Defending the Land of the Jaguar

Simonian, Lane. Defending the Land of the Jaguar: A History of Conservation in Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.*

Lane Simonian presents a compact study of the different forms of conservation and environmental thinking that were practiced by all the peoples who have inhabited Mexico. Although “the exploitation of natural resources has been the dominant theme in Mexican environmental history” (p. 1), Simonian argues that concern over the loss of these resources also inspired individuals to advocate conservation from the time of the Mayas and Aztecs and through the Spanish colonial period, the early twentieth century and up to the present day.

Modern Mexican environmentalists have argued for a return to older native ways that were supposedly more in harmony with nature; however, Simonian presents evidence that the agricultural and logging practices of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica had a profound impact on their environment. Wild animals and birds were heavily exploited by the Mesoamerican civilizations for religious and spiritual purposes, and hillsides were denuded of forests for a multitude of purposes; the resulting scarcity of timber prompted several native rulers to enact forestry regulations. However, the native peoples also implemented agricultural practices to limit soil erosion, such as terraces, and the use of chinampas helped to conserve soil and forests.

The Spaniards introduced new plants, animals, and agricultural methods that modified the environment on a much greater scale. They were also familiar with ecological deterioration, and monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand attempted to conserve timber resources with Spain’s first forestry law in 1496. Over the next several centuries, various royal edicts were intended to preserve colonial forests, as well, but their impact was negligible. After Independence, most Mexican governments preferred to pursue agricultural and industrial development. Even token nods to national conservation were often under-funded, under-staffed, or finally eliminated, like the 1940 closure of the Department of Forestry, Fish and Game after only six years of operation.

Although Simonian focuses on upbeat biographies of several thoughtful and energetic individuals, the final impression of the text is that the history of conservation in Mexico has not been wildly successful. His study is a detailed portrait of a country’s apparent inability to prevent the inexorable degradation of its environment because its ever-expanding population must heavily exploit constantly shrinking natural resources, not just to survive, but to industrialize, “develop,” and participate in the global economy. The statistics on page 204 about the current state of Mexico’s soil, water and forests are not encouraging; however, Simonian noted that “as each year people heard more about the shortages of potable water, clean air, and fertile soil, they began to link human behavior to the damage of the natural environment that sustains life” (p. 205).

This popularization of environmental ideas was especially interesting, such as the use of flyers and posters to appeal to the rural campesinos to conserve trees and Mexico City’s residents’ recognition of the health consequences of the city’s massive air and water pollution problems, reminiscent of Rachel Carson's classic, Silent Spring (1962) and the documentary Green. Simonian’s discussion of native and Spanish attitudes towards mountain lions was also intriguing in light of what we later read about these animals in Ecology of Fear.

*Another reaction paper from a reading seminar in U.S. and global environmental history.

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