Were National Parks Actually Mexico’s Best Idea?

UnknownOn the eve of the Second World War, Mexico led the world in number of national parks. The Mexican government designated hundreds of thousands of hectares in fourteen states as national parks by 1940, during a time when the country was still recovering from the tumultuous revolution and civil war of the century’s second decade. Although the idea of national parks is typically associated with being the “best idea” of the United States, it was Mexico that led the way in the 1930s. Why Mexico?

In Revolutionary Parks, Emily Wakild tells us that the parks communicated the ideals of the social revolution in Mexico, espousing social justice while implementing the tools of rational science. It is true that the parks protected forests and watershed, but they did so with rural communities in mind, permitting agricultural uses and refusing to force people to vacate land. To Wakild, the parks not only were in keeping with revolutionary ideals, they were expressions of them. She shows how the parks created in the 1930s absorbed the lessons of economic conservation while also treating the work of rural people as morally valuable and worthy of protection.

In Wakild’s telling, the creation of national parks in Mexico differed from those in many other countries by allowing for the expression of radical opinions about living in a just and equitable society. Rather than draw from elites’ sensibilities about preserving wilderness, she writes, Mexican parks sought to establish a “common cultural patrimony of nature.”

Our first commentator is Sterling Evans, the Louise Welsh Chair of History at the University of Oklahoma. A specialist in environmental and agricultural history in Latin America, Evans has a particular interest in the relationship between commodities, ecology, and social structures. In his book Bound in Twine, he shows how a particular fiber from the Yucatán, henequen, provided the twine not only to “bind” wheat but also to bind the lives of those who exploited land and workers. While focused on a Mexican commodity, he shows how henequen was linked to global markets, its fate rising and falling with the fortunes of American and Canadian wheat production.[1]

Adrian Howkins is Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, where he teaches courses on environmental history and Latin American history. He has spent years exploring the intellectual and political dimensions of distant, often-inaccessible places. Like Wakild, he is concerned with the role of political ideology in governing land use. His studies of territorial claims in Antarctica have highlighted the anti-imperial elements of political discourse in Chile and Argentina. He notes that these countries struck a delicate balance between their anti-imperial idealism and their own expansionistic goals.[2]

Curt Meine is an expert on Aldo Leopold and is a scholar of conservation principles. He shares with Wakild an interest in the creation of parks as expressions of political ideals. He reminds us that in the United States, Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency blended conservation with other motives, including political reform and economic justice. Not only was Roosevelt the leading advocate for national parks, he also set his political weight against the actions of “mighty industrial overlords,” and his conversation ideas should be considered part of an attempt to revive democratic principles.[3]

Our final commentator, Cynthia Radding, is Gussenhoven Distinguished Professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. The author of many publications in Latin American environmental history, Radding has excelled at comparative approaches. Her juxtaposition of the deserts of Sonora with lush Amazonia, from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, offers opportunities to see similarities in cultural and economic exchange in two distinct environments. She reveals that as indigenous peoples’ and colonizers’ interactions with the natural environment evolved, their identities changed as well, altering conceptions of territory and property over time.[4]

The full roundtable is here

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate

[1] Sterling Evans, Bound in Twine: The History and Ecology of the Henequen-Wheat Complex for Mexico and the American and Canadian Plains, 1880-1950 (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2007).

[2] Adrian Howkins, “Reluctant Collaborators: Argentina and Chile in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year, 1957-58,” Journal of Historical Geography 34:4 (2008), 596-617.

[3] Curt Meine, “Roosevelt, Conservation, and the Revival of Democracy,” Conservation Biology 15:4 (2001), 829-831.

[4] Cynthia Radding, Landscapes of Power and Identity: Comparative Histories in the Sonoran Desert and the Forests of Amazonia from Colony to Republic (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).