E. N. Anderson
Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside
These papers began life as papers delivered at various learned venues since 2003. They report some new field work, and a great deal of new thinking about older field work. Since 1989, I have done research in and around Chunhuhub and Presidente Juarez, Quintana Roo, on Yucatec Maya development and ethnobiology. Some of this work has theoretical or ethnographic significance, and a great deal of it has some relevance to current development issues. It seems reasonable to bring my recent writings together in the present format, and make them available as a package. I am also leaving these writings, deliberately, in a rather informal style and format, and posting them to my website, rather than trying to write them up as a formal publication. I would rather have them free and accessible in all senses of the word, for students and professionals in the field of agricultural and rural development.
Any Quintana Roo Maya of my age remembers a time when the Maya communities of that beautiful state were isolated and self-sufficient. Their grandfathers remembered a time when Quintana Roo was, de facto, an independent country, ruled by the Maya and almost closed to outsiders. It broke off from Mexico in the “Caste War” of 1846. The central area, where I work, was theoretically reconquered in 1901. Parts of it, including the areas I have lived, were not actually brought into Mexico until much later, and then on their own terms; the last open battle (so far as I know) was actually fought in Dzula, which is just east of my own town of Chunhuhub (then uninhabited). The Maya faded into the forest and did not lose that battle. Today, central Quintana Roo, the “Zona Maya,” is effectively run by the Maya, or at least by their educated elites.
But the area is far from its isolated subsistence-farming past. Some communities well known to me remain surprisingly close to that state, but all are now on passable roads with regular public transport, all have radio and TV, all have modern public schools, all have clinics or at least easy access to nearby ones, and all are well supplied with multinational goods. None now qualifies for the Mexican folk definition of extreme remoteness: “Where the Coca-Cola truck does not go.”
Thus, in some cases actually within my own memory, the villages of interior Quintana Roo have entered the global economy and become incorporated into global politics. During this time, also, Mexico has privatized its ejidos; all the Maya villages were ejidos until 1993, and most of them for years after, but all are in various stages of privatization today (see Anderson 2003, 2005, and Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005; citations follow Chapter 1 below). They lag far behind the rest of Mexico in this, however, for Maya communal ties run deep, and management for shifting cultivation requires frequent reassignment of land.
The Maya have responded to globalization in many ways, summarized in various papers below. Here, I need to mention quickly the wider scene in which they find themselves. Mexico has become more privatized, more open to international corporations, and more participant in world corporate culture. The richest man in the world is a Mexican entrepreneur, Carlos Slim. (A Lebanese-Mexican, he is a reminder that Mexico is a melting pot like the United States, not solely a “Hispanic” country. Maya, Lebanese, and dozens of other indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups exist and contribute.) Giant corporations impinge more and more on the lives of the Maya, and not in beneficial ways. The vast, cancerously-growing tourist world of coastal Quintana Roo is ever closer. More and more young people go off to work in the cities. More and more urban products crowd the shelves of small Maya stores. More and more trucks roll through Chunhuhub, increasingly a transit hub on the Merida-Chetumal route. The full story of southeast Mexican development is outside the scope of the present volume, and is being told by a number of better qualified Mayanists than I (see e.g. Faust 1998; Haenn 2005), but must be mentioned here by way of context.
Suffice it to say that vague jargon-words like “globalization” and “neoliberalism” are hopelessly inadequate to capture the ferment of private enterprise, state interference, drug-cartel infiltration, foreign investment, and Maya doggedness and adaptability that is modern Quintana Roo. Use of such words should be discouraged; they cover rather than revealing. The truth is that giant corporations are increasingly taking over the world, with the full aid and support of governments, especially First World ones. This is not the automatic and general process implied by “globalization,” and it is the absolute antithesis of the “Free Market” concept ostensibly advocated by neoliberalism. Quite the reverse: the giant firms are sustained, subsidized, defended, and supported by governments (as I have shown at length in my book The Pursuit of Ecotopia, Praeger 2010). The free market is left to the small players—such as the Maya. They have to make their way without help or support, and are in the position of a small individual running a race on foot while the large players drive cars. Needless to say, the large players generally win. The Maya have done amazingly well by hanging in the game at all.
A word might be said about my career as a Mayanist. In 1987, my university, the University of California-Riverside, engaged the great Mexican ethnobotanist Arturo Gomez-Pompa to be the first director of the University of California’s Mexico research program, housed at UCR. Arturo is a stunningly charismatic and inspiring person, and quickly got many of us in anthropology absorbed in his Maya work. We hired accordingly—we are now a major center of Maya archaeology—and I retooled my research from East Asia and Canada to the Yucatan Peninsula. My field sites in Asia were not only not longer feasible for financial reasons, but they no longer existed at all; the bays I researched in Hong Kong and Malaysia were filled in and covered by factories and apartments, and the fishing villages I studied had dispersed. Wishing for a site I could study over a long period and with some collaboration, I jumped at the chance to work with the Maya.
Our student at the time, Denise Brown, now director of Latin American studies at the University of Calgary, carried out a survey of communities in the Yucatan Peninsula, and informed me that Chunhuhub in Quintana Roo would be the perfect place for me. I had learned to trust her judgment, and checked the place out in 1989. Indeed she was correct: the place has been a dream of a field site. It was traditional enough to have everything I wanted to study in the way of traditional Maya culture, but also modernizing rapidly and self-consciously. It was on a main road and within range of many smaller, more conservative communities. It had good food and the some of the friendliest people in the world, priding themselves on being “tranquil”—tranquilo is the most commonly stated value in town—and cheerfully getting along.
I returned for sustained field work in 1991, living in a small concrete shed in the compound of Pastor Valdez, a schoolteacher (later school principal in Presidente Juarez, and still later retired). Helpful, knowledgeable and tranquilo, he and his familiy were always a delight. I began to question everyone in the area about everything. My old friend Eugene Hunn visited, and discovered the man who became my main consultant, then field assistant, and finally compadre and coauthor: Don Felix Medina Tzuc. Don Felix has told his story (Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005), so I need not say more, except that we have become close friends and real family. The Maya take compadrasco (godparenthood) very seriously, and to be joint godparents establishes a very real family relationship. I receive field help, warm support, and endless free food; I provide financial help, especially for schooling.
I passed through in 1993 and returned for sustained field work in 1996. At that time I discovered and became closely involved in the lives of the Dzib family of Presidente Juarez. Don Adriano was much like Don Felix, though less outgoing. His daughter Maria Aurora Dzib Xihum became a field assistant, and family relations were cemented when I provided sodas and photography for her wedding to Jaime Cen—thus becoming compadre. I have since put her (and one of Don Felix’s granddaughters) through school.
I have returned almost every year since, with four months more of field work in 2001. I am now too old for sustained research in the Yucatan bush, but I can never leave the place for long.
I was a convert to historic approaches and to multisited views long before those became popular. I have worked with published historic sources and with historian friends (notably my colleague at UCR, Rob Patch; see Patch 1993. 2002).
The multisited work is more interesting. I have worked extensively in Chunhuhub, a large, self-consciously modern town, and in Presidente Juarez, a small, isolated, intensely conservative village. I have visited and done quick projects in several other towns, notably Xpichil, which is again different: militantly traditionalist (“cruzoob”) in religion, and highly enterprising in farming and crafts. My students and coworkers have done research in more. Also, through the 1990s, an informal groups of Maya ethnographers organized American Anthropological Association panels almost every year. The core group consisted of Betty Faust, Ellen Kintz, Alicia Re Cruz and myself; many others gave papers, and we networked with most Mayanists that worked in Mexico. I visited several sites long enough to know those communities from personal experience as well as from books. (See Faust 1998; Kintz 1990; Re Cruz 1996.)
I have also followed friends to the city. Two have made it to California. One is a legal immigrant from Chunhuhub now long resident Los Angeles, where I interviewed him on occasion. He maintains a large, never-finished house in Chunhuhub but rarely goes there. The other was a young friend who got as far as San Francisco, as I learned from a sudden surprising late-evening phone call from that city! He lasted a couple of years before being found by the migra and sent home. Much more numerous are people from these towns in the cities of Quintana Roo. Here they often sink into a depressing urban lower class, living heavily on junk food and having mostly idle, empty lives, spent watching TV and listening to commercial music (work being scarce and education hard to get). Many, however, have done stunningly well: my friend at Nissan, my god-granddaughter finishing her training as a legal assistant (hopefully on the way to lawyer), and many more. Young people from other villages have been even more successful. I first knew Francisco Rosado May, from the municipio town (county seat), when he was a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz. He has had a meteoric rise in education circles in Quintana Roo, and now heads a new Maya-focused university campus in Jose Maria Morelos, the nearest big town to Chunhuhub.
Out-migration brain-drains the villages, but the young migrants often return, or stay in close contact with the home. They bring back wealth, but not very much, and rarely invested in the villages. The demographic safety valve is a mixed blessing (on Mexican migration, see the wonderful studies of my late and much lamented colleague Michael Kearney, 1996, 2005; also the beautifully done and wonderfully contexted study of Morocco by David Crawford, 2008). Fortunately, the Maya towns are in no danger of being totally drained of working-age people, becoming villages of the very old and very young, like some towns I know in other parts of Mexico, and also in my earlier field work site of the New Territories of Hong Kong.
I thus developed a fair time depth and geographical spread for comparison, which I hope has deepened my analyses. Certainly it helped my understanding, and I recommend it to all field workers.
With retirement, I have drifted back into a more East Asia-focused research project, focusing now on documentary sources. My Maya field work remains among the brightest and most wonderful spots in my life, and I will continue to visit and keep watching.
I am deeply grateful, as always, to my Maya friends, to my coworkers (notably including Betty Faust) and students, to my wife Barbara, and to the University of California, Riverside (which provided financial as well as logistic support).
The indigenous people of Yucatan call themselves “Maya,” more correctly “Maayaj,” but this seems a late (though pre-Spanish) term related somehow to the mid-northern city of Mayapan, extended to all speakers of the language only in the last few centuries (as recently argued by Matt Restall, 2004). The term originally related primarily to the language (maayaj t’aan, “Maya language”), a very uniform one across the Peninsula. The term “Yucatec,” current in the literature, is a modern Spanish coinage based on a multiple misconstrual. It is established and hard to avoid, but incorrect and misleading.
Transcribing the Maya language has evolved over time. For the old dictionary entries, I have added in parentheses the modern spelling, which is based on Spanish orthography (e.g. j represents the sound represented by English h; in the older system it was written h).
I dedicate this book to the young people of Quintana Roo, and to my wonderful Maya families, the Medinas of Chunhuhub and the Dzibs of Presidente Juarez. Dios bo’otik.
E. N. Anderson, 2011
Crawford, David. 2008. Morocan Households in the world Economy: Labor and Inequality in a Berber Village. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Faust, Betty B. 1998. Mexican Rural Development and the Plumed Serpent. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Kearney, Michael. 1996. Reconceptualizing the Peasantry: Anthropology in Global Perspective. Boulder: Westview.
— 2004. Changing Fields of Anthropology: From Local to Global. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Kintz, Ellen. 1990. Life under the Tropical Canopy: Tradition and Change among the Yucatec Maya. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.
Patch, Robert. 1993. Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1648-1812. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
— 2002. Maya Revolt and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.
Re Cruz, Alicia. 1996. The Two Milpas of Chan Kom: A Study of Socioeconomic and Political Transformations in a Maya Community. Albany: SUNY Press.
Restall, Matthew. 2004. “Maya Ethnogenesis.” Journal of Latin American Anthropology 9:64-89.
Chapter 1. Underdeveloping and Overdeveloping the Maya
The Quintana Roo Maya and Development
In twenty years of research on the agriculture and forestry of the Yucatec Maya of southeast Mexico, I have seen many ideas come in from the great outside world. Some succeed, many fail. In spite of the anthropologists’ litany of “community participation” and “cultural sensitivity,” the predictor is usually supply and demand: where there is a market, the Maya will work to develop supply capability; where there is no market, traditional subsistence methods are better than the introductions. Government or international help is, however, needed to help develop markets and to provide expert knowledge of how to mobilize for them and connect to them. When this has done, some important successes have followed. Implications for realistic policies go beyond the obvious, and will be discussed.
The Yucatec Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, southeast Mexico, have preserved a system of agriculture that dates back to ancient Maya civilization. It has modernized and changed with the times, but keeps essential features at least 3,000 years old. Thus it has certainly shown its resilience—though the Classic Maya “Collapse” in the 9th-10th centuries proved it had limits. It is currently outperforming alternatives in most of the Yucatan Peninsula, while changing to incorporate new ideas that fit with its basic commitment to shifting agriculture based on maize as staple and over 100 minor crops. Considerable research over the last 60 years has shown the reasons for its resilience, which boil down to superb understanding of the harsh Yucatan environment and use of an enormous range of resources and techniques that allow fine-tuning in particular situations while remaining flexible overall. Knowledge is substituted for capital. More important is the use of ritual and ceremony to involve people collectively in the enterprise. This is clearly the key to the overall resilience of the system. This way of dealing with the natural world has broad implications for our resource-short and warming planet.
The Yucatec Maya have been cultivating the Yucatan Peninsula for about 5,000 years. For almost 3,000 years, this cultivation has supported a civilized society—that is, one with towns and something like a state society. For about 2,000 years, the Maya have had a defined elite, a great art style, and sophisticated writing (Sharer and Traxler 2005). A still rather mysterious collapse in the 9th and 10th centuries led to decline in population and settlements. Cities in the central lowlands were abandoned. The causes of this collapse are still controversial. Excessive use of resources, but also drought, warfare, and political disunion, are generally considered to be involved (Demarest 2004; Webster 2002). Cities like Mayapan survived the collapse, however, and continued to flourish almost or quite up to the Spanish conquest.
This civilization was supported by a highly sophisticated agricultural system. The staple food is maize. Under Maya conditions it yields around 1,000 kg/ha or more, up to 2,000 in good conditions. While low by US standards, these are high yields for tropical locations with poor soils. However, the crop is very susceptible to droughts, floods, and hurricanes. These are all common in the Yucatan Peninsula, so people must often fall back on root crops such as manioc, sweet potatoes, and makal (Xanthosoma yucatanense), as well as other back-up staples.
The environment is not kind. Crops are menaced by extreme heat and dryness in spring and early summer, extreme storminess with occasional hurricanes in late summer and fall, surprisingly cold midwinters, and wild fluctuations from year to year. The land is rocky, with shallow soils. The forest is diverse and lush but thorny; a local proverb says that “every plant has thorns and every animal bites or stings.” Well, not quite, but one’s introduction to the Yucatan bush is apt to be an encounter with a chechem (Metopium browni), a poison ivy plant 100 feet high and often 4 feet thick, or a subin (Acacia gaumeri complex), which has thorns and attracts wasps and biting and stinging ants.
Maize grows in swidden fields—they are cut in midwinter, burned in the early part of the dry season before fire can spread, then cleared of burned timber and planted. They are replanted the next year, then abandoned to grow back for anywhere from 5 to 50 years, depending on soil fertility. The Maya have an extensive soil terminology and are experts at assessing soils. The soils of the Yucatan vary from extremely rocky and barren to light but fertile. In wet areas, the variation is from acid muck that grows nothing useful to rich, fertile alluvial loam. Ruin mounds provide both good indications of where the good soil is, and quite good planting places themselves.
The Maya system remains the only viable one in most of the Yucatan Peninsula. Since Spanish colonization in the early 16th century, outsiders have tried monocrop cultivation of cotton, sugar, rice, sesame, and dozens of other crops. All fail, even industrial-style cultivation of maize, the Maya staple.
The one exception was henequen, an agave used for hard fibre. It flourished as a monocrop because it is native to the Yucatan landscape and perfectly adapted there. Unfortunately, Yucatan’s henequen industry was ruined by competition with nylon, as well as with the development of cheaper henequen production in Africa and Brazil. Henequen still grows, occasionally used for fibre, also for a cheap form of mescal liquor and other purposes.
The Maya house is a good example of a locally made item with low ecological impact. It is made of local hard wood, often harvested from areas that will be cut for milpa. It is thatched with palm fronds from species of Sabal.
The Yucatec grow an incredible range of crops, and use an even more incredible range of wild products. There is no second-most-important crop after maize. Sweet potatoes, squash (several species), beans (several species), manioc, tomatoes, and chiles are all important. Fruit is extremely important, not only as food but as the main commercial enterprise of the area. Oranges, other citrus, mangoes, coconuts, papayas, mameys, watermelons, and other species are grown for sale, and dozens more species are eaten locally. People will try anything; I have seen grapevines and apple trees, which do not fruit in the tropical climate, but which were points of pride to their owners, who simply wanted to try them out. Meat is fairly common in the Quintana Roo diet, because every homegarden is well stocked with chickens. Most have ducks and pigs. Some have sheep and cows and even tamed peccaries and deer. Wild game includes deer, paca, agouti, game birds, and so on, but has been shot out of the Chunhuhub area, where I do my research. Wild plant foods are important famine staples, and include a huge range of roots, fruits and shoots.
Important here is the ability of the system to add and incorporate new crops. The Spanish brought hundreds of species from Europe, the Near East, and later southeast Asia (via the Philippines—administered as part of Mexico in Spanish colonial times). The modern world has introduced yet more. I was rather surprised to find the Hawaiian medicinal fruit noni (Moringa citrifolia, Rubiaceae) as a rapidly spreading introduction around three years ago. It is used to treat diabetes. It is now grown in hundreds of gardens in the area. The Maya also learn to recognize and name new weeds, and sometimes find uses for them.
Maize is often intercropped with beans, squash, and other foods, and dooryard gardens with dozens of species provide a great deal of the agricultural produce.
Especially noteworthy are medicinal plants, both tame and wild. I recorded a full 350 medicinal species in the area, and other investigators have recorded comparable numbers from other communities in the Yucatan. Tests have shown that many of these plants are effective antibiotics, antifungals, analgesics, and anti-inflammatories. Some cure itches, rashes, canker sores, and the like more effectively than local drugstore remedies. Plants are used for everything from childbirth (B. Anderson et al. 2004) to skin fungus.
The major compilation by Arellano Rodríguez et al (2003) lists almost 900 species of plants known to the Yucatec. Most have recorded Yucatec names and uses. More have been added since it came out. I believe this is the largest ethnobotanical inventory documented for any small indigenous group in the world.
Other plants are used for a wide variety of reasons. Eek’ or tinto, also known as “logwood” and Haematoxylon campecheanum, produces a black dye widely used even today and extremely important worldwide until the rise of synthetic dyestuffs. This tree was cut in earlier centuries and sent to Europe to be rasped up to make dye. It has extremely hard wood, and is difficult to cut and to rasp up; in Europe, being sent to rasp up logwood was a serious punishment reserved for criminals. In Yucatan, pirates usually cut it during slow seasons. The Maya rarely did. The cut trees have sprouted back as dense thickets of shoots, and formed impenetrable jungles where jaguars and jaguarundis hold out.
The Maya agroecosystem has evolved over 5,000 years to use the harsh environment of the Yucatan Peninsula in an efficient way (see longer accounts in Anderson 2003, 2005, 2006; Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005; Faust et al 2004). This involves, first of all, using almost everything. In addition to the food and medicinal plants, many items are used for local crafts and building. Woodsmen and -women know the value of every tree for construction and firewood. Plants are used for musical instruments, insect repellents, religious ceremonies, and crafts. About 700 species are known in the Chunhuhub area (Anderson 2003), and almost all of them are used for something. Animals are less utilized, but everything worth hunting is hunted and eaten. All this takes the pressure off any one resource. Using everything lightly means that there is every incentive to preserve the whole system intact, and no incentive to destroy one resource.
The exception is that large animals are almost completely shot out in areas around large towns (including Chunhuhub). People lack iron and sometimes protein in the diet, and ge hungry for meat. Hunting is a local tradition. However, powerful cultural rules used to keep hunting within sustainable and manageable levels (Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005) and locally still do. Some families have recently taken to market hunting, which devastates the game, and even with traditional controls the dense populations of many villages put intolerable pressure on game. This is, however, a recent development. Traditional rules sustained game until the last two or three decades. The system is slowly adjusting to the new shortage.
Another emerging problem is excessive shortening of the swidden cycle. This is not yet a major problem in Quintana Roo, but it is in Yucatan state, where many areas are degrading. Forest resources are especially hard hit. On the other hand, the Maya manage regrowth such that trees grow up fast. The regrowth is dominated by leguminous bushes and trees, which fix nitrogen and rapidly restore soil fertility. Thousands of years of swiddening has led to gradual takeover by leguminous trees (notably species of Acacia, Leucaena, Lysiloma, and Piscipula), which now overwhelmingly dominate second growth in most of the area. Selective cutting also leaves useful species like the chicle tree (Manilkara sapota), valued for fruit as well as chewing gum. Palms, especially the xa’an used for thatch, are also selectively preserved, as are many other species.
The traditional system requires a great deal of knowledge of the environment. The Maya farmer must know dozens or hundreds of plants and animals, including all their uses, the times they are available, the ways to get them and process them, and the problems with obtaining and managing them. Maya farmers are exquisitely attuned to soils, weather, fire control, seasons, and changes. They monitor the actions of their neighbors, and accommodate accordingly. They often act in concert to protect a resource from overuse or abuse—making individuals cut firebreaks, for instance. They maintain trails, cut small firebreaks around valuable seedling trees, preserve wild beehives and ant nests, and watch for the growth of anything edible or usable in the forest. A Maya forest is never really wild. It is managed, and is constantly being monitored. No patch of forest goes for long without hunters, medicine collectors, honey-seekers, and other foragers. All this depends on an incredible amount of practical knowledge, both general and specific.
No one person could know all of it, so information was distributed in the community. People were proud of particular expertise they might have. According to interest and experience, one might be an expert hunter, or bean farmer, or beekeeper, or curer, or religious officiant (hmeen), or logger, or other specialist. All working adults in the community knew who they were and where to find them, and they were frequently consulted. This stands in marked contrast to the classic approach toward culture as universally shared knowledge. Culture is, rather, distributed cognition. A community can know dozens of times as much as an individual could possibly learn.
Management depends also on morality, and this is maintained by religious belief. Pre-Columbian Maya traditions have integrated well with Catholicism, and more recently, to a lesser extent, with Protestantism. Traditional ceremonies such as prayers for rain (ch’a chaak) and ceremonies to pray for or thank the gods for good harvests (loh) were common in former times. Unfortunately, puritanical non-Maya priests and pastors in both Catholic and Protestant churches have combatted these, with devastating results to the management system. Without a supportive belief in forest spirits, field spirits, and other local supernatural beings, people are tempted to break rules against overhunting, overcollecting, and careless burning of fields. The great advantage of religion is that it keeps even quite desperate people from rulebreaking, even when they are alone, unobserved, and safe from being caught (see the above references and citations therein). One of the communities I study told the visiting priest not to come back when he tried to interfere with their land-oriented ceremonies. Representing land management religiously is absolutely fundamental in Maya culture (Faust et al 2004; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934; the latter provides a thorough account that was still valid a generation ago). Religion and ceremony are necessary to bring people together, get them to work together, and motivate them to keep their rules. The landscape and resource management rules, unlike many religious customs in this world, are hard-headed pragmatic ones.
The outsiders’ development schemes in the Yucatan Peninsula have generally involved monocropping. It never works, because diseases and pests rapidly build up in the tropical environment. Recently, monocropping has often involved artificial fertilizers and pesticides. This generally fails in the Yucatan. Fertilizers run off the rocky fields and contaminate the water supplies. Pesticides kill local insect-eating creatures and thus lead, paradoxically, to pest outbreaks; overuse of pesticides led to huge outbreaks of whiteflies, which destroyed commercial cropping of chiles, tomatoes, and other vegetables in the major farming areas of Yucatan in the 1990s. Locusts, always a problem locally, have probably also increased with pesticide use. Other outsiders’ ideas, often equally impractical, have been introduced repeatedly, leading to a certain cynicism (Hostetler 1996; see also Dichter 2003 for the worldwide truth of this observation).
The Maya love and care for the forests, and this care is represented in and maintained by religion. The Hispanic Mexicans, by contrast, follow the Mediterranean pattern of idealizing urban life, looking down on agriculture, and sharply separating religion from secular pursuits. They traditionally had little ideological reason to care for landscapes. Fortunately, this is changing fast, and environmentalism has come to the Yucatan Peninsula, though not without major problems (Haenn 2005).
Development schemes aimed at traditional small-scale rural communities rarely succeed. Most accounts can be arranged along a line from those that blame it on stupidity or blind tradition to those that blame it on conspiracy. Whatever the cause, the accounts usually agree on one thing: The small traditional communities are passive victims. Sometimes, both these attribution myths are combined into one romantic claim: the suffering poor are only trying to maintain their sacred traditions. Sometimes it goes with considerable blaming-the-victim.
Of course, in many, many cases the communities are indeed brutalized, often by outright violence that can include mass murder and genocide (as in Cambodia in the 1970s and Guatemala in the 1980s). However, I fear that many writers have a vested interest in turning their subjects into pure victims—so beaten down and oppressed by the government or the donors that they cannot perform.
Fortunately, there are some situations in which outcomes are better in spite of everything. For the last 20-odd years I have been visiting and studying the town of Chunhuhub, a Yucatec Maya community in central Quintana Roo, Mexico. This town has managed to remain quite prosperous as rural Mexico goes. One would never confuse it with Beverly Hills, but few go hungry and all have decent if usually home-made housing.
In those 20 years, Chunhuhub has become more prosperous, but the process has been erratic. Development plans have come and gone in the area. Chunhuhub usually rejects them, and when it does try them they generally fail. But, meanwhile, Chunhuhub, or its residents, have done quite a few things on their own initiative. These also have erratic histories, but some of them succeed. I apologize at the outset for lack of statistics. I have not collected many, and the government collects no valid ones in this area. I have to go with my own observations and some aggregated household data.
Some failed plans of the past now need consideration. Many communities, in Mexico as in the US and elsewhere, have developed a huge cynicism about government plans in general. The government is fond of bringing in a great new plan just before an election, handing out money to carry out the project, and then canceling the whole thing once the election is over. Naturally, a few iterations of this game lead to the situation reported by Ueli Hostetler (1996): the villagers invest the donated money in beer and have a big party. At least they get that much out of it. Otherwise, the money is invested in (say) pigpens, then lost when the government abruptly cancels the project, half done. A half-finished pigpen is no use; a party at least gets the community together.
At best, the government may stay around long enough to get the plan up and running, but the people abandon it as soon as the funding stops. This happens when the plan is just fine as long as some funding is coming in, but otherwise is not profitable enough to be worth doing.
All this has caused many people, from American inner cities to African savanna villages, to suffer from “project fatigue.”
Many specific plans fail because of biological and agronomic ineptness. First and foremost are the endless attempts to convert land to cattle. This is the curse of Latin America in general (Painter and Durham 1995). Millions of acres of highly productive forest have been converted to poor-quality pasture land, which often degrades into desert. One main reason is the high prestige of cattle ranching in Hispanic culture. In Quintana Roo, there are many natural grasslands that are excellent cattle-raising country, so the idea has its merits. However, someone should have realized that there was a reason why grass was not everywhere. Attempts to convert forest to grassland have quickly led to the realization that it generally does not work. Grass requires moisture-holding, non-acid soil. Excessively drained areas, excessively acid areas, and excessively wet areas don’t work for grass, but produce superb and very valuable forests. Many such areas were cleared for pasture, and became desert instead, until the forest could regrow. The Maya clear and burn small cornfields, which promptly regrow to healthy forest, but the huge areas cleared for pasture are more problematic. They burn too easily (partly because of pasture grass, if it establishes at all). They are too big for easy seed-settling. They were usually cleared too thoroughly—scraped with bulldozers or the like.
All manner of crops have been tried in Quintana Roo, with varying success. Sugar does all right, but not well, in the most fertile areas. Rice failed because of poor soil and high costs. Sesame failed because of low yields. Chiles and tomatoes failed because large-scale plantings become targets for every pest and disease in the tropics. The grim roll goes on and on. Fortunately, tropical fruit grows as if it had found its true paradise, and several vegetables do well too. Maize, the staple food, does fairly well—not by Iowa standards, but at least by local ones. So there is plenty of success in farming, if it is carefully done, on a small scale, with mixed crops.
The grim litany of projects that never got off the ground is fairly long, but not worth considering in detail. One idea popular in the 1980s was package loans for agriculture, involving loans that required the farmers to use pesticides and fertilizers according to what was supposed to be best practice. There was a strangely close correspondence between the agrochemicals deemed “best practice” and the firms that supplied funds to relevant government employees. The Maya were in no position to risk capital, did not trust the government (for the obvious reason among others), and found that the pesticides and fertilizers were counterproductive in their situation. The packages disappeared by 1990 (when I began serious work in the area).
Many other plans surfaced at local farmers’ fairs in larger towns. These had some direct or indirect influence on Chunhuhub but had no real presence there. Schemes to popularize local handicrafts were sensible, but Chunhuhub Maya do not make many. Honey production, both from European honeybees and from native stingless bees (Melipona becheii), was a much better idea, since Chunhuhub produced huge amounts of honey, but Africanized bees and parasitic mites (Varroa and other spp.) invaded and ruined the industry.
An example of true developer cluelessness was rabbit growing (cunicultura). This has often been tried in Mexico and elsewhere. Thomas Dichter in Despite Good Intentions (2003) tells stories from West Africa, where the poor rabbits immediately died of tropical diseases. They survive in Mayaland—there are native cottontails—but are less successful than the chickens, pigs, goats, ducks and turkeys that already make a Maya homegarden a meat factory. Moreover, the Maya could not bear to kill and eat anything so cute! The bunnies became children’s pets.
Projects for commercial production of tomatoes, chiles, and similar vegetables got off the ground with initial success, but succumbed to the twin problems of pest buildup and distance from markets. Chunhuhub is a very remote community, and there are many much closer to the urban markets that absorb commercial vegetables. The population of Chunhuhub is around 6,000, but almost everyone grows their own vegetables, so there is little internal market. Extremely successful vegetable gardening is practiced by several families in town, but there is no market for their surplus. The pest problem was due directly and specifically to pesticides. These wiped out natural predators of whiteflies, which carry viral diseases. The whiteflies multiplied beyond all measure, ruining large-scale vegetable production in most of the Yucatan Peninsula. Chunhuhub had many fewer problems with this, because it was isolated from contagion and above all because Chunhuhubians do not use much pesticide, but there were enough pests to keep production suboptimal.
In other communities, such as Yaxcaba and neighboring towns in Yucatan state, attempts were made to develop velvetbean as a cover crop (Juan Jimenez-Osornio, personal communication) and, when that failed, to use chopped-up vegetation as mulch (John Tuxill, personal communication). The Maya found little value in these techniques, which add dubiously useful but quite onerous steps to an already labor-intensive agricultural system. The green manure crops had worked very well in other areas of Latin America. The Maya were lukewarm, partly because of project fatigue, partly because their homegardens were already fertile and bean-filled, while their fields weren’t really worth the added effort and expense.
On the other hand, I observed that they developed vegetable raising in those villages without much outside input. Once again, the Maya are good at finding out what activities are actually worth the time and labor invested, while outside development agents rarely consider such tradeoffs.
Medicinal herbs could be produced on a large scale, and they command a ready sale; many are illegally exported to the United States for the migrant south Mexicans working there. Several attempts to raise medicinal herbs in Quintana Roo have failed, however, partly because of hurricanes, partly because it is still cheap to collect wild herbs, but mainly for the usual reason: no one thought to develop marketing channels.
The biggest problem after simple biology has been marketing. South Mexico has only recently acquired an international urban sector. Marketing to well-to-do people in, or from, other countries was not a normal part of life until very recently. Thus, it was not a concept. (Mahogany and other precious woods were not an exception, because they were absorbed within the Mexican economy until the 1990s. Only the honey was a major exception; the Yucatan Peninsula produces superb honey, and the Maya love beekeeping. Yucatan provided fully 15% of the honey in international trade until recently. Tragically, parasites, African bees, and Chinese competition have now devastated the honey economy.) Realizing that American tourists want fresh fruit and will pay almost any price for it came as a total, and totally delightful, surprise to the Maya—but they were on it right away, trucking oranges and watermelons by the million to Cancun and the other tourist ports. Slower to come is the realization that there is an almost infinite export potential here too. Still slower is the realization that the international market will pay top dollar for well-seasoned tropical woods and wood products, for medicinal herbs, for local exotic vegetables, and, above all, for a chance to see a tropical rainforest up close and personal. But all these things are coming, from quality woodwork to ecotourism. The future depends on the degree to which Quintana Roo’s many entrepreneurs can develop sophisticated marketing skills.
By far the major planned success was the introduction of mechanized agriculture around 1980. Most of the Yucatan Peninsula is limestone with very shallow soil, unsuitable for agriculture, but along the rim of the central hill country are valleys with deep, rich alluvial soils washed off the hills. Only about 5% of Chunhuhub’s land is like that, but that 5% is concentrated in one broad level plain very near town. With mechanical pumps to bring up underground water and a tractor to pull a plow, this land is incredibly fertile. For the first dozen years of the project, however, the pumps or the tractor were generally broken, with spare parts almost impossible to find. By the mid-1990s the situation was more reliable, and by 2000 the mecanizada was in full operation most of the time, producing vast amounts of maize, watermelons, tomatoes, citrus, mangoes, and other crops.
A major success, but not because of its plan, was the “citrus corridor” idea created in the late 1980s. (This was a period of considerable activity since Mexico’s dominant political party, the PRI, felt seriously challenged for the first time in its history; it did indeed lose the presidency shortly thereafter. The PRI was desperately trying to buy votes by extensive projects. This worked well in Quintana Roo; the projects sometimes succeeded and the PRI stayed in power.) A strip 1 hectare wide was cleared along some of the highways in southern Yucatan and neighboring Quintana Roo, and the government funded local people to plant citrus there. Water was developed where necessary. Communities received funding. The idea was to plant oranges and use the fruit to make juice concentrate. A huge plant was set up at Akil, Yucatan, to make the concentrate. As so often, the government had given no thought at all to marketing. The juice concentrate cost twice as much to produce as that from Brazil. Thus the project was hopeless. However, on their own initiative, the Maya soon learned that there was a huge market for fresh oranges and orange juice in Cancun, Merida, and other nearby towns. They developed this market by themselves. Some towns already had fresh fruit marketing networks; others, like Chunhuhub, had to start from scratch, but did so immediately and successfully. The people of Chunhuhub found they could also use these channels to sell watermelons, avocadoes, mangoes, bananas, and so on, produced from homegardens and increasingly from the mecanizada, and this is now the town’s major income source.
Even more successful, and in fact now world famous (Freese 1997; Primack et al 1998), is the Plan Forestal (Forest Plan). This is a federal and state project to work with Maya communities to manage their forest resources. Quintana Roo’s forests are full of valuable woods, such as mahogany. They also have game animals, medicinal herbs, and a wealth of flashy birds and lizards that tourists love to watch. The Forest Plan focused on the valuable woods. Government biologists work with Maya villages and individual ranchers to develop management and conservation plans; the communities pay a small fee, the government provides top-quality biological advice and some help with accounting and with enforcement.
The plan worked stunningly well, mostly because there was a pool of highly trained biologists and administrators. It has extended to game conservation and ecotourism, on a limited and experimental scale, with enough success to make further efforts highly desirable. One community, Nohbec, has even satisfied the exceedingly strict German standards for sustainable forest management, and thus can export mahogany and other woods to Germany at a premium price. As in Hong Kong, there are side benefits: even communities that are not part of the plan see how successful conservation and sustainable management are, and now try to act accordingly. However, the Plan Forestal ran into troubled waters as it aged; early commitment and enthusiasm began to be subverted by local dissention and political problems (Haenn 2005).
Chunhuhub has, by and large, not participated, though it has been a headquarters town and has reaped some benefits. In other towns, the plan worked stunningly well, mostly because there was a pool of highly trained biologists and administrators. It extended to game conservation and ecotourism, on a limited and experimental scale, with enough success to make further efforts highly desirable. One community, Nohbec, has even satisfied the exceedingly strict German standards for sustainable forest management, and thus can export mahogany and other woods to Germany at a premium price. There are side benefits: even communities that are not part of the plan see how successful conservation and sustainable management are, and now try to act accordingly.
However, the Plan Forestal ran into troubled waters as it aged; early commitment and enthusiasm began to be subverted by local dissention and political problems (Faust et al. 2004; Haenn 2005). Many communities participated in it and developed forestry and related industries with great success, but the Chunhuhub citizens agreed overwhelmingly not to participate. Instead, they went their own way. At first they drastically overcut precious woods—mahogany, Spanish cedar, etc.—and faced an economic crash. This taught them better planning, and as more precious-wood trees reached commercial size, Chunhuhub managed its forests in a more sustainable way. Attempts to grow plantations of cedro did not work well; tip borers made the trees grow crooked, and anyway cedro grows so well by itself that plantation growing is hardly necessary.
In the meantime, the ejido system of communal landholding and collective management has largely ended. Changes in Mexican law in 1993 allowed privatization of ejido land. The Maya of Quintana Roo resisted this for a long time, but privatization finally came to Chunhuhub from 2005 onward. The effects of this are still not certain. One thing that is clear is that many ejido families had largely given up farming to follow the computer or other technological dreams, and the families still farming wanted more chance to be flexible and independent in their land management. This can only increase the rapidly growing disparity between rich and poor in the community. The future will be interesting.
While government plans were having mixed success, the Maya were busily doing their own developing. This was most conspicuous in the case of fruit marketing noted above, but there have been many other changes.
Particularly interesting was the evolution of the CEBETA school. CEBETA is a string of technical schools roughly equivalent to American community colleges. The Mexican government generously provided one to Chunhuhub, again in the late 1980s. Assuming that a successful farm town like Chunhuhub would want agriculture, it provided only that. However, the Maya were more aware of world futures than the developers were, and wanted computer training. They insisted with dogged and indomitable persistence, and computer training went in. The school and its programs survived a major scandal in 1996. As so often, Chunhuhubians took matters into their own hands, forcing out incompetent leadership. Later a hurricane that destroyed the computers; they were replaced, again at local insistence.
This was part of a wider mission of education. The Maya of Chunhuhub are self-consciously modernizing and education-demanding. This sets them apart from many of the smaller communities in the area, which are far less education-conscious. Chunhuhub is still reflecting its (re)settlement in the late 1940s by a particularly dynamic, intelligent, and upwardly mobile group of young men, largely of the Xool, Tun, and Pat families; these families are now well represented not only in local business ownership but in skilled work and professional circles all over Quintana Roo. I was sure of getting good service when I took my Nissan car in for maintenance in Chetumal, because the head of the repair shop was a Xool from Chunhuhub. Chunhuhub has become a major producer of teachers and similar educated workers, who have fanned out all over south Mexico.
Otherwise, the innovations in Chunhuhub have focused on new products. Most interesting was noni, a Polynesian medicinal plant (Morinda citrifolia). It is used in Hawaii for almost everything, but the Maya know it especially as a diabetes reliever. It appears to work; at least the Maya swear by it, but they always use it with Cecropia leaves and other local traditional remedies, so cannot really factor out which plant is really responsible for the truly striking relief they often enjoy. In any case, noni was completely unknown in southeast Mexico till about 2004, since which it has exploded, and is now found in countless gardens and sold widely in towns.
Other new crops, such as South American passion fruit, have entered the area and expanded since I began to work there.
Another newcomer is sheep. The Yucatec Maya did not traditionally keep sheep, which they call “cotton animals” (h-taman), in spite of Colonial Spanish introduction. As of 1991, Chunhuhub had a few sheep, in the care of a shepherd who—like many village shepherds the world over—was a gentle, simple soul whose world hardly extended beyond his flock. From the late 1990s, however, mutton was saleable. There was both tourist demand in and around Cancun and demand by mutton-loving Central and North Mexicans who had moved to the area. So more and more Maya have added tough, heat-resistant tropical sheep to their dooryard gardens.
Sheep do not automatically succeed in the region. Another, more remote town, Presidente Juarez, tried repeatedly to develop sheep-farming, but the sheep were eaten by jaguars.
Cattle have also increased locally, though this is limited by Chunhuhub’s unsuitability for cattle production. Good quality grass will not grow on the thin limestone soils and dense tropical clays that cover most of it. Cattle flourish exceedingly several miles to the south, on natural savannahs.
Meanwhile, a slow but steady increase in local prosperity results from sale of fruit, ornamental plants, thatch, nonprecious woods, medicinal herbs, and many forest products. Chunhuhubians are also extremely good at finding part-time jobs—from cake decorating to acting as clowns at parties. I recorded about 60 such informal part-time occupations in 1996. Obviously, the Chunhuhubians could do much more, and very often fail to succeed in their endeavors, but they have a good track record overall, especially compared to externally imposed schemes.
Thus, while the government brings in new plans that are rarely successful, the people of Chunhuhub find their own ways to succeed. Among other things, they seem always able to come up with just enough capital, thanks to the extended family. Everyone has a relative with a good job somewhere. Capital was a serious limit on agricultural improvement when I started working in Chunhuhub 20 years ago, but from the early 1990s it was not a serious problem except during the recession of 1993-94. Individual families, however, run short of cash, especially after the frequent hurricanes and droughts. Microlending could be improved in the area. The Mexican government’s intricate and enormous bureaucracy puts countless hurdles in the way of start-up businesses, and this is an enormous disincentive to enterprise, especially marketing.
The government’s plans usually founder on one rock: Marketing. It simply does not occur to anyone in south Mexico’s development universe that a product needs a market, and that the market has to be lucrative enough to pay the costs of production and transportation with a little over for profit. This is a common failing of government schemes and NGO plans everywhere in the world. The Maya, by contrast, are amazingly good at finding the tiniest niche market that will actually pay well. In other parts of Latin America, where Maya and other local communities produce products of global importance, international NGO’s that focus on marketing have really helped local communities. This is true in regard to coffee, cacao, Guatemalan Maya weavings, and other products (for coffee see esp. Jaffee 2007). Too often in the Yucatan world, questions of profitability are seldom raised. Similar stories of Maya vs. outside development abound (see Faust et al. 2004).
Meanwhile, Quintana Roo develops with horrific speed, but the development is almost entirely in the realm of tourism, and the capital comes largely from outside. Giant international hotel chains and other corporations have taken over a great deal of the state and almost all of its actual development. They have produced a strange world of posh resorts totally cut off and insulated from Mexican reality. Going from the Maya villages to a gated multi-star tourist complex is a truly surrealist experience. These resorts depend largely on food, fuel, and other goods from outside Quintana Roo and usually from outside Mexico. They interface with the Maya largely by hiring Maya villagers as construction workers, chambermaids, and other unskilled labor.
This should not be exaggerated, since the Maya are rapidly getting better educated and finding more jobs in the higher sectors of the labor force. The canny villagers of Tulum have been particularly successful at corraling tourists and tourist dollars, beating many international entrepreneurs on their own ground! The tourism center of Playa del Carmen has turned into something of a Quintana Roo Maya capital, with major education centers, employment opportunities, government agencies, and more. The people who have dealt with a difficult environment for 3000 years are not yet broken by the new forms of difficulty.
Unfortunately, tourism and Central American location have also brought drugs, and cartel activity and the inevitable political corruption are abundantly evident. So far, Quintana Roo has avoided the terrible costs paid by northern and central Mexico, but the future is cloudy. Drugs, tourism, and the few other highly profitable activities ongoing in Quintana Roo are all financed and controlled from outside.
In spite of the success of the Maya at finding places in this world, the overall effect is to keep the Maya down. They are not given much place; subsidies, tax breaks, and other lavish inducements go to outside firms that are, ultimately, in competition with the Maya for development opportunities. The “development of underdevelopment” is visible in many villages, especially those drained of their young workers by the vast tourist sector.
These tales can be matched from around the world (Dichter 2003; Stiglitz 2003). Since WWII, billions of dollars have been spent on development. Some $60 billion are now spent every year (Dichter 2003:104). There is now widespread admission that the money has not solved the problem (Dichter 2003; Stiglitz 2003; cf. studies in Faust et al. 2004).
Thomas Dichter (2003) points out that part of the problem lies in the way development assistance is done. Complex and often byzantine bureaucracies invoke complex and expensive procedures, often badly targeted. Mistakes amplify through the system. There are the usual problems of bureaucracy—lack of accountability, top-down control by out-of-touch administrators, and the like. Dichter sees the rise of a huge “development industry” as the root of the problem. Certainly, the data in the present paper support his conclusions.
One wonders. There are too many signs that the agencies know all too well what they are doing to the world economy, and continue to do it anyway (cf. Ascher 1999). The world does virtually nothing about the huge trade barriers invoked by the rich nations against the poor ones (Stiglitz 2003). Above all, farm subsidies are enormous in the First World—the United States gives every American farmer an average of $57,000 a year in direct payouts, and at least as much again in indirect support. European subsidy levels are similar. Yet the international agencies do everything possible to eliminate subsidies in the Third World. One also recalls the point above about agricultural “packages” and giant international firms. Many development plans are not at all well-meaning foolishness, but are very clever and very evil. They are intended to exploit the poor and keep them down, rather than to help them (Ascher 1999; Hancock 1991).
It seems a bit too neat that the cumulative effects of World Bank, IMF, and WTO policies are to keep the Third World addicted to commodity exporting and minimum-wage, low-value-added industry (Humphreys et al. 2007; Stiglitz 2003—with some reading between the lines based on my own interviews with World Bank personnel and former World Bank personnel). The First World has gone on to the information economy, hi-tech, and efficiency—all founded on a formidable education-and-research establishment. The agencies do everything they can to discourage this, by forcing Third World countries to defund education, research, extension, and indeed all public services. At the same time, they invest heavily in developing the most primitive and backward sectors of the economy: mining, plantation agriculture, oil extraction. Whatever the intentions, the effect is to keep these countries as fiefs of the rich nations.
Globalization has, of course, made all these trends and problems more dramatic and more intractable. However, it has also greatly increased the options of ordinary people. The Maya of Chunhuhub are an active, enterprising group with a large, rich land base, and are well positioned to take advantage of opportunities. They have shown a striking ability to do this. However, they have no way of accessing world markets for many of their products. Their precious woods and ordinary standard-grade woods, in particular, have to be sent to the city mills for uncertain and often low-quality milling. Quintana Roo’s wood industry has made attempts in the past to introduce high-quality curing, sawmilling, and production of high-end wood products, but all the fledgling firms have failed. This has much to do with international marketing structures, including high standards in the developed countries. However, precious woods are exported from one or two Plan Forestal communities to Germany under their sustainable tropical hardwoods program. This will no doubt increase.
Basically, the point is that globalization and global development increase the options and opportunities of the global poor in the “global south,” but, unfortunately, globalization increases even more the options and opportunities of the First World and its giant multinational firms to exploit the Third World and keep its people prostrate.
If we actually want to see the rural people of the “global south” improve their lot, the way to do it is to encourage local initiative and to help with small-scale loans and with global marketing. Local people are fully competent to do their own developing, but they cannot do it without some start-up capital and a lot of help accessing global markets.
Another bad idea that persists—this time unstated and unadmitted—is the old belief that wealth can come only from taking someone else’s money. This idea keeps resurfacing because it is common sense. The way we normally make money is to get it from someone. Usually, this is through legitimate business: I sell you a fish and get some cash. Sometimes, robbery, theft, conquest, exploitation, or deception are the means. Either way, cash is transferred from person A to person B, and that is how person B gets rich.
However, in ideal situations, wealth is created anew, rather than merely redistributed. Turning raw materials into goods is only one way to do this. More efficient production, more value added, more streamlined management, more knowledge, more rapid and smooth transfer of information, more streamlined ways of doing business (“lower transaction costs”), and more environment-friendly production techniques all make something out of nothing—or, at least, reduce costs, and therefore improve cost-benefit ratios. The extent to which this is doable depends on the level of relevant education of the workforce. (Note that word relevant.)
Fortunately, Mexico is more aware than many Third World countries of the need to improve people’s lives through overall wealth creation. Education is universal and quite good. An educated workforce is obviously more able to do hi-tech jobs, make new inventions, and go into high-value-added enterprises. Also, rising wages force companies to modernize and become more efficient, to keep other costs down in the face of rising labor costs (Hayami and Ruttan 1985.)
Money for more education has to come from somewhere; it is part of the nation’s labor cost. A skilled workforce costs a lot. But, as Mexico is aware, an unskilled workforce is even more expensive when opportunity costs are figured into the equation. The problem is that opportunity costs are too dicey for the conservative economists to contemplate.
Resource extraction is another case in point. Mineral resources taken from Country A are lost to that country forever. In today’s world of low commodity prices, they do not even bring in much money. Resource extraction looks good only when one considers the world economy as a zero-sum game. The rich get it (cheaply), the poor lose it; wealth is redistributed, not created. To be sure, metals and some other goods are more efficiently and wisely used in a developed industrial system than in a nascent one, so there is good economic sense in taking copper from Papua-New Guinea and bringing it to Europe and America. But the same can hardly be said for coffee, or sugar, or cattle, whose processing is still a fairly primitive matter even in rich nations. The money spent developing cattle export would be better spent developing decent schools, or even meat-packing plants, in the exporting country.
This sort of zero-sum thinking underlies what George Foster called “the limited good hypothesis” (Foster 1965). Foster found that people who see the world in zero-sum terms come to assume that even things like affection and justice are limited goods. People living in closed economies with widespread low-key competition, or people who have to strive for power (always a limited good), are prone to think this way. So, it appears, are international bankers and development workers.
What is forgotten is that, given a chance, the poor rural villages of the world could produce more scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, teachers, and (yes) developers than all the First World put together. The result would be wealth creation on an undreamed-of scale.
The more naïve environmentalists will, at this point, object that this would trash the planet. If everyone consumed like Americans…!
The truth is that a world of opportunity and fair dealing would be a more efficient world. If commodity prices were at all fair, the rich would no longer have access to virtually infinite amounts of virtually free oil, minerals, sugar, and so on. The huge SUV would no longer be competitive with the small economical car. In fact, the car would not be competitive with public transport; people would not find it necessary to have their own cars. If the metals columbium and tantalum were not extracted for pennies from a Congo torn by civil war over the ore—a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people—the American economy would not find it so cheap and easy to provide huge, overadequate computers on such a lavish scale; people like me, who use the computer merely as a glorified typewriter, would have much smaller, more efficient, longer-lived machines. If Third World countries had decent wages and decent social support systems, the rural people, newly empowered and given a stake in their economy, would no longer be forced to cut down every bush for firewood or to pull up every tuft of grass for fodder. They would be able to husband resources, control and manage them, use them sustainably.
The problem is that almost nobody thinks this is an achievable goal. Limited-good thinking is perhaps the major reason for such hopelessness. Today’s widespread cynicism typically takes the form of a belief that people are instinctively wired to destroy nature or to think in zero-sum terms (e.g. Ridley 1996). This flies in the face of common experience; it is only in genuinely limited situations (most often, struggles for power in hierarchic systems) that people develop limited-good thinking. Yet this is enough to make constant trouble for this imperfect world.
In fact, an evaluation of over 11,000 World Bank development projects showed that those with conservation goals were as successful at producing economic development as those that ignored conservation and simply went for the money (Kareiva et al. 2008).
It almost seems as if the world economy is not capitalist but feudalist. We are back to the world of the robber barons in their castles on the Rhine. Most of the world’s population is forced, by police or military violence and genocidal repression, to work for pennies. They work in bare-subsistence farms, they live by their wits in urban slums, or they work in extractive or low-value-added industries that provide cheap commodities for the more affluent. The affluent, having no economic incentive to conserve, use these commodities in a wasteful manner. The resulting damage to the world’s ecosystem worsens yet more the plight of the poor. Far from being capitalist, “neoliberal,” or some sort of new product of the mystical force of “globalization,” this economy is a throwback to an earlier age.
The cure is to focus first on providing the bare necessities of life: water, fuel, food, and health care. In the desperately overpopulated contemporary world, this last has to include the full panoply of contraceptive techniques, made freely available everywhere. Then we can begin to think about the long term: education, efficient use of resources, development of whole new industrial systems. This will require spending money not on quick fixes but on huge systems that have slow and uncertain payoffs—not only education systems, but ecological reserves, sustainable development, research and extension, and the like. Be suspicious of anything that pays off in the short term. If it is a good idea, private entrepreneurs will rush to do it without help. Otherwise, it isn’t worth doing.
There are lots of other ideas that really work. Even just controlling crime, or providing a road to market, can work wonders in certain places.
One need not—pace the anthropological establishment—totally revolutionize our views of the world or our political economy, though some revolution would surely be useful. Anthropologists have done thousands of studies showing how foolish outside developers are, and how smart the locals are at surviving in spite of them (one that sums up a vast literature in one complex story is Tanya Li’s The Will to Improve, 2007; see also, again, Dichter 2003). The anthropologists usually draw the perverse conclusion that what we need is for anthropologists to take over and end neoliberalism, or globalization, or some other meaningless mutisyllable nonsense. No. What we need is to give local people the simpler and more practical of the things they actually want, and then get the hell out of the way.
The one common denominator that all successful plans have, and that none of the failed schemes has, is that they actually give opportunities to ordinary people. It is among the ordinary people of the world that we can and must seek and find salvation.
Based on a paper for the American Anthropological Society, San Francisco, 2008
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Chapter 2. A Partial Success: Development and Brain Drain in a Yucatec Maya Town
E. N. Anderson
Barbara A. Anderson, DrPH, CNM
The past 20 years of globalization has impacted Chunhuhub, Quintana Roo, an historic center of Maya culture. This rural community has experienced rapid changes including telephone and computer services, reliable pumped water, and a technical college teaching agriculture (and computer use). Orchard and field agriculture and livestock keeping have produced wealth for several families. Poverty, however, continues. Questions remain about responsible and sustainable development that retains cultural heritage, language, traditional foodways, low-impact agricultural and forestry practices, and traditional approaches to health and illness.
Chunhuhub: Historical perspective
The first author of this paper first saw Chunhuhub more than 20 years ago. At that time it was a small, sleepy town, basically a wide place on the main road from Merida to Chetumal. Today, it looks almost the same. A superficial observer might think that it was in the grip of immemorial tradition. Anthropologists, however, will expect to find that Chunhuhub’s lack of change is the result not of forces for stasis but of dynamic forces that more or less balance out. This is, indeed, what we do find.
This paper provides a broad-brush history of the Chunhuhub area and its changes over 20-odd years. The focus is on what forces actually changed it, and what forces prevented the changes from making more visible difference in the town and the forests and fields around it.
Chunhuhub is a Yucatec Maya town. Everyone is Maya except a few in-migrants and a few professional people (such as teachers and health workers). Everyone except them and a few children knows Yucatec, though the young have largely shifted to Spanish for actual speaking use. The town is solidly agricultural; many people are subsistence farmers, and the town’s income derives largely from sale of fruit, vegetables, and livestock. Some timber is produced, including valuable mahogany. Some maize is sold, but changing climate has made maize a very uncertain proposition—at best a subsistence crop. However, it remains overwhelmingly the staple food, though increasingly supplemented by wheat flour and sugar products.
The town was pre-Columbian. Relics show a long history. There was a flourishing Classical Maya town here, a dispersed but fairly large post classic population, and then a large Spanish Colonial town, mentioned in many colonial documents (E. Anderson 2005). It became known for sugar and rum. It was destroyed in 1846 in the Caste War. Resettlement came in the 1940s, by young men moving west from the old “rebel Maya” towns of east-central Quintana Roo (on which see Villa Rojas 1945; see also Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934 on traditional Yucatec Maya culture). It became a formally recognized ejido in the late 1940s, and has grown steadily since, as have other towns in the eastern “Zona Maya.”
Chunhuhub has about 6,000 residents. Census information is inadequate (those figures that exist are cited in Anderson 2005), but one can safely say the town has a young population, thanks to recent settlement and much in-migration, plus high fertility. On the other hand, the demographic transition has come (largely since ENA began research there). Completed family size—by defnition, the size of families now too old to have more—is around seven children, but young families are stopping at two to four (Anderson 2005).
Looking over the town today, the most visible change from 1989 is the new market building. It stands in the center of town, on the main road, and is large and impressive. However, it is not what it appears to be. It has rather few tenants, and these are very small local efforts. Much more significant is the new town hall on the other side of the k’iiwik (town square—oddly enough, pronounced almost exactly the same as the Latin root civic- “central city” that gives us “civic” and “civilization”). The town operated from a tiny shed in 1989; this shed has now degraded to a storage unit. The new town hall is capacious and well built, and a point of civic pride. It is equipped with computers. The new building is already getting too small and humble-looking for the town’s more forward-looking members. Many of them want a new municipio (county) with Chunhuhub as the county seat; at present it is a remote part of the huge and sprawling municipio of Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
The computers imply, correctly, that another highly desirable new touch is the coming of reliable electricity. Chunhuhub had recently gotten electric service when ENA first did sustained field work there in 1991, and the service was only intermittent.
Another new touch that is even less visible but equally important is the phone booth between the market and the church. Chunhuhub had no phone service till the turn of the 21st century. (The phone certainly made life and field work easier for ENA.) Piped water now comes reliably to central homes, and more and more streets are paved in addition to the main Merida-Chetumal road (the only paved road in 1989). Notable also is the partial restoration, or at least partial re-roofing, of the old colonial church, reduced to a ruined shell by the 1846 war. It was used from the 1940s on, but remained a shell till 2000, when re-roofing began. However, repairs are reduced, because the congregation is very thin indeed. Most Chunhuhubians still think of themselves as Catholic in some sense, but only some 200 are actively so, versus over 300 active Protestants. The Protestant churches, however, remain fragmented, small and frail. Chunhuhub is about as secular a town as the world affords. Well under 10% of the population are regular churchgoers. This contrasts strikingly with other local towns, which tend to be solidly Catholic, solidly Protestant, or solidly Cruzoob.
Probably Chunhuhub’s most important agent of change is slightly south of the town proper: the CEBETA school. A CEBETA is a technical school, somewhere between a US high school and junior college. This one teaches agriculture and elementary computer science. It has been an enormous source for upward mobility, but in the process it has led to a steady outflow of skilled, educated people from the town.
In general, the town seems more prosperous. There are more masonry houses, fewer pole-and-thatch ones. After writing that the town has no restaurant in the original version of this paper, we were delighted to find that the family that has long sold fried fish on the highway has finally gotten the capital to open a well-appointed new restaurant (we have not yet tried it), and privatization has led to the birth of a couple of small food stalls in ranchos along the road south. The fact that the restaurant is named “El Trailero” (the trucker) indicates one main source of clientele.
The prosperity comes partly from government transfer payments, but largely from sale of fruit, vegetables and livestock on the burgeoning market of Cancun and the Maya Riviera, where anything fresh and local can command a good price. However, agricultural modernization has been slow and halting, because of lack of capital and because of competition from better-placed or better-capitalized sources. Many people are basically subsistence farmers, selling just enough to buy minimal clothing and tools. Others are successful orchardiers, vegetable growers, and/or livestock raisers, often mixing all three and also selling corn in the increasingly rare times when they have a surplus. Most people who want more than trivial amounts of cash, however, must do nonfarm work. A striking range of local part-time jobs attests to their creativity in this regard (Anderson 2005). No one goes hungry any more, but some live on a very poor and monotonous diet, sometimes limited to government relief plus whatever comes from the homegarden and the forest. On the other hand, since Chunhuhub is an ejido with at least some collective institutions surviving, landless farm workers are few indeed; everyone has some sort of patch of ground. Homegardens typically include 30-40 species of useful plants and sometimes over 90, as well as chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, and often cattle and sheep.
The biggest and most important change in the last 10 or even 20 years, however, is hidden on a back street at the east end of town: the new clinic. Until 2007, primary health care services came via a tiny, increasingly shabby clinic in the center of town. Finally, well-appointed, well-built comprehensive clinic was constructed. It has dental and primary health care services and health education, with posters lauding the virtues of breastfeeding, folic acid, and other health education issues. It is staffed by nurses and doctors fulfilling national service obligations. There is a local transport vehicle dedicated to the clinic, improving the management of trauma and emergency obstetrical situations. Weekend coverage may be slim, as exemplified in the study we did on the parteras in the region. We have published some of the heroic stories of managing these medical complications in hurricanes before this clinic and reliable transport service were initiated (B. Anderson et al. 2004).
In an effort to understand the role that traditional birth attendants (parteras) play in Chunhuhub and the surrounding smaller communities, we conducted a compressed ethnography of all identified and willing parteras. Through word-of-mouth with our local field assistant and a Spanish-speaking graduate student, we identified 6 practicing parteras, five of whom agreed to participant in our in-depth interviewing. The sixth partera had just lost her husband and the home was disrupted and in grief. She declined to be involved in the study. (The methodology, identified themes, results, informed consent, and institutional review board approval are described in B. Anderson et al. 2004.)
There has been a great deal of work done on Maya parteras. We acknowledge in particular the work of Betty Faust, Brigette Jordan, and Sheila Cosminsky (see review in B. Anderson et al. 2004). One area of research of particular interest to BAA as a nurse-midwife with wide global experience was the decision-making processes used by these practicing parteras in the identification and management of childbirth difficulty or emergency. The skill and techniques used by parteras in managing normal births is well documented, and all across Mexico, as in many regions of the world, babies are born into their capable hands. But what do they do when childbirth becomes problematic or life-threatening? When the otherwise marvelous process of birth becomes a nightmare? As a nurse-midwife, BAA has witnessed many maternal deaths around the world; so often quick referral and rapid intervention could have saved mother, baby or both. BAA has seen parteras blamed for deaths and asked herself if she could have done better, given the circumstances.
Our team decided to find out what these parteras in this community, with over 224 cumulative years of experience among them, knew about managing complications of childbirth. Using Christina Gladwin’s decision tree model (1989), we identified and examined themes used by these parteras when faced with a crisis childbirth and we mapped their sequential steps in making decisions about interventions. We listened to their voices, their stories, told using their terms. In interviewing, we did not attempt to label their descriptions with our standard diagnostic categories, to “correct” their actions, or to educate them about our ways. We deferred intervention, leaving the syncretism of traditional practices and modern health care to the parteras and health professionals of Mexico.
One point evolving from our study which is salient to this presentation was the agreement by all interviewed parteras that young woman in the community are not interested in learning the skills and art of being parteras. The parteras said that many young woman think this role is not part of the “modern” world. Yet, the community lacks primary health care coverage on a 24-hour basis, particularly on weekends; roads still get closed by hurricanes, and there has been little local involvement in identifying and training youth for health careers. Who will care for the birthing mothers and babies? The parteras have always been there and a social vacuum is emerging as the parteras age. This problem is not unlike the global shortage and aging of health professionals, particularly nurses, currently a top priority for programming by the World Health Organization.
While the Mexican government has done a commendable job of placing primary health care clinics in population centers of 5000 or greater, there has been little local involvement in identifying and training youth for health careers in their own environment. Unlike many regions of the world, the community health worker concept does not seem very operational. Talented young persons are not tapped to study nursing, pharmacy, and midwifery—all services that could be incorporated into the PHC setting in Chunhuhub. It is essentially impossible for residents to obtain education in these areas without moving to large centers where they can attend college; Chunhuhub is too far for commuting.
A final, recent change in Chunhuhub’s health scene has been the opening of a tiny, struggling center for traditional medicine in the former government clinic. This center is part of a small chain opened and run by a husband-and-wife team from central Mexico, Enrique Gálvez Garcia and Columba Marín Martínez. They found Maya traditional medicine to be highly effective (cf. Anderson 2003—a source known to and used by them) and have developed many teas, salves, and other preparations, as well as a useful and well-done booklet (Marín Martínez et al. 2008). They also provide massage and have the services of one of the above-noted parteras on call. One hopes for great things, but previous attempts to commercialize traditional medicine in the Zona Maya have not done well; local families can do it for themselves, and visitors are few.
Interface with the “modern” world
Chunhuhub privatized its ejido several years ago. The collective ejido land system was not abolished, but the land was leased on on long-term leasehold, rather than being reassigned every couple of years. The latter was the ideal system when subsistence farming of maize by swidden techniques was the universal way of life. Now, commercial fruit orchards, small-scale livestock rearing, and vegetables are slowly replacing subsistence farming, and they require longer-term investment with secure land tenure. The result has been the rise of small ranchos lining the road southward. These show varying degrees of investment, especially in fruit trees and cattle, but they represent a major change in the landscape. A student, Maria DiGiano, is now studying this process in Chunhuhub and neighboring towns.
Of problems, clearly the first and foremost is the brain drain of educated young men and women. In the Midwest of our childhood, people often said of small farm towns: “Around here, anyone with any git-up-and-go has got up and gone.” Chunhuhub is undergoing the same process 60 years later, and constantly reminds us of that line. A surprising number of the best and brightest have stayed; Teodomiro Tun Xool runs the town pharmacy, Andres Sosa teaches in the schools, Gabriel Medina farms with his father, and many other old friends are still there, making a decent living. But most of the educated have gone on, scattered all over Mexico, teaching, working in businesses and government bureaus, working with computers.
There is, in fact, little to do with an education in Chunhuhub. The training in computers was of no use at all for years, but now at least the town hall has a computer, and more are beginning to show up in businesses. The training in agriculture might be seen as more valuable, but in fact Chunhuhub’s agriculture is mainly subsistence-level—far from the hi-tech and industrial agriculture for which CEBETA trains its students. Attempts to apply such techniques in Chunhuhub have failed for lack of accessible markets. With today’s roads, and the enormous expansion of tourism in Quintana Roo, markets could be developed and market farming on Chunhuhub’s fertile soils could prosper. But lack of capital and the brain drain have hindered this. Moreover, global warming has caused a major drying of climate (as occurred in previous warming episodes such as the Medieval Warm Period) and probably some exacerbation of storms, making agriculture more problematical than it was when we began research. The difference has been quite striking to us, and, of course, to the Maya.
Considerations of this sort underlie the lack of expected changes in Chunhuhub. Some things one does not see on the main street are a gas station, a hotel, a modern store of any kind (except Don Teodomiro’s drug store), and a private clinic. (There is a place to buy gasoline out of tanks in a private house, but not an actual gas station..) Nearby José Maria Morelos and Felipe Carrillo Puerto have all these things, and forward-looking colleges as well. They are municipio towns (equivalent to county seats). Still, a town as large and rich as Chunhuhub should be expected to have them. It does not, because there are relatively few enterprising people and relatively few actual or potential customers. These facts are part of a vicious cycle: the flight of the enterprising deprives the town not only of their skills, but also of their buying power.
Chunhuhub shows a major problem with the explosion of tourism in Cancun and the “Maya Riviera”: It has shown no tendency to spread to the interior. It has drained away the young people, to work in construction and hotels and businesses, but has not led to growth of businesses or facilities anywhere more than a mile from the coast. The long highways from Cancun to Merida and Chetumal are astonishingly wild; they cut through deep forest, and one can see coatis, parrots, and even the occasional deer from the road. Ecotourism development has occurred in a very small way at Tres Garantias and a few other spots, and of course at the major archaeological sites such as Coba and Chichen Itza, but one really would expect an ecotourism development at a place like Chunhuhub. The natural beauty, the richness of wildlife, the facilities for bird watching, the huge and unexplored archaeological sites nearby, and the town’s wonderful hospitality and superb food might be expected to lure anyone. But there is nothing.
The Quintana Roo government has recently expanded development southward from Cancun, and is now focusing on developing the coast due east of Chunhuhub, a previously low-key and rather wild area. This will take the pressure off Cancun, and bring many more opportunities to the Chunhuhub area. On the other hand, it is yet another development that will concentrate economic activity on the coast and turn the interior into a mere source area for labor. One can easily imagine a better fate: an ecotourism project in Chunhuhub (similar to ones already common in some parts of the Yucatan Peninsula), with local foods, local handicrafts, local medicines, local forest products, and so on, to give the adventurous tourist a real sense of Maya life. This need not be the sort of crass commercialization seen in many such schemes; if much of the planning were left to local people, they would see to that.
Lying behind all this are government programs that are not well targeted for places like Chunhuhub. For obvious reasons (but to the annoyance of Chunhuhub residents), governments have focused efforts on the tourism corridors. Many rather brief efforts have been made to develop agriculture and forestry. These have not caught on, for various reasons that we have detailed in previous books and papers (see esp. Anderson 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010; Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005; Faust et al. 2004).
The basic problem with all of them has been failure to think about marketing. Marketing efforts have been nonexistent, or have been limited to selling a few items out of government offices in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, not a destination town. Entrepreneurs in the tourist towns sell primarily the cheapest and lowest grade of souvenir items: T-shirts, mass-produced small gift items, alcohol. The high-quality items available to tourists in Mexico City, Taxco, Oaxaca, or Puebla are singularly rare. A few small stores have specialized in them, but lasted only a short time, due to undercapitalization and under-advertising. The mass market of Cancun is not highly sophisticated, but much more discerning and affluent tourists are appearing there, and to a much greater extent in Playa del Carmen and Tulum. (These two towns, south of Cancun and nearer to Chunhuhub, have become the sophisticated tourist’s alternatives to Cancun.) Chunhuhub’s agricultural products, including highline items like honey, could appear there.
Quality woodworkers could use Chunhuhub’s wood. It still depresses us to see a log burned for lack of market when we know that that log would bring several thousand dollars if it could be seasoned and brought back to southern California’s quality woodworking trade. ENA has researched this issue at length on both ends of the supply chain, and found that the problem was Mexico’s tight export policies combined with the problems of starting a quality wood-seasoning operation (kilns, etc.) in Quintana Roo. Such operations did start off and on over the years, and ENA interviewed the owners and also the owners of sawmills that could have entered the field. The problem was lack of local markets and lack of facilities for export.
Honey was once a major product, and possibly could be again—the honey is of the highest quality and bees love the area. However, the international crisis in honey production caused by Africanization of the bees, epidemics of mites, and pesticide overload has damaged production seriously.
Commercialization of tropical fruits and vegetables could expand to include real Maya foods: chicozapote, mamey, chaya, and others. Game farming is possible.
Clearly, by far, the best thing to happen to Chunhuhub in its short modern history has been education, especially CEBETA. The clinic and the coming of reliable water and power have been major blessings. The most obvious visible changes in town have had much more modest effects; the market is a boondoggle, the church repairs have done little, and only the improved city hall is a benefit. Underlying all this has been the increasing demand for quality fruit and vegetables, and to a lesser extent valuable woods, which have allowed the town some modest prosperity while remaining agricultural.
There is a series of feedback loops that keeps poor towns poor. These towns are brain-drained, and the more obvious immediate solutions to their problems—improved education, in particular—make the brain drain worse. Development of nearby urban areas also makes brain drain worse. Chunhuhub has suffered less than many; whole towns closer to the zona turistica are virtually depopulated, left to the very old and very young. (At least the workers can come home every weekend, unlike the Mexican migrants working in the United States.) Moreover, the agricultural, industrial, and crafts developments that would have been created by those young people will remain forever undone. Those who would have created them are sometimes working as teachers, computer operators, and skilled workers, but too often they are working for corporations as wage laborers. A tremendous amount of human potential is being wasted.
At the same time, food security is impacted (Anderson 2006). Global warming is making traditional maize-bean-squash farming increasingly difficult, and may make it impossible. Similar warming in the Medieval Warm Period was apparently the cause of the collapse of Maya civilization after 800 (Gill 2000, confirmed by many subsequent studies). Even small differences are fatal, since maize is somewhat marginal here in any case. The first change that happens when climate warms is a lengthening of the late spring drought into summer, which is fatal to maize.
Partly as a result, the indigenous diet is changing, replacing high nutrient beans, corn, squash and other local fruits and vegetables with sugar, sodas, and white flour. This dietary change contributes to insidious obesity and diabetes epidemics, coming crises in the poorer regions of the world. Food security is a major issue for the poorer members of the community.
Deforestation is currently not a major problem, since moving to the city at least alleviates demographic stress. However, the future is uncertain, because cattle-rearing, the bane of Latin America, has come to Quintana Roo. Some areas have already been cleared and turned into nonnative grass pastures. Conversion to cattle ranching would destroy not only the highly productive forest but the countless environmental amenities that go with it. The consequences are uncertain but major. At least this is not yet a major problem; cattle raising on the ejido has remained environment-friendly. The cattle used are tough tropical stock that can handle local brush if they have a small amount of pasture, and major clearing is rendered difficult by the unsuitability of the land for quality grass. No other huge ecological threat has emerged, though global warming can impact the forest seriously.
All this, more or less, brings home the ways that global forces play on the ground. Anthropologists have recently been seduced by meaningless terms like “globalization,” “postcoloniality” and “neoliberalism.” These terms say nothing and explain nothing. They imply vast forces that somehow exist and act without having any real instantiation in real things or people. Usually, they are used more or less as shorthand for real processes, notably the rapid globalization of capital via giant and increasingly multinational firms. The problem, however, comes when they are treated as if they were real forces that acted on their own. This sort of loose usage conceals more than it reveals. If we are to deal with actual real-world problems and conditions, we have to specify how capital flows, government policies, and particular developments actually play out on the ground. In Chunhuhub, this means the progressive increase in overall agricultural production and in wealth, the very slow but real development of government services, the massive brain drain, and above all the enormous, enterprise-strangling bottleneck caused by lack of marketing opportunities.
The wider lesson in all this is that going up against “neoliberalism” or other abstractions will not help the world. We cannot get rid of “capitalism,” because “capitalism” in the classic sense no longer exists. What does exist is individuals, governments, and firms deploying wealth in highly specific and particular ways. These deployments create a worldwide system, which seriously needs to be changed, but which is not well described by a 19th-century term defined in other 19th-century terms. Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory (Wallerstein 1976) offers more, though Wallerstein too resorted to broad abstract terms. We need to work on these concepts to make them concrete and applicable in the 21st century.
For the future, are we to allow local communities to wither away, as brain drain pulls people to the cities? Are we to allow those left behind to lose indigenous nutrition knowledge and become obese and diabetic from processed foods? There are countless ghost towns in the United States and Europe that have been emptied by this process. Perhaps many of them deserved the fate. Farm work, especially for landless laborers, is hard, wearing, and often a ticket to nowhere, and we do not particularly regret the fate of many dead-end farm towns. We do not believe that Chunhuhub and the other Maya towns deserve this. The people there are some of the most dynamic, hard-working, thoughtful people we know, and they deserve better than to become maids and day laborers.
Based on a paper for the Society for Applied Anthropology, Merida, 2010
Anderson, Barbara A.; E. N. Anderson; Tracy Franklin; Aurora Dzib-Xihum de Cen. 2004. “Pathways of Decision Making among Yucatan Mayan Traditional Birth Attendants.” Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health 49:4:312-319.
Anderson, E. N., with José Cauich Canul, Aurora Dzib, Salvador Flores Guido, Gerald Islebe, Felix Medina Tzuc, Odilón Sánchez Sánchez, and Pastor Valdez Chale. 2003. Those Who Bring the Flowers: Maya Ethnobotany in Quintana Roo, Mexico. Anderson with José Cauich Canul, Aurora Dzib, Salvador Flores Guido, Gerald Islebe, Felix Medina Tzuc, Odilón Sánchez Sánchez, and Pastor Valdez Chale. Chetumal, Quintana Roo: ECOSUR.
Spanish edition: Las Plantas de los Mayas: Etnobotánica en Quintana Roo, México. Tr. Gerald Islebe and Odilón Sánchez Sánchez. Chetumal: Colegio de la Frontera Sur.
Anderson, E. N. 2005. Political Ecology in a Yucatec Maya Community. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Anderson, E. N. 2006. “Wild Plum Shoots and Jicama Roots: Food Security in Traditional Quintana Roo Maya Life.” Paper, American Anthropological Association, annual conference, San Jose, CA
Anderson, E. N. 2010. “Managing Maya Commons: Quintana Roo, Mexico.” In Leslie Main Johnson and Eugene S. Hunn (eds.), Landscape Ethnoecology: Concepts of Biotic and Physical Space. New York: Berghahn. Pp. 25-276.
Anderson, E. N., and Felix Medina Tzuc. 2005. Animals and the Maya in Southeast Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Faust, Betty B. ; E. N. Anderson; John G. Frazier (eds.). 2004. Rights, Resources, Culture, and Conservation in the Land of the Maya. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Gill, Richardson. 2000. The Great Maya Droughts. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Gladwin, Christina. 1989. Ethnographic Decision Tree Modeling. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Marín Martínez, Columba; Leonor Sosa Jarquín; Miguel Chan y Pat; Juventino Ortega; Bernarndina Góngora Tun. 2008. Much’ meyajtik maaya ts’aak: Manual de Remedios Prácticos para una vida saludable, Chunhuhub Q Roo. Mexico City: ADMITE, S.C.
Redfield, Robert, and Alfonso Villa Rojas. 1934. Chan Kom, A Maya Village. Carnegie Institution of Washington.
Villa Rojas, Alfonso. 1945. The Maya of East Central Quintana Roo. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institutino of Washington. Publ. 559.
Chapter 3. “Loving Nature” in Quintana Roo
In a recent book titled Loving Nature (2002), Kay Milton, of Queens University in Belfast, reframes political ecology in a truly radical manner. “Radical” means “at the root,” and Milton indeed reshapes the field from the roots to the branch tips. (I have reviewed it for Journal of Ethnobiology, hopefully forthcoming.)
The book takes a phenomenological position, getting inside people’s heads as far as possible, to see how people actually experience the environment. This in itself is new to political ecology, though it has been done before by a very few environmental writers (notably Abram 1996).
The radical part of Milton’s book stems from a corollary agenda: her thorough readings of recent psychological research in the area of emotion and cognition. After years of relative neglect, emotion had its turn in the 1990s. Particularly interesting was the work of Hannah and Antonio Damasio (A. Damasio 1994). They found that emotional messages project directly to the frontal lobes, especially via the basal frontal region. Here emotion and cognition are brought together. Emotion is generated initially in the limbic system (LeDoux 1996), though it ultimately involves activity in much of the brain. The frontal lobes are the centers of planning, of social interaction, and indeed of anything that is complex—by which I mean not only complicated but also integrated at several levels of abstraction and remoteness. For example: I am now using phonemes to assemble words to make into sentences to convince you of my point so that you will go out and save the world.
Cognition requires this emotional input to function normally. Lesions to the basal frontal lobes result in a disconnect of thought and feeling. Emotions go out of control, sometimes becoming almost like animal reactions. Cognition is cold and is cut off from reality. Above all, ethical, moral, and even ordinary social behavior is dramatically compromised. Caring, sensitive, well-socialized men and women turn into moody and irresponsible individuals—loose cannons, totally unable to function in normal social roles. It turns out that the anterior cingulate cortex, central to the basal forebrain, is particularly important to social behavior. It seems to be a center for integrating knowledge with social feelings, and thus for allowing reasonable and caring social behavior.
To cut a long physiological story short (see also LeDoux 1996), David Hume was right when he said, back in 1740, that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions” (Hume 1984:462). “Slave” perhaps puts it too strongly, but the idea is correct. Reason takes place only in response to felt needs mediated through emotions. It has long been known that we cannot even “notice” stimuli unless we have some sort of mood reaction to them, even if we notice them at only an unconscious or preattentive level (Zajonc 1980). We now know that we cannot think about them, plan to deal with them, or interact reasonably with them without constant and complex emotional input from the limbic system and probably elsewhere in the brain. Through this we define goals, make plans, and interact with our human and nonhuman others.
Milton applies this new research to her findings on environmental politics. Her recent “field” work has been at home; she has been studying environmentalism in the British Isles. She finds that people become involved in so far as they love nature. “Love” is a complex term, as we all know, and “nature” is defined variously by the various activists involved, but the conclusion stands: environmental activists are brought into the fold by their intense feelings of care and attraction. These Milton sees as heavily a matter of learning—of cultural conditioning, family background, and personal experience, all integrated into a phenomenological whole. She is critical of E. O. Wilson’s innatist “biophilia” theory (Wilson 1984). Indeed, her interviewees vary enormously in both the degree and type of love they feel for animals and “nature.”
Different activists have different passionately-held agendas. This can lead to conflicts that are quite irrational, in the sense that they are emotional (rather than “rational”) and that they defy common sense. She details several conflicts that have gotten out of hand, sometimes leading almost to violence within the usually-mild environmentalist community.
One that will be familiar to many of us is the conflict between those who wish to preserve all animals and those that wish to save local species by eliminating nonnative “pests” that “threaten” native fauna. In her case study, the conflict is over ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis), which are genetically swamping the rare European white-headed duck (O. leucocephala). The two are barely, if at all, distinct as species. I was fortunate enough to see a white-headed duck a few years ago on one of its last refuges of purity, near Cordova, Spain.
Certainly the emotional message rings true enough. We all know that saving the environment depends on loving it, or at least worrying about it. Those who wish to save plants and animals generally have some personal warm feelings toward what they save. Those who are not particularly loving toward nature, but still work for environmental causes, are usually motivated by another basic emotion: fear. They are scared that pollution, global warming, and resource exhaustion will bring disaster.
The emotion-and-cognition linkage is radical shaker for human ecology, because ecological social science has been almost exclusively based on highly cognitive, rationalist theories of action. We have all made what Damasio called Descartes’ Error (Damasio 1994): we of the human-ecology trade have regarded cool, rational, detached, objective thought as the only thing worthy of attention. Emotions are so messy that they are written right out of consideration, or at least are not theorized very deeply. Our “traditional people” are scientists, coolly analyzing and understanding their surroundings, classifying them in coolly rational ways (see e.g. Atran 1990; Berlin 1992), and pragmatically deciding what plants work best as medicine or what animals produce the most calories per unit hunting effort (see e.g. Smith and Winterhalder 1992) /1/. In political ecology, the unexamined assumption has been that only rational self-interest motivates environmental use, and therefore everything is explained by political economy in the narrow sense. (Marx, for the record, knew that people were impassioned. Modern political economists sometimes remember this, but often do not.)
This has been a successful strategy for most of the last 50 years, because people everywhere do indeed judge empirically such matters as medical effectiveness and the usefulness of classification schemes. Emotion necessarily enters in, but usually in the form of an active, engaged curiosity that makes people want to learn and apply knowledge. Emotion as a powerful and tricky distorter is less often involved. We can more or less ignore it, and treat knowledge in these simple, pragmatic realms as concrete and largely rational.
However, once out of those realms, emotion becomes more and more important. It is especially critical when people plan for the future, and especially when they trade off short-term, narrow interests against long-term, wide ones. Catching fewer fish now to save the fishery, cutting trees on a sparing basis, and preserving apparently “useless” wildlife are cases that seem beyond humans’ ability to plan rationally.
I do not mean to say that emotions are totally neglected in the literature; most good recent field work acknowledges the importance of intense human relationships with the nonhuman. Eugene Hunn (1990), Enrique Salmon, Nancy Turner, Marianne and Ron Ignace, and many others have commented about this at our meetings. We need to build on their work, including new findings and methods.
Milton shows that emotionality is particularly important in high-level planning, with conservation and preservation, with conflicts over resource use, or with political and social efforts to manage resources. These things engage emotion. People fight for what they love. They then frequently find themselves fighting against people who love something different. Do we save the (genetically pure) white-headed duck by massacring ruddy ducks that invade its range, or do we save all ducks and let gene flow take its course?
Moreover, we cannot just list the cognitive or rational material in one paper and then deal with emotions in another. The vital importance of Damasio and Milton is in showing that cognition and emotion are not different things (not even in the unfortunates with lower frontal lobe lesions, who have to compensate somehow). We will have to describe worldviews (Kearney 1984), which are the result of integrating cognition and emotion.
Typically, the resulting findings are not exactly “emotion” in the usual sense—raw love, hate, fear, and such—but a more complex phenomenological reality: a whole view of the world that is broadly “realistic” but that is intensely colored and shaded by feelings of all types. For an example: the point is not that I love or hate or fear sycamores, but that when I see a sycamore I inevitably call up a vast number of intensely emotional images, ranging from the sycamores lining the streets of my childhood to the tragic death of certain favorite sycamores in the fire that almost got my house last October. I also know more strictly cognitive, less emotional things about sycamores: that sycamores virtually identical to these shaded the dinosaurs, that sycamore wood is fairly useless, and that the name “sycamore” originally applied to a fig species.
This has made me newly aware of the importance of two kinds of ethnographic work, from the opposite ends of the historical spectrum of American ethnography. At the beginning, we have Franz Boas, a neo-Kantian who seems to have had a strong sense of the phenomenological realities that Milton now analyzes. He recorded, and got his students and colleagues to record, all manner of traditional texts, covering everything from practical knowledge to myth and epic tale.
Much more recently, we have ethnographies inspired by holistic theories of knowledge that include emotion, or at least feelings and attitudes.
On the one hand, Feld and Basso’s Senses of Place led off an important trail of studies of involvement with landscapes and locations. (This has been paralleled or anticipted by a concern with such matters in geography [Tuan 1990], and other fields.) On the other hand, several recent ethnographies of people in relatively wild landscapes have discussed in detail the problem of “knowledge” and the complexity of its higher-level representations. Knowing too little beyond the northwestern North America literature, I have been particularly impressed with Robin Ridington’s Trail to Heaven (1988; see also Ridington 1990), Jean-Guy Goulet’s Ways of Knowing (1998) and Henry Sharp’s Loon (2001) /2/. There are many others out there. My other field areas, China and the Yucatan Peninsula, have produced some good work (e.g Faust 1998 for the latter).
This being said, I doubt if any of us here at the SEB meeting has done much questioning about emotions and feelings. I certainly have not. The field methods of those best qualified to deal with them—the cognitive anthropologists—are moving farther and farther toward a cut-and-dried, pencil-and-paper-test mode, taken from standard psychology. Meanwhile, more experimentally oriented ethnobiologists become more and more like biologists, using the highly experimental and rational techniques of that science. This automatically writes emotion out of the field.
Working with emotional knowledge is difficult. It is poorly conceptualized. Techniques for field research need to be developed. In-depth interviewing has to be done. Moreover, “talking about feelings” is notoriously difficult for many people—not just for stereotypic males. Among the societies with which I work, the Northwest Coast Native peoples and the Maya share a widespread Native American pattern of being very quiet on these subjects. I was involved in direct research on emotion in the Northwest, and observed several effective techniques for dealing with reserve. The best, of course, is to find the culturally appropriate ways of communicating emotional messages. These ways include subtle nonverbal cues, and the use of stories, artwork, and other indirect discourses. When those fail, depth interviewing and other methods usually work.
I have not done anything similar among the Maya. I have spent a year and a half living and forest-wandering with Maya friends. During this time I have done much observing and heard a few significant and unprompted comments. I can also benefit from the work of Faust and other writers.
Do the Maya of Chunhuhub love nature? The question is problematic. The Maya language does have a word for loving something (yakuntik), but, like many other languages, it has no word for “nature.” This is not surprising, for the Maya manage all aspects of their landscape (Fedick 1996; Gomez-Pompa et al 2003). On the other hand, they are aware of the autonomous qualities of the plants and animals they work with. They recognize that domestic as well as wild beings have an integrity, perhaps even a personhood, quite separate from and outside of human lives. They also make a distinction between tame and wild: alakbij “raised by people” is opposed to ba’alche’ “things of the trees.” (And tame critters are ba’al najij “things of the house,” in opposition to the ba’alche’.)
I do not think a Maya would say in yakuntik le ba’alche’oob o (“I love the things of the trees”), except, perhaps, when prompted by a conservationist. The Maya recognize that they are tightly bound up with those wild lives. They feel a real and lively affection for them. They might say they love birds and flowers. But they do not think of wild things as a single category that is somehow lovable as a whole. Such a view of “nature” is probably held only by those who are rather cut off from the wilder world—people in industrial and post-industrial civilizations.
On the other hand, many Maya clearly do love the forest—its trees, flowers, animals—in much the same way that preindustrial English loved the “greenwood.” (“Hey, to the greenwood let us go, And there we shall see both buck and doe, Hart and hind and pretty little roe, In the greenwood…” 16th century folk round.) The forest (k’aax) is not “nature”; it is a managed space. People have responsibilities toward it, such as keeping trails open, not overharvesting medical plants or game animals, and preventing forest fires.
Love thus is felt as, and shows itself as, a caring, caretaking relationship combined with intense emotional and aesthetic responsiveness to the wild. The operational word used all the time is the Spanish verb cuidar, to care for. (My Maya is inadequate to come up with the Maya equivalents. There are many Maya words that parcel out the semantic space of cuidar.) It implies a warm, caring, emotional bond, as parent to child. Unlike words for love, this word is constantly used in discussing human-nonhuman relationships. Common also, for tame animals and plants, is alak- “raise” (as in alakbij “raised” or alaktik “to raise something; Spanish criar). It too implies a relationship like that of a parent raising a child.
Of course, there is much variation in this. My friend and coworker Felix Medina Tzuc and my landlord Pastor Valdez certainly feel that way, as I know from hundreds of field hours with them. At the other extreme are a few Maya who share some of the traditional Hispanic Mexican value system, within which the wild is something to be destroyed as quickly as possible /3/. The vast majority of the older Maya are closer to Don Felix and Don Pastor. The young generally maintain a fondness for trees, birds, and other lives, but are growing away from it, orienting themselves toward town matters. This means that the blandishments of developers and loggers are hard to resist. Towns like Pich (in Campeche; described by Faust) are selling off their resources for destructive use. Quintana Roo has done much better, so far, but the future is cloudy.
The caring response to the nonhuman world shows itself in treatment of plants and animals. A Maya household is usually surrounded by (even buried in) flowers, and the houseyard is almost sure to include pets of various species. Weeding is done selectively; weeds are rarely killed, but simply cut back, and useful wild plants are allowed to flourish in the field. Traditional Maya of Chunhuhub are extremely kind and gentle with all these lives, whether tame or wild. I have seen Maya discover a rabbit’s nest while weeding, carefully cover it up, and weed around it—though rabbits are a terrible pest of maize. Maya that pick up ants to show me are careful to put down the ant, uninjured, heading the same way it was going when picked up. I could multiply such stories indefinitely, and there are many more in the literature. Maya are aware that everything can be useful, but there is more to it than that; the Maya are aware that we all depend on each other, and the world goes best if we all take care of each other.
I have no time here to describe the details of the worldview that results from this emotional attitude. Suffice it to say that it informs a worldview and a cosmology that go far beyond simple emotions or simple ethnobiological cognition. Faust (1998) and others have detailed much of this view, and I have some book manuscripts seeking publication that may add a bit.
A question raised by all this is how to study loving and caring in a more or less rigorous ethnographic fashion.
Obviously, the classic anthropological technique of participant observation over a long time is basic. However, it is clearly not enough. If it were, we would not be so lacking today. Phenomenological and interpretive approaches may add some awareness, but they have yet to show that they can provide the rigor and accuracy we need.
Our standard ethnobiological techniques, especially the “ethnoscience” methods of Frake (1980) and others, are extremely valuable. It is no accident that Feld and Basso are both excellent, highly trained users of that approach (Feld and Basso 1996), and so are many others among the names I mentioned above. Feld’s book Sound and Sentiment (1982) is the best study of emotions I have seen in anthropology, and it relies on ethnoscientific methods, as well as interpretive and other ethnographic modalities.
A technique with great promise is the ethnographic decision-making methodology of Gladwin (1989) and others, as exemplified in studies in medical anthropology (Young and Garro 1994) and other areas. However, as practised to date, it has been based on a neoclassicoal economic assumption of rationality. People are assumed to be coolly rational choosers of the best means to reach predetermined goals. This has been seen as needing some supplementation (see Garro’s introduction to Young and Garro 1994). It is quite simple to make the technique much more powerful, by adding questions about feelings at each node point: “How did you feel about that choice?” “What did you feel when you saw the outcome?” And the like.
The most valuable technique, and I believe indispensable, is depth interviewing. This involves a long interview (1-3 hours) that targets feelings specifically. One gets the subject to talk, and then encourages talking by making small inquiring noises. Questions should be kept to a minimum, but should be asked whenever there is a chance to get the subject to go deeper into a topic—particularly an emotional topic. One can directly ask “How did you feel about that?” or “Can you tell me just how you felt?” but it is often better to inquire about more concrete matters: just what was done, and why and how it was done. Ideally, this gets the interviewee to tell detailed stories. The value of such stories is well discussed in the literature (see the books mentioned above, to say nothing of many talks over the years at SEB meetings). However, I find that stories are much more useful when eliciting them is part of a project including all the other techniques I have listed. One also has to remember that stories are generally structured by cultural rules. They do not reveal anything in a purely transparent way. The ethnographer has to know the rules and formulas, and be aware of culturally standardized symbols and metaphors.
Psychologists use questionnaires to get at emotion. I have not tried this, and do not know enough about the benefits and pitfalls to discuss the issue. Clearly, questionnaires work, and produce useful results—at least with educated American and European subjects. Whether they would work with traditional and indigenous rural people is another question. Certainly, there would be problems. The Native Americans are far from alone in their unwillingness to talk about emotional matters in a formal, abstract, set-piece context. Even among Anglo-Americans, accused by virtually the entire world of constantly baring their hearts when everyone else wants them to shut up, one finds that rural males (at least) are very leery of opening up in formal or public contexts. I think that a good psychologist could design the right kind of questionnaire, but I doubt if it has been done. The sorry experiences of IQ testing serve as cautionary notes.
Best of all techniques, as noted above, is finding out through participant observation how a culture structures discourse on emotions and worldviews, and then going with that. The Maya, like many Native Americans, tend to use personal narratives. The Chinese I knew in Hong Kong in the 1960s sometimes used stories, but they were more apt to use songs—traditional folksongs, with words improvised to express emotion, often in a highly symbolic way. They also used philosophic discourse. Most were educated (to varying degrees) in the old Confucian tradition, and could bend Confucian taglines and ideas to their purposes. Confucius’ brief and rather gnomic lines served as projective devices; one could read many things into them, or interpret them in many ways. Of course, nonverbal communication is always important, and in the Chinese case such things as seating at feasts, service at rituals, and position at tables in restaurants conveyed very important messages. A great deal has been done with such nonverbal cues by writers like Edward Hall (1959) and Erving Goffman (1957), but the area has been rather neglected in recent years.
Milton herself used standard participant observation in connection with direct questioning and with thorough recording of conflict situations. Obviously, emotions are going to come through in conflicts, and people who would otherwise not talk about such matters may wax very eloquent indeed. Watching for such critical events is clearly important.
Emotions also come out in “total social fact” situations. The classic total social event was the potlatch (Mauss 1990/1925). Indeed, potlatches are the occasion for openly emotional rhetoric—speeches, dances, and many other forms. Unfortunately, the Maya do not have anything even remotely comparable. Their rituals are quiet, low-key, and highly formalized. These rituals are also dying out. Another problem with total social institutions is that emotionality tends to be highly structured; one is supposed to do, say, and even feel what the culture specifies. Individual spontaneous response may or may not be revealed, or may be partially revealed. Often, a space is left for particular types of personal emotions to come out, often in highly structured and symbolic ways, while other “emotional” expressions are purely formulaic. The ethnographer has to be sensitive to such issues.
As Milton points out, saving the environment will be done only if people love it enough to take care of it. We may not be able to save the environment, but we need to understand how people actually feel about it.
The popular literature is full of stereotypic indigenous people who are either noble savages in harmony with their environment or wasteful, destructive savages who wantonly destroy everything they see. We are aware that people are not like that. Whether in America, Britain, Quintana Roo, or the Yukon, people are complex creatures who combine love and care with fear, greed, hate, anxiety, and all the other frailties of the human condition. Sorting out what feelings people have, and what feelings matter in what situation, is an empirical problem.
Restoration ecology is a moral enterprise. It is a particular kind of commitment. The restoration ecologist must place a high value on a quality environment, and be prepared to cooperate with many others in producing it. Moreover, despite the hopeful name “restoration,” the restored environment is rarely a good copy of the old. It may or may not produce some of the benefits of the lost earlier environment. The restorer is working to produce a made environment that resembles the older world. She is thus subject to criticism from all sides—from hard-core conservationists who want only “unspoiled nature,” from hard-core production-maximizers who want only high-yield crops, and from politicians who want only to cut taxes. Somehow, the restoration project must go on, and must be sold as the best way to maximize overall benefits from the landscape. Clearly, this must involve some emotionality, including tensions and conflicts /4/.
Maya knowledge and values are ideal for this. The Maya are under no illusions about the “naturalness” of their environment; they can generally remember the year a particular tract of apparently virgin forest was last cut and farmed. They manage the regrowth stages and the mature forest, often almost as thoroughly as they manage their fields. They value the result as part of their world—not “natural,” not household, but something in between.
As an enterprise that blends morals and emotions with solid biology and ethnobiology, restoration ecology is a field that can benefit from awareness of the varied and complex emotional ties that humans have with their nonhuman environments.
/1/ At least, ethnobiologists, who generally assume a solid and nuanced rationality in their subjects, are well ahead of many political ecologists, who see human behavior as a mindless reflex of vast and abstract economic forces. Things like “capitalism” and “globalization” produce all manner of behaviors. Some writers seem to think that there is no need for any human agency at all. The apparent assumption is that humans are purely economic animals, responding to economic abstractions as they respond to the tap of a hammer just below the kneecap. Others assume that there is a Manichean struggle between indigenous or local people and outsiders, almost all the latter being agents of the vast evil capitalist-neoliberal-globalist conspiracy—even when they are clearly opposed to neoliberalism by normal-world standards (see e.g. Hayden 2003). Fortunately, the best political ecologists are not at all like this; they may even hold positions that approach Milton’s, with the added advantage of being informed in the area of political economy (see e.g. Sheridan 1998; Cruz Torres, forthcoming).
/2/ Incidentally, the notably high representation of North Woods peoples in this area owes more than a little to the work of Irving Hallowell, a Boasian who was sharp enough to pick up on his mentor’s holistic view and develop it at a time when almost no other anthropologists had a clue; see Hallowell 1955. Unfortunately, Hallowell was before his time, and the psychology available to him (Freudian theory and the like) was worse than useless in understanding human/wild interactions. Even so, he did some brilliant work, and deserves full credit for pioneering.
/3/ Ironically, the Hispanic Mexicans are rapidly becoming environmentalist as the indigenous Mexicans pick up the traditional Hispanic-Mexican antipathy to nature (which is itself a continuation of ancient Roman urban values).
/4/ Restoration ecology can even be seen as rather like psychotherapy in this regard. Albert Ellis’ rational-emotional therapy was based on an earlier realization of the union of cognition and emotion (see Ellis and Dryden 1987). It proved highly effective in psychotherapy, and has inspired the even more widely used cognitive therapy of Aaron Beck (e.g. Beck 1976).
Based on a paper for the Society of Ethnobiology, Davis, CA, March 2004
Abram, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Pantheon.
Anderson, E. N. 1996. Ecologies of the Heart. New York: Oxford University Press.
Atran, Scott. 1990. The Cognitive Foundations of Natural History. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Beck, Aaron T. 1976. Cognitive Therapy of the Emotional Disorders. New York: International Universities Press.
Berlin, Brent. 1992. Ethnobiological Classification. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cruz Torres, Maria. 2004? (in press, forthcoming). Lives of Dust and Water. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Damasio, Antonio. 1994. Descartes’ Error. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Ellis, Albert, and W. Dryden. 1987. The Practice of Rational-Emotional Therapy (RET). New York: Springer.
Faust, Betty B. 1998. Mexican Rural Development and the Plumed Serpent. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.
Fedick, Scott (ed.). 1996. The Managed Mosaic. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Feld, Steven. 1982. Sound and Sentiment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Feld, Steven, and Keith Basso (eds.). 1996. Senses of Place. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.
Frake, Charles. 1980. Language and Cultural Description. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Gladwin, Christina. 1989. Ethnographic Decision Tree Analysis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Gomez-Pompa, A.; Michael Allen; Scott Fedick; J. Jimenez-Osornio (eds.). 2003. The Lowland Maya Area: Three Millennia at the Human-Wildland Interface. New York: Haworth.
Goulet, Jean-Guy. 1998. Ways of Knowing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Hall, Edward. 1959. The Silent Language. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Hallowell, A. Irving. 1955. Culture and Experience. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hayden, Cori. 2003. When Nature Goes Public. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hume, David. 1984 (orig. 1740). A Treatise on Human Nature. New York: Penguin.
Hunn, Eugene. 1990. Nch’i-Wana: The Big River. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Kearney, Michael. 1984. Worldview. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp.
LeDoux, Joseph. 1996. The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Mauss, Marcel. 1990 (Fr. orig. 1925). The Gift. Tr. W. D. Halls. London: Routledge.
Milton, Kay. 2002. Loving Nature. London: Routledge.
Ridington, Robin. 1988. Trail to Heaven. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.
— 1990. Little Bit Know Something. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.
Sharp, Henry. 2001. Loon. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Sheridan, Thomas. 1998. Where the Dove Calls. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Smith, Eric A., and Bruce Winterhalder (eds.). 1992. Evolutionary Ecology and Human Behavior. New York: Walter de Gruyter.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1990. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Wilson, E. O. 1984. Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Young, James, and Linda Garro. 1994. Medical Choice in a Mexican Village. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Zajonc, Robert. 1980. “Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences.” American Psychologist 35:151-175.
Chapter 4. Yucatan Preserves and Lockdown Conservation
Over the last 20 years, I have made a couple of dozen visits, lasting anywhere from a day to six months, to the Yucatan Peninsula in southeast Mexico. Most of the time, totalling a year and a half, has been spent in the town of Chunhuhub, a rather paradisiacal community of Yucatec Maya people.
From the standpoint of conservation and resource management, Chunhuhub is in a fairly good situation. It is an ejido, a collective land management unit in which the community allocates and manages the land. Everyone lives in the central town and commutes to scattered fields. The land was originally reallocated every couple of years, but now permanent cultivation and field-making is more common, and lands are increasingly being leased on a long-term basis.
The ejido has 14,330 hectares. About 10,000 are maintained in forest; the wood is valuable, the soil is poor. Mahogany was seriously overcut in the 1990s, leading to more sensible management involving replanting and protection. Most of the other 4,330 are cropped on a shifting basis. The trees or brush are cut, the land is cultivated for two years, and the field is then allowed to regrow. It is not abandoned; regrowth is managed, and perennial crops such as manioc and fruit trees continue to flourish. A few hundred ha are permanent cultivation. In the town, almost every house lot has fruit trees and other economic perennials. Shifting cultivation here is not a simple system. It requires enormous skill and knowledge. It is labor-intensive and quite land-intensive. It is sustainable, at current population levels, and has been thriving for thousands of years in this area.
The ejido lands are badly overhunted, but in lands of less populous ejidos nearby, one still finds deer, peccaries, jaguars, and other tropical fauna. The traditional Yucatec Maya have strict hunting rules: they take only what they and their families and immediate neighbors need. Even then, they will go hungry rather than kill many animals; no individual is allowed to take many. They do not market-hunt. Chunhuhub’s problems stem from its large population; even a very low take per person is too many now.
Many of Mexico’s ejidos have been privatized, since legal changes in 1993 allowed it, but the Maya have practiced community land management for thousands of years, and are not about to give it up. They perceive what they think are problems with excessively open-access resources, but they adapt through parceling out land or through long leases at very low fees.
Quintana Roo has had for about 20 years a model forestry plan, the Plan Forestal (see Primack et al. 1998). This plan is based on comanagement; Maya families and communities manage with technical help and advice from government foresters. Chunhuhub has not opted to join this plan, but has learned a great deal from watching the fates of communities that have joined.
This brief picture introduces the kind of story we all want to see (for the full story, see Anderson 2003, 2005; Anderson and Medina Tzuc 2005). So far, Chunhuhub is united in managing resources well, in a sustainable fashion. They have learned from their mistakes. Only overhunting remains uncontrolled, a problem for the future, and it too was sustainably managed until very recently.
Many things can happen to this rosy picture. Some of them are good. The Plan Forestal has allowed even better management of forests in many nearby communities. At least one, Nohbec, is on the German government list of sustainable tropical producers; it is almost the only indigenous grassroots-managed community in the New World with that distinction. Another, Tres Garantias, has very self-consciously saved its large wildlife and developed low-impact ecotourism. Yet another, Caobas, has developed a sport hunting program that controversially includes big-game hunting of jaguars; the effect of this remains to be seen.
Rreserving of land by government and international agencies has been tried in Quintana Roo, with mixed results. The vast Sian Ka’an reserve excluded the Maya who had been managing it sustainably for millennia. They now often poach game in it, since the motives for maintaining sustainable management are gone. A worse story is that of the Yum Balam reserve in the northern part of Quintana Roo. This was established by, and at the initiative of, the local people—Yucatec Maya of the Kantunilkin community. But as soon as the Mexican government got control of it, they forced the Maya off, restricting their rights to hunt and gather. The people, understandably bitter, have become enemies of the reserve they started (Betty Faust, personal communication, 2006).
Next door, in far more troubled and far less well-organized Campeche state, lies the vast Calakmul reserve—one of the biggest of the international biosphere reserves under UN oversight. Its story is so complicated and troubled that only a truly brilliant ethnographer could do it justice. Fortunately, one has stepped forward: Nora Haenn, whose book Fields of Power, Forests of Discontent (2005) should be read by all serious students of indigenous rights to reserve lands.
Also next door are Guatemala, whose attempts to conserve large tracts of forest were never enforced and have collapsed (personal observation, plus long literature), and Belize, where excessive reserving of Maya lands has generated problems similar to those of Yum Balam (Richard Wilk, pers. comm.).
Farther afield, a number of stories are floating arouind in the literature. At one extreme are areas that were extremely well manged by local people, have been “preserved” by displacing them, and have promptly gone into serious ecological decline. I am personally familiar with some of these. Tanzania has attracted much attention recently, notably through the excellent ethnography of James Igoe (see Igoe and West 2006 and references therein). Local people, especially the Maasai, have been ruled off large tracts of land, sometimes for conservation, sometimes for the more outrageous reason that rich First World big-game hunters have bought the land and are using it for trophy hunting. The Maasai are often reduced to starvation. The land is ecologically collapsing. Without Maasai management by burning and rotational grazing, brush and weeds invade the grassland. The vast herbivore herds decline drastically as a consequence, the predators die for lack of herbivores. My wife and I have personally observed this in excruciating detail in several of the place Igoe describes.
Another case we checked out is the Ranomafana international biosphere preserve in Madagascar. Here the story was told by Janice Harper (2000). Set up to save rare lemurs, this reserve impinged on traditional hunting, gathering, and shifting-cultivation lands of the Tanala (“forest people”), a small local minority subject to considerable discrimination. The Tanala were restricted to lower, poorer land. The Betsileo (a considerably larger and more “modernized” group) moved in to take advantage of new economic opportunities, and have subjected the Tanala to more than a little oppression and exploitation. Harper reported on the devastating health consequences of all this for the Tanala. Having visited the site with an international public health team, we can fully confirm her sad observations. In this case, however, the danger to the lemurs from Tanala hunting and burning was real (though, I believe, considerably exaggerated by some in the original advocacy for the reserve). The Tanala are not the careful, precise, conservationist farmers that the Yucatec are. The whole thing could have been easily handled better, however. As it is, once again, local support for the reserve is hard to find.
Still other cases are so complex that they defy summary, but reflect similar problems of insensitive outside forces ignoring the interests of local people. Policy shifts (West 2006), shaky science (Lowe 2006), and colonialism (Agrawal 2005) are among the well-described problems that beset the creation and maintenance of protected areas.
In Australia we found a more hopeful story. At Uluru (personal observation) and elsewhere (from many personal communications) we found that the all too familiar story. Aborigines were forced off the land, and the land promptly declined. In this case, however, there was a happier ending. The Australian government, forced to recognize their folly, has brought the Aborigines back to manage their land. We saw the effects of this and briefly talked to Aboriginal managers at Uluru National Park and elsewhere. Many species are being saved—so far, at least. Perhaps more important is the enormous public relations effort around this. White Australians are rapidly and dramatically changing their minds about Aborigines and Aboriginal land rights.
Another, and far sadder, story comes from Peru, as reported by biologist John Terborgh (1999). Here the Matsiguenga people have prior rights in the vast Manu National Park. Unlike most traditional indigenous people, the Matsiguenga lack sustainable management practices or conservation ideology (Alvard et al 1997; Allen Johnson, personal communication). They live at such extremely low population densities, in such a vast and lush region, that they never had the incentive to develop these. Today, however, confined to a fraction of their territory and provided with some degree of health and security, they are rapidly becoming a dense population, with the inevitable result. Similar problems are widely reported from Amazonia.
Stories parallel to the above are not unknown from the United States. Yellowstone National Park ruled the Corw and Shoshone hunters off the turf. Great Smoky ies National Park threw out long-established Scots-Irish settler families. Conversely, Yosemite gave full rights to the Yosemite Miwok, who lived there for decades, and Death Valley National Park has much more recently followed the Australian example by restoring management rights to the Timbika Shoshone after the park ecosystem came near collapse from lack of indigenous management. A different kind of story involves less indigenous interests, especially mining and oil drilling, who have privileged access to public lands and who want these lands even more completely opened up to single-use, destructive exploitation that would have major economic benefits. More clearly selfish persons wish to open up conservation lands to off-road vehicle use and similar destructive recreation.
The US has long had a strong, visible difference within the conservation universe between preservationists and advocates of what we would now call “sustainable use.” Preservationists trace their descent from Thoreau, and later Muir. Sustainable use finds a home in the work of George Perkins Marsh (2003 ), and later Gifford Pinchot argued for it against Muir’s preservationism. A fusion of sorts emerged in the Depression, for dealing with the Dust Bowl and other conditions, but the two streams have separated again, and there are now some pretty sharp conflicts between preservers and users. Sometimes it is hard to construct a united front against the common enemy, the “use-once-and-throw-away” or “rape, ruin and run” developers. This division is one reason why such developers have dominated world development and economic policy in recent years.
There is now a vast literature on this problem but much of it is vitiated by personal bias and narrow vision. Conservation biologists like Terborgh overgeneralize from problem cases, and urge that all people be cleared off vast tracts of land, as the only way to save biodiversity and ecosystem services. Anthropologists, naturally biased in favor of people and sometimes downright “speciesist,” react strongly against this. Some anthropologists see no value in conserving biodiversity, forests, or other natural resources, and oppose any and all restrictions on local people, thus joining forces with American right-wingers like Richard Pombo. Others are less extreme, but still believe strongly that in all cases the indigenous people have full, inalienable rights, that cannot be abrogated for even the most urgent and pressing global interest.
Recently, anthropologists have shown a strong tendency to attack even the least offensive acts of international conservation movement and its NGO’s, while giving the intnernational oil, mining, agribusiness, military, and other interests a free ride. One wonders why this is so. (Surely the genocides under way in Sudan and Iraq deserve at least some attention.) I suspect that conservation seems an easy target. Conservationists probably will not fight back, and some will even listen and change their bad behavior, always a desirable result. Also, anthropologists, many of whom aspire to be investigative journalists, love to go where the shock value is highest. Everyone knows that the giant mining and oil interests have dubious records. Conservation NGO’s have generally better public images. Going after them thus has higher shock value. One must, also, deal with the less pleasant reality that much current anthropology, while claiming to be “progressive,” is actually based on extremist right-wing philosophies. This lies behind at least some of the simlarity in rhetoric between anthropologists and Richard Pombo, Karl Rove, and George Bush.
We can usually discern three key categories of actors in these cases. First are the local people, making a living, usually sustainably, from the land. They may be indigenous or may not be. Second are the conservationists. Third are the powerful bureaucrats, generally more interested in maintaining control through strict discipline (Agrawal 2005; Scott 1998) than in either local people or local wildlife. They are usually the real sources of the problems. In the Yum Balam case, for instance, the Maya and the conservationists were in almost complete accord. Meddling upper-level bureaucrats ruined the situation.
The ideal situation is that of Tres Garantias: a community actively wants to save its resources, some for sustainable use and some for preservation and ecotourism, and is willing to work with biologists and government agencies to do so. This is rare in the real world, but it would be much commoner if people would work on it. The biggest problem is maintaining such a regime once it is established. Every community has its boomers who want to cut all the trees now, take the money, and run off to the city. The community has to be united to stop this. Outside support is usually necessary to help them in this. But if outside support looks like outside control, let alone outside bullying, almost every group will reject it.
Typically, at least in my experience and reading, indigenous people do want to maintain and preserve their livelihood, so it is theoretically easy to work with them. Usually, the problem comes from outside. Business interests offer cash incentives that are hard to resist, or governments use outright corruption and power to take over exploitation rights. These are the people who are sophisticated enough to argue “free enterprise,” “economic benefits,” and “jobs vs owls” against conservation. Small-scale local communities are easily swayed, if there is not an equally sophisticated counter-argument. Environmentalists have to point out that loss of forests means loss of both jobs and owls, while preserving the forest preserves both. Arguing that owls are cute, or that all nature has value, is not effective.
Also common, unfortunately, are situations in which local people want to destroy a major resource of worldwide significance. This is what puts environmentalists in a serious bind. One has to work with the locals and convince them to save the resource. This may or may not work, and in any case it has to be kept up forever. Any relaxation of the message, or any tactless or controlling attitude, seems to guarantee loss of the deal.
Most observers except the more traditional types of conservation biologists feel that indigenous people with very long histories of managing their lands should continue to do so. This position seems hard to contest. The main opponents outside of conservation biologists have been governments obsessed with managing everything from the top down. They see indigenous people as the lowest of the social order, and regard management by such as automatically bad (see Agrawal 2005; Scott 1998; I have heard this sentiment expressed countless times in many countries).
Indigenous peoples without good management records still have prior rights as the real owners of the land, however much their ownership, and even their humanity, may be denied. Australian Aborigines were not legally human beings until 1972. Fortunately, Australian law and opinion have greatly changed since then.
On the other hand, various claims by nonlocal individuals may be argued against the local people. I believe all countries and communities have some concept of “eminent domain.” If an area is of extreme value to society at large, it may be taken, with compensation in most cases, without same in many. Taking land without compensation is banned by the United States Constitution /1/. In other countries, however, it can arguably be justified in cases where conservation is of extreme benefit to the world, while the lands in question are rather marginal in utility to the local people.
Property rights in the modern world are often based on one or another tradition stemming from John Locke. Locke held that an individual who developed an unused and unclaimed bit of land had a God-given right to it. The Bible has no such line, but perhaps Locke was divinely inspired. In any case, later advocates have argued that “private property” in general is a good, because it helps economic development. The countercase is the socialist claim that private property leads to mismanagement, and that comprehensive planning is needed. Both agree that developing land is basically a good thing. Neither give much of a moral basis to preservation.
One can also force wise use (“sustainable” or the like) on local people, in the name of higher good. Major arguments are now ongoing in the United States over when this is an unconstitional taking of rights and when it is not. Few argues that taking a man’s right to use his knife to kill his neighbor is covered by the Constitutional ban on takings. Conversely, few any longer argues for simple uncompensated land grabs. There is a vast gray space in between. This has recently led to a split Supreme Court decision over wetlands, in which a compromise position unpopular with most justices was finally adopted. Denying development rights to wetlands is not exactly taking them, but may reduce their value to the owner by over 90%. Conversely, society’s interests in preserving these most valuable and threatened of ecosystems have to be considered. In a recent case, the court upheld an individual’s right to develop a wetland, but in such a locally tailored way that the case cannot be widely generalized as precedent.
So we have basic problems with balancing individual rights against society’s rights and needs. This seems to shred the classic individualist and communalist positions in philosophy. This seems to me a good thing, since individualism and communalism have always seemed to me to wind up with the same society: arrogant bullies dominating abject, conformist subjects. Individualist like Nietzsche and his followers (Rand, Hitler, etc.) idealize the bullies; communalists like Alasdair MacIntyre idealize the both the leadership model and the conformity. (Anyone who thinks I am exaggerating this latter position is invited to read MacIntyre 1988 and imagine what society his recommendations would really create.) Neither of these alternatives provides a hopeful model for environmental management. Such management can be based only on a person-in-society, person-and-society-in-environment view. However, an infinite range of such person-in-the-world philosophies can be imagined.
We can break out several problems. 1) are the local people a problem, from the point of view of conserving biodiversity or water or soil or whatever resource we are saving, or actually a good? 2) If a good, how do we manage to keep them that way and not let them turn destructive? (Indigenous people sometimes decide suddenly to chop down the rainforest to run cattle, or mine gold, so they can be like the whites. The myth of the changeless “primitive” is still out there, and needs to be killed.) 3) If destructive, do we displace them for the not-always-critical benefits of conservation? 4) how much do the few have to suffer before it is worth displacing them? 5) how much does “private property” count as a moral good? 6) how much does the state have rights, moral or other, to interfere in indigenous, local, or other community matters? Should it be private property defender, utility maximizer, fair arbiter, or comprehensive planner? People have quasi-religious views on these matters; Communism is widely called a folk religion, and private property has inaccurately been called a Biblical moral rule in some quarters. 7) Should the state preserve noneconomic amenities, such as lovely views and the chance for specific kinds of recreation, when these interfere with economic matters? The reflex answer most people give is “no,” but the state routinely intervenes to save historic, artistic, and archaeological creations, often at enormous cost to the economy.
A whole separate class of problems concerns risk. The relative risks of dealing with global warming have been much under debate lately. Oil companies and their apologists argue that even if global warming is real, doing anything about it would unduly disrupt the economy. Most of the rest of the world argues otherwise. The risk of terrorism has led to expenditures by the United States government that are now in the hundreds of billions. The same government has cut Food and Drug Administration research and monitoring to essentially zero, though food poisoning kills twice as many Americans every year as foreign terrorism has killed in all US history. The Bush administration has also directed the FDA to allow one of the last broadly effective antibiotics to be used in cattle feed, thus guaranteeing that germs will evolve resistance to it and spread to humans. Liberals may wish or dream that this is merely a pathology of the Bush administration, but it is actually quite typical of the situation worldwide, except in western Europe. Relative risk assessment of environmental hazards has obviously not been a priority in the world. The morality of the “precautionary principle” is not under debate; the problem is which way it cuts. Oil companies use it to argue against greenhouse emissions control just as ably as environmentalists use it for the opposite.
This brings us to environmental justice, which is a whole separate class of issues. I have treated it in a very summary but possibly useful report to my home university (Anderson 2006); I can make that report available to anyone interested.
So the ethical bases of all these depressingly complex matters are confusing. Several different ethical traditions have been argued in environmental cases. Most have been argued in the most outrageously one-sided way, by people whose real interest is in developing everything in sight or protecting everything in sight. The ethics of balance, nuance, and compromise are less explored. Since all “win-win solutions” have a bit of “lose-lose” about them, even the best-intentioned solutions annoy many people.
I will provide a laundry list of some common ethical positions, for purposes of stimulating discussion—a polite academic euphemism for starting a huge fight.
One of the commonest is the Golden Rule, varied into other precious metals—Confucius’ version of it, “don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself,” is sometimes called the Silver Rule.
Immanuel Kant’s development of this was based on the idea that one’s major actions should be usable as, or at least conformable with, universal laws. This is, however, confusing. He obviously does not mean that because I am eating Brussels sprouts (as I was when I thought out this part of the paper) I want everyone to eat Brussels sprouts on Sundays. But could I be living a rule that people should eat healthy? Or that everyone should have access to good food? How do you decide what rule, or rules, are involved in a complex conservation situation?
Kant also held that one should always treat humans as ends, never as mere means to an end. He recognized that soldiers defending their country must often give their lives for the country, but there are ways around the problem posed. Less clear is how to deal with the case of local people displaced for conservation reasons. They would seem to be pawns—humans sacrificed for forests or waters that are mere means, even though possibly the means for other, larger groups of humans to stay alive. Many of the arguments in favor of leaving them on the land are formulated in a Kantian way. Also Kantian is the troublesome issue of what to do about indigenous property rights to valuable knowledge. If a group knows an AIDS cure and denies it to the world, the morality of doing so is debatable, but many strict Kantians defend the right to keep such knowledge secret. (I have elsewhere elaborated on this genuinely vexing problem at inordinate length; Anderson ms.)
Yet, animal rights advocates can rejoin that animals too should be ends, not means. Perhaps even “ecosystems,” if they exist. (I don’t think they do, but that is a very debatable claim.) A classic work on this and related concerns was the booklet with the delightful and significant title Should Trees Have Standing? (Stone 1974). We could theoretically be trapped in an infinite regress when any action is too immoral to undertake, because it might possibly cause harm to some member of a “community of subjects.” (I am deploying that Kantian phrase because it has just been used as the title of a book on animals, in which Lisa Raphals and I have yet more on this stuff; Anderson and Raphals 2007.)
The value of conservation is much clearer, and doing things for it are much more reasonable, if one is a utilitarian. “The greatest good for the greatest number over the greatest time” is, in fact, the selling point of almost every serious conservation policy I have ever seen. Conservation seems overwhelmingly a utilitarian project. It allows us to sacrifice the livelihoods of a few fishermen today to save a fishery for the future. It allows us to displace or control a few polluting users on a riverbank. But, by the same token, it is subject to abuse. Even granted the classic qualifier that “each one counts for one, no one for more than one” (see Sidgwick 1907), it tempts governments and moneyed interests to displace the poor for the benefit of the rich. Enormously aiding them in this is the dishonest, but universal, accounting that does not count direct “natural economy” production. The average farm family in Chunhuhub gets about $3,000 per year of products directly from their farm and forest. This is not counted in any statistics (except mine). One could eliminate all the subsistence farmers in western Quintana Roo and no economist would know or notice. In fact, in many Mexican states, that is exactly what has happened. The farmers are now in the United States. They are generally making better livings, but they are on sufferance and under constant threat, and the whole situation seems a very bad one. In other countries, subsistence hunting, gathering, and farming has been run down to almost nothing by economic policies that take no account of nonmarket production. Of course, Mill, Sidgwick, or Brandt would never have countenanced such things, but they are gone from among us, and utilitarians of today have not really stepped forward.
A problem with utilitarianism is assessing what is the “greatest good.” In conservation, it involves tradeoffs of incommensurable goods. Clean water and rich topsoil are easy to deal with. Less easy are biodiversity, healthy recreation, and ecological resilience, when compared with immediate economic gains. The classic way to deal with this is through individual choice—at best left to the individual, otherwise summated through democratic elections.
This is why utilitarianism has been the general philosophy of democracies. Dictatorships tend to be Kantian—they assume an ideal good, decisions on which are vested in the leaders, assumed to be the best of the best. Communism goes directly back to Kant via Marx, and fascism goes back via Nietzsche.
Utilitarianism has also been the preferred philosophy of the environmental movement, and of at least one of the leading environmental ethicists: Holmes Rolston (1988). Animal rights advocates, however, seem more apt to be Kantians, since they generally argue for the absolute moral imperative of treating animals as ends and ethical subjects. Many critics of environmentalism have been, if not Kantians, at least anti-utilitarians. The pervasive orientation of conservationists toward economic goals, and their use of utilitarian arguments, have not been popular with either private property ideologues or extreme preservationists. Finally, Kantians have argued against drawing on indigenous knowledge for even the most vital lifesaving purposes, because of the problems of intellectual property rights. I hope to deal with these issues in some work I am now doing (e.g. Anderson ms.).
Some of these problems with Kantianism have been addressed by John Rawls, some have not. He assumes rational humans, and assumes they are the ends of action. He created the “justice as fairness” doctrine, based on what a person would decide if he (sic) were “behind a veil of ignorance” as to where he would be in the world. If one had an equal chance of being a starving Third World farmer, a millionaire, a bedridden cancer patient, a slave, or a college professor, one would naturally invoke policies that would make life better for the less fortunate, but one would try to avoid making it worse for the rich in the process. This does not tell us much about the environment, a fact explicitly admitted by Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971:17, 512). It does, however, save democracy from the more sinister forms of Kantianism (Rawls 1993); indeed, this appears to have been one of Rawls’ major motivations for writing.
Feminists and others have criticized Rawls for his assumption of rational, dispassionate, emotion-free, socially unembedded humans—classic Enlightenment males, not to put too fine a point on it. In addition to the environment, the mentally ill and mentally incompetent get short shrift from such an ethic. One cannot possibly devise a society on the basis of assuming (behind the veil) that one is a paranoid schizophrenic or a helpless comatose patient. An ethic that deals with them simply has to be an ethic of caring, not rational dispassionate planning. Various feminists have proposed a number of forms of an ethics of caring; Rawls answers them, more or less, in later work (Rawls 2001). Many of these feminists assert that caring is innate and natural in women, a theory not very credible to anyone with experience of today’s gender-integrated university administrations.
However, the roots of the ethic of caring are not in feminism, but in Buddhist and Christian religion. The Buddha based his ethic on compassion, explicitly extended to all life. Jesus based his on “love,” meaning, of course, not sexual love, but something closer to familial love—the tolerance, support, help, and care we feel, or feel we should feel, for our closest kin and neighbors. Jesus said little about the environment, but enough to make it clear that he followed the “stewardship” (Genesis 2) concept common in the Bible. (See e.g. the parables involving husbandmen and crops.) It is a middle course: responsible, caring management of what God has given to us, rather than either thoughtless destruction or preservation. The latter seems like neglect of what God has provided. The Hebrew Bible has a large number of passages that denounce in no uncertain terms the wasteful or foolish misuse of resources. Jesus’ relative quiet on this point has given too much slack to anti-environmentalists since, but they are clearly forcing their reading (see Breuilly and Palmer 1992).
Many environmentalists today are influenced rather strongly by religion, and the religious roots of environmentalism have been addressed in a series of volumes under the general editorship of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (see e.g. Tucker and Grim 1994; Waldau and Patton 2007).
One might think Aristotelian virtue ethics a difficult case to use as basis for environmentalism, but Louke van Wensveen has ably argued for it (van Wensveen 2000).
In short, every major ethical tradition has some advocates and some limitations.
It would seem that we should not be divided into moral camps. We can be utilitarian about economic and medical issues, Kantian about basic human rights, Aristotelian about our needs to have integrity and commitment, Rawlsian about social justice, and caring about all. However, I personally vote for the caring ethic as the covering ethic, because it entails all the others as inescapable corollaries. If we care, we will do what’s best, treat people fairly, and help keep the environment sustainably producing what we need. If we do not care, we probably will not be able to get anyone to do any of the above.
Possibly it is best to return to playground ethics for a foundation. If Robert Fulghum is right that we learn everything important in kindergarten (Fulghum 1990), as he certainly is right about our proneness to get into burning beds and otherwise make environmental fools of ourselves (Fulghum 1989), then playground fairness, sharing, not taking the last one, and not throwing dirt in our playmates’ lunch may be all we really need. Perhaps Rawls’ enormous, ponderous tome can be reduced to something like that.
Probably the most useful teaching is We’re all in this together. This needs no elaboration. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” in a very literal sense, when the globe is one conjoined system.
The other basic is My rights stop where yours start. This traditional American proverb should actually solve, in principle, the property rights and risk issues. Property rights do not, ever, under any law, include the right to use one’s property to murder or seriously and gratuitously harm anyone. Just as a knife-owner cannot use the knife to murder his neighbor in cold blood, a conservation organization does not have the right to harm people by driving them off their traditional use lands and denying them access to materials they have depended on, over thousands of years, for survival. But the indigenous people do not have the right to use their lands in a manner that devastates wide-flung benefits. They cannot throw poison into a stream that becomes the water supply of a city. Similarly, they do not, morally, have the right to exterminate a species or cut down a vitally important forest. Legal negotiations based on this principle will not be easy or automatic, but they will be possible.
Another clear, but often neglected, moral ground is that long-term, wide-flung interests should be at least considered in comparison with short-term, narrow ones. I would advocate privileging the long-term, partly because people naturally tend to discount such interests (Anderson 1996). Of course, a trivial wide-flung interest has to give way to a desperately important narrow one, so this too takes careful balancing.
Finally, the most desperately needed moral position in the conservation and environment movement is solidarity. The enemies of the environment have proved startlingly solidary. We hoped, back in the 1960s and 1970s, that they would be divided by self-interest; a giant oil company would not want water pollution, a logging firm would not want global warming to wipe out its forests, and an agribusiness firm would not want wood and paper to run out. Instead, the giant corporations and their paid hirelings in governments around the world have presented an astonishingly solid, united front. They have seen the threat of regulation as a general threat to all.
By contrast, environmentalists are a disunited and controversy-prone lot. Anthropologists defending indigenous and local rights are, also. And the environmentalists and anthropologists have come into serious conflicts. This has lost battle after battle. The giant corporations do not even need to move; they win without trying, by letting their divided enemies destroy each other. The Byzantine Empire had to work to set barbarians against barbarians. The giant polluting and wasting corporations today do not have to work.
As long as solidarity is not even recognized as a virtue by progressives, let alone pursued, the world environment will be a hopeless cause.
Solidarity will depend on some agreement about morals, and I hope this paper will make a few people think about that.
/1/ Taking land without compensation was done anyway, especially from Native Americans. Canadians may not realize that in the United States, Indian title was always recognized, so the many cases of land ripoff were outrageous open theft rather than simply asserting the terra nullius doctrine. This slightly reduced, but did not stop, the theft of Indian lands. Sheer land grab was usually concealed by unequal treaties, but frequently was simply bare-faced robbery.
Some Useful References on Environmental Ethics and the Social Background
Including those referenced above, but also a lot of other references I happen to find useful
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Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities. Revised edn. New York: Verso.
Anderson, E. N. 1996. Ecologies of the Heart. New York: Oxford University Press.
— 2001. “Flowering Apricot: Environmental Practice, Folk Religion, and Daoism.” In: N. J. Girardot, James Miller, and Liu Xiaogan (eds.): Daoism and Ecology: Ways within Cosmic Landscapes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School. Pp. 157-184.
— 2003. Those Who Bring the Flowers. Chetumal, Q. Roo, Mexico: ECOSUR.
— 2005. Political Ecology in a Yucatec Maya Community. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
— 2006. Environment and Social Justice: Some Issues. Report to the administration, University of California, Riverside.
Anderson, E. N., and Felix Medina Tzuc. 2005. Animals and the Maya in Southeast Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Anderson, E. N., and Lisa Raphals. 2007. “Taoism and Animals.” In A Community of Subjects, ed. Paul Waldau and Kimberly Patton. New York: Columbia University Press. Pp. 275-290.
Aristotle. 1955. Ethics. Harmondsworth, Sussex: Penguin.
Atran, Scott. 2002. In Gods We Trust. New York: Oxford University Press.
Attfield, Robin. 1991. The Ethics of Environmental Concern. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Baskin, Yvonne. 1997. The Work of Nature: How the Diversity of Life Sustains Us. Washington, DC: Island Press.
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Bourdieu, Pierre. 1978. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
— 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
— 1991. The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger. Tr. By Peter Collier. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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Brandt, Richard B. 1954. Hopi Ethics: A Theoretical Analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Brandt, Richard B. 1979. A Theory of the Good and the Right. New York: Oxford University Press.
— 1996. Facts, Values, and Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Martin Palmer. 1992. Christianity and Ecology. New York: Cassell.
Brown, Donald. 1991. Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Buber, Martin. 1947. Between Man and Man. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
— 1991. Tales of the Hasidim. Tr. Olga Marx. New York: Schocken Books.
Buchowski, Michal; David Kronenfeld; William Peterman; Lynn Thomas. 1994. “Language, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and 1989.” Language in Society 23:555-578.
Callicott, J. Baird. 1989. “American Indian Land Wisdom? Sorting out the Issues.” Journal of Forest History, Jan., 35-42.
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Callicott, J. Baird, and Michael P. Nelson (eds.). 1998. The Great New Wilderness Debate: An Expansive Collection of Writings Defining Wilderness from John Muir to Gary Snyder. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
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Damasio, Antonio. 1994. Descartes’ Error. New York: Putnam.
Damon, William. 1999. “The Moral Development of Children.” Scientific American, Aug., pp. 72-78.
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— 2005. Our Inner Ape. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin Group).
Dilthey, Wilhelm. 1989. Introduction to the Human Sciences. Trans. Rudolf Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Princeton: Princeton University Press. (German originals: Late 19th century.)
Durkheim, Emile. 1995 (Fr. orig. 1912). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Tr. Karen Fields. New York: Free Press.
Elliott, Robert (ed.). 1995. Environmental Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Elster, Jon. 1983. Sour Grapes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
— 1993. Political Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’ Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Fulghum, Robert. 1990. All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. New York: Villard Books.
— 1989. It Was On Fire When I Lay Down on It. New York: Villard Books.
Gibbard, Allan. 1992. Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment. New York: Clarendon Press.
Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Habermas, Jurgen. 1984 (Ger. orig. 1981). The Theory of Communicative Action. Tr. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon.
Haenn, Nora. 2005. Fields of Power, Forests of Discontent. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
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Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162:1243-1248.
Hardin, Russell. 1988. Morality within the Limits of Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Harper, Janice. 2002. Endangered Species. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Hauser, Marc D. 2006. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. New York: Ecco (HarperCollins).
Henrich, Joseph; Robert Boyd; Samuel Bowles; Colin Camerer; Ernst Fehr; Herbert Gintis (eds.). 2004. Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-scale Societies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kagan, Jerome, and Sharon Lamb (eds.). 1987. The Emergence of Morality in Young Children. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kant, Immanuel. 1970. “Idea for a Universal History.” IN: Kant’s Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, tr. H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (p. 46 ref)
— 1978. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Tr. Victor Lyle Dowdell (Ger. Orig. 1798). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
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Kluckhohn, Florence, and Fred Strodtbeck. 1961. Variations in Value Orientations. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
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Andy Light was a student of ours at UCR!
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