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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 6 (1999)

Mexican Rural Development and the Plumed Serpent: Technology and Maya Cosmology in the Tropical Forest of Campeche, Mexico.  By Betty Bernice Faust (1998), Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey. xxviii, 190 pp.

 

Reviewed by Edward F. Fischer, Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University.

As the title suggests, Betty Faust's Mexican Rural Development and the Plumed Serpent explores the relationship between traditional worldview and changing ecological and economic circumstances in a Maya community in Campeche, Mexico. The book's leitmotif is a classic tale of modernity against tradition, and Faust's conclusions are in line with established ecological and anthropological critiques of development: Maya agricultural and water management strategies developed over thousands of years are better suited to local environmental and social stability than the clear cut logging and large scale cattle ranching encouraged by the modernist government development programs. Yet, unlike more romanticized contributions to this growing body of literature that links culture with ecology, Faust does not succumb to a static notion of culture in her account. Rather, she portrays Maya cosmology as an ever changing system, one that adapts to ecological, economic, and political impositions while maintaining a sense of ideological continuity. As a result, this well written book significantly enlivens a familiar paradigm and makes an important contribution to our understanding of both culture change and ecological adaptation.

Faust's intention upon entering the field in 1985 was to study a group of Maya refugees from the Guatemalan war then living in Campeche, Mexico. Never granted permission to work in the refugee camp, Faust found herself stuck in the small village of Pich, and (‡ la Malinowski) she decided to make the best of her situation by studying the people at hand. The book begins with a self-reflective chapter on entering the field and doing fieldwork in Pichöthe sort of introduction that seems to have become standard fare in ethnography these days. This is followed by a descriptive introduction to the village of Pich and its inhabitants. From a cultural perspective, Pich is an fascinating case study: an Indian village that ostensibly does not appear as such. Faust notes that "villagers usually identify themselves to outsiders as pobres (poor people), campesinos (peasants), or mexicanos (Mexicans) rather than Maya" (27) and that Spanish is the town's dominant language (elder townspeople still speak Yucatec Maya, but usually only in the privacy of their homes). And yet, Faust shows, many traditional elements of Maya culture are found in the worldview and practices of Pichule–os. Faust's description of this incongruity is provocative, but she fails to adequately theorize how individuals manage the dynamics of such dual, or hidden, identities. Her interests lay elsewhere.

The heart of the book is in Chapters 3 - 6, where Faust analyses archaeological, ethnohistorical, and contemporary Maya technologies of agricultural production and water management. She provides a detailed review of the close relationship between milpa (maize and beans) agriculture and traditional Maya cosmologies, persuasively showing how the two are mutually reinforcing; she also examines the politics and ideology associated with the dynamics of ejido tenure. Her greatest contribution, however, is in her discussions of water management. Like all of the Yucatan Peninsula, the land around Pich rests on an eroding limestone base. In this environment, "water does not travel across the surface in streams and riversörather it seeps into cracks in the limestone base and travels underground to the sea"(54). As a result, the Maya developed an elaborate system of water management based around canals, reservoirs, wells, and chultunes (bell-shaped underground storage areas). Pichule–os continued to use such a system until the 1960s, when the government installed a modern network of wells, pumps, and pipes. The old system, however, retained an important role in local culture, including social sanctions against bathing or washing in the reservoir, and was called into use when the government system failed during droughts. At one point a government development program introduced fish into Pich's reservoir. Faust relates that "villagers were told not to eat the fish until they got big" but the Pichule–os "tired of feeding these fish and let them out of their cages"(89). The fish then ate all of the aquatic plants that kept the reservoir water clean; the fish eventually died and the water was left unsuitable for human consumption. Employing such vivid examples, Faust effectively uses Pich's water reservoir as a metaphor to explore the relationship between traditional and modern technologies and culture. She writes that, "for most outsiders, water is a public good, an abundant natural resource" but for elder Pichule–os, "water is a symbol of discipline and order, social rules and planing" (93-94). Her nuanced ethnographic details give the reader a clear sense of this conflict, while judiciously avoiding imposition of premature analytic closure on the ongoing process.

Faust saves for the conclusion some of her most intriguing observations on the relationship between traditional Maya worldview and changing economic strategies. Introduced through a discussion of the dialectics of male/female symbolism, Faust constructs a coherent structural model that links the dynamics of human life and agricultural cycles (reminiscent of similar models proposed by Gary Gossen and John Watanabe). She then briefly attempts to link these models with global political economic processes, reaching the unassailable conclusion that "introducing new technologies in a manner that allows flexible adaptation to the local agrarian ecology with its social and cosmological systems would seem to be advisable"(159).

Despite the shortcomings that I have outlined, this book makes an important contribution to Maya and Mexican studies, documenting the traditional lifeways of an understudied population while highlighting linkages between local and state structures. It also serves as an important cautionary tale for development programs the world over. In true cyclic Maya style (as well as postmodern fashion), the conclusion read to me as an introduction should; and it whet my appetite for more such integrative approaches to culture and ecology and economy.