Thursday, November 8, 2012

Political Ecology of the Sierra de La Giganta Oases

The high, desert oases of the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range (hereafter referred to as “Giganta”) of Baja California Sur, Mexico are considered wetland habitats of international importance (Ramsar 2012). The Giganta’s 54 oases are small in size, disconnected from one another during dry seasons, and found only in arroyos (Maya and Dominguez 1997). These oases are species rich and diverse (Riemann and Ezcurra 2005). Year-round fresh water causes this habitat to support small, forested areas with marsh-like vegetation that harbor a variety of endemic flora and fauna species (Bernardi, Ruiz-Campos, and Camarena-Rosales 2007; Leon de la Luz and Dominguez Cadena 2006; Riemann and Ezcurra 2005; Ruiz-Campos et al. 2002; World Wildlife Fund 2012).

Over the last ten years, the Giganta and its oases have been targeted for conservation, with some authors advocating that parts to become fully protected (Riemann and Ezcurra 2005) – which would preclude humans from living within this environment. Ranchero lifestyles have been implicated as the primary cause for oasis ecosystem decline (Leon de la Luz and Dominguez Cadena 2006; Riemann and Excurra 2005; Rodriguez-Estrella 2005; World Wildlife Fund 2012). Although the long-term habitat functioning of Giganta oases is of grave concern, limited systematic evaluations exist concerning the extent to which ranching lifestyles affect oasis ecosystem functioning.

As primary stakeholders whose livelihoods have been tethered to this ecosystem over the last 232 years, it is possible ranchero social institutions support the goal of long-term ecosystem functioning. Rather than assume rancheros are degrading this habitat, a political ecology approach would situate resident rancheros choices in light of historical contingencies and socio-political dynamics. Contextualizing choice through such a framework provides information necessary to increase the community’s capacity to integrate itself into the growing global economy at a pace that maintains cultural integrity and promotes ecologic sustainability. The current research applies this framework for a single watershed in the Giganta, Arroyo La Presa.

Arroyo La Presa and Rancheros
The Arroyo La Presa (hereafter referred to as ALP) watershed is a dry and rugged, 35-kilometer ephemeral riverine system located in the southern Giganta. Two things dominate the landscape: the valley walls that rise 800 meters ASL and oases that dot the arroyo. An archaeological and environmental survey approved by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Anthropologia y Historia, and administered by the author, in conjunction with Celeste Henrickson and the Pacific Slope Archaeological Laboratory, revealed the ALP watershed contains approximately 27 oases. A human development survey conducted by the Mexican Secretariat of Social Development (SEDESOL) in the same year revealed twelve ranchos and 107 people live in the watershed (SEDESOL 2012).

The ranchero community in ALP is largely underdeveloped, lacking electricity, public sanitation, western medical services, and paved roads. Many of these individuals are the direct descendants of the two original Spanish families who came to settle the region following the Jesuit expulsion of 1767 AD (Martinez 1965; Lesseppas 1995). Over the last 232 years, these rancheros developed a unique culture shaped by the experiences occurring within this restricted habitat, with oases, desert landscapes, and ranching forming the core of their social identity (International Community Foundation 2006; Crosby 1981). Community life revolves around bonds of kinship and reciprocity, and organizations for status seeking, collective action, labor exchange, and mutual insurance bind group members together (Crosby 1981; de Janvry, Gordillo, Sadoulet 1997). Throughout the last 232 years, rancheros have developed a set of rules for using and managing oasis water. Norms dictate when ranchos are situated next to an oasis, those residents have primary user rights; however others from the broader community may consume the water if need exists or if they are directly related to someone residing next to an oasis.

Most ranchos exist immediately adjacent to at least one spring and nearly all residents agree living next to a spring is vital for survival. However, a few ranchos are distantly located from oases. These ranchos obtain drinking water from springs associated with other ranchos. Occasionally gifts of goat, cattle, or fish meat are exchanged for using another’s oasis. Residents state the oases have never run dry in their or their recently deceased relatives’ lifetimes. Many, but not all, oases are protected from livestock via fences, as people prefer to drink water that has not been contaminated by goats, horses, and cattle. Many families use “gravity fed” hoses or buckets to transport oasis water; however several families own gasoline powered pumps for transporting water. Those who do own them state that they are not used frequently as gasoline is difficult to acquire and costly to do so.

Like most desert-mountain ranchero communities on the Baja California Peninsula, most land and oasis water in the ALP watershed has been held in common as a matter of practice over the last 232 years. However, cooperative land tenure practices in this watershed was not formalized until 1942 AD, when two administratively recognized communal landholding districts were created – known as ejidos (Nuevo Centro de Ejidal Tepentu and Ley Federal de Aguas Numero Dos). Ejidos are a legal framework for politically representing and socially reproducing a community who jointly own and manage common land, but maintain individual use rights over portions of it (de Janvry, Gordillo, Sadoulet 1997). That property is held in common in this watershed does not mean land and oasis water is open access and therefore likely to succumb to a “tragedy of the commons” style problem of overconsumption (Hardin 1968). Community norms established by rancheros themselves determine who has access to and consumption of water. Because their economic and cultural survival depends on the health of this ecosystem, they have the greatest incentives to protect it in perpetuity. Cross-cultural evidence suggests smallholder populations relying on common property regimes can sustainably manage common pool resources when communities have: 1) secure property rights; 2) decision-making autonomy; 3) the ability to monitor behavior or punish offenders; 4) stable social relations and daily communication; and 5) a slow rate of cultural change (Borgerhoff Mulder and Copollilo 2005).

Changing Property Rights, Population Dynamics, and Management
Since 1991 AD, Mexico has enacted land policy reform aimed at dismantling the cooperative ejido system via privatization and the creation of land markets (Thompson and Wilson 1994). Land privatization occurred as part of a package of other macroeconomic reforms including trade liberalization (de Janvry, Gordillo, Sadoulet 1997). Population estimates generated by SEDESOL suggest the ALP watershed has experienced a population decline from 165 people to 107 (a drop of over 35 percent between the years 2000 and 2010 AD), as individuals are opting to sell their land and move to urban areas for other economic opportunities. As of 2006, approximately 55 percent of land in ejido Tepentu had been parcelized and sold, with individuals selling land for less than fair market value (International Community Foundation 2006). This exodus has caused fear that ranchero culture may be lost within the next two generations (Living Roots 2011).

Rancheros in the ALP watershed indicate the transition has led to negative repercussions related to grazing and water management. Residents state one emigrant family who purchased privatized ejido land consumes oasis water without following community norms governing oasis management. This family consumes oasis water from their own property, as well as oasis water from other ranchos (via a historically built irrigation channel) for agricultural production; however this private household does not reciprocate water to other ranchos. Additionally, residents state this same family allows their livestock to graze on rancho properties other than their own. Because these emigrants are relatively wealthy, many in the community feel they have little power to enforce local rules. A political ecology perspective suggests the greatest threat to habitat functioning in the ALP (and other regions in the Giganta) stem from institutional changes related to land holding and trade liberalization. When individuals option community lands for urban centers, within-community common pool resource management can be hampered because demographic and cultural value changes alter how communities monitor behavior and punish norm violators (Borgerhoff Mulder and Copollilo 2005).

To ensure the long-term viability of the oasis habitats in the ALP and Giganta, the constraints and opportunities of the local ranchero population must be considered. As primary stakeholders, efforts should be made to build the capacity of the ranchero population to act as stewards of the environment. Removing or diminishing the population’s voice over oasis and land management can lead to conflict between local, regional, or international stakeholders and may result in further degradation. Education, material support, and skill acquisition for monitoring environmental impacts will be important to facilitate the ranchero population’s ability to better manage these resources in perpetuity. Tapping into the watershed’s unique ecology and its historical connection to the indigenous Guaycura culture, the Jesuit missionary period, and ranching, may promote the development of eco-historic employment that incentives residents to remain on their traditional lands because it requires their knowledge of the landscape and cultural history.

Based on the cultural, historical, and ecological importance of the ALP watershed an ethos of collaboration is required between all stakeholders. Empowering the local ranchero population to define research questions, collect data, and use data for management decisions will support both ecological sustainability and cultural integrity.

Shane J. Macfarlan, Ph.D
Department of Anthropology
Oregon State University

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