Molly Doane’s “Stealing Shining Rivers”: Transnational Conservation meets a Mexican Forest

ENGAGEMENT Blog editor Micha Rahder recently caught up with Molly Doane to discuss her recent book, Stealing Shining Rivers: Agrarian Conflict, Market Logic, and Conservation in a Mexican Forest (2012, University of Arizona Press), and its broader contributions to debates over communal lands, forest conservation, and neoliberal policies. The book recently won “Best book on Mexico in the social sciences” from the Mexico section of the latin American Studies Association (LASA). This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.


MR: What is the theme of your new book?

MD: My book looks at an attempt to establish a nature reserve in one of Mexico’s most biodiverse forests, the Chimalapas Forest in southern Oaxaca. At the most basic level, this is a story of transnational environmental social movements connecting a remote forested community in Oaxaca to powerful U.S. and EU funders and conservation organizations (most notably the WWF). Can forest communities, with their particular set of social justice concerns, make common cause with mainstream environmentalists? I treat transnational conservation as an ideological commodity chain, following how environmental values travel.

Chimalapas (translated as “Shining Rivers”) is located on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca within two agrarian communities, Santa Maria Chimalapa and San Miguel Chimalapa. Agrarian communities are communities that were reserved for indigenous peoples in colonial times, and have not been affected by changes to the Mexican Constitution that allowed for the privatization of ejidos. Thus, up to the present, the forest here has been “reserved” as “common” hinterlands, off-limits to private sale or development under Mexican law. The major threats to the forest are national development projects, illegal logging and ranching organized principally by politically connected ranching and timber operations, and illegal settlement by land-poor indigenous people from neighboring Chiapas.

At the community level, I summarize the past few decades of direct action against logging, ranching, settlement, and other actions that are perceived as environmental theft of communal lands. At the institutional level, I trace three types of conservation interventions: starting with an Integrated Conservation and Development Program (ICDP), a later Community-Based Conservation program (CBC), and more recently a market-based conservation program, or Payment for Ecological Services. I show how, as environmental interest in the region took off in the 1970s, the region was recast from an agricultural backwater to a global ecological asset. I focus on one attempt by a Mexican NGO to merge mainstream environmentalism with local social justice goals, why it failed, and the ultimate convergence of mainstream environmentalism with authoritarian politics.

This attempt was a Community-based Conservation (CBC) project that aimed to fuse local political desires for secure communal lands with a nature reserve model that encoded environmental regulations within local law and practice, as well as national law, in a “Campesino Ecological Reserve.” The Campesino Reserve was formulated by Maderas del Pueblo, a local NGO funded by the WWF to institute a CBC model. It appealed to community members because it incorporated an agenda of regional political and productive autonomy that shored up local control of the territory. It appealed to funders because it fit into the CBC model being promoted at that time, and resonated with the goal of compromise among multiple stakeholders—in this case, ranchers, loggers, settlers, and community members from Chimalapas. For community members, however, a Community Ecological Reserve could not be implemented by compromising with the more powerful stakeholders in this equation—in particular the politically connected timber and ranching interests and major global infrastructure projects.

At the same time that environmentalists emphasized Chimalapas’ wild assets (jaguars, orchids, and butterflies), they attempted to defuse the rebellious image of local inhabitants, who were famous for periodically resorting to banditry—such as kidnapping– in defense of their communal resources against invasions of various kinds. These direct actions had been quite effective in stopping illegal logging and illegal settlements. Once working under an international WWF project, community leaders were enjoined to avoid these types of activities, and to cooperate with federal and state environmental and agrarian agencies to achieve their goals. However, a local development agency and the state environmental agency in Oaxaca viewed community-based conservation in Chimalapas as a political threat. The nearby Zapatistas were a constant reminder of the disruptive potential of campesinos.

Local agents insisted that conservation be severed from any social justice goals reminiscent of the Zapatista agenda. What ensued was a fierce political battle over conservation in Chimalapas. No conservation rubric (park, biosphere, campesino ecological reserve) was ever achieved.

Hand-drawn map of Mexico South, 1946, by Miguel Covarrubias (Alfred A. Knopf).  The map is featured on the cover of the book, and shows features of several current conflicts: oil wells, wildlife, and indigenous villages. Chimalapas is located at the center of the map.

Hand-drawn map of Mexico South, 1946, by Miguel Covarrubias (Alfred A. Knopf). The map is featured on the cover of the book, and shows features of several current conflicts: oil wells, wildlife, and indigenous villages. Chimalapas is located at the center of the map.

MR: How does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?

MD: Based on ethnographic and historical material from Chimalapas, I develop two major concepts: accumulation by conservation and decentralized authoritarianism. These concepts build on a literature on neoliberal conservation, and on scholarship that looks at environmentalism as a form of governmentality. Using rich case material I look at how environmentalism and authoritarianism become entwined. In response to environmental NGO activity in the area, local state agencies created their own “environmental” projects in the region, using them as opportunities for state penetration and political surveillance. Ultimately, the local environmental NGO actively promoting a local autonomy/social justice agenda was routed by the state, and the WWF began to work directly with the new state environmental agencies instead. Environmentalism provided an opportunity for state intrusion, and environmentalists opted for an unsavory alliance in the hopes of instituting some sort of conservation rubric in Chimalapas.

I argue that there is an overarching market logic to this relationship. Conservation zones are key components of the neoliberal state portfolio of assets, ready for branding by conservation labels, and organized at various levels via market logic.

Market logic assumes a certain equality of claims. We think about crucial and difficult questions like: How do we manage competing goals and controversies that arise over the proper or desired use of land? How do we balance economic, social, development, and cultural heritage issues? In Chimalapas, as elsewhere, such problems are neatly encapsulated within stakeholder language. Stakeholder language is ubiquitous in the development world—including within environmental initiatives. It tells us that if we listen to individual concerns, give them their due, weigh and balance them, we can come up with mutually agreeable and fair solutions to most problems. But stakeholders really do not have equal weight. Cattle ranchers—because they were from politically connected families and essentially were the “establishment”—had much more weight in the balance than community members from Chimalapas. Development projects coordinated by state, federal and global corporate interests had more weight than communities in Chimalapas. This extra weight on the deforestation side of the scale does not ultimately benefit either the community or the environment. In win-win stakeholder scenarios, conservation areas are essentially the green median strips of the global industrial park.

MR: How did you engage with different communities as you were doing the research for your book?

MD: My research was multi-sited geographically, socially, and professionally. I did research within activist NGOs attempting to implement a community-based campesino reserve—including an NGO dedicated mainly to biological and ecological research and another dedicated mainly to social justice agendas, within various government agencies, and with officials from international conservation NGOs. Campesino leaders involved in conservation efforts were also central to the study.


A march on Oaxaca to bring attention to Chimalapas

MR:  What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about environmental projects?

MD: Forest conservation happens in places where the legal, land tenure, and corresponding socio-cultural systems encourage forest conservation—most notably, common property regimes. We should really think about that. Right now, the main strategies for forest conservation are payments for environmental services schemes of various sorts. These require less community consensus to implement, and in concept could result in long-term contracts for communities to provide environmental services like watershed management. BUT privatization is central to market logic; and common-lands are perceived by investors as barriers to market development. We should think about communal logic and market logic before we make deep commitments to the commodification of environmental services. Maybe not all situations can be win-win. At some point we have to confront the reality that business as usual and conservation are not in fact as compatible as we might like them to be.

Related to this, there is a tendency for environmental problems to be defined in terms of wilderness or pristine environments, and to incorporate indigenous peoples as either part of the problem or part of the solution. Most of the world’s intact forests are located in common lands managed by indigenous people. So this is understandable. But too often environmental conservation is cast as a problem for indigenous people—how will we prevent them from deforesting these lands or help them save these lands—rather than a problem for non-indigenous people. How do we make this coincidence of forest with communal, indigenous territory a learning opportunity for the majority of us, rather than a problem for indigenous people?

This conservation problem is largely addressed as though it is a certain kind of technical problem that can be addressed with the proper GIS systems, maps, and land management plans to be implemented by individual indigenous people. Is conservation really a technical problem? I don’t think so. It is a political problem, an economic problem, and a problem at the nexus of production and consumption.

MR: What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about social and environmental justice?

MD: Environmental justice and social justice are linked and must be understood as linked. In rural and urban areas alike, the world’s poorest and most powerless people have been left holding the bag for the environmental problems created by the industrialization of our societies. Environmental problems affect us all and are everybody’s problem.

The Chimalapas River

The Chimalapas River

MR: How is your book being used beyond the academy? Is it actively shaping the management of nature in your study site?

MD: It’s too early to say. I know that some of my earlier published work contributed to a rethinking of WWF strategy in the area—the link to the government proved embarrassing. More generally, my work joins a subset within environmental anthropology that interprets engagement more broadly. For example, our work may influence journalists and other popular writers, or help to shape future projects. The type of scholarship I have engaged in here IS being noticed. There is a rising tide of criticism of mainstream environmentalism. Naomi Klein’s forthcoming book on climate change suggests that mainstream environmentalism is a part of the problem—not the solution—and she has used the work of environmental anthropologists to support her assertions. I am part of an editorial collective called Critical Green Engagements, with Jim Igoe, Tracey Heatherington, Bram Buscher, Melissa Checker, and Dan Brockington (University of Arizona Press) that, through the books we are bringing out, asks how anthropologists can contribute to a sea change in how environmental stewardship is understood and carried out.

MR: What is the key message or key point you hope people take away from reading your book?

MD: Environmental conservation cannot be separated from social justice goals and requires actual political change. My sense is that most people who care about conservation and donate to such causes are also fans of democracy. Mainstream conservation as practiced is, unfortunately, not necessarily promoting democracy.

Molly Doane is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She is currently finishing a book concerning organic, fair trade coffee that is produced in Chiapas, Mexico and sold in the Midwest and the UK.


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