A truce in the forest

Political Landscapes: Forests, Conservation, and Community in Mexico
Christopher R Boyer
2015, Duke University Press
337 pages, plates, paperback

ENVIRONMENTAL history has grown rapidly in importance as a discipline in Latin American studies after a generation of neglect, not least because of growing awareness of the huge challenges posed to this region by climate change and how these are shaping political development. This means that any and all new contributions to the discipline should be celebrated and promoted, something made much easier when they are of such high calibre as Christopher Boyer’s Political Landscapes. This book examines the history of forest management in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Michoacán, where vast tracts of timberland were handed over to rural, often indigenous, communities as part of the land redistribution programme that followed the 1917 revolution. However, management of those forests was retained by the federal government, leading to complex relationships between the state and society and often conflict over how the resources should be used as the state entered into contracts with logging companies in order to exploit them. In short, these landscapes became politicised, and as Boyer points out a comprehensive understanding of this process is important for the wider questions that confront conservation initiatives which rely on the community management of natural resources. The book examines two broad phases in community forestry in these states: from widespread dispossession in the 1880s as economic liberalism converted forests into global commodities through to the land reform following the revolution and into the 1930s; and then from the 1940s, when the developmental state emerged in earnest and imposed new limitations on how communities could use their resources, through to the emergence of popular movements seeking to recover peasant autonomy and more modern versions of community forestry in the neoliberal period. By exploring the state’s interventions in forestry and the peasants’ responses to these, Boyer is candid about his aim to highlight how developmentalism transformed forests into politicised landscapes in ways that ultimately damaged ecosystems and exacerbated social injustices. However, while government forestry officials often found themselves in the middle of disputes between communities and the government over management of these resources, their respect for the concerns of local people grew as they became increasingly aware that they could not manage the country’s ecosystems without the compliance of those who lived in them. The author writes: “Only in the final years of the twentieth century did forests finally begin to lose their political charge, as rural people and forestry experts built on their shared experiences to forge new and, in many senses, healthier relationships within the ecosystem.” [p5] Mexico today is now in the vanguard of community forest management, and the lessons that can be learned from its history and revealed in this book can make a valuable contribution globally to reducing deforestation, increasing the incomes of rural communities, and protecting diversity.