Matt Mariola writing, pre-departure.
I have two primary intellectual/experiential interests in traveling to the Yucatan Peninsula, and I think it will be useful to trace my thoughts on them now, before the trip, so I can compare expectations to actuality.
The first is gaining an understanding of the presence of ecotourism in the region, the forms that it takes, and what this might tell us about the possibilities for sustainable development in an area like the Yucatan – blessed with the flora and fauna and water features that draw eco-tourists while also blessed (or cursed?) with the sun and sand that draw many, many more leisure tourists. Certainly the area boasts its eco-tourism bona fides, most notably the huge Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on the eastern coast of the peninsula, which is nothing less than a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And we will be getting our taste of eco-tourism firsthand when we take a tour of the reserve on Monday from a tour company that belongs to the International Ecotourism Society.
But if you take all this at face value it runs the risk of glossing over a lot of interesting questions. Does the “eco” in eco-tourism merely amount to showing tourists an ecologically healthy site, and nothing more? Does “eco” imply a lack of people, indigenous or otherwise, living at the site? Does it translate to a solar panel on the roof, a recycling bin, a fuel efficient van – or does it account for the full cycle of production, consumption, and waste? Do the companies offer plastic water bottles? Where is the food produced that they serve? Do they minimize the production of waste? And who are the eco-tourists themselves? Are they a subset of the sun-and-sand tourists who flock to Cancun, or are they distinct? Are they exclusively elite members of the North American and European middle classes? Are they all white? How do they reconcile their interest in being ecologically conscioius with the fact that they had to fly in a plane to get here in the first place? . . . . . For that matter, how do I?
I will try to answer as many of these questions as I can towards the end of the trip, so stay tuned.
My second main interest is agricultural, in keeping with the bulk of my research and teaching interests. I know very little about the state or structure of farming in Mexico, and even less about the Yucatan specifically. Most accounts I have read indicate that this region is dominated by a type of smallholder farming in which farmers cultivate small plots of land inherited over generations through kinship ties — growing corn, beans, squash, chiles, and a handful of other crops in a very biodiverse arrangement that is nearly the opposite of the large-scale monoculture farming we are so used to in the Midwest. It is known as the milpa system of farming, and by all accounts it is a very resilient and sustainable form of farming, owing to its small scale, high levels of biodiversity (both between and within species), and long fallow periods in between cultivation periods. But as with any small-scale and sustainable system of farming, the immediate questions that come to mind are, what forces allow it to stay in place instead of being replaced by large-scale “modern” farming, and how long can it last in the face of the inevitable forces in favor of a more industrialized, capitalistic form of agriculture?
Unlike with eco-tourism, which I think we will get some immediate sense of while here, I don’t know how much exposure I will have to farming culture, but I will probe wherever I can.