Political Ecologies of Cattle Ranching in Northern Mexico

Article excerpt

POLITICAL ECOLOGIES OF CATTLE RANCHING IN NORTHERN MEXICO: Private Revolutions. By ERIC P. PERRAMOND. xvi and 259 pp.; maps, bibliog., index. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 9780816527212.

Cattle production today is recognized as a force driving global environmental change, and in Mexico's arid northern state of Sonora cattle ranching is king, covering upward of 85 percent of the landscape. In many ways Sonora's environmental history reads like a history of changes occurring on cattle ranches. Ranching in Sonora also has enormous social significance, with a 400-year history, deep cultural roots, and, depending on one's perspective, either unifying or divisive politics. In light of these facts it is surprising how little is in print about Sonora's ranchers, particularly its private ranchers. Although Mexican scholars have produced some exceptional work in Spanish on Sonora's communal ejido ranchers, the state's private ranchers remain understudied and undervalued as agents of regional environmental and social change.

Eric Perramond's Political Ecologies of Cattle Ranching in Northern Mexico is a welcome departure from this norm. The book is a mix of cultural lore, personal accounts, empirical research results, and broader political and economic explanations that aims, in the author's words, to "make sense of ranching as an industry and a way of life ... important to the people who practice it" (p. 6). In this pursuit, the book is a resounding success, the most comprehensive and detailed investiga-tion of Sonoran private ranchers in print today. Although scholars have previously covered Sonoran ranching--as a sector--none has engaged the roles of individual ranchers--as Perramond does in Political Ecologies.

This distinction is important for several reasons. First, addressing ranching as a sector without a focus on individual ranchers can produce misleading generalizations. Perramond's main argument in the book is "against simple caricatures of villainous [private] ranchers" (p. 191), and he thoroughly illustrates how all private ranchers are not alike. Their knowledge of rangeland ecology, their assets and entitlements, their status among peer ranchers and other social groups, their motivations, and their politics all show significant variability. Likewise, the environmental impacts of their land-use practices vary greatly. Although this variability may be obvious to some geographers, it nevertheless has been lost on or ignored by much of the existing scholarship on private ranchers. They remain a favorite scapegoat--in narratives about environmental and social change in Mexico and elsewhere. Perramond's book, rooted in twelve years of muddy-boots field time and intimate ethnographic work, not only drives home the point about variation among ranchers but also discusses in depth how they behave differently, play different roles in society, and have different impacts on the landscape.

Debunking private-rancher stereotypes sets the stage for one of the book's strongest and most valuable contributions: a nuanced explanation of land tenure in rural Mexico. On one hand, Perramond questions conventional view that twentieth-century rural Mexico underwent a land-tenure revolution: "Despite Mexico's rhetoric[,] ... the simple fact remains that the vast majority and the highest-quality grazing lands are in the hands of the wealthiest ranchers to this day" (p. 150). In other words, nothing changed following the Mexican Revolution of 1910. On the other hand, Perramond illustrates how ranching land tenure was and still is a flexible, dynamic concept in rural Mexico--not a simple communal-versus-private dichotomy. From this land tenure discussion comes the book's title, where "multiple waves of private, reactionary revolutions" (p. 176) refer to the successive struggles over land ownership and management that have shaped and defined private ranching realities in Sonora since the colonial period. …