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Stealing Shining Rivers

Agrarian Conflict, Market Logic, and Conservation in a Mexican Forest

Molly Doane

Publication Year: 2012

What happens to indigenous people when their homelands are declared by well-intentioned outsiders to be precious environmental habitats? In this revelatory book, Molly Doane describes how a rain forest in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca was appropriated and redefined by environmentalists who initially wanted to conserve its biodiversity. Her case study approach shows that good intentions are not always enough to produce results that benefit both a habitat and its many different types of inhabitants.

Doane begins by showing how Chimalapas—translated as “shining rivers”—has been “produced” in various ways over time, from a worthless wasteland to a priceless asset. Focusing on a series of environmental projects that operated between 1990 and 2008, she reveals that environmentalists attempted to recast agrarian disputes—which actually stemmed from government-supported corporate incursions into community lands and from unequal land redistribution—as environmental problems.

Doane focuses in particular on the attempt throughout the 1990s to establish a “Campesino Ecological Reserve” in Chimalapas. Supported by major grants from the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), this effort to foster and merge agrarian and environmental interests was ultimately unsuccessful because it was seen as politically threatening by the state. By 2000, the Mexican government had convinced the WWF to redirect its conservation monies to the state government and its agencies.

The WWF eventually abandoned attempts to establish an “enclosure” nature reserve in the region or to gain community acceptance for conservation. Instead, working from a new market-based model of conservation, the WWF began paying cash to individuals for “environmental services” such as reforestation and environmental monitoring.

Published by: University of Arizona Press

Title Page, Copyright

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Preface: Why the Environment Is Political

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pp. vii-x

I recently visited the Academy of Sciences Museum in San Francisco. The new energy-efficient building generates much of its own electricity and features a green roof planted with a gorgeous array of native succulents. But its most popular exhibit is the magnificent rain forest that rises up from the center of the lobby, its soaring trees defining a rich vertical ecosystem. ...

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pp. xi-xii

I am indebted to everyone who made this study possible. There are too many to list here; everyone from campesinos who extended their hospitality in their villages to my neighbors in Matías Romero, as well as the many government officials who talked to me, and the personnel in the Mexico offices of USAID. I would especially like to thank Maderas del Pueblo and its director, Miguel ...

List of Agencies/Acronyms

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pp. xiii-xv

Timeline of Important Events

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pp. xvii-xviii

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Introduction: Practicing Political Ecology in Chimalapas

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pp. 1-23

At a World Wildlife Fund conference concerning the threatened ecology of the Chimalapas Forest in Oaxaca, Mexico, a group of American scientists took turns presenting data on its extraordinary inventory of orchids, butterflies, and endangered mammals. The glossy slides of sleek, spotted jaguars set my cat-loving soul aquiver. But the slides did not work their ...

Section I. Time, Space, Politics

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1. Shining Rivers: Chimalapas in Time and Space

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pp. 27-51

The various landscapes of the Chimalapas region that we will tour in this chapter—indigenous villages, forest hinterlands, regional towns, and cattle ranches—make material a series of distinct historical periods characterized by distinct state-making discourses, visions, and projects. Such projects have shaped not only how places look and feel, but also how the people ...

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2. Megaprojects in Mexico’s South: Liberal Shadows in a Global Era

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pp. 52-67

The central plot device of Trollope’s novel, The Way We Live Now, is a speculative railway scheme in Veracruz, Mexico, that fails and ruins all of its investors. In 1875, when the novel was published, England had recently experienced real stock market crashes attendant to speculative foreign investment. Nevertheless, foreign investment had become a principal avenue for the expansion of capital in advanced capitalist economies. ...

Section II. The Emergence of the Environment

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3. Wild Places: The Production of Nature and the Environment

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pp. 71-83

Just as Chimalapas was produced as a particular time-space in relation to previous regimes of accumulation, under neoliberalism Chimalapas is newly produced as an environmental space. As a wilderness, Chimalapas is a universal biological asset, a holding in the national and international “green portfolio,” and a carbon sequestration sink. In this chapter I take the position ...

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4. Imagining Chimalapas: Leadership, Legitimacy, and Representation

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pp. 84-104

In 1977, campesino workers from the logging firm Maderas del Sureste Sánchez Monroy went on strike in the eastern zone of Chimalapas after management refused to grant them permission to cultivate milpas. The workers were peasants recruited from all over Mexico, who lived in illegally formed logging camps. During the strike, the workers formed an alliance with campesinos from ...

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5. The Long-Distance Jaguar: Creating an Ecological Community in Chimalapas

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pp. 105-121

My first physical introduction to Chimalapas was during the Ecological Forum on Chimalapas. It provided me with my sharpest impressions of the physical landscape, the scope of the campesino ecological reserve project, and the various actors involved. At the forum, project leaders attempted to develop community knowledge of ecology and support for conservation, and to represent the project in order to gain outside support. ...

Section III. The Politics of the Environment

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6. Decentralized Authoritarianism: Political Control in Chimalapas

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pp. 125-142

We have seen that there is a disparity in fortunes and interests between the leadership in the cabeceras of Santa María and San Miguel Chimalapa and the congregaciones that they have settled within their territory. After 1996, Maderas del Pueblo began to work almost exclusively in the relatively marginalized communities. But this was not the original intention of Maderas del Pueblo. ...

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7. Please, No Politics: The Institutional Isolation of Maderas and the New Government Role

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pp. 143-159

After I had been working in Chimalapas for some time, I was invited by Conservation Director José Flor to attend a conference, held jointly by the WWF and the State Institute of Ecology, called “Priority Areas for the Conservation of Natural Resources and Biodiversity of Chimalapas, Oaxaca.” The June 1997 conference was held in a luxurious hotel in Oaxaca and opened with an ample breakfast ...

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Conclusion: Decentralized Authoritarianism and Accumulation by Conservation in Chimalapas

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pp. 160-169

I began this book by exploring the production of space in Chimalapas over four time periods that represent particular regimes of accumulation. Looking at the colonial, Liberal, developmentalist, and neoliberal periods, I have tried to convey the legacy of these histories in the landscapes of forest, pasture, and highway as well as the relationships that have developed ...

Appendix A. List of Participants

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pp. 171-172

Appendix B. Institutional Funding for Maderas del Pueblo between 1991 and 2000

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pp. 173

Appendix C. Government Agencies in Chimalapas, 1995–2000

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pp. 174

Appendix D. WWF Funding Lines, 1997–2000

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pp. 175

Appendix E. Institutional Presence in Chimalapas, 2003–2008

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pp. 176


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pp. 177-196


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pp. 197-201

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About the Author

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pp. 203

Molly Doane received her PhD in Anthropology from the Graduate Center of CUNY in 2001. Her ongoing research concerns environmental politics, neoliberalism, and social movements in Mexico and the United States. Most recently, her research has explored alternative political and economic models as they are expressed through fair trade coffee. She is currently working ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816599448
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816505920

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2012