Sunday, October 21, 2007

Agencies and Indigenous Peoples Work Together in Mexico: A Case from Chimalapas, Oaxaca

High in the mountains of the Chimalapas, the largest undisturbed cloud forest in all of Central America, life is teeming. From evergreen forests to dry shrub, the variety of habitats in this ecoregion attracts an amazing diversity of wildlife, including the northernmost range of the resplendent quetzal. The Chimalapas Montane Forests ecoregion is a mixture of mountains, plateaus, valleys, and cliffs. The mountains are oriented in an east-west direction and are dissected by many rivers that form deep canyons. Many indigenous peoples live and depend on this forests for their survival.

The Chimalapas montane forests are facing serious threats from logging and agricultural expansion. Many of these forests have almost vanished entirely. In 1998, forest fires burned almost 17,000 acres of this cloud forest. Logging is still extensive in much of the region, and plans for building a dam and a major highway threaten the largest fragments of undisturbed forests. Non-indigenous peoples continue to expand into the area, clearing forests for industrial development and agriculture, severely impacting the indigenous peoples of the region. Many other wildlife species could also share this same fate if the forests are not adequately protected.

To mitigate some of these impacts, in Chimalapas, Mexico, non-governmental actors have attempted to integrate indigenous people into the discourse and practices of the Western environmental movement. In a recent article, however, Molly Doane of the University of Illinois at Chicago argued that although the movement in Chimalapas drew from the well-developed symbolic toolkit of the environmental movement, it was not able to create a space for local indigenous people's concerns within the transnational agenda that was already well established and inflexible. Political ecology was the hinge of this movement: a political-economic analysis that validated traditional agrarian concerns in Chimalapas but included an environmentalist discourse legible to international funders.

By creating a new discourse about Chimalapas, environmentalists in the region helped to consolidate the region as a socially and politically defined place. Activists also attempted to spark new forms of cultural production, recasting "modern" agrarian or indigenous identities embedded in national campesino politics as deeply connected to nature. The lessened was learned, and environmentalists and activists soon realized that they had to incorporate the indigenous peoples concerns if any program was to succeed.

Recently, some of the ecological goals shared by conservationists and indigenous peoples in Chimalapas have, in fact, been realized. 13,000 hectares of lands in Colonia, Cuauhtemoc were returned to Santa Maria Chimalapa, and the World Wildlife Fund has a new large-scale project in the region for the 2003-2008 period that attempts to coordinate the efforts among a number of small NGO projects and government agencies in the interest of establishing a protected area of some kind. Let us just hope that they continue to involve, and remember, the indigenous peoples who depend on this land and its resources for cultural and individual survival.

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