, a word appeared: liternatura. With an ‘n’.

The neologism is self-explanatory and, since it came about, it has helped to position and vindicate authors who give nature a central role, giving prominence to animals, plants, minerals, and treating the five elements as main characters. Now, I may sound like a preacher, but the truth is that The Word, that word, liternatura, has been used as the basis for organizing literary festivals in Spain (Barcelona and Extremadura’s La Siberia), Colombia (Honda) and the United States (Los Angeles), as well as to launch reading clubs and writers’ residencies; to identify a liternatura section in libraries in my city; to promote outdoor events that bring together people and nature, bringing artists closer to the animal world; or to make documentaries.

Not all of this is literature, but all of it comes from literature. The emotion generated by a term that suddenly becomes familiar to us and awakens latent desires, instincts and associations, unleashing everything from conversations to original works that expand our cultural heritage and make it more diverse.

The question is why for centuries we lost sight of that space. Why does hardly anyone know that the first thing Christopher Columbus picked up when he landed in Hispaniola was a crab, and few people remember that Miguel de Cervantes, in addition to immortalizing the horse Rocinante and the donkey Rucio, also penned a novel called The Dialogue of the Dogs, narrated in the first person(?) by a dog, Berganza, which tackled the gross mistreatment of animals.

Despite crabs and Berganzas, the nature story in Spanish has not had many accomplices, and one reason for this can be found in colonization. For three hundred years, the conquistadors were mainly concerned with evangelizing and enforcing their language while filling the holds of their ships with American products bound for Spain. Slaughter and slavery were constant during this long period of pillaging. Almost nothing was known about the inner life of the indigenous peoples and the formidable natural environment. Knowledge of the continent was superficial, restricted more or less to the military cartography, the extracted products and the obedience of the inhabitants.

Reality was measured in terms of profit and people’s submissiveness, and according to the Western imagination. If the colonists saw a south Andean deer with only one horn, they called it a unicorn; the jaguar became a tiger; and the manatee, a mermaid. But then they heard the indigenous people speaking about fauna in their own way and, realizing that something did not quite fit, they created their own wild nomenclature that made sense. So, biodiversity is expressed through language, through hearing and speaking, and that is why, today, a capybara can also be called a chigüiro, pataseca, bocaeburro or culopando.

In any case, time passed. Three centuries went by. The Industrial Revolution sharpened the extractivists’ claws. And, while the North Americans saw nature as a tameable whole, Latin Americans decided that those forests, plains, rivers and mountain ranges could not be governed.

While some developed modern techniques of control and systematic exploitation that included eliminating animals and plants as necessary to obtain benefits, while protecting large wild spaces, the others continued to relate to the landscape in a more traditional way.

As for the stories, writing them requires a certain structure. And while the methodical Anglo-Saxons turned to telling the story of the wild, giving rise to the genre called nature writing, the Spanish-speaking countries rejected stories about what they considered to be spaces of pure anarchy, condemning their nature to a state of narrative invisibility. This is why lots of Latin American animals show up later than most other animals in world literature. This is also why many of the first reference books on the flora and fauna of the continent were written by people educated in languages other than Spanish, from Humboldt to Darwin, and for decades other authors, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, took up the baton.


Beyond ink and paper, native peoples kept the indigenous stories of the rural and wild alive. Most of them did not speak Spanish either, although with the passing of the centuries and colonial influence, some adapted their stories into this language. Until now, Latin American natural history has been mainly in the mouths of often illiterate shamans. Today, we are beginning to see young people who are willing to preserve the tradition, to take yagé to communicate spiritually with eagles or snakes, while studying biology or Hispanic philology with the purpose of writing about the ombú or the peccary the way no one else can.

Peruvian Joseph Zárate, grandson of a Kukama Kukamiria woman, is a figurehead of the new literary wave. Zárate chooses journalism to denounce the abuses committed by companies responsible for deforestation, as well as mining and oil companies… at the same time, vindicating the courage of people who risk their own lives to defend natural spaces, such as Edwin Chota, who was killed along with three other community leaders. In telling these stories, Zárate is also taking great risks, and this allows us to understand one of the reasons why literature has not taken root in Latin America for years: fear. While in Spain the tourism industry may aspire to censor an author, in Latin America, extractivist companies allied with certain politicians and policemen can assassinate one.

For many years, too, the technological story has removed nature from the literary spotlight, relegating it to children’s stories or bucolic poetry, as if Moby Dick (Herman Melville) —which was actually inspired by a Chilean whale—, Southeaster (Haroldo Conti) or The Vortex (José Eustasio Rivera) did not exist. The most interesting thing has been observing how writers and intellectuals have turned away from narrating their own ecosystems in order to follow profitable trends. This is not uncommon. After all, the writers and intellectuals of a place share the interests, sufferings and desires of the rest of the citizens, and if there is one thing that is clear to many of them it is that, in Spain and Latin America, writing about travel and nature does not guarantee their future as living beings.

A problem with intellectual desertion is the wasteland it leaves at the foundations of education. One ornithologist says that in her native Uruguay, the name derived from the indigenous word meaning “The River of the Painted Birds”, there are hardly any ornithologists. Colombians say they emigrated because it was impossible to pursue a career in archaeology in their country. Argentinian women regret that in a pampa full of dinosaur bones there is no career to be had as a paleontology technician. When I asked veteran park rangers, botanists, animal keepers in zoos or in the wild about non-scientific texts in which plants, trees, water or animals appeared, the person usually raised their eyebrows, pursed their lips and answered “I don’t know”.

Over the last few years, several people from the continent have pointed out to me that, in general, nature has only been written about in order to denounce river pollution, large-scale logging or the dry pampas due to climate change… Conclusion: Latin American nature is in a defensive position, when it actually reigns supreme with the astonishing biodiversity of countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Chile or Colombia.


The relentless environmental alerts have led to the appearance of views that, while still denouncing, also offer more optimistic perspectives. From the salamanders and scorpions of the Gerald Durrell-like Andrés Cota, to the Colombian María Ospina, who won the last Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize with her novel starring tanagers and porcupines… literature expands and illuminates. In fact, Colombia has produced an impressive number of authors, with Juan Cárdenas writing about a landscape painter, Santiago Wills devoted to the search for jaguars or Sara Jaramillo, who, among other elements, carefully tackles the issue of water. And this invokes the essay La isla de las tribus perdidas in which Mexican author Ignacio Padilla reflected on why the sea is so absent from Latin American literature. As for Spain, it is surprising that a peninsula with two large archipelagos has almost no recent literature that gives importance to the sea. Nor to the pastures, the meseta, or… the volcanoes.

The awareness of the need for “nature” narrative in Spanish is very recent, and very fragile. In 1977, Venezuela introduced the first Latin American Minister of the Environment. In 1999, the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Environmental Funds was created. At a workshop of Central American environmental journalists held in Santo Domingo in the spring of 2023, almost all of the participants were either exiled from their countries or living under threat. The year before, the Dominican Minister of the Environment had been executed; he was shot three times, at his office. Several Latin American countries rank among the most dangerous in the world for environmentalists.

There are therefore a myriad of key issues still to be addressed, although awareness is bringing about an initial wave of humanistic scientists and writers narrating natures of all kinds, using a precise vocabulary. From the poetry of the Mexican Isabel Zapata, to the subatomic particles of the Chilean Benjamín Labatut, or the oceans as told by the U.S.-based Spanish biologist Enric Sala, the jungle and Andean experiences of the Ecuadorian Natalia García Freire and Mónica Ojeda, or the rural experiences of the Argentine Mariana Travacio, liternatura advances through the filter of The Great Conversation (between humans and other living beings) proposed by Thomas Berry, as an essential condition for the survival of our species.

It is true that many centuries before Berry, indigenous peoples of the Americas were already conversing with macaws, tapirs or crocodiles, integrating a biodiverse vanguard of which little or nothing was known outside their communities. Those peoples, key in reshaping our relationship with the wild, were as invisible as the often large, even gigantic, animals they “conversed” with. The new wave of narrative aspires to rescue those conversations while adding current and exciting data to allow us to better contemplate our current place in the world.

For example.

After reading a book which featured a crocodile, for the first time ever, I imagined myself being eaten, and I reflected on the food chain. Thanks to the statistics, I now know that my level in the chain is a 2.2. On a par with anchovies and pork. A far cry from the orca’s 5.5. But I suppose I’ve always known and accepted that I am highly edible, and I deduce that having internalized such certainty all our lives explains the reason for many of the likings, attitudes and commitments that some of us have acquired in life.

The awareness of being prey allows us to keep the mechanisms and tools for survival well-oiled. In the case of writers, the word is perhaps the most useful and decisive tool. When writing words like ecoanimal, superblock, futuralgia, greenolatry or liternatura, it is as if the writer is sharpening claws, horns, beaks or fangs. The author shows they are willing to defend their life, and notices that they have learned a thing or two in recent years. For example, to come up with words that allow you to better communicate your ideas.

So liternatura is a new word to identify an impressive but so far fairly invisible body of literatura in Spanish. One word that can change the story of 595 million people, that can contain fear and expand nature. Eleven letters that can launch an unexpected revolution, one that does not come from screens.

Gabi Martínez has written about deserts, rivers, seas, mountains, deltas and all kinds of living beings. He spent a year living with shepherds in Spain’s wooded pasturelands, and another on the island of Buda, in the last house before the sea, which will be the first to be engulfed by the waters in the coming years. After these experiences he wrote Un cambio de verdad [A True Change] and Delta. He has written 16 books and his work has been translated into ten languages. He is the driving force behind the Liternatura project, a founding member of the Caravana Negra and Lagarta Fernández Associations; of the Urban and Territorial Ecology Foundation; and co-director of the Animales Invisibles [Invisible Animals] project. In SUMAÚMA he writes for the LiterNatura space.


Text: Gabi Martínez
Indigenous Artwork by Yaka Huni Kuin (Mulher-Jiboia) and Moara Tupinambá (Anciã). Curation: Cacao Sousa
Plínio Lopes
Portuguese translation: Paulo Migliacci. With the collaboration of: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Charlotte Coombe
Layout and finishing: Érica Saboya
Editing: Eliane Brum and Viviane Zandonadi (editorial workflow and copy editing)
Editor-in-chief: Talita Bedinelli
Editorial director: Eliane Brum

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