Arriving in Loreto by boat. Photo courtesy Carolina Bastida Davis and wikicommons

Sustaining What?

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Nicole D Peterson


Inequalities and Environmental Conservation in Mexican Protected Areas

“The fishermen can just learn to do something else.”

Sitting at the table discussing the issues facing the marine protected area, I’m sure the scientist who said this meant it to be a positive solution to the problem of resource degradation. And I heard the same kind of suggestions about educating or retraining the fishermen from other people working in tourism or with environmental groups, and it has become a popular policy in many conservation projects. However, this sounded instead like someone who did not know the local fishing industry or the lives of fishermen at all. And more than this, the statement reveals the lack of awareness of the inequalities that underlie many environmental projects. The lack of attention to these kinds of social elements of sustainability can doom such projects to failure.

Unequal Opportunities

The fishermen I knew near Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico, would have liked to do something else. They knew the fish stocks were decreasing, and were always looking for new enterprises. Sebastian, for example, asked the marine park to help him start a business to safely dispose of the grey water from the foreign-owned yachts that moor at his beach. Antonio needed support for creating an aquaculture farm that would replace the fishing he was doing with a more sustainable kind of fishery. Dalia applied to work in the kitchens at a local hotel to support her new family, including her fishing husband. There was a keen desire for something else. Yet Sebastian never found financial support for his project, Antonio never quite earned enough from aquaculture to support his family without fishing, and Dalia’s income also only added a little to the family budget, especially after she injured her back lifting a heavy pot. A history of social, political, and economic marginalization through banking and lending policies, monopolistic pricing, and educational inequalities limited the ability to successfully enact these projects.

Many in the fishing communities also see education as a means for doing something other than fishing, and thus as a way to improve the chances for their children. In 2012, three community students graduated with college degrees, and their parents were thrilled that their children might do something other than fishing. While I have seen many classes of students enter the local high school, few have continued to a college program even with a small scholarship program in place for them. Many of the smart young men leave to support their families by fishing, and even the young women who finish high school often return to start families with their boyfriends. Like their parents, this next generation has ideas and plans for the future, and also hope that their children find a way out of fishing.

Clearly, it is not so easy for the fishermen or their children to do something else. This assumption simply ignores the economic and social inequalities tied to environmental issues and livelihood. Lacking money, connections, and other resources, there are few options aside from fishing.

Unequal Participation

The marine protected area brought more problems to the struggling communities. The fishermen I spoke with argued that the marine park was a tool of the tourism industry to gain control of the marine area and its resources. With greater financial resources, political connections, and cultural capital, tourism interests and environmentalists certainly seemed to have an advantage. Those who supported the creation of the marine protected area tend to live in the larger town of Loreto, and work in the more lucrative tourism industry. One of them, Marcos, runs a tourism business offering sportfishing and ecotours. While we always spoke in Spanish, his English was almost perfect, and he knew much of the United States from his travels there. He and other tourism business owners had websites in English, several clean and comfortable fishing boats, and the resources to wait out the slow business following season after 9/11.

Marcos also critiqued the marine park for not keeping a closer watch on the local commercial fishermen like Sebastian and Antonio. He equated their fishing with crime, and called on the marine park staff to police them. While his clients may legally leave Loreto with huge rolling coolers filled with dorado and yellowtail tuna, he and others said that the fishermen were greedy and unaware of their impact on the environment.

The development of the management plan for the marine park showed the inequalities involved in sharp relief. The rules of the marine park were discussed and modified in a series of open meetings in 2001. The goal for those who organized the meetings was to develop a set of regulations that would create a more sustainable relationship with the environment. Many local groups, including the fishermen and their families, were invited to participate. I watched eagerly as people filed into the large room, hoping to see the sense of agreement and community I had heard about from the park staff, who had been working with the different local groups for several years to create the plan. I also expected some disagreements, since I knew there were still several unresolved issues.

But there was only one table of fishermen surrounded by scientists, environmentalists, and tourism business owners. While others were greeting each other and chatting, the men and women at this central table were busily pouring over the hundreds of pages of the management plan, which I was told had been circulated earlier. They also remained largely quiet throughout the two-day meeting, which was heralded as a successful participatory process. I later learned the fishermen had not seen the plan before the meeting, and that once they had a copy, they had a hard time reading the technical language in the long document. Additionally, many other fishermen had wanted to attend but were unable because of transportation issues or because they needed the income from fishing that day.

After all of this, the marine park regulations remained focused on restricting commercial fishing equipment and areas, and encouraging tourism businesses to report illegal activities. The rules and regulations developed from the planning processes fell heavily on commercial fishing. Some fishermen did organize a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the management plan, but this and other efforts to reduce the impacts on commercial fishing had minimal impact on the final management plan.

Ten years later, people in Loreto are reporting that they are seeing more fish and other species when they go out in the water, cleaner beaches, and other benefits from the marine park. They find that the marine protected area has been able to accomplish some of its goals, and they see a sustainable ecosystem within reach. Yet reflecting on this decade-long process, I wonder about the inherent good we read into the term sustainability, ignoring the ways that sustainability efforts can create greater inequality for groups like fishermen, who bear the brunt of restrictive policies.

Unequal Sustainabilities

Environmental projects can simply neglect the existence of inequalities, such as those between fishermen and tourism business owners, and inadvertently reinforce existing inequalities as happened in Loreto. Without attention to the historical, social and economic contexts that created and maintain these inequalities, such policies inevitably support the status quo. The challenge is how to bring these contexts into discussions of environment and sustainability, so that these inequalities are not sustained along with the environment.

Like Arturo Escobar’s analysis of biodiversity, we might want to question how terms like sustainability become dominant ways of understanding the environment, and how they neglect important relationships between groups, including inequalities. Sustainability in practice does not reach much beyond making environmentalism economically feasible, and certainly discounts other values worth sustaining. Both the fishermen and the tourism businesses want sustainability in this case, but their visions of what this would entail diverge dramatically.

For example, Adriana is a young woman married to a fisherman, and she posts frequently on Facebook about their work patrolling for the marine park. For her, as with others in the community, there is not an opposition between fishing and sustainability. Like others, she believes that some activities, like spearfishing, are harmful. Yet livelihoods also need sustaining. She and her husband join with others in the community to both fish and patrol for illegal fishing. Far from being converted into conservationists who reject all commercial fishing in the area, they see their environmental efforts as part of their lives and experiences of the sea.

Reflecting on the role of sustainability efforts in maintaining or even increasing inequalities brings up an ugly side of environmental issues that has been documented in many parts of the world. Defining sustainability in terms of environment alone is clearly insufficient, short-sighted, and likely self-defeating. The role of these kinds of programs in increasing inequalities makes them unsustainable in the long run. Sustainability is a deeply social and cultural set of ideas, practices, and relationships which in turn can create, perpetuate, or even amplify unequal relationships of power, wealth, or prestige. Thinking about sustainability holistically as a set of relationships among people, markets, governments, and industries emphasizes the variety of effects that different efforts might produce. Pulling on one string leads to several distant effects. Rethinking environmental issues in terms of social sustainability becomes one means for addressing these inequalities and potentially improving outcomes.

Nicole D Peterson is assistant professor of anthropology at UNC Charlotte and is affiliated with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. She has studied sustainability, economic development, and food systems in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, Ethiopia, and Charlotte, NC, and is leading an NSF-funded research coordination network on social sustainability.

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