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Hispanic American Historical Review 80.2 (2000) 368-369

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Book Review

Mexican Rural Development and the Plumed Serpent:
Technology and Maya Cosmology in the Tropical Forest of Campeche, Mexico

National Period

Mexican Rural Development and the Plumed Serpent: Technology and Maya Cosmology in the Tropical Forest of Campeche, Mexico. By Betty Bernice Faust. Foreword by Betty J. Meggers. Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1998. Photographs. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Figures. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xxviii, 190 pp. Cloth, $59.95.

The agrarian and peasant problem of Mexico is a hybrid of past and present, economics and culture, tied to tradition and modernity so that its manifestations change frequently in form but not content. These and other variables, such as regional differences, suggest that the condition of rural Mexico at the end of the millennium will be very complex. To better understand it, timely in-depth studies such as Betty Faust's book, which focuses on a Campeche community in Yucatán, are needed.

Faust's primary concern is environmental degradation and its relationship with the deterioration of Mayan milpa traditions and culture. She argues for a model that would redirect modernization to rescue traditional agricultural systems and simultaneously prevent Mexican rural and environmental disasters.

This work demonstrates that recent Mexican modernization, promoted by the top levels of government and without specific guidelines, has done little, in fact almost nothing to capitalize on the enormous comparative advantage of a country so diverse in natural resources, ethnic groups, and cultural norms. From her perspective, all data seems to indicate that the high and grave price for an inadequate and haphazard rural development strategy is already being paid today. The gaps between rich and poor, modern and traditional, and peasants and the rest of the working class have been accentuated.

Ultimately, this book represents a very interesting piece of ethnographic work excellently complemented with a brief yet substantial historical summary of the community studied. In chapters two, three, and four, the author explains the complexity of the agricultural tradition of roza-tumba-quema prevalent in Yucatán. She understands that milpa is not only corn production but rather a complex and varied system of production. She also illustrates that land and water have been the critical resources for the life of the entire community and therefore sacred to the Mayas. Amidst the need to survive, the Mayas were able to develop an ample knowledge of the behavior of birds, insects, and winds; all this enabled the Mayas to "read" the actions of nature and then decide when and where to cultivate their milpa each season. Each cycle was a true accomplishment that livened and enriched their knowledge, which they transmitted from generation to generation through oral tradition and actual practice.

Chapter three exemplifies the capacity of the Mayas for self-regulation and organization amidst their natural resources. In these communities there were non-written yet highly effective laws that conserved those valuable natural resources such as land and water. There were severe sanctions placed on anyone who wasted the water kept on reserve that was meant to be mostly used for domestic purposes. But, "unfortunately, [End Page 368] these local sanctions have been replaced by a system of national laws that promote the individual exploitation of resources rather than support equal access throughout the community" (p. xxiv).

Furthermore, the disappearance of traditional agricultural methods, rituals, and mechanisms for community cohesion limits job opportunities. Immersed in the process of globalization, Mexican rural society is sending its own signals, a response that is difficult to frame in a promissory perspective for these rural inhabitants as well as the entire country. In other words, in many ways, the rural Mexico of today has arrived at the various paradoxical situations; for example, the scarcity of basic goods and decrease in productivity at a time when large areas of land have been abandoned or are only being partially used and the peasant and working populations have had difficulty finding agricultural products.

It appears that Faust does not fully understand...


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