A number of factors outside the scope of this study will determine the efficacy of conservation efforts in Cuatro Ciénegas. These factors include changing patterns in land ownership; the details of the management and zoning plans and the degree to which their precepts are respected and enforced; the funds available from conservation groups and state and federal governments with which to construct an infrastructure for the NPA and pay for necessary staff; and finally, the ability of local, state, and federal government entities, non governmental groups, and the private sector to coordinate efforts in establishing and enforcing environmental standards.

In Chapter Two, I sketched out the current state of the conservation movement in Cuatro Ciénegas. I outlined the emerging form of the zoning plan, topics to be addressed by the management plan, recent changes in land tenure, and the first stages of an infrastructure for the protected area--all of which offer a glimpse of the impending changes confronting the valley and its residents. Ultimately, however, the purpose of this study is not to list bureaucratic efforts in the movement toward the conservation of a biologically important ecosystem. Instead, the purpose is to document how conservation is being carried out on the ground, to listen to local reactions to these changes, and to identify where potential conflicts exist in the different visions of a place, as expressed by its various stakeholders. In Chapters Three and Four, I offered viewpoints from within the local, scientific, and conservation communities. In this final section, I take on two tasks. First, I analyze the content of these viewpoints; I determine where stakeholders' interests coincide, where they part ways, and what they ultimately ask of one another. I consider ways in which to facilitate a dialogue among the interested parties so that local people concerned with their livelihood and scientists with apprehension about the survival of the valley's biota can address one another.

Secondly, I look at two recent developments in the Cuatro Ciénegas valley--ecotourism and environmental education--both of which are aimed at establishing, among the various stakeholders, a common ground from which conservation initiatives might gather a greater general support. In the course of this paper, I have made a case for the importance of the support of conservation initiatives by resident people. This final section looks at two attempts to address local reservations about conservation, exploring the economics of resource management and the power of information to involve local people in the conservation process; it considers the possibilities offered by a locally-based ecotourism, and assesses the role of environment education in changing local perceptions of land and resource use. These two developments are presented in order to examine to what extent the ideals of sustainable development might have practical applications to the case of Cuatro Ciénegas. Where the goals of sustainable development fall short, where conservation takes on airs and where industry loses its basis in the local economy, suggestions are offered to bring the focus back to the local community. Throughout this chapter, I recall the advice of José Davila(1996): "Remember, this is México, and you have to do things without much money."


Scientists and local residents have very different reasons for their interest in the Cuatro Ciénegas valley. Speaking generally, the biggest difference between the scientific and local viewpoint can be found in their respective attitudes toward the resource base. As a rule, residents regard extractive industries as a good and natural use of the land, while biologists do not. Furthermore, while residents' perceptions of the valley are more internal--it is their home and in some cases the source of their livelihood--scientific interest stems from the valley's potential as a biological laboratory, a place in which to study the processes of ecology, evolution, and biogeography (Taylor and Minckley 1966:19).

The local view reflects a deeply-rooted land ethic. For hundreds of years, the industries and lifestyles of Cuatro Ciénegas have been based on the extraction of natural resources. Many people supplement their diet by fishing (or did, until the recent ban) and support their families by raising crops and chopping mesquite for firewood, while industries are based on ranching, mineral extraction, and the harvesting of plants such as candelilla. Now that the NPA has been established and some of these land uses have been restricted, many local people are finding they must redefine the role, use, and value of natural resources. While most local people agree that plants and animals need protection, they also believe that the purpose of the valley is to provide for its human residents.

Many scientists insist that the people who rely upon the resources of the valley are few, yet the facts disprove this perception. The 1990 census reports that 910 of the 3378 workers in the municipality, or twenty-seven percent, are employed in agriculture or ranching (INEGI 1990:376). Add to this the number of people involved in mining and it is understandable that local people are concerned. Though the management and zoning plans will not completely eliminate agriculture, ranching, and mining within the valley, they may call for significant changes.

Another source of contention between local people and conservationists is the issue of how changes in land use should be implemented. Local people feel that restrictions are being imposed without any consideration for their concerns, and moreover, without any warning. At the very least, they want to be told in advance when industries are to close. Better yet, they want to take part in discussions about changes in land use policy so that they can negotiate their own futures.

Along these same lines, local people expressed a desire for information. They want to know the extent and nature of restrictions within the protected area, the potentials for changes in land tenure, the people who are in charge, and the recourses to which they have access when they find new policy to be unfair. When scientists speak of information, they generally refer to environmental education and the importance of explaining to local people the details of ecology and the role of a healthy ecosystem in their own lives. While these are indeed crucial concepts to understand, they do not directly answer the immediate concerns of locals who feel that in the short-term, conservation is compromising their personal rights.

Recall from Chapter One Brownrigg's criteria for a local support of conservation: it must support a community's culture and offer jobs, it must include clear land title, and it must make known acceptable land use. At this point in the management of Cuatro Ciénegas NPA, none of these criteria have been met. First of all, many people, especially ejidatarios and miners, feel great insecurity about the future of their jobs. Secondly, although many who live in the protected area--again, largely ejidatarios--have title to their land, these people believe that it can be taken away from them due to the power of the international scientific community. They worry that if scientists want to get them off their land because of the presence of rare species, that they will have to comply. Finally, acceptable land use has not been made clear to the valley's residents. Apart from the rules against fishing and swimming, most people have little idea how conservation will be implemented. Few people have heard of the zoning plan, and fewer have read it. In this powerless position, it is little wonder that residents are hesitant to embrace the idea of conservation.

Most of these problems can be attributed to a lack of communication between local residents and those federal and state officials in charge of the conservation of the valley. There is also strain, however, among local residents. Many residents feel that the local elite--politicians, land owners, and some business people--is joining forces with foreign scientists and high ranking government officials while ignoring the concerns of local residents. Though the municipality has shown efforts to address the needs of their constituents (as in the opening of the new assembly plant), there is much suspicion amongst local people that politicians and land owners who embrace conservation initiatives are doing so because of opportunities for personal profit. Until they see some profits of their own, local people are not likely to fully embrace new land use restrictions or the new environmental ethic that is supposed to accompany them. If residents are to support conservation, they want proof that it will support them.


The views of the valley's residents and visiting scientists are not in absolute opposition to one another. While locals consider the valley important on the basis of their personal and collective histories, scientists too have enjoyed a long history in the valley. At the same time, many local people, including the Guardians of the Valley, numerous school teachers, and nature guides, have a great appreciation for the valley's rare habitats and are working to protect them. These similarities within two seemingly different points of view suggest a potential starting point for a dialogue between two important constituencies.

Two of the most important researchers in the valley, Contreras-Balderas and Minckley, insist that the long-term establishment of a healthy ecosystem depends upon local recognition that the quality of air and water in the valley has a direct impact on their own health and well-being. Whether it is through the realization that those essential things they value--clean air, good water, unpolluted food, a good quality of life--are threatened, or through a sense that things were better in the old days, scientists believe that local people have within their own value system the desire to maintain a healthy ecosystem, one which will support the valley's much-publicized flora and fauna as well as its resident people. According to scientists, this value system need only be accessed, and that here lies the challenge to conservation and the purpose of environmental education.

Many residents interviewed expressed a great appreciation for the valley's ecological richness and an understanding of the effects of poor environmental policy. People are concerned about the non-treatment of sewage and drink bottled water because they are afraid of contamination. Yet convincing local people that they share similar goals with conservationists--in this case, the protection of the ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment for all living things--is not the same as recognizing residents' concerns regarding conservation's financial implications and their powerlessness in the face of changing land use policy. This next section considers whether environmental education and the development of an environmental ethic among resident people speaks to the concerns voiced by local people.


While the role of scientists in identifying ecological problems is critical, the most important factors in the effective management of a protected area are human motivations and responses (Ludwig, et al. 1993:36). The forces which drive these responses and motivations can be attributed to an environmental ethic, a personal vision which defines one's relationship to the natural world. Conflicts arise when the people who live in a protected area and those who establish land use regulations do not share the same environmental ethic. In this situation, managers generally posit environmental education as the tool with which to bring people over to the side of conservation. This section asks whether or not education is an appropriate means with which to urge people to modify their relationship with the natural world in order to incorporate conservation into their land ethic.

One might argue that environmental education, like any form of education, is implemented for the good of the local people. By pointing out the benefits of conserving an area's natural resources--whether as commodities that people need (Norton 1989:244) or as sources of wonder which teach us and our future generations about the intricacy of our world (Ehrenfeld 1978)--environmental education is commonly cited as a crucial step in the conservation process. Yet environmental education must also be recognized as a tool for manipulating behavior, one which may be intended to elicit a predetermined response from those being educated. Because that behavior conforms to what many of us consider to be good and environmentally responsible, we often fail to acknowledge its subversive nature.

An unasked question is whether people should be expected to redefine their environmental understanding in order to accommodate the conservationist's agenda. Philosopher Bryan Norton (1989:246) responds to this criticism saying that since we, as Americans, are leaders in so many arenas, we should certainly lead other countries in the pursuit of something as worthwhile as protecting biodiversity.

Another response, and one which brings us back to the study area, is that the residents of Cuatro Ciénegas, in the course of interviews, often asked for scientific explanations for the workings of the natural world. People want environmental education. More specifically, they want to learn the language of science so that they can recognize what scientists and conservationists find interesting and valuable. They want to be able to describe the ecology of their valley and understand the changes they are witnessing. Their belief is that if they can talk about the valley's ecology with scientists and with each other, then they can begin to stake their claim to what they feel they lost when--in their words--the scientists and tourists took over the valley. While environmental education is, on one hand, a device which conservationists use to achieve their own objectives, it is at the same time a tool residents can employ to better appreciate and utilize their natural resources.


As we read in Chapter Three, many local people have a strong understanding of the plants and animals of the valley, as evidenced in their work as guides, their use of medicinal herbs and other wild species, and their appreciation of environmental change. Many people of the valley have an understanding of their environment as it applies to and affects their own lives. They can identify the plants and animals that they use, and they realize that certain practices--fishing, using detergents in the pools, littering--are bad for the environment in general. They are concerned by lower water levels and drought because these occurrences affect resources used by humans, as evidenced by the senescence of grape vines and the death of domesticated animals. They understand the significance of endemic species and are willing to protect them out of a sense of pride that they occur in their valley.

Though many have a practical understanding of the valley--exemplified by the ejidatarios who can tell you the name of every plant growing around their house--others are dismayed by what they describe as their lack of environmental understanding. Thanks to the media and the presence of conservationists and scientists in the valley, many local people are well-versed in terms such as flora, fauna, endemic, ecology, and biodiversity. While they understand endemic as describing a species which exists in the valley and nowhere else, most people do not employ these terms in the same way that scientists do. They tend to use the words "ecolog'a" and "conservaci--n"interchangeably, and equate both with the exclusion of people from the valley rather than with any type of biological interaction. For most people, ecology means that they no longer throw their garbage out the windows of their cars, and conservation means that they can no longer swim or fish.

These misconceptions are significant. They provide the potential educator with clues as to how conservation is perceived and offer a list of terms which need to be better explained. Before people will be able to participate in meaningful conservation efforts, before concepts such as conservation and ecology will be applied to decisions in their daily lives, people must understand their significance. While the language of conservation is being spoken, the applicability of its terms is not evident to the local people because they have not been explained in a way that is meaningful to their lifestyle. Furthermore, if environmental education programs are to be meaningful to local people, it is crucial that local understanding of the natural world, as outlined above, be recognized and validated. This recognition is the base from which an expanded appreciation for the resources of the valley might be created, among scientists and local people alike. It is the common ground necessary for the beginning of a true dialogue.

Environmental education offers people a chance to develop an expanded definition of the natural resources of their surroundings, and with this expanded sense of possibility people might begin to accept the tenets of conservation. At the same time, it is crucial that those implementing environmental education programs recognize the predominant cultural viewpoint that says the purpose of the land is to provide resources for people. Environmental education must address this issue. It must make clear the fact that conservation does not require that people give up the extraction of resources, but only asks that resource use be reassessed and modified in light of the sustainability and fragility of the resources themselves, and that people consider the long-term consequences and the future significance of their own actions.

If undertaken in the right spirit, environmental education does not to tell people how to behave or what to believe. Instead, by providing people the details of legal declarations, by introducing them to places, species, and the ecological relationships between them, environmental education can help people to develop their own informed opinions as to how resources should be used or managed. When carried out in this manner, environmental education can be a tool which empowers, rather than indoctrinates, local people.


While environmental education attempts to address the misconceptions resident people often have of conservation, ecotourism--or nature-oriented travel--is often proposed as an answer to economic problems encountered by people who live in areas under protected status. The Ecotourism Society offers the following definition:

Ecotourism is purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the cultural and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources financially beneficial to the local citizens (Wood 1991:201).

In theory, ecotourism responds admirably to the ecological and economic issues facing protected areas. Conservation International, the Man and the Biosphere Program, and World Wildlife Fund all recommend ecotourism as a tool which provides economic incentives for conservation (Wood 1991:204). As previous land uses are deemed unacceptable, ecotourism can bring in much needed financial support through the income generated from entrance fees, guided tours, souvenir sales, and other services, without depleting an area's natural resources. In its ideal form, ecotourism aids in conservation, generates money for the community, involves local people, and educates tourists (Whelan 1991:4). On the other hand, ecotourism has been attacked as an unreliable source of revenue, dependent upon the whims of nature travelers and natural disasters, as well as for the environmental problems it often creates in the form of increased litter, trail erosion, and pollution (Adams 1995:6).


It remains uncertain whether Cuatro Ciénegas will attract a significant number of ecotourists, and if that potential market can support the region's faltering economy. One motel owner told me he had seen an increase recently in the numbers of people visiting, especially conservationists and ecotourists, while two men who work as nature guides told me that very few people were actually visiting the valley. As no studies have looked at the question of ecotourism in Cuatro Ciénegas, its potentials remain unquantifiable.

Despite uncertainty about the number of ecotourists the valley might attract, the past few years have seen a discernible shift toward nature-oriented visits to the Cuatro Ciénegas valley. Traditionally, tourists in Cuatro Ciénegas visit popular bathing spots such as Poza La Becerra and Río Mesquites. Because of much publicity in Monclova and Torre--n through newspaper articles and television shows, local tourism is growing and increasingly focuses on the biological aspects of the valley.

Lately, the distance from which visitors are coming has increased. Last year, Cuatro Ciénegas won national recognition for its quality of tourism in the category of "ciudad típica"or typical town (El Centinela del Desierto, July 1996, 6). Furthermore, the Mexican government tourism agency SECTUR is promoting Cuatro Ciénegas as an ecotourism destination (México City Times, 20 August 1996, 19). After the National Geographic article on the valley, México Desconocido promoted Cuatro Ciénegas as a place to actually watch evolution taking place and listed activities for the ecotourist, including mountain biking, photography, camping, and mountain climbing (Gonzáles 1996). The April 1996 edition of Kaktusble, a German publication for cactus enthusiasts, includes a long article featuring the many cacti of the area.

Despite all the recent publicity, it is debatable whether the Cuatro Ciénegas valley has enough areas of interest to persistently attract the ecotourism market, which comes largely from the United States, Europe, and Japan (Whelan 1991:5). Poza La Becerra offers high visibility for snorkeling, the cave system is extensive, bird diversity is high for the Chihuahuan desert, and the aquatic fauna is impressive; yet the valley lacks charismatic megafauna--such as the resplendent quetzal of the Mayan country or the elusive ocelot of the jungle--which are an oft-cited criteria for ecotourists. Ron Savage (1996) believes that there are too many other places in México with better amenities and a wider range of cultural and biological attractions for Cuatro Ciénegas to become a large-scale ecotourist destination. According to Savage, the dunes have been "bulldozed into oblivion," the pools are ecologically stressed and full of trash due to high visitation, there is no commercial airport, and there is nothing to buy. Savage sees the valley as a place to pass through, which it has been historically, rather than as a destination. Taylor and Minckley (1966:18) extol the valley as a resource for scientists, but feel it is an unlikely tourist destination because it is inaccessible and lacks spectacular scenery and ancient ruins. The attractions of the valley are subtle and require the diligent attention of the visitor in order to be properly appreciated.

Even if the valley proves to be too remote or lacking in attractions to become an ecotourist Mecca, it appears likely that Cuatro Ciénegas will continue to attract scientists and local groups, and the visitation that does occur needs to be managed (Adams 1995:4). The most basic infrastructure for nature tourism--a visitors center, a system of signs, interpretive trails, camp grounds, guided tours--are currently lacking. The ecotourism which does exist, besides threatening the integrity of the ecosystems, is insufficiently exploited for the economic potential it holds.


Local people, sensing the appeal of their valley to a national and international audience, are interested in exploring new business opportunities. "We were a forgotten city," one woman told me, "and now that the world knows about us, we need to take advantage of this attention"(Person N 1996). A WWF study found that nature tourists in Latin America spend more than other tourists and that the demand for ecotourist destinations was increasing (Whelan 1991:6). If this trend finds its way to the edge of the Chihuahuan desert, the people of Cuatro Ciénegas will have reason to be optimistic.

The local response to the prospect of ecotourism was generally positive. Those conversant in natural history, including the Guardians of the Valley, were excited about the possibility of working as guides. Hotel owners, those with concessions in the valley, and other business people all felt that ecotourism would benefit the town, as long as the proper regulations were in place. At the same time, people expressed the critical need for vigilance, signs, and information and insisted that without these precautions, ecotourism would only hurt the valley.

Those who expressed pessimism about the potentials of ecotourism were concerned that it would only serve those people who had something to sell. They worried that the town had no souvenirs; they explained that there were no native crafts in Cuatro Ciénegas because there were no "traditional" people. Consequently, there is very little to sell to visitors to generate additional income. While there are many restaurants, only a couple ever serve foreign tourists, and two motels see the vast majority of the visitors. Despite the fact that concessions within the valley--Poza La Becerra and Río Mesquites--are locally owned, people fault tourism for profiting well-off business owners instead of the town as a whole.

There was also concern that even if visitation did increase, it would do little for the town because those ecotourists who currently visit often camp in the valley, bring their own supplies, and ultimately contribute little to the local economy. Scientists also fall into this category of unprofitable guests, and residents are beginning to question whether researchers should have to pay for their stays in the valley, since they are after all just another type of tourist.

In order for people to support ecotourism, they insist that a few criteria must be met. They ask for vigilance to control theft of the biota, illegal fishing, and trespassing. They want organized tours, better capabilities for dealing with large groups, and services such as hotels or guest houses. Most importantly, they want a standardization of rules so that all people in the valley will be accountable to the same set of guidelines, so that the favoritism that allows some people into restricted areas will be eliminated. "Distinguished visitors come to the valley and go where we are not allowed," one man told me (Person AB 1996). This type of practice serves only to further alienate residents from their valley.


Though SEMARNAP is responsible for the management of the protected area, they have not developed any type of infrastructure for ecotourism. There are, however, possibilities of investment from other sources. Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which encourages development of new business throughout Latin America, recently visited Cuatro Ciénegas and expressed interest in an ecotourism development program which would stimulate productive investments and create new sources of jobs by making long-term, low-interest loans available to local investors (El Centinela del Desierto, August 1996, 1).

Though many residents were excited about the innovative infrastructures suggested by BID--including a type of vehicle which would take visitors across the sand dunes without leaving a trace and human-sized aquariums suspended from bridges into which visitors would drop in order to look into the travertine pools without damaging their fragile structure--others reacted with a caution earned over many decades of disappointment and unfulfilled promises, saying "I'll believe it when I see it."

The most realistic plans are coming from the municipality. The mayor initiated a project in which a number of local homes were modified with heat and air conditioning in order to serve as guest houses for short- or long-term visitors, and is encouraging researchers to make use of this option as opposed to camping in the field. This type of investment scheme makes the most sense for Cuatro Ciénegas; it will work because it does not demand a heavy investment, and therefore does not necessitate a steady flow of tourism. It works within the local lifestyle, distributes the profits of tourism among many individuals, and encourages interaction between residents and visitors. If the development for ecotourism continues to move in this direction, and if it serves as a model for other locally-based businesses, it promises to address some of residents most pressing economic concerns and to appease about environmental impacts.


Throughout this paper, I have explored the human dimensions of conservation. The Cuatro Ciénegas basin faces a number of ecological threats and economic challenges which are infrequently approached in a way which deals holistically with the needs of the people and the fragility of its habitats. While there are commonalities within the visions of the people who live in the valley and the scientists and conservationists who work there, the approaches to conservation employed thus far have not always worked from this common ground. These last two sections, by looking at environmental education and ecotourism, describe the state of conservation in Cuatro Ciénegas and point out opportunities for capitalizing on the shared goals of residents and conservationists. By studying the details of both processes, I was able to demonstrate how the proponents of conservation might more effectively address local interests.

Some people of Cuatro Ciénegas have demonstrated their support of conservation. The GDV, the developers of a local NGO, and those people involved in the zoning plan all evidence environmental concern. Not surprisingly, the first people to show support for conservation were those who had been invited to take part in the process: the group of business owners who had taken a field trip to the valley, landowners who had been consulted about their properties, people involved in the review of the zoning plan. These groups support conservation because they consider themselves part of the process, as opposed to the majority of the residents who see themselves as victims of it. Though all the residents with whom I spoke expressed the importance of conserving and caring for their natural resources, and though many of them had a long history of doing so, the residents of Cuatro Ciénegas as a whole do not embrace the formal face of conservation because they sense it falls short of democratic principles. To them, conservation is just another aspect of politics and society to which they are not privy.

If the views of the local people are to be integrated into the management of a protected area--which they must be if the goals of the protected area are to be achieved--these viewpoints must be solicited and very seriously considered. As Adams tells us, development (and consequently, by his definition, conservation) ought to be what communities do to themselves. The conservation of resources must be considered and carried out by local people, of their own accord, in all daily activities. These are the attitudes and practices which determine the condition of an ecosystem. Unless residents conscientiously choose to alter their activities and willingly incorporate a new environmental ethic into their way of life, and unless an infrastructure is erected to encourage these developments, conservation will remain just another government decree which may or may not be respected.

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