Missing piece of the rural jigsaw

The study of the Mexican countryside will never be the same after Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s Intimate Enemies


Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas
Aaron Bobrow-Strain
2007, Duke University Press
272 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THIS REMARKABLE book is, quite simply, a revelation that will have an important impact upon the study of rural society in Mexico and Latin America more broadly.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain turns scholarly analysis of agrarian politics on its head by looking at the land conflicts in Chiapas following the 1994 Zapatista uprising from the perspective of landowners.

As such, the author provides an insight into land conflicts that have, hitherto, almost exclusively been understood and explained through the study of indigenous people and movements. His evidence also challenges the common view that – at least in this southern part of Mexico – neoliberal reform and constitutional changes were successful in transforming agrarian relations.

Intimate Enemies, then, is a major and highly eloquent contribution to the pursuit of objectivity in the study of the countryside, and hence a missing piece of the jigsaw in a discipline shaped by a few seminal works. Traditionally depicted by scholars as the “bad guys” – and as a result largely ignored – the landed elites of Chiapas and elsewhere in rural Latin America remain, as Bobrow-Strain’s work reminds us, key actors in agrarian politics who are ignored at their peril.

If the author’s timely decision to look at their role and responses to land invasions in relation to the cultural politics of race, class and gender isn’t enough, then his theoretical reflections upon the framework that has long shaped scholarship should be more than sufficient to reorient this discipline.

Gun-toting ranchers

The key question addressed by Bobrow-Strain in Intimate Enemies is why previously gun-toting planters and ranchers in Chiapas reacted to land invasions unleashed by the 1994 rebellion without resorting to the violence that, according to most past scholarship, came so naturally to them.

The author assesses past depictions of landowners as a violent and powerful class of modern latifundistas, but does so within a consideration of the reality of changes that had been taking place in the region prior to 1994. These contributed, subsequently, to a “repeasantisation” of land tenure in Chiapas following several years of dramatic neoliberal reform aimed at allowing for the privatisation of land reform institutions in Mexico as part of a wider policy of capitalising agriculture and equipping it to compete in a globalised – or at least regionally integrated – market.

Bobrow-Strain writes: “Contrary to both the plans of neoliberal policy makers and the fears of critics on the left, land tenure in Chiapas underwent a rapid repeasantization and reindigenization rather than privatization and concentration. After decades of inchmeal change, 1994-2001 saw the rapid and, for many rural ladinos, intolerable triumph of indigenous political leaders, monumental steps toward the destruction of land concentration, and accelerated ladino out-migration.” (p.4)

So why didn’t the trigger-happy ranchers contest this process at the point of a gun? Why did they respond to land invasions, instead, with quiescence and resignation?

Bobrow-Strain provides the answer by going back to basics and looking again at the tendency to treat Chiapan landowners as a “divine caste” exercising an uncontested hegemony over their territories. In reality, this hegemony was both precarious and dynamic, subject to many incongruities and contradictions. The author demonstrates that it is only by looking at these in a detailed ethnographic study that the riddle of quiescence in this case can be solved.

This book should be slotted without delay into the corpus of material that is considered essential for providing students of Latin American politics and society with a balanced view of the topic. It also has implications for area and rural studies more broadly at a time when landowners everywhere are being sandwiched between powerful peasant movements and states deploying land reform as a policy tool.

As the author himself writes: “With this book I seek to breathe new life into the study of landed elites by treating ‘landed production’ and ‘landed elite’ as categories without fixed meanings, categories that are everywhere constructed through contingent processes of social struggle.” (p.10)

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books