In the fall of 1996 many of the citizens of Cuatro Ciénegas worried about the lack of work in the valley. In an election year, the painted walls lining the streets carried political slogans promising jobs. Even the gainfully employed and financially well-off were troubled by the unemployment problem. When I asked people if life was difficult there, their answer was invariably, "No, as long as you have a job." This economic concern colored people's reactions to the declaration of the valley as a Natural Protected Area. People told me that it was important to protect their plants and animals, but that it was more important that people were able to eat.

Through my interviews, I found a major obstacle to the acceptance of conservation policies was the association that many local people made between the shortage of jobs and the declaration of the NPA. The closure of Proyeso appeared to have cemented this association. Despite the fact that the shut-down was based on non-compliance with environmental standards that were in place before the declaration of the protected area, and despite the fact that the zoning plan considers gypsum mining to be a conditional use in the area of the dunes, many people blamed the NPA for the closure of the gypsum plant. Many people I interviewed told me that conservaci--n or ecolog'a--vague, interchangeable terms people use to describe whatever it is that scientists do in the valley--was turning Cuatro Ciénegas into a ghost town. Because they do not understand why Proyeso was closed down or what kind of land use will be allowed in the NPA, people are fearful that other enterprises and livelihoods will be affected, and that life as they know it will become an impossibility. When I asked residents about endangered species, many responded that it was the way of life of the people of the town that was endangered.

In order to make sense of local people's perceptions of conservation, it is essential to understand the role the valley plays in their everyday lives. In this chapter, I begin to approach an appreciation of how locals understand their valley by listening to how they talk about it. In the analysis of the results of my study, a number of themes emerged that seemed to frame local attitudes; these are: the role of the valley in supporting people's livelihood, the presence of important and valuable species, an awareness of environmental and social change, and the use of metaphors to describe the components and workings of the ecosystem. As I talked to people about what was important to them about Cuatro Ciénegas, it became evident that they have a very different vision of the valley and its value than do the scientists and conservationists working to protect its flora and fauna.

When listening to the local voices, it is essential to realize that at the time of these interviews, few regulations in the protected area had been enacted; fishing had been prohibited, swimming had been restricted in some of the pools, and the mining of the gypsum dunes had been temporarily halted, but for the most part, what people perceived to be land use restrictions were in fact little more than rumor. While SEMARNAP, the federal body which regulates land and resource use, had created several drafts of a zoning plan, very few people had actually seen these documents, and since a final draft had yet to be signed, its suggestions were not binding. Furthermore, the management plan which would provide the actual guidelines and regulations for acceptable activities within the protected area had not been written. Local reactions to conservation, therefore, were often based on misinformation, hunches, and a feeling that they were losing control over their land, rather than on any actual land use restrictions.


For most of the residents with whom I spoke, the valley is important because of the people who live there. "You do not find people like this anywhere else in the world," they told me, "especially not in the cities." Residents have a large stake in staying in Cuatro Ciénegas because of ties to family and community, yet many are finding it harder and harder to make a living there due to the economic crisis. Residents commonly commute to Monclova, eighty kilometers away, for their jobs or to school. Others end up leaving in order to find better employment opportunities or, in the case of the ejidatarios, to secure a better education for their children.

Residents also consider the town important for its place in the revolutionary history of México. Venustiano Carranza (1859-1920) was born in Cuatro Ciénegas, and there is a great sense of pride for the role their city played in producing the revolutionary statesman who wrote the Mexican Declaration of Independence. Some people listed the flora and fauna as important, but they almost never considered these to be the most important aspects of the valley.

"Tell me something,"a Proyeso worker asked during an interview conducted while operations were shut down. "What is more important to you, ecology or human beings?"(Person I 1996). The worker asked a number of questions, all of which were based on the assumption that ecology is something which exists apart from human lives, something imposed by foreign scientists which makes people unimportant and overemphasizes the role of research. As we spoke further, it became obvious that in this worker's world view, people came first and animals second, their importance decreasing with body size. Plants did not figure in at all, nor did very small organisms .

"Do you know what scientists want to save?" the worker asked me incredulously. "They want this shell. This tiny, microscopic shell. What good is that? Let them save something you can see, like a turtle"; (Person I 1996).

The business owners interviewed agreed that humans were the most important species in the valley, and that others followed in importance. "The sun is hot and the soil is salty, but these people are loyal to their land,"; said one resident (Person T 1996). Many remarked on the incredible ability possessed by those residents who were able to live off the scarce resources available to them. "I don't know how they survive," one man told me, "it appears they live off the air"(Person W 1996).

For others, it is the physical beauty of the valley which makes it special. The pools, which have been attracting visitors to the valley since the turn of the century, are considered to be one of the valley's most precious attributes. People refer to them as "un milagro de Dios," a miracle of god. A local artist (Person T 1996) told me he was mesmerized by the intricate symmetry of the tiny shells at the bottom of the pools, something he had never seen before coming to the valley. An architect talked about the uniqueness of the desert landscape which expresses the history of the land in the shape of its land forms. "When you tell your students about Cuatro Ciénegas," he urged me, "tell them about the muscles of the mountains"(Person U 1996).

These people's appreciation of the valley is born of years spent beholding and contemplating the splendor of its natural attributes, and they feel that because of its natural beauty and unique species it should be available for all people--locals and visitors alike--to appreciate. In their generous vision they describe the valley as "nuestra patrimonia,"the inheritance of the world. For this, they told me, the valley needs to be protected but not closed. They deplore the idea of prohibiting visitation to the valley. "What good is having the Mona Lisa in your house if you don't let anyone in?" asked the architect (Person U 1996).

Those who live outside the town and depend directly on the land for their livelihood take a more practical view than do those in town. For the campesinos, the importance of the valley is the land that sustains them. They place importance on el parcel, the piece of land on which they raise their goats and grow their corn, as well as the commons, the mesquite scrub from which they collect firewood and make charcoal. Many ejidatarios moved to the valley from other states expressly for the opportunity to have title to their own property and are fiercely proud of their self-sufficiency. When the land ceases to support them, they must leave. Water is critical for survival within the ejidos, as a steady supply assures they will eat. People in La Vega told me of families who were leaving El Venado, a neighboring community without access to water, because the drought had killed their animals and crops.

The belief that the land exists for the use of humans extends into the realm of non-renewable resources. Many, for example, do not see any problem with extracting gypsum from the dunes. To them, the dunes provide an inexhaustible source of material. Many of Proyeso's workers told me that they were mining only a very small part of the dunes. "It's only a tiny section," one employee told me, pointing to his pinkie fingernail to emphasize just how small an area they were affecting (Person H 1996). Others said it was unfair that every time city officials brought conservationists out to the dunes, they would go to the exact spot where Proyeso was mining. "There are many other places, beautiful and untouched, "another Proyeso employee told me, "but they won't take you there"; (Person G 1996). For the most part, people believe in the integrity of their industries; they are offended by the suggestion that their work might be causing environmental problems and dismayed by the prospect of closing businesses down.

Besides providing for their basic needs, the valley also provides those who live within it a way of life that is unavailable in town. In the ejidos, people ride horses, grow their own food, and enjoy a simple, peaceful existence away from the troubles of the town. When I asked people in the country if they would rather live in town, they invariably said no, that life in the valley was "mas tranquilo,"more peaceful, with clean air, good water, and fresh food. "We sleep with the doors open, and if there are robbers here, we do not know them," one man told me (Person A 1996).

As a trade-off, the ejido offers only a primary school education, and work is strenuous. The oldest living resident of La Vega, a man of eighty-two years, told me he would have been a lawyer if his family had stayed in San Buenaventura, a town about the size of Cuatro Ciénegas on the road toward Monclova. He showed me his large, knotted, and callused hands and told me, "With these hands, I built the canals"(Person A 1996). He had worked in agriculture all his life, and had never learned to read or write. Another man I met, a seventy-year-old pensioner, was still working because his pension was insufficient. He felt it was unfair that while he had to work in his old age, those in town could retire comfortably on their pensions (Person B 1996).

Although they have no telephones, the ejidos do have electricity and in La Vega, twenty-two houses have parabolicas, antennae which provide television reception. Though they work hard and though not all services are available to them, ejidatarios are making the best of their situation and taking steps to offer more opportunities to their children by making sure they are able to continue their studies past elementary school.

As a whole, the residents of the valley--townspeople and ejidatarios alike--value their way of life and appreciate the qualities it offers, especially as compared to life in the city. In my conversations with them, they expressed their preparedness to resist anything that they perceived as taking away their access to this lifestyle.


In general, those with the greatest knowledge of the plants and animals of the valley are those who spend a great deal of time in the field: certain landowners, almost all campesinos, hunters, fishermen, and long-time members of the Guardians of the Valley. Besides recognizing the biota, this group of people knows their way around the valley. While others complained that the valley had been closed to them by the creation of the NPA, those who had a better acquaintance with it were able to tell me where the best pools were, how to get to the cleaner, less populated parts of the river, and which of the canyons had caves to explore.

My first trip to the valley was during the month of May, a few weeks after Holy Week, and garbage filled pools and roadside ditches. I joined the Guardians on one of their Saturday outings, this one with the purpose of cleaning up the shores of one of the valley's large, salty lagoons. After an hour of bumping along a pocked and shadeless road, we passed through an ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) forest that led to the shores of Las Playitas, a barial lake and popular swimming spot surrounded by salt flats. As soon as the truck stopped, a dozen volunteers jumped out, grabbed black plastic bags, and went running around the lake picking up broken beer bottles, candy wrappers, baby diapers, loose pieces of clothing, bottle caps, broken toys and other objects which had found their way from the parties of the vacationers to the shores of the lake. In twos and threes, they slowly returned to the truck with full sacks and proceeded on to the business of swimming.

One of the Guardians asked me if I had seen a box turtle yet. I had not. He took me a few hundred yards away from the lagoon, toward another pool with ducks bobbing across the far end. This smaller lake fed into a boggy canal which ended in Las Playitas. In this canal sat many palm-sized stones, square with brick-like markings. My guide picked up one of these stones and introduced me to my first box turtle, pointing out the curve of the lower carapace which identified it as female. As she poked her tiny head out of her shell, I was struck by the turtle's vulnerability. The turtle has no physical defense against kidnapping, and no guarantee that every person who visits the canal will not snatch up her or one of her kind for their private aquarium. In the end, these species depend upon the good will, or good sense, of human beings. Happily, many of those who know where to find certain species are very often the ones who have an interest in protecting them. For the Guardians, knowing the valley and its component species is integral to their self-definition. "If I didn't know the plants and animals," my guide asked me, "what class of guide would I be?"(Person L 1996).

The campesinos responded in a similar fashion. "Of course I know the plants and animals, I am a campesino!"one man told me (Person B 1996). He then immediately began naming the plants growing around the log on which we were sitting. Many campesinos have lived in their ejidos since their families moved there after the Revolution, in the 1930s or later, and they know the plants and animals because they live among them.

When scientists and conservationists come to the valley for the first time, one of their first field trips often includes a visit to the gypsum dunes which are owned collectively by the ejido Seis de Enero. During one of these trips, a group was escorted to the dunes by two ejidatarios. Atop one of the remaining dunes, a geologist outlined his ideas about the origin of the gypsum which had created these brilliant white land forms: water from the valley's pools carried sulfur underground to the rocks around Laguna Grande, a large lagoon in the western lobe of the valley, and there the sulfur mixed with calcium from the limestone bedrock. After a series of freeze-thaw cycles, gypsum crystals precipitated out and followed the prevailing northwest winds to create the dunes. A ranger from White Sands National Park had a different interpretation of geological history and said that based on his experiences in New México, he expected to find gypsum in the surrounding mountains. Later, as we were eating dinner and watching a lunar eclipse from these ridges of wind-blown sand, I talked to an ejidatario about the formation, extent, and history of the dunes. He talked for a long time about how the landscape had changed since mining began, and when I asked him if he liked working as a guide he told me he did.

"It's a good thing we came along to explain things,"he added, "because most of the people here don't know anything about the dunes."




Picture of a Guardian of the Valley

Among the women with whom I spoke, much of their environmental knowledge showed up in their use of herbs. One woman showed me a glass jar filled with small pieces of the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and water which she uses on sore joints and a distillation of manrrubio, an herb she drinks for her stomach (Person O 1996). People cook with oreganillo, an herb which grows in the hills, and in July everyone goes into the mountains to collect tuna, the fruit of a cactus (Opuntia sp.) which they eat. One man told me that every plant there had a purpose, though people were forgetting what they were.

People feel that it is important to know the dangerous plants and animals, and teach their children to recognize them. I heard stories about mala mujer (Toxicodendron radicans) or poison oak, which causes a terrible rash, toloache (Datura wrightii), which ingested causes confusion, delusion, and even death, and lalledra, the fruit of which, mistaken for manzanita, killed an entire family. Peyote is also considered to be dangerous, and though a few people told me that people were known to eat the cactus to induce hallucinations, none admitted to doing so themselves. People considered the rattlesnake (Crotalus spp. and Sistrurus catenatus) the most dangerous animal in the valley. One lake, they told me, had never been fished because it was protected by a swarm of the pit vipers. A number of people told me that man was the most dangerous animal, demonstrating an appreciation for our role in the transformation of the valley as well as for our power over other species.

When I asked people in town where their environmental knowledge came from, they told me they learned from walks in the valley with parents, friends, and scientists. "You do not learn the valley from a trip to the museum," one man told me. "That's not an experience. You need to go out to the valley"(Person U 1996). A number of merchants told me about a field trip sponsored by the municipality which introduced business owners to new places and species within the valley. Those who participated were impressed by the tour and wanted more like it. Many people first learned about the endemic species from visiting scientists. A number of people told me of a researcher named Robert who lived in Cuatro Ciénegas for a year collecting specimens and data. He made quite an impression on people, and though he worked there over fifteen years ago, people continue to tell stories about him and consider him a good friend. "Whenever he saw someone fishing," one man told me, "Robert would say, 'That fish is worth $2,000 alive. What is it worth dead?'"(Person G 1996). Residents were impressed by his willingness to share his findings with them and remembered what he had told them.

Besides knowing about native plants and animals, people who work in agriculture and ranching have a great knowledge of domesticated species. One man explained to me how alfalfa enriches the soil through nitrogen fixation. Others told me exactly which species of plant each type of domesticated animal eats. One woman expressed concern about the cutting down of mesquite trees (Prosopis glandulosa) because her horses depend on their sweet pods for sugar and nutrients. Others expressed an awareness of some of the dangers posed by agriculture. One man told me that in La Laguna, an area south of Cuatro Ciénegas famous for its cotton production, children were breaking out in welts because toxic pesticides had worked their way into the water supply. The ejidos of the Cuatro Ciénegas valley have managed to avoid this problem for the simple reason that large-scale agriculture does not exist there.

While many residents are knowledgeable about the natural history of the valley, others are dismayed by their lack of environmental understanding. A number of people told me residents generally know nothing about the flora and fauna. They were ashamed that they lived in a place which so many people considered to be important and about which they knew so little. One man told me of miners who were working in a cave near his land and throwing fossilized dinosaur eggs out of it like they were garbage. "We are sleeping," one woman told me. "We do not know what we have"(Person O 1996). Another girl told me what a shame it was that I knew so much more than she did about the valley even though I was a foreigner and she had lived there all her life.

While people are aware of the importance of the valley to scientists, many have only a limited idea as to what is generating this interest. "There was a conference here a few years ago," one woman told me. "There were people from all over the world and we had no idea what they were doing. How sad!"(Person AE 1996). Another man was incredulous that it was foreigners who had identified and cataloged the endemic species. "How could it be that we never found them, in all our time here?"; he asked me, insinuating that endemics are somehow spectacular in appearance and easily recognizable (Person D 1996). Many people do not realize that only a handful of scientists can show you which species are endemic, and that their recognition is based on years of research.

People had many questions concerning the natural history of the valley. When I asked them what more they would like to know, many were ready with a long list of questions. One man asked me where the wind came from. Another wanted to know why there were so many clouds and yet so little rain, why some of their water was salty and why some was fresh. Many asked me how their valley compared with other places in the world, in terms of the plants and animals found there. One Proyeso worker wanted to know how to identify the endemic plants that grow on the dunes. "We are out there every day and we see these plants and we do not even know which are the special ones. Could you show them to us?" he asked me.

Overall, people demonstrated a broadly varying knowledge concerning the natural history of the valley. Though much of what people know comes from personal experience, I also noticed people using a number of phrases borrowed from the scientists: flora, fauna, endemic, ecology. The beginning of the transfer from scientists to local people has begun, yet residents still distrust their own environmental knowledge. Many expressed the feeling that they had lost touch with the natural elements of the valley because they were spending less time there than they had in the past, yet they still remember aspects of it and demonstrated a strong desire to become reacquainted with it.


When I asked people about the important species in the valley, they responded in one of two general ways. They either listed the plants and animals, wild or domesticated, which they eat or sell, or the endemic species which they consider important because they are "unico en el mundo," unique in the world. Sometimes people listed both.

People in the ejidos define the important plants and animals as those they use in their daily lives. For them, the important species are those involved in ranching: cows, horses, mules, goats, pigs. Goats are especially important because they provide cash during the warm season when the milk is sold daily to the traveling milkman. Important plants are agricultural and include beans, corn, chiles, sugar cane, melon, squash, sorghum, and wheat. When I visited the ejidos, people insisted I sit down to eat with them, and proudly served me frijoles a la charra, beans cooked on mesquite logs in giant wood ovens, homegrown chiles and tomatoes, hand-made tortillas, and for dessert, candies made from cane sugar and squash.

The woods--which in this case consist of mesquite thickets--hold the valuable species of wild plants. Selling firewood and charcoal from mesquite provides the only cash income for many of the ejidatarios, especially those without land. Candelilla, though less abundant than in the past, was also cited as important, and in some communities people still process the high-grade wax for use high tech industries. Tall tules grow in disturbed areas around some of the ponds, and they are used in the construction of palapas and roofs and sold to people as far away as Moezquiz. Some people listed the fish as valuable and told me that the mojarra (Cichlasoma minckleyi) was the most delicious fish in the world, although they added that you were not allowed to catch it anymore. The campesinos told me of the wild birds they ate, including a type of game hen. As a rule, the campesinos understand the logic behind the prohibition of fishing, but they have trouble appreciating the necessity of limiting the harvesting of mesquite. While protecting animals makes logical sense, protecting plants is a curious prospect.

When I asked the Guardians which species were important, they told me they all were. They are important, they told me, but not in terms of exploitation. Though many of them used to fish, through their experiences in the field talking to scientists, leading visitors, and working as vigilantes, they have redefined the role of the plants and animals in the valley: instead of being important for human consumption, they are important because they contribute to the biological diversity of the valley and play a role in the ecosystem.

A woman who works in the adult education program in her ejido listed the endemics when I asked her for important species, demonstrating that even out in the country the word is getting around. Though she and her husband make their living from the goats they raise and the squash they grow--a monstrous blue-ribbon winning variety I have only seen before in advertisements for fertilizer in the back of gardening magazines--she talked about the importance of the box turtle which lives only in the valley. Though most people are unacquainted with the extent of the valley's endemism and how it compares to other places in the world, they nevertheless appreciate its significance.


Through a number of media--television, newspapers, public talks, informal visits with scientists, and word of mouth--the people of Cuatro Ciénegas have been told that there are a number of rare species which live in their valley and which do not exist elsewhere. Their appreciation for these endemic species is great: while most people interviewed said that the important element of the town was its people, they told me that the unique aspect of Cuatro Ciénegas was the diversity of flora and fauna found there.

In a number of interviews conducted in La Vega, an old ranch located in the foothills of the eastern edge of the valley, people spoke of the endemic animals in mythological terms as opposed to scientific metaphors. In this way, the rarity and uniqueness of the flora and fauna was translated into something quite fantastic. One man told me that in the valley there was a type of fish with one eye. A woman told me that there was some kind of prehistoric manta ray that lived in one of the pools in Santa Tecla, a nearby ejido. "This creature, which is extinct elsewhere, can be found there because the pool is actually an arm of the sea,"she told me. "At night the creature rises up and flies around the valley casting strange lights, which a number of people have seen"(Person E 1996). I was also told that there is a woman who sleeps in the reservoir and that sometimes at night you could hear her crying. Because of the wailing of this woman, one resident was sleepless for four nights.

"We have a lot of strange things,"one man told me. "We have a turtle that looks like a rock,"he said, referring to Terrapene coahuila, an endemic and aquatic box turtle (Person D 1996). Numerous people told me of a pool in the shape of cone which was known to be bottomless and very dangerous. People had died in that pool, and a healthy fear of the power of the water remained alive among local residents. Another man told me that the valley had mystical qualities and that new-age enthusiasts came to the valley because they considered it to be an energy gap, similar to the Bermuda triangle. He uses this idea to explain the endemic species: "That is why we have these fish that are so old and mysterious"; (Person U 1996). If their biological understanding of the region's endemism is not entirely scientific, it nevertheless exists and finds expression in symbolic terms.

People also use plant and animal species as metaphors with which to represent qualities found in human beings. One woman compared the residents of her ejido to the box turtle, arguably one of the best recognized and most salient creature in the valley. "We are moving forward," she told me, referring to the fact that people were sending their children away to complete their schooling, "but we are slow, like the turtle."; Describing some individuals within the community, people use the term endemic as a synonym for unique. "Es endemico!"one man said of a well-known citizen, bringing him on a par with the other animals which are getting so much attention from scientists (Person R 1996). This use of the scientific term points out the hostility with which scientific efforts are sometimes viewed. If someone swats at a fly or a mosquito, a common response is, "Don't kill it, it's endemic!"


Because they have been there to track development within the valley over the past decades, the people of Cuatro Ciénegas proved helpful in painting a picture of how the valley was changing--not only in terms of its flora and fauna, but culturally. After talking with many residents, I began to understand just how recent this idea of conservation--as defined by scientists--actually was.

As I asked people about the changes in the valley, that most commonly cited was the dropping water level, which was showing itself in various ways. I was told that water levels in many pools and lagoons had dropped noticeably and that some pools had simply disappeared. One man who used to travel throughout the valley on horseback told me that riding was dangerous these days due to all the sinkholes and compared the resultant landscape to a slice of Swiss cheese. The owners of the only vineyard in town told me that they had to drill deeper every year to access their ground water. A woman who has lived in the valley almost fifty years told me that in the past there were orchards in every yard and that grapes grew everywhere, all of which had changed since the water disappeared.

The diminishing water supply is attributed by the local people to a number of factors. A few years ago the town's water supply came from Río Cañon, a river which ran down to Cuatro Ciénegas from the canyon to the north, along the road to Ocampo, and which provided water from a source distinct from that of the valley floor. Today that river is dry--according to everyone I talked to, it has not run for two or three years--and the large cement pools it used to fill along its path sit as giant empty reminders of the abundant waters of the past. A few people told me that the river in the canyon had stopped running because the agricultural development in the canyon above Cuatro Ciénegas was diverting all the surface water. They also cited the extensive irrigated fields of alfalfa grown by the Sobrina company and others as being responsible for reclaiming ground water. One man told me that the government had paid an engineer to show the owners of these large-scale agricultural businesses where to drill, suggesting that the government was at least partially responsible for the diversion of water from the valley. Others said that too much of the water was going out of the valley through canals to Monclova, where it is used for irrigation and in the manufacturing of steel. Some blamed the lack of rain, others the hole in the ozone layer for the diminishing water.

A few people mentioned the disappearance of the gypsum dunes, which they blamed on Proyeso, a business owned by the Lamosa group of Monterrey. They held Proyeso responsible for causing environmental problems such as air pollution which they said its owners do not care about because they live in Monterrey.

People expressed a sense that the plants and animals of the valley, both wild and domesticated, were disappearing. In the past, people in town as well as in the country grew their own food: corn, beans, wheat, tomatoes, chiles. Now, most of the fields are devoted to alfalfa--a feed crop which can tolerate the salty soils--and cantaloupe, which is exported. With the exception of a few orchards on the outskirts of town, it is only in the ejidos that people are producing food for their own use, and even they are growing less. The drought of the past five years has taken its toll on their crops and now that a few people have cars, ejidatarios are finding it easier to go to Cuatro Ciénegas to buy their provisions. "We used to make our own tortillas," a woman from La Vega told me, "now we buy them in town"(Person C 1996). While the valley has long been famous for its vineyards, which date back to colonial times and which in the past provided grapes for many wine makers, today there is only one winery in operation. Because of the cost of drilling for water, and because of the diseases which were helped along by the drought, the wine makers have lost many of their vines and are struggling to make a profit.

Those who have been paying attention noted a dramatic change in the natural vegetation of the valley over the past twenty years. A man who grew up in La Vega told me that he remembered how the hills used to look thirty years ago: full of shrubs, trees, and grasses. Now these hills are almost bare. He blames overgrazing for the deterioration of the flora and worries about the future. "What will it look like in thirty more years?" he asked me (Person F 1996). People noticed that candelilla and cacti, which are collected by locals and foreigners as garden plants, were becoming rarer each year. A number of people told me about Germans who would come to the valley to take cacti.

There is also concern about the diminishing number of animals. One of the Guardians remembered catching fish a meter long; he told me that fish of this size no longer exist. Game is also rare. In the past, people hunted mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), javelina (Tayassu tajacu), and black bear (Ursus americanus). Today, everyone talks about how unusual it is to see a deer and how hunting has extinguished most of the game from the valley. Two different people told me that they had run into large numbers of box turtles (over a hundred individuals) dead in the desert, apparently of natural causes. One man was concerned about this and brought the carcasses to the city hall. When he got no response, he became discouraged and concluded that the government, for all its talk about conservation, was ultimately unconcerned.

In the ejidos, people told me of the cattle, goats, mules, and horses that had died during the five-year drought they had just experienced. Because of limited land and water, many people keep their animals fenced in on a plateau above the valley floor. This land has no water, and during the drought people were unable to get water up to the animals often enough. Consequently, many goats, horses, and cattle died, and many families suffered economic hardship.

People also noted a change in environmental awareness among the general citizenry. Some said this change went back ten years, some said less. While there are still infractions--people are fishing, camping illegally, lighting fires and trespassing--local people in general condemn this kind of behavior. According to people in town, modifications in behavior include refraining from washing clothes in the pools, throwing trash in the valley, and fishing. One woman commented that she was surprised that the land was still in such good shape, given the way people used to treat it. In reality, these modifications are spotty, and in some ejidos people continue to wash clothes and bathe in the pools. Furthermore, Cuatro Ciénegas lies in the middle of a busy truck route between Torre--n and Monclova, and truck drivers commonly stop to bathe in roadside pools and canals. The drivers with whom I spoke did not see any reason to stop using soap during their roadside baths. "What would be the point?" they asked me.

To some extent, the changes that have occurred in the environmental ethic can be attributed to a system of rewards and punishments. For many, international recognition of the biological richness of their valley is a reward in its own right, and it gives them the incentive to take better care of their habitats. Many noted a change in local ecological attitudes after National Geographic published an article on Cuatro Ciénegas in October 1995. While citizens had been hearing about the ecological importance of the valley for many years, many said they did not actually believe that it was important until they saw the article with its photographs of the valley and its species. For many local people, this article was the first piece of written evidence they had seen demonstrating that the valley was in fact as important as they had been told. Both Julia Carabias, president of SEMARNAP, in a speech given at the presentation of the zoning plan to the city (El Centinela del Desierto, January 1996, 3), and a writer from a Monclova newspaper (Periodico Vanguardia, 6 November 1994) talked about the importance of the National Geographic article in bringing Cuatro Ciénegas to a worldwide audience. Many expect this recognition to pay off in increased visitation and an influx of tourist dollars.

Rewards for participating in conservation also come in the form of personal kudos. A rancher showed me an award he had received from the ex-governor for his high agricultural yields. "Next to this one," he told me, "I'll be hanging another which honors me for growing the least! Times are changing"(Person Z 1996). He said that he was willing to go along with the changes necessitated by conservation policies and indicated that he would even be willing to donate some of his land to the government as a part of the protected area.

Other changes in Cuatro Ciénegas include the slow movement away from its existence as a sleepy town and toward a faster paced lifestyle. Those people who had lived in the valley for a long time told me that in the past the town had been more peaceful. While they still feel safe walking around town at any time of night, people avoid venturing out toward the highway, and consider certain parts of town to be off-limits. A few people told me they were experiencing a population explosion, noting that there were many more people living in the town today than in the past thanks to the construction of a road connecting Monclova and Torre--n.

Another change in lifestyle is reflected in the fact that people are spending less time in the valley than they did in the past. A few families talked about the good old days when they would take trips to the valley after work and stay up all night swimming, exploring, and enjoying the clear night sky. While some blamed the declaration of the protected area for taking away access, more people expressed a sense that it was a result of modernization. They said that because they were working so much harder now, they did not have time. Others blamed television for taking up all their free time.

Though I initially asked people about changes in the valley with the intention of tracking environmental change, I found that most of the issues to which people were paying attention were cultural. They talked about changes in attitudes and lifestyles. Though many noticed water levels dropping, most told me that the valley itself had changed very little during their lives, while their way of life was undergoing major readjustments.


In addition to those projects initiated by the municipality and other outside agencies, conservation practices are being carried out by local people on their own initiative and according to their own standards. Their working model for the conservation of flora and fauna is one of interaction with the biological components of the valley.

Those who make their living off the land told me that they were conserving it by working it. When I asked ejidatarios what they were doing for conservation they told me they were taking care of their land and families: managing their animals, working their fields, chopping firewood. When I asked if extracting mesquite, which they cut with hand saws and carry out in horse-drawn carts, might be causing problems for the future, one man responded, "No, it's very hard work"(Person D 1996). For them, conservation is a new word for an old concept, tied up in their daily work and allowing for land use.

A rancher who grows alfalfa and raises horses expressed similar sentiments about the interactions between land use and conservation. "This place has been here a long time," he said. "We were more careful with our species than others were"(Person Z 1996). He is proud of the condition of the valley and believes that his way of life has kept the land in good shape. To his mind, raising horses and growing alfalfa are compatible with conservation of the valley's ecosystem.

Others insisted that it was our responsibility as human beings to protect the other species simply because they exist. One man told me that since the endemics had survived for this long, under so many circumstances (referring, I suppose, to natural selection) that it was only right that we take care of them. When I asked people how they were participating in conservation efforts, more often than not they told me they were taking care of the plants and animals, implying an active participation. "Hay que cuidarlos"(you have to take care of them) was the common response. This phrase, which I heard over and over again, offers insight into local thinking as to how conservation should be carried out. As opposed to closing land off to human activities, people want to participate actively in the valley's protection. The work of the Guardians of the Valley, who are out picking up trash, looking for fires, and dealing with illegal fishing, exemplifies this sentiment. One woman told me that some people went out to the valley and turned over the box turtles and leave them to dehydrate under the desert sun. "Pobrecitos!"(poor little things) she said, "Hay que cuidarlos."

People also participate in conservation by carefully managing the people who visit their land. The proprietor of a recreational park on his land next to the Río Mesquites protects his land and its species through a campaign against littering and for fire control. Hand-painted signs nailed to palapas tell visitors:

"Soap is prohibited. Do not contaminate!";

"Put garbage in its place. Demonstrate your education.";

"Destroying nature is another form of murder.";

In addition, he provides visitors with the natural and unnatural history of the valley, offering the accumulated knowledge of his years of experience to the people who come to visit. Though he allows people to use the land, he considers his vigilance a form of protection. He, his assistant, and their dog are there in the valley every day, collecting fees, picking up trash, and making sure that people respect the river and all that lives there.

One morning in the valley I met a caretaker at Rancho Orozco. As he extinguished a campfire left burning by some people who had spent the night on the property, he asked me what I was doing there. The caretaker insisted that it was permissible to visit the ranch, and even to swim in its pools, but that fishing and fires were prohibited. He spends a lot of time enforcing that rule.

Based on what I saw and heard, people in the valley are predisposed to actively participate in the conservation process. Many declared their interest in working as park guards, and all expressed dismay at the idea of closing the basin to visitors. They are proud of their valley and want to play a role in its protection and in sharing its treasures with the world.

In town, people are less certain about their role in conservation. They told me that they were more careful to pick up garbage, an effort which has earned them an award from the state as a model city (El Centinela del Desierto, January 1996, 1). Some attributed this change in behavior to the example they saw when visiting the United States. Yet despite this recognition of their efforts, many people in town feel that they are not doing enough; though they insist that they support conservation, many people have little idea how to participate. They told me they were awaiting further instructions from the authorities. One business owner told me that the United States should provide each family in Cuatro Ciénegas with a video explaining the ecology of the valley and instructing people how to care for their environment.

Besides lacking information, people lack the appreciation of their own power to affect change. Because there is a new vocabulary being used by the government and other agencies interested in conservation, many local people are losing an appreciation for the importance of their own contributions to the well-being of the environment. Because they are unclear as to the meaning of terms like ecology and conservation, and uncertain as to what purpose is being served by the declaration of the protected area, they are deferring to the instructions of those whom they consider to be the experts.

"We don't know what to do," was the common sentiment. "We need good examples," people told me. A number of people told me that the ecotourists who came to visit were not causing any problems in the valley because they were educated and knew how to take care of it. Residents told me that they too needed to be taught so that they could protect their valley. Until they had a better understanding, they told me, their efforts would remain irrelevant.


The success of conservation in a protected area is contingent upon local people's recognition of it as such (Halffter 1981). Everyone with whom I spoke knew about the designation of the valley as a protected area or "zona ecologica"(ecological zone), as it is commonly called. Many told me they had learned of the declaration in the local paper, El Centinela del Desierto, others through the article in National Geographic, and the rest through word of mouth and public announcements. It would be hard, after all, to miss the signs along the main road reading "CuatroCiénegas: municipio ecologica,"(Cuatro Ciénegas: ecological municipality) and "Los cuidadanos de Cuatro Ciénegas se cuidan el medioambiente"(the citizens of Cuatro Ciénegas take care of the environment). A few of the business owners and community leaders with whom I spoke exhibited a strong understanding of the mechanisms of the protected area; they had attended meetings and had taken part in discussions about the zoning plan. One of the Proyeso employees had talked to a state representative from SEMARNAP about job alternatives for the miners. There had been public forums in which to discuss the protected area, but only a few people took advantage of them.

Despite their awareness of the declaration of the valley as a Natural Protected Area, most people's knowledge of the details of the protected area was vague. To many, the significance of the declaration was that it was illegal to fish and that much of the valley--previously accessible--was now restricted. When I asked people why the valley was declared an NPA, they answered with some variety of the following scenario: foreign scientists (usually American) came to the valley, they discovered a lot of species that were extinct in other places, the government closed the valley to us, and now it is a scientific laboratory. By this account, the valley is being protected because of the species that the scientists deem important, for the scientists and conservationists who want to work there. Some residents told me that is was their own fault that the valley was declared a protected area; they felt that they had treated it badly and they were being punished. For all these reasons, local people feel that they are losing access to the valley and its resources, a common reaction to the creation of a protected area (McNeely and Pitt 1985). Many people misunderstand the purpose of an NPA and assume that the valley is completely closed to human use. "You can't plant, you can't mine, and it takes away jobs," one miner told me (Person Q 1996).

The greatest problem with the declaration of the NPA would appear to be that it was introduced without offering sufficient information and that consequently people do not know what kind of land use restrictions it will enact. People are frightened by the closure of Proyeso, and many told me that they did not understand why it happened so suddenly. The workers are angry; a few asked me why, if gypsum mining had been causing environmental problems for twenty-seven years, the company had been allowed to operate for so long. People in general had little knowledge of the objectives of the protected area and consequently doubted that the declaration was necessary or in the interest of the citizens. Since the decree they have seen more tourists, more garbage, and limitations on swimming and fishing. A few people told me that they thought it was hypocritical of the government to declare Cuatro Ciénegas an ecological zone when it left its sewage untreated. One man asked me, "Does someone have to die before this issue is addressed?"(Person I 1996).

People feel insecure about the future because they lack information. In fact, the construction of a sewage treatment plan is included in drafts of the management plan (SEMARNAP and INE, unpublished document). Though the changes they have seen so far are few, people feel that the existing regulations on fishing and swimming are precursors of others yet to come. Workers are concerned that their industries might close and people in the ejidos do not know if their land is going to be taken away. Because local people realize that some of the more biologically significant ecosystems in the valley are in the ejidos--the sand dunes are owned by the ejido Seis de Enero, and the area around ejido Santa Tecla contains a number of pools--the ejidatarios fear they might lose their land to scientists. As more money becomes available from conservation groups, these fears may be realized, but only if land owners consent to selling their land. According to the federal employees with whom I spoke, the Mexican government does not generally appropriate land.

Contributing to the general uncertainty which surrounds the protected area is the government's failure to move the project forward with any sense of urgency. Though the valley was declared an Natural Protected Area in November 1994, two years later an official management plan has yet to be written and when I asked people who was in charge I received a number of different answers, including "I don't know"and "no one." People expressed concern that government corruption was at fault, and felt that politicians were pushing them around. "The rules should come from México City,"one man told me, "but they won't" (Person T 1996). Others expressed concern that favors were being granted because some businesses in the valley were allowed to remain open while others had been shut down. Two gypsum miners questioned why other industries, such as Sales Coahuiltecas, which extracts salts from the ground water, and another gypsum mining plant which operates outside of the protected area, had not been closed down. They were upset that some parts of the valley were open to business as usual while others were closed. To their mind, it was just one more example of the favoritism and corruption they had experienced all their lives. They felt that Poza la Becerra, a popular swimming spot which they said posed environmental threats due to a high volume of trash and toilets dangerously close to water sources, was only open because the mayor owned the concession. They feel that conservation is being applied inconsistently, favoring people in positions of power and putting in jeopardy lands and habitats with special interests behind them which are consequently exempt from environmental regulations.

Residents are also concerned about tourism. One man told me that magazine articles showing the Pozas Azules, a group of stunningly beautiful pools located near ejido Santa Tecla, were counter-productive in that they encouraged people to visit fragile ecosystems. Others said that tourists left garbage and destroyed plants and animals. Most people agreed that despite the financial benefits, they did not want to see more tourism unless it was supported by a strong infrastructure.

Other people consider scientists to be a threat to the valley. One woman was afraid that more scientific research might turn up another endemic species which would lead to the loss of her land. One man pointed out, "People don't know what scientists are doing and so doubt enters"(Person AB 1996). Many people were concerned that scientists did not care about the citizens. A teacher told me, "Scientists just push people out of the way in order to see the endemic species"(Person R 1996). Their fear is that the valley will be closed to the local people and that without access their lives will change for the worse. One woman, who had been watching developments in the valley for the past fifty years, told me, "The valley is for scientists and for tourism and many people feel rejected" (Person AE 1996).

A few of the citizens told me that the Natural Protected Area was important because it protected species. Yet those who admitted to the importance of taking care of nature almost always couched this concern in humanistic terms. One ejidatario told me, "On the one hand, you have to respect nature, but there is also the matter of the firewood"(Person D 1996).

When it came to the question of the benefits to the community from the protected area, most people I interviewed said, "there are none," or "maybe we'll see in the future," or "we don't know." They generally agreed begrudgingly that it was important for the future, but often sounded unconvinced. As I asked further questions, people acknowledged that it was important to protect species and that industries and resource extraction did have to be managed or there would be nothing left. A few people found benefits to the declaration of the protected area. Some people told me that they appreciated living in the valley because it offered a good quality of life; they appreciate the fresh air and clear sky and see the NPA as safeguarding these qualities.

Some said the NPA was important because it brought Cuatro Ciénegas to a worldwide audience, which would benefit the town in the development of its facilities and an influx of tourist dollars. Many feel, however, that these benefits are for the rich, the people who own the tourist attractions such as swimming pools, restaurants, and hotels. If tourism does increase, it may offer the impetus for development. Already, some homes are being equipped with heat and other amenities in order to function as guest houses. The municipality is paving many of its roads and there is talk of opening more restaurants and hotels, which could mean more money circulating. Those conversant with the natural history of the valley may soon have the chance to get paid as guides. Many campesinos told me that their communities were an ideal place from which to set out for a backpacking trip, though none of them had ever seen a tourist in their ejido. These things are all possibilities, but no one is willing to commit to their realization. Perhaps there will be more jobs, maybe we will see more tourists: these were the sentiments expressed. People spoke with caution about these uncertainties, almost as if they had heard such promises before.


People's reactions to the NPA pointed out which residents felt they had the most to lose (or gain) from the declaration; in a word, the reactions defined the stakeholders. For the most part, those who work in the valley and depend upon its resources said that the declaration would affect their lives, while those whose work was in town or in another city said it probably would not. The question of who would be affected by the declaration of the protected area brought some interesting sentiments to light. A number of people who told me that the decree would not affect them insisted that in fact it would not affect anyone. Contrary to some other accounts I heard, these people told me that very few people actually lived off the resources of the valley.

A lawyer from Monterrey, Nuevo Léon, who spends his weekends and vacations at his family home in La Vega, told me that the declaration would not affect him, as his work was elsewhere and his family had title to their house. He insisted that the ejidatarios were secure in their title as well, yet the five ejidatarios with whom I spoke were worried about losing their land. They had already seen the rules about fishing and swimming change, and they seemed sure that more restrictions were on the way. Because they have a lower income than those who live in town, they are more dependent on natural resources of the valley for which they do not have to pay. They are troubled by the potential limitations on logging because they depend upon mesquite from the valley in order to cook their food.

The Proyeso workers with whom I spoke also felt that the declaration of the NPA would affect their lives. The one worker who said he would not be hurt said so because he was confident that if he did lose his job, he could easily find another in town. He was concerned, however, for the less skilled workers. When I asked other employees about their options if Proyeso were to close down indefinitely, many talked about moving north to border towns or trying to find work in the United States.

A rancher told me that the declaration would lead to new rules deciding what he could and could not grow on his land. Though he knew this would certainly affect his business, he seemed unconcerned. Because he was not completely dependent upon one piece of land and one industry, because he had diverse sources of income and numerous holdings, the prospect of losing one of them did not strike him as a burden. On the contrary, it gave him the opportunity to participate in conservation, which he supports.

For some, the declaration of the protected area means more employment opportunities. The Guardians of the Valley, some of whom have been volunteering as guards and guides for the past seven years, are excited about the possibility of being paid to work as professional guides and gaining more responsibility as officially recognized park guards. The opportunities presented by a park with organized tours and an infrastructure for steady visitation are a dream come true for them. A number of other people expressed interest in working as guides, but were afraid that they might not get the chance.

The business owners with whom I spoke, including those with tourist concessions in the valley, said that the declaration of the NPA would not affect them. Though they own land within the designated protected area, they are sure that their businesses will not be affected unfavorably by the declaration. A few thought there might be more tourism, but they were not confident. Overall, most people expressed uncertainty as to whether or not they would be affected by the declaration, largely because the rules had not been clearly spelled out to them. Nevertheless, they had strong opinions about how conservation had been carried out so far.


Before they will consider the importance of conservation, people insist on job security. Many have their own ideas for new industries. The people of the valley told me that they needed to grow more food, and stressed the importance of producing finished products rather than exporting raw materials. A woman from La Vega who sells her goat's milk to a retailer suggested the construction of a dairy. More commonly, people looked to the north for the implementation of new industries. When I asked one ejidatario about ideas for new industries he laughed. "You are from the other side," he told me. "What did you bring for us?"(Person B 1996). The most common suggestion was to bring in clothing manufacturing plants. "We are not far from the border," another man told me, "Why not make products for the United States?"(Person I 1996). As I was leaving town, a Fruit of the Loom factory was just opening its doors, and the people I met who had been hired to work there were excited about their new jobs.

The conservation movement in the valley is in its early stages, and while some agencies are actively participating in serious efforts, local people complained about the lack of infrastructure within the protected area and offered many suggestions for improvements in the protection of the valley. Although the Guardians are supposed to be keeping an eye on trespassers, they work on a voluntary, part-time basis and consequently their vigilance is spotty at best. According to concerned citizens, serious threats to the valley necessitate stronger efforts. People told me that some people fished


bigger fish that floated to the top. Others told me of individuals who were collecting gypsum sand in private ventures and selling it out of the back of their trucks. Littering, arson, collecting artifacts, stealing animals as pets--according to those interviewed, the threats posed by all these activities necessitate a full time vigilance.

Some are concerned that this vigilance come from outside the town. They feel that there will be problems if local park guards have to deal strictly with people whom they knew personally. Others insisted that what the guards needed was authority, which in México comes in the form of a title. "People from my colonia will listen to me if I show up as an engineer," one Guardian told me. "Right now I'm just another one of them"(Person L 1996).

People also want to see improvements in the services available to visitors. One man had been to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas and insisted that Cuatro Ciénegas needed the kind of interpretation center he had seen there. Many residents are unfamiliar with the concept of a protected area, as they have not visited any others, and suggested the town needed to be developed like Las Vegas or Mazatlán in order to bring more tourists. Many people cited the need for "a good hotel," for the important people who were coming to town. Without these services, people fear the protected area will fail to bring in money.

Besides physical improvements and protection for the ecological zone, people want information. They have heard over and over about the biological importance of their valley, and their curiosity is peaked. In the course of the interviews, people expressed a great interest in the natural history of the valley and asked many questions: had the valley, in fact, been a sea? do we in the United States have sand dunes like theirs, and if so do we mine them? what other places in the world are comparable to Cuatro Ciénegas? what does ecology mean? Symptomatic of the lack of access to information in the valley is the fact that nowhere in the valley can you find copies of the over 500 scientific studies which have been undertaken in the basin. Even if these studies were available, few articles are written in or have been translated into Spanish. Residents want to be able to identify the endemic species and to understand the global importance of the valley, yet they lack resources with which to do so. Some young men suggested that information be posted in the ice cream shop--a place where local people actually go--as opposed to the museums, which are they say are for tourists. Others suggested the city build a library and an archive for important documents.

To answer their questions, local people are turning to the scientists. Despite the widespread sentiment that scientists and conservationists are taking over the valley, local residents nevertheless appreciate their knowledge and feel that they have the right to benefit from it. In the past, scientists were regarded as a curiosity. One woman recalled working with Minckley and other scientists as a child, and though she took an interest in the animals they studied, she also questioned their intensity. "We always wondered why they were so serious," she told me (Person AA 1996). This sentiment exists today, and extends to recreational natural historians. Out in the field one day with the Guardians of the Valley, one of them asked me if I knew any birdwatchers.

According to my interviews, this perception is changing. For over thirty years, the majority of the people who have camped in the valley have been scientists, many of whom employed local people as assistants and guides. Residents talked about how they enjoyed working with the scientists, though many expressed dismay that they had never seen the results of the studies in which they had assisted. People suggested that when researchers come to the valley, that they have some kind of interaction with the city: a talk, a question and answer session, or a slide presentation. Residents want the opportunity to engage in a dialogue; they want to be encouraged and inspired to appreciate their valley, and feel that through an understanding of what the scientists are doing they will be better able to do so .

Finally, people want justice. They want to feel that they have the same access to their valley that scientists and tourists do, and feel that all people should follow the same set of rules. Many found it questionable that scientists were collecting species for their studies. "If these species are so rare and important," one man asked me, "why are they allowed to take them out?"(Person I 1996). Residents also expressed dismay over the fact that so many conservationists were coming to town and being taken to parts of the valley that were closed to locals. This kind of preferential treatment only serves to validate their feeling that the conservation of the valley is being carried out for scientists. Local people also found it odd that animals and plants were getting so much attention when people in the town were experiencing financial problems. One woman asked me why people were studying plants when there were no jobs. With better information, residents might begin to see the relationship between the ecology of the valley and the quality of their own lives.

Next section
Return to Thesis Table of Contents

Return to / Regrese a Cuatro Ciénegas Home Page DFC Home TNHC FISH Home. Page maintained by / página a cargo de Dean A. Hendrickson