Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Economic Legitimacy and Cultural Essentialism

Do the poor harm the environment more than others? Laura Pulido's piece analyzes two prevailing thoughts regarding land use by the poor. One idea is that the poor are a threat to the environment because they use wasteful land-management practices. The other idea is that poor and indigenous peoples are so connected to the environment that they understand the importance of preserving nature.
Pulido argues that it is important for poor and indigenous peoples to shed some of the myths surrounding their use of land. In order to do so, they must establish ecological legitimacy. For a group to have ecological legitimacy, it must be seen as truly committed to preserving the environment. Ecological legitimacy is important for groups in order to earn respect when it comes to broad acceptance of their practices and support for their plans (and thus a lessening of resistance to said practices and plans).

Pulido uses the example of Ganados del Valle (meaning Livestock of the Valley), a collaboration among Hispano farmers which was formed in the 1980s. The collaboration helped to increase the incomes of nearly four dozen households in rural New Mexico. At the same time, they also exercised environmentally sustainable practices, such as avoiding pollution and resource extraction while growing organically-grown lamb.

Despite these environmentally conscious practices on the part of Ganados, their efforts to acquire land in order to expand faced opposition from environmental groups as well as the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish - opposition which, according to Pulido, stemmed from the aforementioned belief that poor and indigenous people lack environmental legitimacy. Ganados worked hard to gain the respect of the owers that be, but to little avail at first. It was only after they illustrated the close relationship between their culture and their management of natural resources that they were able to develop ecological legitimacy among those outside their group.

Despite the success of Ganados, Polido cautions that culturalism is not necessarily a fail-safe way for poor and indigenous peoples to establish ecological legitimacy. One of the reasons she makes this argument is that many cultural arguments used to establish this legitimacy are often vague. Additionally, cultural preservation arguments are based on the usually flawed idea that given certain circumstances, the culture will die unless the action they support are taken. She believes that both may have caused Ganados's strategy to backfire.

Nonetheless, Ganados is seen as a turning point in the way poor and indigenous people's relationships with the environment are viewed. "Ganados is building a a rare example of social and environmental justice," she argues, one that, while not necessarily perfect, is promising in debunking people's misconceptions about these relationships. Whether these misconceptions are truly done away with remains to be seen.


  1. This article shows that it may be possible for lower income people to have "ecological legitimacy". It is commonly thought that it takes a lot of money for someone to really commit to helping the environment. The farmers in Ganados are showing that this may not be the case. While things like solar panels and going completely organic can be very costly, there are many other ways to conserve that are within means.

  2. Scott,

    I believe your summary of the article is more or less accurate, though there are a few things that I would like to point out that may help to better understand Pulido's position.

    First, your formulation that Pulido posits two opposing viewpoints is one that has become wildly popular in the discourse of all major media, since focusing on conflict sells more headlines. However, I don't think that what Pulido is trying to do is "analyze two prevailing thoughts regarding land use by the poor". She seems to be coming at the issue from a functional perspective, that is, focusing more on the pros and cons of the use of culturalist narratives in environmental discourse.

    Second, I think you missed Pulido's primary critique of the culturalist argument: that it unifies, objectifies, and historicizes the real individuals that identify themselves as Hispano when no culture is ever uniform or historically static. This difficulty is, as Pulido admits, a theoretical one, with "potentially adverse consequences" (17 of the Word doc), and, though I do have difficulty accepting the reification of ethnic differences as a "potential" consequence, it can be agreed that this unification and objectification was already in place due to cultural tourism in this area.

    Overall, I would stress that the focus of the article is on the social and political nature of effective environmental discourse, attempting to set forth a model for a discourse that takes these factors into account by presenting an environmental success as a battle waged on cultural, political, and economic grounds. However, the article effectively circumvents the failure of the Ganados to change the grazing ban in the Wildlife Management Areas which comprise 20% of the Chama area (18, 12). They did achieve some economic benefit for their members, but at the cost of further essentializing their own culture, and obscuring the real benefits that they are seeking to gain for the disadvantaged in favor of a divisive and deeply romantic discourse. This is not to discount the real benefits that have been gained by the Ganados, nor the use of legal, economic, and public awareness tools to aid in their efforts, but to draw a line underneath the social problems resulting from cultural essentialism that Pulido attempts to deemphasize.


  3. Isn’t it sad that a group of people have to legitimize their existence and way of life by victimizing their culture to gain/obtain rights to land that was theirs to begin with? The assimilation process of native tribes throughout history has not only removed them from their subsistence processes but also forced them to disconnect with the cultural aspect of who they are in relation to the land that has historically been managed effectively by their cultural processes. Pulido article provides two views the bring light to the “white mans” ways of morality and ecological legitimacy. From the view of native person there has never been a need to legitimize any connection to nature, the land or the means to which it is utilized. The process of subsistence is merely that- you only take/use what is needed and waste nothing. Hispano’s (and other tribes) had the ability to provide for them selves at the level that was suitable to them prior to the colonialism. It is only when faced with economic, moral and cultural judgments did it necessitate assimilation strategies to maintain some viability. These strategies are then the basis to which they are labeled as environmentally and ecological irresponsible which further justifies the micro management by the same outside groups that pushed for assimilation in the first place. Culturally, economically and ecologically it is a no win situation for tribes. Their dammed if they do and their dammed if they don’t.