- Political Landscapes: Forests, Conservation, and Community in Mexico by Christopher R. Boyer
Christopher R. Boyer
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015
xix + 337 pp., $104.95 (cloth); $27.95 (paper)
Political Landscapes: Forests, Conservation, and Community in Mexico is a pioneering history of environmental politics, the timber industry, and community activism in twentieth-century Mexico. Christopher R. Boyer explores these interdependent topics from the perspectives of three protagonist groups: federal forestry agents, commercial loggers, and the indigenous peoples of Michoacán and Chihuahua, two states whose forest products sustained Mexican development. Readers learn how generations of state conservationists balanced the commercial exploitation of woodlands with the community welfare of their inhabitants. Along the way, this environmental and political history offers welcome insights into the labor history of logging.
Political Landscapes is impressive in its scope. Few histories of modern Mexico explore such a broad period (1880–1992). Boyer balances the institutional history of Mexico’s forest service and its shifting resource-management strategies with the grassroots effects of both logging and conservation on contrasting regions. It is a uniquely Mexican tale because after the 1910 revolution, land reform allocated the majority of woodlands to the peasants who inhabited them while extending managerial control of forests from local to federal government. Thus did the wooded landscape become politicized as “interventionist bureaucracies” arbitrated conflicts between commercial developers and indigenous communities (11).
Boyer launches each chapter with a concise overview of one of Mexico’s pendulum-like shifts in economic, social, and environmental policy. Each relates patterns of forestry conservation and extraction to periods of development, as harvesters and industrialists progressively transformed pine-oak forests into railway ties, mining timber, packaging crates, turpentine, plywood, and paper. In part 1 (“The Making of Revolutionary Forestry”), Boyer traces state initiatives to replace the industrial-scale commodification of forests sparked by Mexico’s railway boom with a socially just harvest in which communal landholders cooperated with forestry experts to balance job creation with conservation. Part 2 (“The Development Imperative”) narrates the post–World War II transition from the “redemptive” era of land reform to policies that extended industrialization into the woodlands to satisfy market demands of a rapidly urbanizing Mexico. Each chapter then compares the experiences and agency of the Purépecha and Rarámuri peoples as they negotiated equally ambivalent relations with timber companies (usurpers/concessionaires/employers) and with a state that granted peasants ownership of timberlands but imposed a “paternalist regime of environmental surveillance” to regulate their usage of an extractive resource that was “a linchpin to economic development” (243, 94).
As with most histories of rural Mexico, this is a tale of opportunities lost to mis-management and corruption, as venal bureaucrats colluded with commercial loggers to undercut the promises of reform. Yet Boyer discovers silver linings in the political landscape. [End Page 110] In Michoacán, rural development agents followed a logging ban with the assisted development of resin-tapping cooperatives, and turpentine remained “the region’s leading industry for decades to come” (112). The more isolated Rarámuri of Chihuahua fared less advantageously, as they lacked the tradition of political activism and alliances built by the Purépecha in the 1930s. They thus depended on sympathetic outsiders—teachers and indigenista activists—to secure them sawmill jobs or better piece rates from commercial loggers.
As its title implies, Political Landscapes focuses on the evolution of forestry conservation policy and its impact on rural communities. The term labor is absent from the index. But readers of this journal will welcome Boyer’s attention to issues of work. In Mexico, timber compares to mining and oil in the industry’s early dominance by foreign companies (like Cargill) and their recruitment of skilled American immigrants. Its scale was immense. Timber became Chihuahua’s largest employer by 1910. One company employed thirty-five hundred workers in classic enclave conditions: American lumbermen enjoyed the material perks of paternalism while native-born workers’ families resided in a squalid Mexican Town. Up on the steep sierra, Rarámuri woodcutters used hatchets to hew railway ties and then transported them up to forty kilometers to the nearest railheads...