A basic foodstuff of Latin America, rice is grown in nearly every country, primarily for domestic consumption, under varying ecological conditions: as a rain-fed ("upland" or "dryland") crop or as "wet rice" in coastal lowlands, river deltas, interior swamps, and savannas. Native varieties, semiaquatic plants similar to the "wild rice" of North America, exist, but Oryza sativa, the customary white rice of Asian origin, which had been brought to the Mediterranean and Africa by the Arabs, reached Latin America through the Atlantic migrations of Europeans and Africans. Its introduction is relatively obscure, eclipsed by indigenous staples and the development of large-scale plantation export crops.
Scarcely developed in Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century, rice was extended to settlements in the Americas at the time of their founding. Rice shoots from the Cape Verde Islands were furnished to Portuguese colonists at Salvador, Bahia, in the 1550s. The contribution of African slaves, whose ethnic and regional origins were the rice-growing groups of the Upper Guinea coast, was undoubtedly significant to the diffusion of rice. The history of rice in Guyana has been traced to communities of runaway slaves. By the mid-seventeenth century, rice agriculture was common on marginal lands of the great plantations in Brazilian colonies and was probably well established in Spanish America as well. Rice surpluses from the Lambayeque River valley in Peru were exported to the Isthmus of Panama.
From humble origins in the provision plots of slaves and sailors' rations, rice consumption has been linked since the eighteenth century to demand from expanding populations for nutritionally varied and efficiently stored comestibles. In imitation of the successful plantation production of rice in the British American colonies, Portugal looked to Brazilian rice to reduce its trade balances, introducing "Carolina rice" seed in the Amazon Delta (Maranhão and Pará) in the 1750s and granting monopoly licenses to rice millers there and in Rio de Janeiro. (The millers were responsible for threshing, dehusking, and polishing the "paddy," or unprocessed grain in the husk.) State-led development afterward languished as a result of South Atlantic trade disruptions during the Napoleonic Wars and an emphasis on export staples after independence. With the spread of mechanized agriculture and increased migration to the cities late in the eighteenth century, large landholders sought tariff protection that benefited domestic crops such as rice.
Rice is now a crop of the modern frontier. Interim rice plantings transform land cleared by indiscriminate burning into cattle pasture. Traditional production is mostly of the upland variety by small farmers who interplant it with other crops and straddle the subsistence sector with occasional surpluses for cash. In some microregions, such as Brazil, where three-quarters of Latin America's total rice acreage is concentrated (most of it of the upland variety), irrigated rice is exploited by large-scale commercial agriculture. Rice is grown as well in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay. The higher-yielding irrigated rice has been the focus of "green revolution" efforts to expand production through the introduction of hybrid varieties, increased mechanization, and the application of chemical fertilizers. Indeed, rice production has become significantly more efficient. In South America, between the 1980s and 2002, the area used to produce rice decreased 25 percent, but overall production increased by 59 percent. This greater efficiency has generally brought down prices, which has helped the poor, who spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food. By 2006, rice contributed more to the average Latin American's diet than wheat, maize, or potatoes.
Edward Albes, "Rice in the Americas," Bulletin of the Pan American Union 44, no. 2 (February 1917): 137-160.
Paul I. Mandell, "A expansão da moderna rizicultura brasileira—crescimento da oferta numa economia dinâmica," Revista brasileira de economia 26, no. 3 (1972): 169-236.
Corsino Medeiros Dos Santos, "Cultura, indústria e comérccio de arroz no Brasil colonial," Revista do Instituto Histórico e Geográfico brasileiro 318 (1978): 36-61.
Lang, James. Feeding a Hungry Planet: Rice, Research and Development in Asia and Latin America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.