ENGAGEMENT editor Rebecca Garvoille recently caught up with Andrew S. Mathews, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to discuss his recent book, Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests (2011, MIT Press), and its broader contributions to forest policy and socio-environmental justice debates in Mexico. This interview is the third installment in an ENGAGEMENT series exploring how environmental-anthropological book projects inspire meaningful engagements in study sites across the globe.
RG: First, for readers who might not be familiar with it, what’s the theme of your new book?
AM: Well, it looks at how forestry—as an internationally circulating science of how to manage forests, extract resources from them, and bring them into the future—arrived in Mexico in the early twentieth century, and how it encountered landscapes and indigenous people in Mexico. I focus particularly on a certain part of Mexico, the southeastern state of Oaxaca, with the idea that this could give some insight into how the science of forestry got incorporated into how people understand forests and then how indigenous people learned about forestry and reworked it and ultimately came to turn it back in some measure against the authority of the state. So it’s about the domestication of a globally traveling science and how that science modified landscapes, and how the science of forestry turns out very surprisingly not to be a very helpful ally for state intervention. Forestry turned out to be a much less hegemonic or friendly tool for powerful people than we might assume it to be.
RG: How does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?
AM: There were a number of different things that I wanted to do in this book. One of them was that I had been reading the classic political ecology when I went to the field, and I was interested in questions of control over landscapes and resources. Nevertheless, I felt that the ecological aspect of a bunch of political ecology hadn’t been developed as much as I would have liked it to be. And of particular concern to me was this idea that different kinds of politics come into being in relation to ecologies. So the ecology of pine forests and pine-oak forests in Oaxaca actually engendered particular forms of politics. This inspired me to pay attention to non-humans as actors who actually produce different kinds of politics. So that was one part. The second part came when I was writing the book, when I really became aware of work in science studies on political culture and epistemic culture and how these two relate. And I found this wonderfully fruitful set of connections between classic work on state-making and politics and Mexican anthropology, and much more recent work in science-and-technology studies which engages with the ways in which knowledge is constituted in different societies. And that combination worked really well for me because I could focus very closely on how the Mexican forestry bureaucracy worked and how it had to respond to multiple audiences and how, rather than being this solid structure or authoritative agency, it was really much more timid and hesitant and episodic and fragmentary than I thought it was going to be. I thought that bureaucracy was this big thing that did things in the world, and the longer I work on it the more I’ve come to realize it’s much more of a rather theatrical performance where many of the people involved are only partly convinced of the whole business.
RG: Your work draws on political ecology. How do you see political ecology intersecting with the concerns of environmental anthropologists?
AM: I actually don’t think of myself as being a political ecologist. To me political ecology is one part of the vast range of work by geographers and historians and anthropologists and science-and-technology studies people who are interested in the ways humans and non-humans collaborate to make worlds. I actually draw upon many domains of scholarship for my work. For instance, I read environmental history quite seriously, partly because I love telling stories about landscape change, partly because history is a wonderful method for sliding through or past apparently authoritative states. And what I mean by that is that government institutions claim to be a certain thing that exists in time and to be very enduring, very solid. But when you look at them over a long period of time they turn out not to be anything like that. And somehow following the history of, say, pine forests or a landscape and how it slips past and only partly connects with human efforts to control it really helps you understand what kinds of affordances landscapes have for political projects, what kinds of weaknesses states have for controlling landscapes, how they engage or don’t engage, how they slip past each other on many occasions.
RG: When you were doing research for your book, how did you engage with different communities—for example, with local people, with scientists, with other scholars?
AM: That’s a great question. Well, in some measure, I had different personas. First of all, I’ll start with the indigenous communities in the Sierra Juárez. I ended up working mainly in the Ixtlán de Juárez, although I did go to some other places also. And I was really working with the forestry technicians and foresters—I actually went into the field with them a lot. So clearly my identity was tied in with them. Therefore, I know that people who were wary of them were probably also wary of me. And that just goes with the terrain of doing fieldwork in a small town. But I had of course to get permission from the indigenous community leaders to be there. So I did quite a lot of work around communicating what I was doing, including a poster that I gave to people, and I gave a presentation toward the end of my time there. So I engaged in quite a lot of communication with local people. I told them I’m writing the history of the forest here, and people really understood that as being a sensible project and something they could make sense of. I thought that was helpful.
Working with forestry officials was kind of different, partly because I was then at the Yale School of Forestry, and I’m actually trained as a forester. I was situated between forestry and anthropology. So my identity as a forester was extremely helpful in making initial contacts within government agencies. After that it really has a lot to do with personal chemistry and who finds your work interesting. A number of forestry officials were themselves extremely troubled about their own institution, so they actually were excited to talk to somebody whom they could tell their stories of discomfort and to share that with me as a fellow forester who actually understood the technical terms. So indeed my identity as a forester was very helpful in allowing me to have certain kinds of conversations with forestry officials.
And finally there was sort of a middle ground of environmental NGOs and environmental activists, who were intermediaries between the state and indigenous communities. With them it was a pretty comfortable fit because most of them were around my age, it seemed like, though some were a little older. And they were all also trying to do some of the same kind of work that I was doing, which was traveling between indigenous communities in forests and bureaucracies in town. So there were some similar kinds of pilgrimages that we were making in a way.
RG: How did your fieldwork spark lasting collaborations or engagements in your study site?
AM: One of the things I tried do was to go back in 2008-2009. For various reasons, it’s been a bit hard for me to travel back. And the most surprising part of it for me actually is that… well, I have very personal connections with people I worked with in Sierra Juárez, which I haven’t chosen to write about in many ways but which matter a great deal to me. With forestry officials, when I returned in 2008-2009, they were just happy to see that I was carrying on, doing my work, and they were happy that the book was coming out. I have one Spanish language article, where I say some critical things about the Mexican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), and I thought they would be upset about it. But actually they were really happy about it. So their attitude has been much more of, “we’re glad that someone is writing about our world” rather than worrying that I’m saying something impolite. That was a very pleasant surprise. My more recent work has actually been looking at how climate change and forests are getting packaged together, and quite a few of the people involved in that world were working in forests when I was working there for my long-term fieldwork. So it turns out that personal connections are tremendously important for ongoing research relationships.
RG: You mentioned that some of the forestry officials were receptive to your critique. Have you had any further engagements with them? For example, have they invited you to speak?
AM: Yes, actually. There was a conference on pulling together all the research on Oaxaca’s forests last spring (put together by David Bray at FIU), and there were a lot of people from indigenous communities there. I talked about a classic environmental anthropology point, which I made in a forthright way by defining forests in Oaxaca as a product of histories of fire and of agricultural abandonment. Therefore, I argued, these were deeply anthropogenic forests. And the thing that really struck me was how this point resonated with the indigenous activists and community leaders in the audience. I was really happy about this is turning out to be helpful. In fact, that’s coming out in a conference proceedings… So there are these ongoing relationships with what I call the environmental practitioner-activist community in Oaxaca.
RG: What is the key message or key point that you hope people take away from reading your book?
AM: One key point would be that ethnographically we find that knowledge bureaucracies like the Mexican Forest Service (but there are many, many others around the world) are usually very fragmented, they’re often uncertain, they have to build alliances with a whole set of different actors: officials above, critics, publics, all kinds of clients; and that this has really huge effects for what kinds of things they know and don’t know. The kinds of things that become official knowledge about forests in the Mexico case depend very greatly upon the nitty-gritty details of encounters between officials and non-officials. So, the argument I make is really that it turns out that if you’re going to know something about what happens in distant forests you have to have very good alliances with the indigenous communities who live there. Which is kind of the opposite of much of the argument that you might hear about how official knowledge gets made. It’s not this sort of dominating gaze of the state. It’s rather this state that has to find allies and get them to sign on for a certain way of seeing the world. And I think it’s rather contrary to much of what we think about states. And I hope that my argument based on my fieldwork in Mexico will be a kind of invitation for other people who work on conservation or climate change or many other environmental fields to think about how their institutions also might have these similar kinds of processes taking place.
RG: What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about environmental conservation projects?
AM: I think that there is some literature in environmental anthropology which paints conservation institutions as authoritative bad guys. I think that this is partially true, but I also think it greatly overstates how powerful these institutions are. Instead of looking at discourses of conservation, we need to pay attention to the nitty-gritty detail of who is doing conservation management—how many people, where they are, what they’re doing, how often they’re there. Because it seems to me that much conservation is so fragile and episodic that it just can’t possibly be this authoritative actor that some versions claim it to be. And that’s just a question of empirical method. If you actually trace institutions and careers and where people are, you come up with a very different account of conservation, for example, than if you trace conservation discourse in official documents, which is absolutely valuable, but needs to be supplemented with this who-what-where-when part of conservation.
RG: What would you say are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussion about social and environmental justice?
AM: Anthropologists have long been saying, “look, there’s all of this important local detail that matters: local ecological knowledge, indigenous knowledge about forests, indigenous ways of understanding the world.” And they say, “what happens when outside actors like conservation institutions or government policies come in is that they don’t pay attention to these details.” And it’s absolutely true that this is the case. However, this is exactly what any government official would tell you, or any conservation official. In other words, the way that bureaucracies work is by bleaching out local context and coming up with big simplifications. So we tend to get stuck in a situation of saying, “we see for the local against the power of the global or the outside.” And I’ve kind of tried to invert that and say, “look, there are moments when details matter a great deal because how conservation gets done affects the careers and the stability of forest institutions or government officials.” So I’ve tried to look for the back path, the ways in which humans and non-humans but especially publics affect the stability of these institutions because government officials will say, “well, we’re so sorry we can’t pay attention to details of what happens in your village, but that’s how it is.” But if we tell them stories about how people like them lost their jobs because they didn’t pay attention to the details, then they’re interested. So my long-term hope is really to say, “look, the details matter to people like you,” meaning officials, and maybe they’ll be receptive to that kind of argument. Certainly in conversation, I think, they are receptive because most of them feel under enormous pressure. They’re really stressed out. They have an agenda of twenty things they’re supposed to do, and they’re struggling with how to make sense of a very confusing landscape. So we can cultivate our understanding of their predicament; maybe cultivate a little bit their fears of why their predicament is unstable; maybe make them a little more receptive to other ways of understanding the world. This is actually what Sheila Jasanoff calls “technologies of humility,” which, I think, is not a bad metaphor. Technology has to be created, but it has to be more humble and more willing to consider alternatives.
RG: You were talking before about how your work is being read by forestry officials in a particular area of Mexico, in Oaxaca, where you work. So it does sound like, in that sense, your work may be actively shaping the management of nature in your study site.
AM: I would say very modestly. People are very busy. They don’t necessarily have time to read the kinds of things that we write. I think it’s actually our job to write very simple, bold, one-page summaries of what we have to say. We have to become more comfortable with the simplification of our work. Because we have to tell stories that people can take away with them to explain the world to themselves. For instance, towards the beginning of my book is this image of a person walking off a cliff as they’re blinded by a newspaper in their face. I think that an image like that with a brief accompanying text about how it links to the lifeworlds of officials is worth a great deal. The agenda of a bureaucrat is infinitely long, and they have to pick up which things from the agenda they can actually respond to. So thinking of a really good story or image to anchor a really simple point we have to make is actually quite valuable. My hope is that the thing that will attract their attention is the sense that people like them have in the past suffered when they did not pay attention, that the kind of stuff we love—ethnographic detail—matters in certain ways to people like them. Maybe that’s the hook. I can’t say that I’ve managed to do this in huge ways, but that’s certainly my approach to trying to make anthropology meaningful and relevant to these kinds of actors.
RG: That concludes our interview. On behalf of ENGAGEMENT and its readers, thank you so much, Andrew S. Mathews, for your time and insight.