The Cuatro Ciénegas valley, located in the state of Coahuila, México, on the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan desert, is an ideal place in which to observe how the process of conservation is carried out on the ground. Due to the combination of its geological, biological, and cultural history the valley is of concern to a diverse group of people. A desert landscape with abundant subterranean waters which create pools, lagoons, and rivers, the Cuatro Ciénegas valley has been touted as a "desert laboratory"(Grall 1995; Gonzáles 1996). As a relatively well-preserved desert wetland in which a combination of plentiful ground water and geological isolation has encouraged the evolution of a unique biota, Cuatro Ciénegas is of great interest to the international scientific community. Salvador Contreras-Balderas (1996), who has been researching the biota of the valley for the past thirty-seven years, describes the valley's importance as "providing so many models in biology--ecology, evolution, and development--in a pocket-sized region."

There is more to the valley than its biota. The Cuatro Ciénegas region has a long history of human habitation and land use. From the past indigenous inhabitants, whose remains and relics lie buried in the caves of the surrounding mountains, to the campesinos who today make a living from the valley's sparse resources, Cuatro Ciénegas has provided a living for people for thousands of years. It has been a place for hunting, fishing, plant collecting, farming, ranching, mining, and recreation for hundreds of years. A missionary trade route passed through the valley as early as the sixteenth century (Alessio-Robles 1938), and evidence of early attempts at settlement exists today in the vineyards and orchards, some of which were originally planted during the colonial period. People continue to rely on the valley's natural resources to provide for their daily needs.

In the past few years, outside interest in the valley has increased. Cuatro Ciénegas is becoming known to a world-wide audience due to media attention, a heightened general interest in biodiversity, and the growth of ecotourism. People from around the world are visiting the valley in order to experience firsthand the unique biota and diverse habitats which are described in the media. Mexican tourists are also visiting in greater numbers, drawn to the valley by newspaper articles and television programs showcasing its rare biota and lovely pools.

Because so many stakeholders have interest in the habitats and resources of the ecosystem, Cuatro Ciénegas provides a useful locale in which to study the human dimensions of conservation. Local residents are concerned that conservation practices are resulting in a lack of access to the resources of the valley, and many fear that their livelihoods are in jeopardy. The international scientific and conservation community is interested in the flora and fauna of the valley, and worries that many of the current land use practices are putting the biota of the valley at risk of extinction. Finally, a broad general audience of arm-chair and actual travelers are becoming acquainted with the habitats and biology of the valley, and are visiting the valley in increasing numbers in order to experience for themselves the diversity of this desert oasis.

In November 1994, the Mexican government decreed the valley of Cuatro Ciénegas a Natural Protected Area (NPA), in the Category of the Protection of Flora and Fauna, a designation roughly equivalent to that of a wildlife preserve in the United States. The NPA of Cuatro Ciénegas was created with the following stated purposes: the protection of ecosystems and species of the region, the sustainable development of the community, and the provision of assistance to its inhabitants in the rational and sustainable use of its natural resources (Diario Oficial 1994:6). Today, the infrastructure which should provide for the satisfaction of these criteria is not yet in place. The residents, while aware of the great scientific interest in the valley and supportive of the idea of protecting its flora and fauna, are uncertain about the consequences of the decree, and worry about their own future. Many feel insecure about their role in the protected area and have not yet seen any evidence of the NPA's supposed economic benefits. Local support for the NPA in Cuatro Ciénegas is often less than whole-hearted because most people who live in the valley sense that it was not set aside for their own benefit but rather for that of scientists and tourists.


In order to understand the dynamics of these relationships, I undertook a study of the people who have an interest in the Cuatro Ciénegas valley. Through a series of interviews with local people, scientists, and conservationists working in the basin, my study explores what the land means to these different people--all of whom have specific interests in the valley--and assesses where these points of view coincide and where they conflict with one other. Based on field work carried out in September and October of 1996, local perceptions of conservation are discussed and compared to the perceptions of scientists and conservationists who have worked in the area. By examining the interactions between these two forces and by documenting the dialogue developing between them, the study focuses less on institutional processes and more on personal perceptions of place in the natural world.

The goal of this study is, first of all, to identify and clarify differences in the ways in which these two groups understand, value, use, and identify with the various elements of this place. By examining the role of the valley and its resources in these various people's lives, I will point out exactly what is at stake in the preservation of the valley's biota and the establishment of economic opportunities which are sustainable. Secondly, I seek to appreciate the depth of these views by investigating the ways in which these different experiences of place have arisen, as well as by determining how these beliefs have been perpetuated and reinforced. Finally, I look at the opportunities that may exist for using local institutions to establish a dialogue between the two groups, and the possibility of establishing new locally-based and sustainable industries which will allow the local community to simultaneously make a living and carry out the goals of conservation.

The intention of the study is not to produce a socio-economic profile with quantifiable results, nor is it to define ecological impacts within the study area. The intention of the study is to explore the process of conservation from the point of view of scientists, conservationists, and local residents. The study asks what the local residents believe to be the valuable elements of the valley, what they believe to be threatened, what they perceive to be the goals of conservation, how they believe the declaration of the valley as a protected area will affect their lifestyle, and what they perceive to be their role in the recently declared Natural Protected Area. By listening to the responses to these and other questions, the study explores local impressions of conservation policies and actions, as well as people's visions, hopes, and fears about the future.

The study then explores the role of scientists who have worked in the valley, as well as that of conservationists and managers who are beginning to establish the infrastructure for management within the protected area. The study looks at the reasons for these people's interest in the valley, their perceptions of the valley's value, their impressions of the threats to its ecosystem, and their feelings about the role of the resident people in the conservation process.

My hope is that this process of exploration will provide useful information for both local people and outside agents of conservation, and thereby encourage a dialogue which leads to both the maintenance of the area's biological diversity and the satisfaction of the needs of its human inhabitants. What is at stake is more than an ecosystem. While scientists fear diminishing water levels and the loss of rare aquatic habitats and conservationists cite the problem of species losses, local residents believe they have lost their valley to science and tourism.



If people feel threatened by conservation policies they will resist them. For the people who live in protected areas, the ecosystems which interest the conservationists are their home and often the source of their livelihood. Residents often object to the imposition of conservation strategies because they see conservation as threatening their livelihoods by restricting access to their land and denying them the right to work it as they had in the past. The challenge, then, in establishing criteria for land use in protected ecosystems, is coming to a mutually acceptable solution between all the interested parties. It is crucial that those involved in promoting conservation are accountable to those affected by it, and that when dealing with threats to land and local lifestyles, conservationists and managers make "[e]arly, concerted efforts to integrate parks into local economies" (Naughton 1993:54).

Residents need to see the benefits of a conservation strategy in their own lives if they are to support changes in the status of lands on which they live and upon which their livelihoods depend. Official documents designating protected areas may, besides calling for the protection of habitats and species, include stipulations about sustainable development and new jobs, yet these provisions are not always successfully carried out, and people living in protected areas are often left to feel that conservation, rather than improving the quality of their lives, is in fact taking something away from them (Brownrigg 1985:49).

As the human population increases and pressure on the resources upon which this population depends intensifies, people working in conservation are taking steps to ensure that representative ecosystems--a term which refers to the Noah's Ark principle of saving at least one of each of the earth's ecological regions (Primack 1993:314)--are set aside and placed under protection through a worldwide network of protected areas. In 1982, at the World National Parks Congress, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Bali Action Plan formally recognized and set forth an agenda which addressed the need to conserve ecosystems (Primack 1993:314); at this same meeting, the IUCN redefined the purpose of a protected area. At the 1972 Second World Conference on National Parks, the stated purpose of protected areas had been "preservation of natural landscapes and their use for recreational (or educational) purposes"(Hales 1989:141). Ten years later, the focus shifted from the heritage argument to sustainable development, reflecting an increased interest in conservation in developing countries. In 1982, the IUCN concluded that "if conservation is to succeed, it must become part of humanity's adaptation to the living environment, part of the human ecosystem"(Hales 1989:141).

This task has proved difficult to carry out. Some of the biggest challenges for conservationists arise in managing the human use of resources in or around protected areas. While it has been recognized that winning the support of local people is crucial to assuring the long-term health of an ecosystem (Halffter 1981; O'Neal 1995), and while sustainable development has been added to conservation's agenda, resident people and conservationists continue to have trouble finding common ground. In 1980, the IUCN published the World Conservation Strategy, Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development with the intention of finding such common ground and promoting a more collaborative approach to biological conservation. In doing so, they defined conservation as follows.

[Conservation is] the management of human use of the biosphere so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations (McNeely and Pitt 1985:3-4).

According to this definition, conservation is simply the stewardship of an area's resources. In actuality, conservation is more complex and becomes entangled with politics and the global economy. While the conservation of the global commons is an admirable goal, in practice, conservation is played out on much smaller fields by players both inside and outside the local community.

In Green Development, W. M. Adams suggests that due to the ways in which it is often carried out, conservation is in fact just another form of development (Adams 1990:184). According to Adams, conservationists all too often have their own agendas, act according to their own goals, bring their own assumptions and biases to the areas in which they work, and remain involved in projects for only short periods (Adams 1990:184). Accordingly, conservationists often impose standards which appear foreign to the inhabitants of protected areas. This aspect of conservation, reminiscent of colonialism, is often resisted by local people, especially those who live in less developed areas. As Adams points out, "[c]onservation [like development] is...dominated by global concentrations of wealth and power, and centuries of centralized decision-making"(Adams 1990:200). This fact does not escape the notice of the local communities.

Adams sees the emergence of sustainable development as a compromise between indigenous people and conservationists. Sustainable development, Adams tells us, must always be initiated from the bottom.

Green development programs must start from the needs, understanding, and aspirations of individual people, and must work to build and enhance their ability to help themselves (Adams 1990:201).

Adams argues that indigenous people are concerned with survival which depends upon permanent, guaranteed rights to their land, continued health, educational assistance, and technical advice (Adams 1990:190). Conservationists, on the other hand, are more often concerned with the designation of protected areas and the maintenance of biological diversity. The middle ground between these two agendas, according to Adams, is sustainable development. Adams insists that by forming an alliance based on the pursuit of mutual goals, these two groups--the conservationists and the local communities--have much to gain from each other; in collaboration, they can resist the development proposed by outside corporations or the government (Adams 1990:191). Though neither group achieves its goal in its entirety, through sustainable development both conservationists and local people can work together to confront the potential loss of the resources which are both the source of sustenance for the community and the components which contribute to the area's biological richness.

Community-based conservation offers another solution which finds commonalities between the desires of resident people and conservationists.

The deeper agenda, for most conservationists, is to make nature and natural products meaningful to rural communities. As far as local communities are concerned, the agenda is to regain control over natural resources and, through conservation practices, improve their economic well-being"(Western and Wright 1994:7).

According to the model of community-based conservation, by determining for themselves the best way to manage their resources for the long term, resident people become key players in assuring the well-being of their ecosystem.

With the well-intentioned addition of sustainable development and community-based projects to conservation's repertoire, the support of the local community for conservation efforts would seem to follow naturally. Yet while these approaches receive much praise from the academic community, their manifestation on the ground has proven to be somewhat problematic. Because management does not traditionally come from the bottom, and because industry--especially in developing countries--has a long tradition of foreign ownership and a resistance to environmental regulations, the implementation of these two types of programs has met with opposition.

In order to overcome these barriers, in order to work together as Adam's suggests, the first step is the establishment of a dialogue between those who propose the protection of an ecosystem based on its biological value and those who live there, many of whom have been living off the land for centuries and may not understand why they are being pressured into changing their ways. In this way, conservation initiatives can begin to address specific local concerns. According to Brownrigg (1985:58), the criteria under which local people are most likely to accept conservation strategies are as follows:

1. when they see them as supporting their culture and providing jobs,

2. when their land title is clear, and

3. when acceptable land use is well-defined.

In order to meet these criteria, those writing and carrying out conservation policies must understand how local stakeholders attribute value and significance to their land. What are the important species? How are they used? What do local people consider to be the threats to the continuation of their land use practices? How do they feel about the introduction of new land use activities? How do they relate to scientists and other visitors? If a conservation program is to persist in the long term, it is essential that policy makers and managers understand how local people value and use their land (Kaus 1993:404). People with conflicting vested interests see the same place very differently, and it is crucial that all perspectives are taken into account when land use policy is written. Good conservation policy addresses suspicions which run rampant when strangers--read conservationists--roll into town and start changing the rules (Brownrigg 1985:58).

Despite the academic attention paid to the importance of local input in the conservation process (Halffter 1981; McNeely and Pitt 1985; Naughton 1993; O'Neal 1995), few studies have described the interactions that occur (or do not occur) between people who establish the rules for land use in a protected area and those local stakeholders who use the natural resources of that area (Kaus 1993:398). The purpose of this thesis is to look at the resistance to conservation, manifest at the local level, and to understand how the social structure, the presence of the international scientific community, and the development of industry in Cuatro Ciénegas has affected the local reaction. Through a close reading of local attitudes, this study explores potential avenues for redefining the conservation of the valley in a manner which includes, and thereby wins the support of, the local community.


In May and August of 1996, I made two preliminary trips to Cuatro Ciénegas in order to get a sense of the dominant issues surrounding conservation there and to identify key informants for my study. I returned to the valley in September of 1996, and spent four weeks conducting a series of interviews with residents of the valley and with scientists and conservationists working there.

In organizing my interviews with local people, I began by drawing up a list of the stakeholders in the community and followed by talking with a number of people from each group. I conducted thirty-one interviews in total. The people interviewed can be placed into the following groups: politicians (3), local business owners (5), teachers (3), other professionals (4), workers (2), miners (4), land owners/ranchers (2), students (1), community activists (3), and campesinos (4). The age breakdown was as follows: 22-25 years (4), 26-35 years (5), 36-50 years (12), 51-65 years (7), 65 years and older (3). For a description of the people interviewed, see Appendix A. In order to keep my local informants anonymous, I refer to them as Person A, Person B, etc., throughout the remainder of this paper.

The local interviews were semi-structured. I asked the same fifty questions of each person (see Appendix A), and depending upon the interests and concerns of the person interviewed, the conversations often took on a course of their own. I began with questions about people's individual histories in the valley and their feelings about the valley's importance, both in their own lives and on a global scale. In the next set of questions, I addressed environmental history and the types of activities present in the valley in order to establish how people saw land use changing. Then I asked people questions about their perceptions of conservation, and followed these with questions about the role of the Natural Protected Area. Questions about the NPA led to questions about valuable plant and animal species and the importance of understanding the natural world. Finally, I investigated the issue of tourism in order to determine how visitors were perceived by local people. All interviews were conducted in Spanish, and generally lasted between forty-five minutes and two hours. When quotations from interviews are provided in the text, all translations are mine.

Without exception, people were willing to talk to me, often as soon as I asked them. People were very open about their feelings and did not seem to perceive my questions as threatening in any way, though a few people were hesitant at first because they were afraid they would not know the "correct" answers. Often, if the interview was conducted with other people present, a number of people wanted to participate. After their interviews, many people told me that they were happy to have had the chance to talk to me--they were glad to have been included in what they perceived as part of the conservation process, and often asked me questions about the ecology of the valley.

Between August and November of 1996, I conducted nine interviews with scientists and conservationists from the United States and México who had worked, or were working, in the Cuatro Ciénegas valley and who had an interest in the long-term survival of the ecosystem. Interviews were conducted in person (when possible), over the phone, and via electronic mail. The interviews asked questions similar to those in the local questionnaire, though the interviews with scientists were shorter overall, with thirty-six questions (see Appendix A), and lasting between thirty minutes and an hour. A list of the scientists interviewed follows the second questionnaire in Appendix A.


In addition to this introduction, this thesis includes five chapters.

Chapter Two begins with an overview of the natural history of the study area, including a general description of the physical conditions which have led to the high degree of endemism within the valley, a catalogue of the different vegetation regimes, and a list of the endemic flora and fauna. This description serves to illustrate why this region is of such great interest to scientists and such a priority for conservation organizations, including Mexican as well as international groups.

A brief overview of the human geography follows, including a description of the current population, a brief overview of settlement and migrations, the establishment of ejidos, and current demographic patterns. By establishing the background of human habitation, this chapter points out a long-term relationship between the people and the land. A discussion of the development of industry in the valley sets up a time line of land use change. By showing the history of resource use and development, this chapter describes the various transformations the valley has undergone, the latest of which comes in its designation as a Natural Protected Area.

Chapter Three presents the results of my interviews with the valley's residents. It explores the perceptions of local people regarding the role of the valley in their lives and their changing relationship to the land due to the establishment of the protected area. Chapter Four investigates the views of scientists and conservationists who have worked in the area, and looks at what they consider to be areas of special environmental concern, threats to the ecosystem, appropriate land uses, and prospects for the future.

The final chapter considers how the different views of the valley compare to one another. Drawing on the information presented in the preceding chapters, it explores the dialogue which is currently taking place between the different members of the local and scientific communities, as well as the dialogue which is not taking place. After considering the current state of communication between the valley's stakeholders, it looks at two proposals which aim to further the dialogue: environmental education and ecotourism. These two avenues establish common ground between conservationists and local people. Ecotourism is proposed as a solution to the economic issues associated with conservation, an opportunity for local people who want to create a sustainable economy within the confines of the protected area, while environmental education programs are being pursued in order to introduce ecological concepts to local people. This chapter considers whether or not these proposed solutions actually contribute to a dialogue or whether they simply impose more burdens on the local community without offering them a position of importance in the management of the valley.

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