A&E Panels and Events at the 2014 AAA

AE_flyerThe Anthropology & Environment Society has put together events and meetings at the 2014 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Continue reading for descriptions of the different sessions by theme.

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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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Veronica Davidov Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist Monica Salas

1. To start with, can you say a bit about your background, what brought you to anthropology, and how did you select your fieldsite?

Growing up in Veracruz, I witnessed changes in both the material and social landscape that I wanted to develop a more complex understanding of. So I moved to central Mexico in order to pursue a degree in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the Universidad de las Americas-Puebla (UDLAP). There, I developed my interest in Mexican Agrarian History and Environmental Anthropology through a collaboration with faculty members who were conducting archival and ethnographic research at the time on the changes in land tenure and use in the Cholula Valley. This experience inspired me to pursue a doctoral degree in Anthropology. I decided to focus my project on Veracruz not only because the area was familiar to me but also because it has generated such rich historical scholarship that I wanted to engage from an anthropological perspective.

Cornell has been a great place to develop my project conceptually. I have benefited from the generous guidance of faculty in the Anthropology and History departments. I have also received support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and Mexico’s Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT), all of which allowed me to return to Veracruz in September 2012 and carry out 12 months of ethnographic and archival research.

2. Can you say a bit about your dissertation project and how your Rappaport Panel paper fits with it?

My project examines the less perceptible effects of modern state interventions in the northern highlands of Veracruz, Mexico.  Specifically, I focus on the social and political afterlife of documents, artifacts, and industrial and monumental structures left by the implementation of post-revolutionary policies (such as the re-distribution of land to campesinos, the practice of indigenista policies, the implementation of major archaeological projects, and the nationalization of the oil industry) and the effects, desires, fears, and expectations that these material remnants generate. Crude Residues, the paper I presented at the Rappaport panel, is, in fact, a short version of one of my dissertation chapters, which focuses on the debris left by the oil industry in the city of Poza Rica. Both the paper and the chapter examine the ways in which, in this industrial setting, the natural and built environment has generated particular ways of seeing, perceiving, and inhabiting—of knowing—that are both generative and unsettling. Through an analysis of everyday encounters with the materialities of oil, I sought to demonstrate the ways in which crude residues alter living spaces and continue to informmodes of social and political organization in this region.

3. In your work, you engage with and draw upon new materialism, which is a relatively new terrain in anthropology. What do you see as the value of such an approach for anthropology, and how does it fit in with ethnography, which is, of course, conventionally a human-oriented endeavor?

Yes, in the paper I draw on the work of “new materialists” such as Jane Bennett as I was interested in finding a conceptual framework that could help me highlight the sensuous and material qualities of industrial debris and their implications in everyday social life. Once I paid serious attention to the unpredictability of igneous rocks, for instance, I was able to suggest that the transformation of the Papantla district into an oil region in the twentieth century was neither merely an act of political will, nor solely the product of scientific intervention and economic interest. It was rather the result of a working relation—of encounters—between a diverse array of human actors (scientists, Totonacs, foreign investors) and unstable and ‘vibrant’ material forms. The rest of the paper, similarly, followed a series of interactions (between oil residues and corporate actors, residents, retired oil workers and local scientists) that equally revealed the effectiveness or ‘agency’ of particular industrial objects, decaying structures, substances and smells. Overall, New Materialists’ conception of materiality—as always something more than mere matter: an excess, a force, or a vitality that renders matter active, productive and unpredictable, helped me think through my ethnographic and archival material. Yet, to account for the ability of ordinary material things to animate or produce dramatic and subtle effects does not mean—as Timothy Mitchell suggests in Rule of Experts—introducing in our analysis a limitless number of non-human actors and networks, all of which are somehow of equal significance and power.Rather, it means acknowledging the kinds of hybrid agencies, connections, and interactions, out of which intention and expertise in a specific context must emerge.

4. The ethnographic details of your paper are quite often harsh and represent people in difficult circumstances.  Can you talk about the emotional/affective labor aspects of your fieldwork and writing process given your fieldsite and topic?

The project itself came out of my frustration with the nationalist and patrimonial rhetoric around oil in Mexico. I felt there was a need to de-naturalize oil and to turn to what people in the oil regions are left with. Insofar as I wanted to bring attention to the environmental degradation in industrial zones like Poza Rica, I was very aware that fieldwork was not going to be easy. It was in fact quite challenging as I tried to be particularly attentive to the difficult circumstances that oil in this region has generated.  But while I wanted to highlight what I saw as residual forms of violence—the unacknowledged revolutionary legacies—I did not want to deny the optimism, hope, and commitment of many residents who either develop strategies to disentangle themselves from the noxious substances or have a strong affective connection with oil fields. Achieving a balance and trying to remain truthful to the diverse array of experiences I found in the field was the main challenge in this project.

5. Your work is part of the growing branch of anthropology focusing on natural resources and on oil.  What do you see as the project of anthropology of natural resources today?

While the insights of anthropologists’ work on oil and resources more generally are not sufficient in themselves to guide national (or international) policies, it is nonetheless true that we can join, contribute or initiate a serious conversation around such policies—policies that will affect the ways in which both resources and people are understood and managed. In Mexico, for example, president Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced his constitutional amendments to open up Pemex (the Mexican state–owned Petroleum Company created after the nationalization of the industry in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution) to the private industry. Despite the importance of the reform, the debate around it was shockingly poor: full of mystifications around “the market”, “science”, and the “nation-state”.

On the one hand, supporters of the reform argued that Mexico’s old oil fields are depleting rapidly, and Pemex lacks both the money and technology to tap its substantial oil and natural gas reserves in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico and in the shale formations that run along much of the east coast. On the other hand, Peña Nieto’s opponents on the right blasted the plan as inadequate to attract investment. It would be easier, they argued, if Mexico could allow the type of concessions in which the United States and other countries transfer outright ownership of reserves to private companies. Meanwhile, Peña’s opponents on the left vowed to block what they termed as the “theft” of the nation’s resources. They proceeded with a discussion around “the true” meanings of the words and actions of the mythical figure of Cárdenas, responsible for expropriating oil in the 30s. Absent from the debate was the consideration of the behavior of shale formations and effects that the exploitation of unconventional oil (fracking) will generate: effects that will certainly transform—even more—not only the landscape of the oil regions, like the northern highlands of Veracruz, but also the lives of those living in them.

6.  What is next for you?  What are your plans for next year, and beyond?

I wrote the paper for the Rappaport Panel from the field. Now that both fieldwork and coursework are over I can devote myself exclusively to writing the dissertation.  In fact, I just came back from attending Cornell’s Summer Institute on Contested Global Landscapes, which marks for me the start of this process.

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Global Environmental Winds: The Chinese legacies of an ostensibly North American creation

By Michael J. Hathaway

In 2002 Greenpeace opened a Beijing office, surprising many who imagined that the Chinese state, in its zeal for absolute rule , would not allow Greenpeace on their soil. Many people regard environmentalism as a Western export and China as a country especially antagonistic to the environment. Greenpeace’s confrontational style was seen as untenable in a nation known for its intolerance of dissent. I, however, saw the development as somehow fitting; an ironic recirculation, albeit in different form, of Greenpeace’s radical sixties origins, deeply inspired by China’s own Cultural Revolution.


Greenpeace-China protesting at a Chinese power plant. Recent Greenpeace campaigns point out that vast amounts of energy are consumed in running, heating and cooling the data centers that make up “cloud computing.” In the year 2012, NRDC estimated that in the U.S. alone, 75 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity were consumed, some of it by coal power. (http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/cloud-computing-efficiency-IB.pdf) Image from: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/china-polluting-power280709/

This connection between China and Greenpeace suggests that we might understand “the global” and “globalization” somewhat differently. In environmental anthropology, we often view the global conservation as largely Western, from the Yellowstone-style imposition of wilderness to neoliberal conservation. Although true in many ways, environmental organizations and social movements owe far more to transnational events and engagements than we tend to realize. I explored this topic in my recent book, Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China (University of California Press). My ongoing research with Chinese experts, officials, and villagers as well as expatriate conservationists examines how environmentalism China emerged as a social force since the mid-1980s. Many accounts of international conservation projects cast these as an imposition, resisted by local people. In China, I found less resistance and more engagement with environmentalism, which was more diffuse than a few projects, but part of a larger social change often described as a “wind.” This wind was metaphorical, not one that happened regardless of human presence, but a force created and shaped by human actions. Winds travel, and they can grow strong, transform and dissipate. The wind metaphor was applied to domestic events, such as the Cultural Revolution or other social events that swept people up and shaped their lives.


Auto repair class at Breakaway: A Women’s Liberation School in Emeryville, California, 1973. The teacher is still an auto mechanic in San Francisco. Photograph by Cathy Cade/Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Only when I returned to the U.S., however, did I understand how winds offered a way to understand transnational social change. One day in Michigan, a 55 year old Euro-American radical feminist told me that the idea of China was absolutely critical for her work. Some of her friends chimed in, talking of Chinese female tractor drivers and scientists. One said, “China created a divorce law in 1950, but we were in New York and you couldn’t even get legally divorced until after 1966, unless you could prove your spouse cheated on you.” Another added, “We borrowed the term “liberation” from the Chinese, who were always talking about it, even naming their army the People’s Liberation Army.” Many of the activities that feminists employed, such as study circles, consciousness-raising groups, and “speaking bitterness” (speaking about one’s difficulties) were borrowed from China. Women sought to grasp the difficulties of being women, the “problem that has no name.” Many feminists sought to understand this problem as patriarchy, and move from individual experience to theorizing it as a social institution, which would then be capable of being named and transformed.


Cultural Revolution woodcuts of a female scientist and a tractor driver on stationery used by Redstockings, a socialist feminist organization based in New York. Courtesy of Redstockings.

Carol Hanisch, who coined the expression, “the personal is political,” told me that she was strongly influenced by Maoism. She and her peers read Mao’s Little Red Book, and used many references to China in their pamphlets and posters. Hanisch’s expression catalyzed new forms of political protest. Although a massive corpus of writing now exists on this movement, I only found several articles analyzing China’s indirect yet powerful role. Ironically, many contemporary Chinese feminists also see feminism as a Western invention: these transnational histories are little known even in China itself. This phenomena is broadly true of this time period. Alice Echols writes that American scholars tend to produce “histories of … ‘the sixties’… [as] a primarily American phenomenon” (2009:487). Her observation instantiates a tendency to view nations as sealed containers—where important events happen domestically and not through international affairs—and to focus on the West, or in particular America as the origin of international dynamics, not only for feminism, but also civil rights and environmentalism.


Black Panthers studying Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong. The Panthers initially raised funds by selling copies of the Little Red Book on campuses and roadsides. The book was required reading for all Panthers. From: http://fuckyeahmarxismleninism.tumblr.com/post/49773032994/black-panthers-studying-quotations-from-chairman

In terms of civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contributions are better known than the Black Power movement. Each was inspired by “Third World Revolutionaries:” King more by Mahatma Gandhi and Black Power groups more by Mao Zedong. King employed Gandhi’s civil disobedience and non-violence whereas others drew on Mao’s confrontational style. Before Nixon traveled to China, several Black Panthers had already returned from China, buoyed by support and inspiration. Robert Williams promoted the Black Panthers’ dramatic use of guns to gain media attention and perform black masculinity. Williams left the U.S. for Cuba and later China. He died in Michigan the year I arrived, working at the Center for Chinese Studies. A documentary film about his life, Negroes with Guns, is available.

We also need to question stories about the origins and spread of environmentalism. Richard Grove has argued against seeing global environmentalism as an American invention stretching from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir (1992). We can see different genealogies, distinguishing conventional groups like the Sierra Club from Greenpeace with origins in grassroots activist environmentalism, which emerged from a Chinese-influenced counter-culture movement. Before working to “save the whales,” Greenpeace focused on stopping nuclear tests. They used confrontational tactics and staged dramatic events, drawing from techniques used by feminists and civil rights activists. They were influenced by new winds of change from China and elsewhere, which continue to shape how Greenpeace-China carries out its work today. This brief story, I suggest, hints what we know as conservation today is both transnational and diverse in form as well as influence.

Works cited

Bier, Laura. “Feminism, Solidarity, and Identity in the Age of Bandung.” In Making a World After Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives, edited by Christopher Lee. Pp. 143–72 Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010.

Echols, Alice. “Across the Universe: Rethinking Narratives of Second-Wave Feminism.” In New World Coming: The Sixties and the Shaping of Global Consciousness, edited by Karen Dubinsky, Catherine Krull, Susan Lord, Sean Mills, and Scott Rutherford, 406–10. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2009.

Grove, Richard H. “Origins of Western Environmentalism.” Scientific American 267, no. 1 (1992): 42–47.

Michael J. Hathaway is associate professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University.

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Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: How Local Experts are Already Active in Conservation Efforts and What We Can Do to Recognize Their Work

By Nora Haenn and Birgit Schmook

Around the world, conservation programs appear to be in conflict with local people, but what if this story isn’t quite true? What if local people are contributing to conservation programs but not receiving credit for doing so?

Popular depictions of national parks describe them as under threat from poachers, slash-and-burn-farmers, and other nearby residents. Popular tales often contrast these residents with scientists bent on saving the environment from harm. In our recent article, “Improving Conservation Outcomes with Insights from Local Experts and Bureaucrats,” published in Conservation Biology, we took a closer look at how conservationists and some local people actually interact with one another. Along with our co-authors, we found that people living in an around protected areas not only contribute to conservation programs, some conservation endeavors could not exist without their expertise. For anthropologists, this story is a familiar one. By publishing in an interdisciplinary journal, we hope to reach across disciplinary boundaries and speak to the larger group of conservation researchers and practitioners, some of whom may not affirm the importance of local expertise in their work. In the paper, we call on conservation researchers and practitioners to do a better job of publicly acknowledging the role of local experts and other non-scientists in conservation biology.

The paper uses two examples from the rainforests of southern Mexico to show this hidden contribution to environmental protection and how the work of resident experts gets erased in conservation reporting. In the first example, these experts help Ph.D. biologists train their graduate students. In the rainforests, scientists cannot even begin to research without guides. Between snakebites and the threat of getting lost on meandering paths, the forests are too dangerous for outsiders to venture in alone. So, researchers rely on the in depth knowledge of guides, people who tend to be hunters with significant experience in the woods.

Guides tutor students in detailed ways. Here’s the advice one researcher said he would give to students new to working with guides: “You need to trust this person. You are going to be following him. Learn everything you can from the guide. Ask about everything you see.” Student research often gets translated into academic publications. Despite the guide’s primacy in the research of students and professors alike, they are almost never listed as co-authors, and often are not listed in a paper’s acknowledgements, the section where researchers thank the most important contributors to a study.

 Researchers enter the dense forests of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve with expert guides who protect them from snakes, meandering paths, and other forest dangers. (Photo: Sophie Calmè)

Researchers enter the dense forests of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve with expert guides who protect them from snakes, meandering paths, and other forest dangers. (Photo: Sophie Calmè)

The second example shows how the Mexican government itself relies on residents’ expertise to collect information on biodiversity in the region of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, the country’s largest protected area for tropical ecosystems. One Reserve program requested that area communities hire biologists to report on endangered species. These biologists conduct research in the same manner as graduate students: they work with local people whose knowledge gets translated into scientific accounts, this time as demanded by park service reports. The biologist writing the report receives credit for the research.

Why don’t local experts get full credit for their work? We argue this is because resident experts are campesinos, not members of the middle class. They do not have the social and educational pedigree expected in the scientific community. To protect the perceived value of their research findings, and their status in the field, scientists are hesitant to highlight the important role these experts play in data collection and the training of professionals in the field.

By failing to highlight the role of local people in conservation research, observers get a skewed perspective on people’s relationship to conservation efforts. Because locals are not acknowledged as part of the conservation effort, they are perceived as obstacles to conservation. This makes it more difficult to identify partners for conservation efforts, since outsiders are often unaware that locals already play a crucial role in conservation. The failure also makes scientists appear as the only people capable of environmental protection, when, clearly, today’s challenges require the participation of many different social groups.

This failure to fully acknowledge the role of skilled guides also has serious repercussions for the guides themselves. A lack of formal credit in the science community means that these guides don’t get the status – or the salary – that comes with being a recognized expert. Campesinos earn about $10 a day, or half of what would be a middle-class salary in the region.

While our focus was on tropical Mexico, our conclusions are relevant for conservation biologists doing fieldwork around the world. In many places, social hierarchies encourage a separation between conservation practitioners and local people. This means the environmental knowledge that often makes conservation workable goes unrecognized.

Nora Haenn is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at NC State University. Birgit Schmook is Faculty in Conservation and Biodiveristy at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico. The paper’s additional authors include Yol Reyes of ECOSUR and Sophie Calmé of the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada. This article was written with Matt Shipman of NC State University.

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