In this comparative environmental history, we examine the divergent trajectories of Colombia’s coastal forests since the mid-19th century. In the Pacific lowlands, natural resource extraction by a black peasantry altered the forested landscape but did not transform it completely. Left by the white, merchant elite in charge of the extractive process, this post-emancipation society maintained their territorial independence and avoided significant internal differentiation. Racial divisions, however, signaled the continuation of disparities that had their origin in slavery and colonialism. In the Caribbean, by contrast, the expansion of cattle ranching better integrated the region into the nation, but at the expense of extensive deforestation and the marginalization of what had been its relatively independent peasantry. By paying attention to the ecological and social basis of landscape appropriation and change, we suggest that environmental history can help us better understand the production of inequality in Latin America.