Mex-Eco? Mexican Attitudes Toward the Environment

By Wade Graham
Volume 2, Number 3 (Spring 1992)
Issue theme: "Words, symbols, and roadblocks in the immigration debate"

The domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.

- Murray Bookchin

We still don't know how to put morality ahead of politics, science, and economics. We are still under the sway of the destructive and vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just part of it.

- Vaclav Havel, addressing the U.S. Congress

In recent years, the American environmental movement has seen the focus of its attention shift from the national to a more international stage.1 The greenhouse effect, population pressures, and acute resource depletion cross national, continental, and oceanic borders. This has prompted a greater awareness of the global scale of the environmental predicament. In order to find new, international solutions to shared problems, we face the challenging task of broadening our understanding of other geographies and cultures.

Both proximity and common interest must direct our awareness toward our Latin American neighbors. Mexico, due to its long shared border with the United States and the complex web of interrela-tionships that the border creates - historical, economic, social, and environmental - is of particularly critical and immediate importance. This essay seeks to address the question of Mexican cultural attitudes toward the Man-Nature nexus.

It is an understatement that the United States and Mexico have oftentimes enjoyed less than cordial relations, animated by mutual distrust and incomprehension. These difficulties have extended into the environmental sphere. From a United States perspective, Mexico's posture in recent decades on environmental degradation would seem to be one, if not of pure negligence, certainly one less concerned and committed than our own. The perceived disparity between levels of environmental consciousness in the two countries might be explained in terms of developmental differences, or by reference to an innate cultural difference between northern and southern European - Protestant and Catholic - heritages.

Yet, regardless of the presumed causes, the preferred outlook seems to be clear enough from this side of the line, as the comment of one Mexican-American resident of El Paso about its sister-city, Ciudad Juarez, demonstrates We came from there, but they're not us. They toss their garbage in the Rio Grande and want us to pay to clean it up. We may share a baseball team and a past, but we aren't one community. Who the hell wants to be part of Mexico?2

Many Mexicans on the other hand have in the past typically seen the issue not as matter of their own cultural backwardness, or an inheritance from the Spanish colonial past, but rather as the unfortunate consequence of a chronic economic stagnation which stems from Mexico's historic dependence on the United States and other First World nations. In the words of one government scientist

We Mexicans cannot get excited over ecological problems which are the by-products of industrial development. We tend to look upon such questions as the most recent fad in a rich country seeking distraction from the real problems, such as nutrition, housing, and public health. Moreover, the limited resources at the command of a less developed country prevent it from dealing with ecological problems in any form.3

These differences of perception complicate our ability to cooperate on trans-frontier problems, and further contribute to the climate of mutual suspicion and lack of communication that hamper US-Mexican relations. It is unfortunate that, on the one hand, many Americans consider Mexico to be incapable of solving its own problems; and on the other that Mexicans feel justified in shifting blame to the United States, while overlooking their own responsibilities. Nevertheless, it remains glaringly true that environmentalism in the United States has had significant success in changing public policy as well as public opinion, while in Mexico it is still acceptable, even in the most affluent of neighbor-hoods, to simply toss one's ripening garbage over the wall and onto the street.

As a starting point one must ask why the United States now enjoys a multi-faceted and increasingly powerful environmental movement with a 100-year history of political activism, while Mexico has only recently - and that to a great extent under the pressure and influence of the developed world - begun the process of coming to terms with its share of the ecological catastrophe? By comparing the historical experiences of the United States and Mexico, an attempt can be made to clarify the underlying causes for the success of the one and the failure of the other in developing a broader environmental consciousness, and to determine what cultural, ideological, and economic barriers stand in the way of such a consciousness.

Conservationists [in the U.S.] saw

the continuing rapid and unregulated

exploitation of natural resources

as a danger to the future prosperity

and stability of the nation.


Environmentalism, as a significant and organ-ized political phenomenon, first appeared in the United States toward the close of the nineteenth century. Although its membership was diverse, and its various constituent philosophies often contradictory, the emergence of the conservation movement was essentially a reaction to the far-reaching changes being wrought on American society and on the American landscape by the events surrounding the closing of the frontier. Not only did this period see the end of continental expansion and Indian warfare, it was witness to the setting in motion of an entire series of dislocations in the fundamental structure of society. The rise of industrial capitalism, rapid urbanization, and enormous population growth - much of it due to immigration - contributed to the United States' transition from a predominantly agricultural to an urban, industrial society. These changes in turn led, for the first time in the nation's history, to increasingly serious pressure being put on the natural resource base, thus prompting a growing number of people to undertake a reassessment of America's traditional policy of no-holds-barred exploitation.

Most observers agree that environmentalism was roughly composed of two communicating wings, conservationist and preservationist, each with its own diagnosis of American society's ills, and each prepared to apply its own set of remedies. In these early stages - indeed, until recently - the movement's complexion was dominated by its conservationist wing. Conservationists saw the continuing rapid and unregulated exploitation of natural resources as a danger to the future prosperity and stability of the nation. Many of them were scientists, engineers and civil servants, and most all were adherents of what Samuel P. Hays described as the gospel of efficiency the application of scientific management techniques to improve and rationalize the functioning of the market.4

The other side of the environmentalist coin in these days represented something almost revolu-tionary. If the conservationist wing's utilitarian response to the crisis engendered by industrialism could be described as an evolution of the traditional tenets of Western modernism, the preservationist wing's response began instead with a profound skepticism toward modernity's supposed virtues.

It is important at this stage in the discussion to note that both wings of the environmental movement, whether pro- or anti-modernist, shared certain fundamental beliefs, without which an effective movement would not have been possible a sophisticated cultural appreciation of the natural world's ecological complexity and aesthetic beauty; a middle class commitment to grassroots democratic process and the Jeffersonian ideal of equity in land ownership; and, perhaps most importantly, a fierce and highly moral dedication to the ideas of a public trust or national interest in protecting natural resources.


In the case of Mexico, the picture is strikingly different. In contrast to the United States, Mexico has had, since the colonial era, a quasi-feudal agricultural system stubbornly inured to periodic attempts at land reform, an elite-dominated authoritarian political system lacking all but the most rudimentary features of civil society, and has not, until very recently, been able to achieve significant industrial development.5

The Spanish conquest of Mexico inaugurated a persistent pattern of land use and political domination which has yet to be broken. The system of land grants, or encomiendas, awarded to faithful servants of the Crown guaranteed total control over the wealth and inhabitants of vast tracts of the country to a very small class, in perpetuity. After Independence, the hacienda, or latifundio carried on this feudal tradition. One nineteenth century observer had these remarks on the subject

With some honorable exceptions, the rich landowners of Mexico...resemble the feudal lords of the Middle Ages. On his seigneurial lands, with more or less formalities, the landowner makes and executes the laws, administers justice and exercises civil power, imposes taxes and fines, has his own jails and irons, metes out punishments and tortures, monopolizes commerce, and forbids the conduct without his permission of any business but that of the estate.6

Even after the first serious attempt to hasten the disintegration of the feudal system - the liberal Benito Juarez's La Reforma of the 1860s - the pattern of land concentration continued unabated. As part of his program to bring capitalist relations to Mexico, Juarez's decrees opened the way to further attack on communal Indian lands, which had hitherto had some protection under the colonial Law of the Indies. However, instead of promoting the yeoman farmer, the end result was the creation of an internal frontier for further exploitation by the great landowners. This in turn fueled the trend toward monoculture of export foodstuffs and cattle-raising, with a concomitant pauperization of the peasantry. Since this period, Mexico has proven itself increasingly unable to satisfy domestic food needs, necessitating rising imports, and government subsidy of large producers. All of this exacerbates Mexico's chronic dependency on foreign interests and its own regional oligarchies, making the prospects of land reform, modernization and democracy even dimmer.

...the fact that the Mexican middle

classes have been historically small,

weak, and almost entirely confined

to the cities makes their perspective

very different.

In contradistinction to the United States, the fact that the Mexican middle classes have been historically small, weak, and almost entirely confined to the cities makes their perspective very different. At no point in the nation's history was settlement carried out by a single, relatively homogeneous middle-class group vying for one thing - forty acres and a mule. The system of landholding in Mexico rested on the forced exclusion of the majority - mostly Indian or Mestizo - of the population from access to the land. Hence the interests of the elite to retain their exploitive dominance of the land-hungry masses in the countryside precluded the very idea of tempering the exploitation of nature. It is also pertinent to note that Mexico never reached an end of the frontier stage in the American sense - the persistence to this day of territorial conflict between a small white elite and the Indian majority signifies an ongoing internal frontier which has given no pause for contemplating the national destiny. Moreover, Mexico is an extremely rugged, mostly arid country, where it is difficult and risky to produce crops, even if one has access to arable land.

The intellectual climate of Mexican history is also different, and here, maybe even more so than on the land, the heritage of Spain and the Catholic Church have proven incredibly durable. Firstly, the Spanish conquest of metal-rich Mexico was not a colonization in the same sense as were the English, French, or Dutch movements to North America. For 400 years Spain's activities in Latin America were almost exclusively directed at the rapid extraction of wealth in the form of commodities. The effort to convert the heathen was, in terms of governable labor, integral to economic colonization. Also, Spain invested in heavily-populated Mexico mainly through military occupation, not through massive resettlement of troublesome or surplus citizens.

Secondly, this period of Spanish expansion coincided neatly with the Inquisition at home, and as a consequence ideas were as regulated in the New World as were gold or slaves. The Spaniards who came to the New World had been conditioned in a Counter-Reformation climate which had effectively rooted out of Spanish soil any shred of those ideas - natural-rights philosophy, participatory civic organization, free scientific inquiry, and especially religious freedom - which subsequently made the rest of North America's radical political and social innovations possible.

...the ground [for republican ideals]

was unfit due to centuries of

inertia, isolation and social


When independence eventually came to Mexico and Latin America, the leadership which supplanted Spanish dominion failed in the majority of cases successfully to impose on their societies the republican ideals under which they had campaigned. The ill-digested fragments they had borrowed from American and French liberation proved in the long run to be unsuited to Latin American reality. This is partially because the ground was unfit due to centuries of inertia, isolation, and social stratification, and partially because the new ruling classes were substantially the same as the old and saw little to quarrel with in their own cultural inheritance.

Accordingly, Mexico's belated reception of Enlightenment thought in the nineteenth century was filtered through a thickly anachronistic, baroque sensibility. Thus, although Mexico was quite strongly influenced by romanticism, it was of a peculiar sort, stressing the militarist themes of patriotism, stoicism, and heart and soul nationalism, over the introspective individualism and nature worship of its Northern European and American counterparts. Latin American romanticism also eschewed the idealization of the Indian as noble savage and the rejection of industrialization in favor of an image of the indio as a bloodthirsty enemy of embattled civilization. Contrary to any back-to-the-land denunciation of the materialism and degradation of urban existence, Mexican romantics and conservatives alike held rural life and rural people - the vast majority - to be barbaric. For them the question was always different - how to achieve modernity, how not to reverse or temper it.

And, whereas the capitalist countries went on to produce anti-modernist naturalism and realism, Mexico's chief -ism at the close of the nineteenth century - a bellwether period for American conservation - was positivism a doctrine that elevated order and progress above freedom, and proposed to build a bourgeois society without democratic institutions. The Liberal president Francisco Madero, regarded as the father of the Mexican Revolution, stated emphatically that he saw democracy as little more than an instrument of social control, and that, The lower classes do not determine who should hold the reins of power. Democratic nations are generally ruled by party leaders drawn from a small number of intellectuals.7

This posture has proven to be a permanent inheritance for the political leaders of the Mexican Revolution. The quasi-feudal agricultural system, oligarchical domination and corruption that existed before the revolution not only continue to hold sway, but also hopes for an expanded, politically active middle class have not resulted. The mutual toleration of elites, combined with the skilled manipulation of dissent and social unrest through cooptation - a practice invented by the infamous dictator Porfirio Diaz, who observed that a dog with a bone in its mouth neither kills nor steals8 - has become an institutional aspect of Mexican political life.

Compounding Mexico's problems, the shocks of the uneven and premature development forced on the country, not only by its leaders, but by the concerted pressure of foreign industrial and banking interests, have created a crisis situation in which the immense foreign debt, chronic devaluations, and burgeoning population growth all conspire to sow chaos in the economy. Much of this must be attributed to the Mexican regime's adherence to the model of export-led growth which has, since 1940, dramatically and critically worsened the agricultural situation.

As we will see more fully below, the early promise of the Revolucion Verde, or Green Revolution, to increase production has only done so for the export agribusiness sector, while production of basic foodstuffs for domestic consumption has fallen to disastrous levels. And while Mexico has had considerable success in promoting its export agriculture, any gains have come at the high cost of extreme and irreversible soil damage, deforestation, and massive expropriation of peasant lands. Against such a tide, it is hard to imagine any environ-mentalist movement having much success, no matter how well-organized.


However, despite the fact that the extreme condition of the social structure would seem to make environmentalism in Mexico an impossible dream, some recent progress has been made toward the elaboration of a coherent and distinctly Latin American environmentalism. As in the American case, this development occurred at a specific point in the material history of the nation, a point at which perception of the natural world as a serious problem and constituent factor in the nation's economic and social development coincided with a stock-taking of the society's direction. But in the Mexican case, the point of perception fell a century later, primarily in the 1970s.

It was not until the 1970s that

larger numbers of Mexicans paid any real

attention to environmental degradation,

and this because the problem suddenly

became too dramatic to ignore.

This is not to say that there were no antecedents. Tracing their roots for the most part to the signal examples of their North American and European counterparts, Mexican and Latin American environmentalists also can and do boast of having their own tradition. Although they claim no figure equivalent in stature to John Muir, much attention has been given recently in the press to a reevaluation of the region's history in a search for role models. Alexander von Humboldt, Simon Bolivar, and the Argentine-born William Henry Hudson are a few examples of newly discovered conservationist precursors.9 Though most of the examples usually cited are Germans or Englishmen who, like Darwin, spent important years in the region, boosters will point out that Latin America and Latin Americans nevertheless played a key role in the history of the natural sciences and ecology.

It is also noted that, although directly derivative of the US experience, an effort to establish national park systems in several countries was underway only a few years after the establishment of Yellowstone in 1872. Mexico, in 1876, established the forest reserve Desierto de los Leones, which was converted to national park status in 1901. During the liberal regime of Lazaro Cardenas (1935-1939) 36 parks in 17 locations were created, and this number has so far risen to 55. Though this might seem promising at first, these parks amount to a mere 0.4 percent of the national territory. They are primarily coniferous timber (not ecological) reserves, and their administration has been less than exemplary The majority were established without preliminary studies; they are basically concentrated in areas of temperate forest, and all contain already disturbed vegetation. Often the areas are very small and in many cases the parks are closely bound to urban centers.10 Mexico has also had its share of botanical and wildlife protection societies, although they were neither as influential nor as broadly conservationist in intention as their foreign counterparts. Since 1940, which saw the ratification by sixteen OAS member nations of the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere - a timely response to the Convention for the Protection of Nature signed by the British Commonwealth and Belgium in that same year - regional and national organizations have continued their efforts toward wildlife preservation.

But it was not until the 1970s that larger numbers of Mexicans paid any real attention to environmental deterioration, and this because the problem suddenly became too dramatic to ignore. This must be understood in the context of Mexico's path toward industrial development, which by that decade had reached a critical mass of both intensity and unresolved contradictions between the old Mexico and the new.

Mexican industrialization is generally divided into three stages 11

1. (1890-1910) the initial elaboration of an industrial base - glass, dynamite, cement, tobacco, textiles, etc. - under the Porfiriato, or adminis-tration of Porfirio Diaz, whose policies favored heavy foreign, mainly British and American, investment in extraction industries, and saw the building of railroads and infrastructure as linking northern Mexico definitively with the economy of the US and Southwest;

2. (1910-1940) the period of reconstruction and consolidation,12 stretching from the Mexican Revolution of 1910 through the Great Depression, a period of comparative stagnation; and

3. (1940- the present) the period of expansion, beginning with import substitution efforts during the Second World War and the Korean conflict, programmatic nationalizations of key industries, and integration into the global marketplace.

Yet, from the standpoint of environmental quality, heavy industrialization per se played only a partial role in generating the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. What is more significant in la Crisis is the disastrous effect wrought by the industrial transformation of traditional agriculture that was occurring almost simultaneously in the countryside. Once self-sustaining in basic foodstuffs, Mexico was to become in the post-war period of expansion a net importer of grains - all in the pursuit of a costly industrialization which required an ever more intensive export agricultural sector to finance it. Governmental policy veered toward assigning agriculture the role of foreign exchange earner to support industrialization and provide it with an internal market, and domestic food security fell by the wayside. Steven Sanderson describes the shift in agricultural policy as a disarticulation of production from consumption 13

As the economy shifted from a rural to an urban setting and from agriculture to industry after World War II, the shape and meaning of crop and cattle production also shifted. Agriculture was no longer the engine of growth for the Mexican economy; it was instead the adjunct of industrialization. Basic food production was no longer the goal of the agricultural system; it was geared increasingly to support agribusiness processors, retailers, and intermediaries....14

Active government intervention on the part of the export agricultural complex has been widespread. From the financing of dams, irrigation projects, and infrastructure, to enforced equities in access to credit and price supports, government policy has radically favored irrigation - and therefore agribusiness export production in the northern border states - over rain-fed staples cropping up in the south. As foodstuffs production suffers and prices rise under the influence of foreign markets, so too are the peasantry forced off the land and into migrant labor or the already crowded cities.

Even the much-heralded advent of the Green Revolution, though perhaps quite successful on Mexican soil in terms of advances in plant genetics, resulted only in the exacerbation of the trend toward large scale agribusiness production for export. Although the new, high-yield seeds and techniques initially promised increased food self-sufficiency to developing countries like Mexico, the enormous capital requirements of Green Revolution-style farming actually have helped to speed the economic extinction of traditional smallholder agriculture. Ignacy Sachs writes ...a highly capital-intensive package was offered to solve the problems of peasants and countries starved of capital.15

...the speed and anarchy of Mexican

hyperurbanization and agricultural

concentration quickly led

to a crisis situation...

The industrialization of Mexican agriculture systematically increased the country's dependence upon foreign interests, markets, and subsidiary producers for its visibility. In the space of a few decades this process arrived at, as Sanderson writes, the removal of food policy from the public realm.16 Further, by the 1970s agricultural industrialization had exacted a dear cost in soil erosion, water pollution, and massive social dislocation. In effect, the watershed of 1970-1980 must be seen as the first fruition of a devastating process, begun in 1940, of rural decapitalization and uncontrollable urbanization. And while it is true that these processes had not been in motion as long or as intensely as in the developed world, the speed and anarchy of Mexican hyper-urbanization and agricultural concentration17 quickly led to a crisis situation, as one writer concluded

From the point of view of quality of life and the environment, the period of 1980 to 1986 can be characterized as a crisis. Crisis because in this short time considerable changes have occurred which have aggravated the general state of the environment; crisis because the financial and economic situation of Mexico compromises civil peace and national security, in so far as our natural resources are being exported to pay, not the principal, but the service on the external debt; and crisis as well because we find ourselves in a decisive moment in which humanity has put itself at a crossroads (encrucijada - also trap or ambush).18

As the development process churned forward, so too did an increasingly frightening level of environmental damage reverse any gains made in the quality of life of the impoverished majority. The population explosion, rampant deforestation and desertification over 80 percent of the country, chronic and dangerous atmospheric pollution, severe marine damage due to oil spills and overfishing, urban congestion, contamination in food and water, even high levels of DDT in mother's milk, all tarnished the regime's promises of economic prosperity. Further, any assessment of ecological damage is forced to reckon with the extreme havoc that the development process has wrought on Mexico's social structure proper

...what has occurred is a phenomenon of severe social disorganization. Urban neurosis, transportation problems, environmental contamination and other, repeatedly listed problems, contribute to generating violence of the most diverse variety delinquency, crime, corruption, suicide, and growing inconformity with political and governmental institutions.19

It is probably fair to say that Latin America's leaders, in the headlong rush toward industrial prosperity, had not spent much time contemplating the possibility that Mother Earth would one day stand implacably in the way of their dreams. It is thus understandable that they may have been caught off guard by the sudden international concern which led to the convocation in 1972 of the U.N. World Conference on the Environment held in Stockholm.20 At this assembly and later, in response to growing international pressure that countries such as Mexico act to control their population growth and resource exploitation, political and business leaders stubbornly held to the assertion that environmental degradation was in essence a creation of voracious First World consumption, and that countries on the road to development could not afford to sacrifice vital progress against what they termed the contamination of poverty and underdevelopment. At Stockholm, OAS Secretary General Gallo Plaza Lasso summed up the general Latin American position, which saw rapid development and explosive population growth not as the causes of environmental deterioration, but as its solutions

The developed countries must understand that countries engaged in all-out struggle to improve the well-being of their people tend to see strict environmental controls as a luxury they cannot afford....The Latin American countries...see the conflict between development and environment as a false dilemma, since both must be taken into account in the integral effort to improve man's well-being.21

However, independent Mexican intellectuals soon began to reevaluate their positions in the development debate, questioning the regime's absolute subordination of ecological issues to industrialization. They realized that real development had not materialized, and that an enormous cost was being paid for whatever meager progress they could claim. On the contrary, Mexico's previously critical problems had only worsened, at least for the ever-growing majority, and it was becoming clearer that the well-being spoken of by the General Secretary was meant only for the powerful few who were carrying out the wholesale exploitation of the nation's natural resource endowment without regard for future generations. In the early 1970s a cursory investigation would have demonstrated that at least 80 percent of Mexico City's industrial air pollution was caused by only 70 sources, many of which were either foreign- or government-owned.22 Moreover, it has long been obvious that these interests are functionally above efforts to enforce the law. One writer, in castigating governmental agencies for their inability to enforce environmental sanctions against both private and state-owned enterprises, stated that, The pressure [the industries] apply to avoid the application of the law is both constant and public.23

The cynicism and contempt with which government environmental protection policy is viewed is frequently voiced within the intellectual community. One writer, describing the neglect shown by Mexico's institutional response to the air pollution problem, went so far as to conclude that the line of action...leads us to question the directive of our institutions in safeguarding the well-being of the population.24 least 80 percent of Mexico City's

industrial air pollution was caused by

only 70 sources, many of which were

either foreign- or government-owned.

Mexico's embrace of environmentalism in the last two decades has had a different tone than its counterparts in the developed world, as it is a reaction to what is essentially a Third World modernity, with characteristics all its own. In Mexico one speaks of modernity with a grain of salt as this denotes a peculiar state of affairs in which a fully modern, American-style consumer media culture has been crudely overlain onto an insufficiently dissolved structure of feudal poverty. The awareness of these contradictions, integral to the Mexican Left's traditional critique of capitalist development, was similarly seen to be a necessary and fundamental aspect of any environmental discourse. Taking cautionary heed of the success of Green political movements in Europe, Mexico's Left soon launched an effort to, in a sense, annex the infant environ-mental movement to its broader agenda, and has even obtained guidance from traditional German liberal Left parties who were shut, dumbfounded, out in the cold by the swift rise of Die Grune.25

One obstacle to be overcome in this process was the Left's initial distrust of environmentalism as an attempt by the developed Western distract attention from the true struggle of the people.26 They likewise questioned what they saw as environmentalism's failure to offer, in its critique of their abuses, an alternative development plan for the developing world.27 Accordingly, Mexicans began early to question the model of American environmentalism as being insignificantly critical of the society's base, as one commentator expresses

The ecological movement was born in the U.S. a cause of liberal groups; groups which, in general, have not distinguished themselves for their capacity to confront the basic problems of North American society.28

Realizing that the defense of the environment is, for many Mexicans, essentially a class issue, environmentalists have tied their efforts to a broader critique of Mexico's dependency and domination by an internal elite. This critique owes much to the belief that Mexico's environmental catastrophe is an integral aspect of economic dependency on the United States and other industrialized nations.

The critique of Mexico's traditional style of dependent development from an environmental stand-point has given rise to a widely embraced and, in some quarters, increasingly radical doctrine of ecodesarollo, or desarollo sin deterioro (development without deterioration). Although its exact form is actively debated across the wide spectrum of Mexican political life, ecodesarollo proposes to reformulate Mexico's development strategy through the scientific management of resources, the introduction of labor-intensive technologies more appropriate to the tropics, and most centrally, by legislating a more equitable distribution of land and wealth. Particularly with regard to redressing the past and current failures of Mexican agricultural policy, ecodesarollo has offered an array of sustainable development alternatives geared toward guaranteeing domestic food security, protecting resources, and creating adequate employment of the rural, landless poor.29 These programs are extremely promising, at least theoretically, as ecodesarollo has yet to prove itself capable of challenging the powerful, global forces which have thus far dictated Mexico's industrial and agricultural development.

Not surprisingly, most proponents of ecodesarollo are highly nationalistic and staunchly in favor of industrial modernization - albeit of a more benign variety - insisting that poverty and wealth are Mexico's real forms of pollution. They are largely composed of university-trained intellectuals, and apparently without exception refuse to waver from an anthropocentric, use-oriented approach to nature. Mexican environmentalism can thus be fruitfully compared to the pre-1960 American conservation of the gospel of efficiency type, except that in Mexico, environmental questions as yet rarely admit of an aesthetic component, and are even more strictly and systematically subordinated to purely economic rationales.30 Indeed, it is improbable that the preservationist valorization of nonhuman nature that has animated so much of recent American environmentalism will ever play a role in Mexican politics, so fixed are Mexican and Latin American aspirations on the as-yet embattled primacy of man. This attitude is aptly, though rather unsubtly, expressed in this description of some unnamed portion of the American environmental movement by Luis Vitale, a prominent marxist theorist and writer on the environment

In reaction to the environmental deterioration provoked by urban industrial society, there has developed a movement, permeated with a metaphysical conception of nature, that postulates a return to agrarian society, an idealist position which slips into an ingenuous naturalism without destination.31

One consequence of this attitude is that, with few exceptions,32 there persists a general consensus that population growth does not represent a problem for ecodesarollo, is perhaps even something to be proud of, and that concerns to the contrary belie racist First World manipulation to maintain the status quo of dependency and domination. In this respect it is illuminating to read the list of items of high environmental concern specified by the Mexican government in a full-page advertisement (published in the Los Angeles Times and other major U.S. newspapers on June 4, 1990) Emphasis will be on...such problems as acid rain, desertification, loss of species, contamination of the oceans, and atmospheric changes. Not very close to home.

Another consequence of the peculiar character of nascent Mexican environmentalism, and one that is readily acknowledged, is that the self-styled environmentalist avant-garde, true to form, has had little success in galvanizing public opinion. Environmentalists concede that progress...has been slow and at times not very effective, partly due to a lack of education and concern on the part of the citizenship, and partly because all the activity, in many cases, has been limited to lyrical declarations.33 However, recognition of the necessity for grassroots political participation has led to an unprecedented commitment on the part of environmentalists to join the struggle to democratize Mexico's political institutions

Today, we must recognize that the fight for a clean environment, for a rational use of resources, requires democratic processes and a politics which curtails inequality and injustice....34

With luck the fruit of this renewed effort toward political change will be the unprecedented harnessing of the accumulated sociopolitical unrest of the Mexican masses for the environmental cause. And yet, just how quickly Mexico's environmentalists will prove successful in overcoming the immense structural obstacles posed by their society remains an open question. Certainly the changed international climate of awareness of environmental problems and the increasing interdependency of the developed and developing worlds will continue to exert pressure for positive change.


1 Donald Worster ed., The Ends of the Earth Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, (Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 1988).

2 Alan Weisman with photographs by Jay Dusard, La Frontera The United States Border With Mexico, (New York Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1986), p.37.

3 Stanley R. Ross ed., Views Across the Border The United States and Mexico, (Albuquerque University of New Mexico Press, 1978), pp.333-334.

4 Clayton Koppes among others has pointed out that, although straightforward economic prudence may have accounted for much of environmentalism's early success in influencing policy, the Progressive era conservationists were equally committed to the democratic ideal of equity in land ownership and access to other resources. The equity argument, he writes, stressed that natural resources belonged to all the people and should be retained in public control in order to prevent their concentration in the hands of the few and to insure that the benefits of resource development were distributed widely and fairly. Clayton R. Koppes, Efficiency/Equity/Aesthetics Toward a Reinterpretation of American Conservation, Environmental Review, vol.11, no.2 (Summer 1987), p.130. cf. J. Leonard Bates, Fulfilling American Democracy The Conservative Movement, 1907-1921, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XLIV (1957).

5 My commentary on Mexican history is drawn from numerous sources, among them Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, (New York Cambridge University Press, 1986); Authoritarianism in Mexico, eds. Jose Luis Reyna & Richard S. Weinert, (Philadelphia Inst. for the Study of Human Issues, 1977); Leopoldo Allub, Origenes del autoritarismo en America Latina, (Mex DF Editorial Katun, 1983); Carlos Herrejon Peredo, Historia del Estado de Mexico, (Toluca University Autonoma del Estado de Mexico, 1985; John S. Leiby, Colonial Bureaucrats and the Mexican Economy Growth of a Patrimonial State, 1763-1821, (New York P. Land, 1986).

6 Benjamin Keen and Mark Wasserman, A History of Latin America, 3rd Ed., (Boston Houghton Miflin Co., 1988), p.178.

7 Ibid., p.275.

8 Ibid., p.212.

9 cf. Hanno Beck, Los paises tropicales como iconografia natural Alexander von Humboldt y los comienzos del pensamiento ecologista, Humboldt, vol.25, no.83 (1984), pp.22-29; Tomas Perez Tenreiro, Bolivar y sus decretos conservacionistas, Boletin de la Academia Nacional de la Historia (Venezuela), vol.66, no.263 (July-Sept. 1983), pp.597-604; and Helen Tzitsikas, El Sentimiento Ecologico en la Generacion del 98, (Barcelona Borras Ediciones, 1977).

10 Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, Tierra profanada historia ambiental de Mexico, Colecion Divulgacion, Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Secretaria de Desarollo Urbano y Ecologia, Mexico, 1987, p.235. (Note all translations from the Spanish are the author's.)

11 Raul Bejor Navarro, and Francisco Casanova Alvarez, Historia de la Industrializacion del Estado de Mexico, (Mexico Biblioteca Enciclopedica del Estado de Mexico, 1970), pp.81-104.

12 Ibid., p.90.

13 Steven E. Sanderson, The Transformation of Mexican Agriculture International Structure and the Politics of Rural Change, (Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press, 1986), p.8.

14 Ibid., pp.48-49.

15 Ignacy Sachs, Towards a Second Green Revolution? in The Green Revolution Revisited Critique and Alternatives, Bernhard Glaeser, ed., (London Unwin Hyman, Ltd., 1987), p.193.

16 Sanderson, p.11.

17 Urban vs rural proportion of Mexican population - 1940 28.87/78.13, 1950 28.90/71.10, 1960 39.30/60.70, 1970 48.60/51.40, 1980 60.20/39.80. Mexican popula-tion growth 1940-1985 20 million to 80 million. (Figures from Monasterio, ibid., p.232.

18 Monasterio, ibid., p.271.

19 Jorge Montano, Los asentamientos humanos y el desarollo mexicano, in El medio ambiante en Mexico y America Latina, Francisco Szekely, ed., (Mexico Editorial Nueva Imagen, 1978), p.64.

20 Santiago R. Olivier, Ecologia y subdesarollo en America Latina, (Mexico Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1981), p.12.

21 Gala Plaza Lasso, et al. The Development Dilemma Is It Necessary? Americas, vol.24, no.9 (Sept. 1972), pp.3-7.

22 Ivan Restrepo, La ecologia, Revista Mexicana de Sociologia, vol.47, no.1 (Jan.-Mar. 1985), p.226.

23 Ibid., p.23.

24 Francisco Szekely, Las problemas ambientales de Mexico, in Szekely, ibid., p.30.

25 An example is the collection of essays funded by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (Social Democratic Party) of the Federal Republic of Germany Ecologia y politica en America Latina Consecuencias de la industrializacion y el desarollo sobre la ecologia, (San Jose, C.R. CEDAL, 1984).

26 Ibid., p.23.

27 Ivan Restrepo, Aplicaciones practicas del ecodesarollo, in Szekely, ibid., p.100.

28 Cinna Lomnitz, Ser o no ser La cuestion ecologia, Dialogos, vol.7, no.3, 1971.

29 The literature on ecodesarollo and sustainable development is copious and widely available in both English and Spanish.

30 In support of this, one need only note that the sole significant exception to the Mexican Government's lackluster environmental performance is provided by the nationalized tourism industry, where authorities have responded to the threatened loss of tourist dollars with pesos and political muscle to clean up beaches and bays. cf. Roberto Boullon, Turismo y medio ambiente, Direccion de Publicaciones O.P.N., (Mexico Ediciones Politur no.3, 1988); and Sergio E. Molina, Turismo y Ecologia, (Mexico Editorial Trillas, 1982).

31 Luis Vitale, Hacia una historia del ambiente en America Latina, (Mexico Nueva Sociedad/Editorial Nueva Imagen, 1983), p.108.

32 See for example Enrique Beltran, El principal problema ecologico es el crecimiento demografico, Revista Tiempo, vol.87, no.2242 (April 22, 1985).

33 Ecologia y politica en America Latina consecuencias de la industrializacion..., ibid., p.121.

34 Restrepo, p.231.

About the author

Wade Graham is studying toward his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of California

at Los Angeles. This essay deals with the Mexican approach to environment and conservation problems.

Mr. Graham, who is fluent in French and German as well as Spanish, surveyed the debate over immigration in France for our Fall 1991 issue.