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Know the West

A norteno champions a local environmental ethic


Many here in "New" Mexico have not forgotten that the United States violated the 150-year-old Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo by asserting ownership of community ejidos - common lands under the historic land-grant system. Today, those lands make up national forests and land managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

In this contested landscape, environmentalists and nortenos of the centuries-old land-based communities find themselves in bitter conflict. Locals grazing a few subsistence cows or taking trees out of the forest have been cast as "wise users." Environmentalists, in turn, have been accused of racism, threatened and hung in effigy.

As a native norteno who works as an environmental advocate, I know these conflicts up close. Like the landscape, environmentalism itself is contested territory. Whose environmentalism is it? Whose values and concerns does it represent?

Devon Pena, a sociologist at Colorado College and resident of San Luis, Colo., has assembled essays in Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin that argue for a homegrown Chicano environmental ethic. He roots it in four centuries of continuity and adaptation in the Rio Arriba (upper Rio Grande) bioregion. This "place-based" ecological knowledge is not a product of the modern environmental movement, Peûa says. "The Spanish-Mexican people of the Rio Arriba simply did not need Thoreau, Muir, Leopold or Nash to develop environmental ethics."

Both Chicano studies and ecology, says Pena, challenge the power structure that controls so much of our lives and landscape. That makes them "subversive kin in a search for equity and reciprocity among all species and communities."

The book explores the possibility that this kinship could create a broader movement for environmental protection and environmental justice. It also reflects the growing awareness of the relationship between biological diversity and cultural diversity.

According to Reyes Garcia, one of the book's essayists, "Aldo Leopold wrote in The Sand County Almanac that the two most significant developments of the modern age were the disappearance of wilderness and the hybridization of cultures."

More recently, ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan observed, "It is ironic how many conservationists have presumed that biodiversity can survive where indigenous cultures have been displaced."

The split between land-based communities and environmentalists remains wide. Pena says environmentalists extol local cultures as colorful and quaint, but rarely take seriously their 400 years of ecological knowledge. Yet Pena also cautions against romanticizing land-based Chicano culture.

Nor are all environmentalists narrow-minded fanatics, though Pena's picture of mainstream environmentalism as a predominantly white, middle-class movement sadly still holds true.

Working for a Taos-based environmental organization, in a county where the Anglo population is a minority, I often found myself the only ethnic representative in meetings of dozens or even hundreds of people. The embarrassing gaps at meetings are a result of huge blind spots among environmentalists. Last year, New Mexico became the poorest state with the highest rate of child hunger in the nation. That should be a hard fact to ignore, but many environmentalists in the area succeed in doing so.

Unfortunately, Pena widens the gap by painting the environmental movement with a broad brush. He points to an issue he's most familiar with; he calls the San Luis Valley of Colorado, his backyard, "an important exception to this pattern of divisiveness." But there are others he either doesn't know about or neglects to mention.

It is hard to bridge the gap between social justice and environmental advocacy. I have been accused by an environmental activist of caring too much about community issues, even while being threatened by a member of one of those communities for being an environmentalist.

Pena argues that we need to blend modern landscape ecology with the historic ejido tradition of communal resource management in "watershed commonwealths." The challenge to this and other progressive approaches is what Pena calls a "crisis of a lack of 'ecological democracy.' " A "cult of expertise," which corporations, governments and environmentalists all buy into, elevates the views of scientists and "experts," but excludes local citizens and important cultural knowledge.

A distraction from the interesting ideas in this book is the irritating edge to much of Pena's writing. I understand chips on shoulders - I've got one, too. But that kind of chip looks suspect, dressed up in scholarly trappings.

While the book is rich with local knowledge and folk wisdom that would resonate with my father's life experience, for instance, I doubt he would plow through it. And mainstream environmental activists and policy makers who could most do with some perspective expanding probably won't read it either.

But I hope that a generation of college students will. This book ought to become a standard text for environmental studies, resource management or history programs. Pena writes with passion and eloquence in the final chapter about the struggle to create "a new social movement for social, economic and environmental justice ... Justice, common sense, and scientific prudence dictate that we protect these communities, for they are cradles of ecological democracy and sustainable livelihood."

If the environmental movement is to become broader in its concerns and more inclusive of minority voices, as I think it has to, Subversive Kin is a good place to start.

Ernest Atencio is an anthropologist, writer, activist and native of the Rio Arriba region. The former HCN intern lives alongside a 200-year-old acequia in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Ernest Atencio