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Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests

Author(s): Andrew S. Mathews
Editor(s): Peter M. Haas, Sheila Jasanoff
Publisher: MIT Press
ISBN 13: 9780262516440
Published: 2011
Pages: 304
Cost: $54
Rating (1-5): 4
Submitted By: Gift, Nancy
Date posted: April 25, 2012


Instituting Nature is a multidisciplinary case study of forest management and its associated communities and bureaucracies in Oaxaca, Mexico, of relevance in agronomy and forestry broadly.


Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests is an in-depth study of forestry policy and practice in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Andrew S. Mathews, the author is an internationally trained anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, approaches the book with experience in forest ecology and farm policy. The book, with nine chapters is divided according to the history and stakeholder perspectives, features a glossary of institutions, an appendix of interview subjects, an extensive notes section, and references.

The book starts with an Introduction to the author’s background, style, and approach. Mathews observes, with examples, how forest ecology science may be well understood, policies affecting forest management are marked by delusion and obfuscation. Then it is followed by the next chapters; 2) Building Forestry in Mexico: Ambitious Regulations and Popular Evasions which describes the history of Mexican forests and forestry institutions, effects of the Mexican Revolution, environmental awareness in the Valley of Mexico, forest regulations, forest industrialization and community forestry. 3) The Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca: Mobile Landscapes, Political Economy, and the Fires of War describes the history of the landscapes of the Sierra Juarez by thinking through the effects of political economy and state intervention on forests and fields, on indigenous political institutions, and on forms of land ownership.  4) Forestry Comes to Oaxaca: Bureaucrats, Gangsters, and Indigenous Communities, 1926-1956 describes a fascinating array of conflicts, and the birth of a forest service. Zapotec indigenous forest knowledge competes for policy influence with commercial logging corporations. 5) In Industrial Forestry, Watershed Control, and the Rise of Community Forestry, 1956-2001, floods, dams, and logging became intertwined with agricultural land use declines. Agroecology and community forestry grew to fill the hectares in question, at a time when fire behavior knowledge had decreased to dangerous levels. 6) The Mexican Forest Service: Knowledge, Ignorance, and Power begins with a convention scene; “speeches were often profoundly boring.” Mathews enlivens the conference, however, by describing the illusions and distrust underlying the proceedings. Mathews’ descriptions of incomplete knowledge and unequal power displayed in chosen examples are completely contrary to Elinor Ostrum’s conditions for sustainable common resource use. 7) The Acrobatics of Transparency and Obscurity: Forestry Regulations Travel to Oaxaca details the vast task of forest management, and the distrust between community members and foresters, and even among forestry workers. 8) Working the Indigenous Industrial, addresses some of the complexity of community hierarchies that control forest management. Successful and unsuccessful collaborations between state and community; the book becomes a success story of a trial-and-error policy selection process in Mexican forest management.

Ultimately, the book’s conclusion is far broader than Mexican forest management, and applies to “ambitious projects of knowledge more widely.” Mathews’ rather bold claim of applicability rings true, despite the numerous local factions and personalities in Oaxaca.

Mathews’ interdisciplinary approach and lucid writing make the book a valuable contribution to the literature of land and resource management generally, potentially valuable to scholars of forests or prairie, tropical and sub-tropical ecosystem management, as well as to the more obvious fields of Mexican policy or silvicultural systems. Instituting Nature is decidedly a scholarly text, for research or classroom use, and can be used by a forest ecologist wishing to learn more about the field of anthropology or the minefields of bureaucracy or by an agronomist whose approach to agriculture goes beyond crop yields and product choices, into the fabric of the communities being fed.