Nature Regimes in Southern Mexico: A History of Power and Environment (1)

Article excerpt

This article explores the popularized history of a state-peasant conservation alliance in southern Mexico. Following poststructural calls, it treats this history as a locally constructed "regime of nature," a story that condenses and attempts to direct the intersection of history, cultural mediation, and ecology. Using ethnographic and archival material, it examines what factors made capitalist interventions aimed at exploiting local forests possible. It compares former regimes with structures and discourses linked to conservation to comment on the relationship between protected areas and state formation. Through this exploration, I suggest compatibilities between poststructural and political-economy approaches to political ecology. (Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, ejido, violence, globalization, migration, frontier colonization)


Research on agricultural frontiers emphasizes national policies that frame colonization as well as the local economies and ecologies shaping peasant land use. At Calakmul, located near Guatemala and Belize on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, these concerns coincide with a popularized local history. (2) In both cases, a series of capitalist interventions opens the way for colonization and farmers' engagement with local forests. While the novelty of today's human-environment interactions increasingly receives scrutiny (Fairhead and Leach 1996), new settlement areas challenge assessments of local history. These sites commonly present scant textual documentation. Often, a "frontier" designation provides a blank slate on which academics, conservationists, colonists, and state agents alike shape a region in various images. Within this shaping, researchers now question the way depictions of wilderness accompany frontier designations and influence social relations as much as they presume certain human-environment interactions (Alonso 1995; Li 1999). Where there are protected areas, such as Calakmul, a historical gloss and wilderness beliefs aid a potent push to naturalize new governing practices and undermine environmental ideas and actions that counter state intentions.

Following poststructural calls, this article explores Calakmul's popularized history as a locally constructed "regime of nature," a story that condenses and attempts to direct the intersection of history, cultural mediation, and ecology (Escobar 1999). Escobar (1999:4) encourages researchers to consider "the manifold practices through which the biophysical has been incorporated into history--more accurately, in which the biophysical and the historical are implicated with each other." Transforming this point into a question, what made certain resource regimes in Calakmul both thinkable and politically possible at different times?

Distinct from Escobar, I consider localized depictions of nature regimes and focus on a version of Calakmul's history generated when this area became home to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Mexico's largest tropical protected area. In 1995, I recorded this history as related by peasant or campesino leaders and state agents, including the Reserve Director and his staff. These people described Calakmul as a place that, after decades of a forest-based economy, became home to peasants who failed to value forest ecologies. Frontier families established settlements by battling an inhospitable ecology, exploitation by timber companies, and government neglect. Calakmul's people were infuriated by the Reserve's 1989 declaration, as these policies reneged on state promises for land distribution. Tensions subsided in the 1990s when Mexico's ruling PRI party (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) used conservation-development aid to buy out campesino opposition. By 1996, the conquest of Calakmul's people and environment neared completion as Reserve staff and campesino leaders promoted the creation of a new municipio or county comprised of the Reserve and adjacent lands. …


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