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Molly Doane Stealing Shining Rivers: Agrarian Conflict, Market Logic and Conservation in a Mexican Forest.

Molly Doane

Stealing Shining Rivers: Agrarian Conflict, market Logic and Conservation in a Mexican Forest

Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012, 201 pp.

This is a book about people, global conservation policies and institutions, migration, land settlement, cattle, forest degradation, territorial conflicts, and personalities. Above all, it is about a resilient people struggling to hold onto land (and some of the customs and activities and resources that go with it) against many outside forces--colonialists, displaced people from other states, ranchers, government agencies, international environmental NGOs, climate change, and the whole devil's orchestra of globalization. There is a broad cast of characters: the inhabitants of Chimalapas, this forested part of northern Oaxaca state--the "original" Zoque; the Tzotzil and Tzeltal from Chiapas; Zapotec from Oaxaca; the NGO Maderas del Pueblo; and many, many actors from the acronym soup of Mexican government agencies and programs (filling nine pages of appendices).

Section I of the book sets out the history--colonialism, the transformations of landscape by neoliberal governments in the 1960s-70s, the megaprojects of Proyecto Mesoamerica that co-opted jaguar corridors and other green icons, and, central to the book, the Campesino Ecological Reserve, a would-be posterchild of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). There is a provocative Section II on the "emergence of the environment," the production of a green social paradigm called "environmentalism" and "nature," which Doane stimulatingly interprets as a Plan B (or C) for neoliberal market appropriation, to turn land into a market commodity open to all the manipulations and trickeries of finance capital. This chapter has a global conceptual sweep, but comes back to reality in the geography, history, and social frame of Chimalapas, to explain why the WWF and other ecological imperialists wanted to create an ecological reserve there. Section III is more specifically on the Mexican federal- and state-level political manipulations, actors, drivers, rationales, and outcomes.

To explain the trajectory of the reinventions of Chimalapas, Doane examines the history of environmental policies at global and local scales, from conservation enclaves to Joint and Community Forest Management to Payment for Environmental Services and Certification, and now to "stewardship." This critique of "barbed wire" conservation enclaves flogs some dead horses, and readers of this book will be well-versed in the arguments. Doane convincingly argues that the neoliberal idiom of "stakeholders" and Marxist argumentations, explanations, and proffered solutions are equally alien and unconvincing "western inventions" for the Chimas (the inhabitants of Chimalapas). Both tend to ignore place and locale.

Paradigms conceptualizing the local people have shifted from derogatory views of primitiveness (as in the purported banditry of the Chimas as destroyers of nature for short-sighted gains), to a recognition of the lack of alternatives ("not perpetrators, but victims" of their situation), to visions of stalwart resistance to colonialism and globalization, and thence to current idealizations as stewards of a global patrimony (thus, no longer ignoble, but perilously close to reinvention as "noble savages").

These sections of the book are hard-hitting, perhaps cynical. There is an implied challenge that the shifts in external attitudes, especially toward the "ecological native" as steward of local conservation knowledge and practices, are a knowing reinvention of the peasantry in support of accumulation. The author does not concede that--perhaps--the NGOs, WWF, and conservationists recognized the values of local peasant knowledge and practices after decades of seeing overwhelming evidence. The author rarely gives credence to stated motivations, always seeking hidden power drives--even for the local actors.

Insightful in the book is learning how the Chimas adapt to and exploit new external paradigms of themselves. This is a smart history of a resilient and opportunistic people--notably their initiatives in recent decades to form alliances, as in the "the greening of identity" that can link the Chima people's persistent struggle to claim land to the global environmentalist hegemony. Doane provides a similarly nuanced account of how constructs of tradition, usos y costumbres, can be adapted to serve power in the communities.

"Attachment to land" runs throughout the account, nurturing the struggles of the Chima against numerous invaders--the displaced peasantry from Chiapas, "middle class" ranchers from anywhere, hydroelectric reservoirs drowning villages, international NGOs (of which WWF appears as the biggest villain), and the barbed wire ecological reserves. Yet why the peoples of Chimalapas are so attached to these lands is not deeply explored. Doane repeats the local conviction that Chiapas State stole Oaxaca land by what could be called "sleight of map," and the Chimas, as Oaxaquenos, want to expel the Chiapanecos. Are they struggling to retain this land for Oaxaca? Or more pertinently, is land to be controlled, occupied, "owned," and beholden to themselves as Chimas?

The narrative stimulates the reader to ponder and question many secondary issues, all interconnected with the main story, such as the primeval struggle between agriculturalists and pastoralists, vilified in many political cultures. In this book, the pastoralists moving in from other states are allowed no defence of their livelihoods, their own struggles, or their contributions. They are given no voice, only portrayed as murderous ruffians. Similarly, caciques are essentially seen also as villainous, yet they can fulfil a necessary function as boundary actors between people and the state, as do NGO leaders. Doane addresses how the relationship of academics to local campesino and indigenous movements impacts on significant external actors and on changing scale and consciousness internally, as with the nurturing of Mestizacion by intellectuals in Mexico, and thence into the national political arena and cultural imagination.

Gender issues are not addressed separately, but Doane does observe how women and children are brought into the (male-dominated) movements. Their presence in the movement introduces performing as a show of inclusiveness--aimed partly at external legitimacy. In the ideological imagination, this can reinforce the image of the protection of the environment as the feminine, and these images and slogans are again important for external empathy. Women's membership may also "soften" the confrontations, hopefully limiting violent responses of the state (this doesn't always work, when state or private agents deliberately target women to intimidate the movement).

Although the book presents a comprehensive and thoroughly argued thesis, it leaves untouched two important questions. First, what are the viable alternatives within the current market liberalism? The rapacious demand for Chima land and its resources is not disappearing. It will not be replaced by "leakage" to other landscapes in Mexico, and Mexico's constitutional amendment of 1991 granting legal provisions to parcel and privatize ejido (communal) lands will not be revoked. Cannot the legal appropriation of the land as a "campesino reserve"--with conditionality to ensure the survival of local entitlements--offer a better solution than a slow (violent) death through incursions, invasion, and excisions?

And second, should the moral enigma of rights and entitlements to land be based on ancestral occupancy or on good stewardship? The author supports the Principle of First Occupancy which would grant the right to land to the Chima, the descendants of original inhabitants. Doane, however, accepts that the legalistic claims to these lands, based on a document of 1687, are disputable, and she recognizes explicitly that the present inhabitants are a broad ethnic mix. Indeed, the story is fascinating on how the defining terms of place and people, "Chimalapas" and "Chima," are appropriated by savvy local NGOs and politicians to claim a chimerical unity of people and place and brush over internal conflicts.

The book presents a very impressive confluence of theoretical critique based across literature, grounded with thoughtful observations gleaned from discourse and discussion with wide-ranging sources, and very personal experiences in the field, although the author can appear arch and patronizing when describing meetings as clashes of objectives and worldviews between "razzing" government officers, "bragging ranchers," USAID officials, and academic ecologists. Are cultural anthropologists the only actors who have an untainted bird's eye overview?

The book rightly claims to inform us on the "production of space," but achieves much more than that. It is about social forces and contestation and resilience. It is not just a post-modernist lens on what "Chimalapas" signifies to outsiders, but a witness to a persistent, resilient people and their deep, hard-wired commitment to "their" land.

Michael K. McCall, UNAM and University of Twente
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Author:McCall, Michael K.
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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