Are environmentalist critiques really about the supposed “failure” to steward the land, or are they about something else? During the 1970s, while the Mexican state renewed its commitment to large-scale irrigation projects to promote development in the tropics of Oaxaca and Veracruz, a critical discourse emerged from anthropologists concerned with the loss of indigenous culture, as well as from indigenous activists who decried the destruction of their environments that resulted from government irrigation and fertilization programs. In the aftermath of that critical turning point, the Papaloapan Commission was disbanded in the early 1980s and Zapotec, Chinantec, and Mixtec indigenous groups challenged state developmentalist policies by promoting small-scale “sustainable development” projects. My paper describes the historical processes through which a language of environmental stewardship became politically salient in southern Mexico as government efforts to control and manage water resources faltered.
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