Academic journal article Human Organization

Ecological Degradation, Global Tourism, and Inequality: Maya Interpretations of the Changing Environment in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Academic journal article Human Organization

Ecological Degradation, Global Tourism, and Inequality: Maya Interpretations of the Changing Environment in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Article excerpt

This essay, focusing on the perspective of indigenous Mayas, documents and describes the process of ecological degradation and the rise of the tourist industry in Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Using a combination of ethnographic, secondary, and archival sources, the author challenges widespread assumptions regarding global tourism and explains how local and global forces shaped Tulum's culture and political economy. Although Mayas ambiguously interpret recent social and environmental changes, she shows that they do not critique the process of globalization in and of itself, but rather critique inequality, their loss of cultural autonomy, and their subordinate position within contemporary global cultures and economies. Scholars and planners must begin to consider Maya interpretations of their changing environment to alleviate the area's severe social and ethnic stratification.

Key words: tourism, globalization, social relations, environment, Mayas, Mexico

This essay examines the shift from a mixed subsistence-- based economy to a commercialized tourist-oriented economy from the perspective of indigenous Mayas in Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico. I document and describe the process of ecological degradation and the rise of the tourist industry, showing that tourism, consumerism, and proletarianization are powerful institutions and processes over which Mayas have limited control. Furthermore, Mayas negotiate and interpret recent social and environmental changes in contradictory and ambiguous ways. Today-as in the past-they do not critique the process of globalization in and of itself, but rather critique inequality, their loss of cultural autonomy, and their subordinate position within contemporary global cultures and economies.

Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, the dominant discourse on globalization still assumes that almost any kind of economic development-especially tourism-- alleviates poverty and increases the well-being of both individuals and nations (cf. Crick 1989; Chambers 1997). Although academics, activists, policy makers, planners, corporate developers, and the popular media hotly debate the impacts of globalization and global tourism, we cannot fully refute dichotomized conclusions in the debates because tourism has both positive and negative impacts. In fact, most social scientist-like most Mayas themselves-present more complex analyses that recognize both benefits and costs of globalization and tourism, as evidenced in recent scholarship.1 In the 1990s, scholars and activists suggested ethnic or ecologically oriented tourism as alternatives to mass tourism because they were friendlier to both local people and the natural environment, but some are beginning to rethink even these alternatives because their effects are similar to mass tourism (McLaren 1998; Primack et al. 1998).

In Mexico, globalization has been complicated by the "economic restructuring" of the 1990s, which further subordinated many citizens (Pi-Sunyer and Brooke Thomas 1999:4). Looking strictly at the economic data in Quintana Roo usually leads one to conclude that the benefits of global tourism far outweigh its costs. Since the tourist era, which began in 1970, the state has had the highest rate of growth in Mexico (Garcia Villa 1992; SEDESOL n.d.). Numerous scholars, however, have concluded that most local citizens-- especially Mayas-remain marginalized despite rosy economic growth (Brown 1999; Pi-Sunyer and Brooke Thomas 1997; Pi-Sunyer, Brooke Thomas, and Daltabuit 1999; Clancy 1998; Hostettler 1996). Although it is one of Mexico's wealthiest states, Quintana Roo has some of the country's poorest and most malnourished residents (Roldan et al. 1999). In addition, compared to Mexico's national level, Quintana Roo has higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, a higher rate of divorce, and a lower average age of death (SEDESOL n.d.1).

Background

During the mid-19th century "Caste War" of Yucatan (1847-1901), Tulum became one of the Maya centers of power that developed in opposition to the Yucatec and Mexican governments. …

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