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Volume 65 / Social Sciences


PETER H. HERLIHY, AssociateProfessor of Geography, University of Kansas

THE GEOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH reviewed on Mexico and Central America maintains a broad sample of thematic, theoretical, and methodological perspectives. About one-third of the literature sampled from the 2004–08 period is annotated here, with about half the entries on Mexico. Cultural-historical geography, protected areas management, and the indigenous/Afro-descendant populations continue as strong interests, with new emphasis on forests, water, and land reforms reflecting societal concerns about the use and misuse of natural resources, as well as the emergence of solid waste management as a serious environmental issue impacting both urban (item #bi2008002666#) and rural areas. As in the past, the cultural side is much more heavily represented than the physical side of the discipline and there are only a small number of strictly physical geography entries. The literature reflects, however, that geographers are increasingly using multifaceted research methodologies that combine both physical and cultural information with GIS and remote sensing for understanding human-environmental interactions.

This biennium two significant centers of geographic scholarship have developed in Mexico and merit notation here. The Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí (UASLP) established of the Coordinación de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades (CCSyH) in 2002 with its founding director geographer Miguel Aguilar Robledo subsequently forming the Department of Geography. In 2008, the UASLP and CCSyH began the journal EspacioTiempo: Revista Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades to serve as a platform for discussion and reflection of distinct theoretical stances, methodological approaches, and themes. Geographic research is well represented in their first edition, entitled "Cultura y medio ambiente en la Huasteca: la población indígena y su entorno natural" (items #bi2009004730# and #bi2009004735#). The other, the Morelia Academic Unit of the Institute of Geography at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) established the Centro de Investigaciones en Geografía Ambiental (CIGA) in 2007 at the Morelia campus. CIGA researchers, including two of the founding geographers Gerardo Verdinelli Bocco and Narciso Barrera Bassols, aim at high-quality research to contribute to land-use planning and natural resource management through an integrated academic program of research, education, and outreach (items #bi2009004731#, #bi2009004734#, and #bi2009004729#).

Many research trends identified previously in HLAS 61 and 63 continue today. A strong interest remains in cultural-historical geography and ethnogeography combining archival and field research. Many geographers studied the vernacular complexes of the contemporary cultural landscape, including the architecture of Q'eqchi' Maya in Guatemala (item #bi2007003051#), the concrete block landscape in Mexico (item #bi2009000232#), the grid pattern of street layout in Honduras (item #bi2009004615#), and the mesquite economy of the US-Mexican Borderlands (item #bi2009000227#).

A Spanish translation of E.G. Squier's important treatise on the geography of mid-19th century Honduras and El Salvador was published in the Colección Cultural de Centro América by the Fundación VIDA in Nicaragua, with critical annotations by geographer William V. Davidson (item #bi2008002676#). In Mexico, Aguilar-Robledo reconstructed the environmental history of the Valles Jurisdiction in the Huasteca region from the mid-16th to early 19th century (item #bi2009004730#); equally exemplary, Alfred Siemens and colleagues studied past and present landscape changes caused by the expansion of Mexico's principal port of Veracruz (item #bi2008000008#). Mack completed an outstanding study showing how colonial Omoa in Honduras lost it strategic importance due to changing coastal geomorphology and declining economic importance (item #bi2009004605#), while Revels shows what place-names reveal about historical mahogany trade in Honduras (item #bi2009004621#).

The study of indigenous and Afro-descendant populations included a variety of themes and methodological approaches. Geographer George Lovell provides a vivid and poignant narrative of the injustices of the indigenous experience in Guatemala (item #bi2009004738#). A study of the Mayanga of Nicaragua details their settlement dislocation and subsequent reoccupation in their once war-torn homelands, explaining current efforts to delimit and protect their homelands (item #bi2009004620#). To the east, there is a resurgence of separatist feelings among the Miskitu populations on the country's Atlantic Coast (item #bi2007002329#). Geographers have also reflected on their own research and representation of indigenous peoples (items #bi2009004610# and #bi2009004738#) and an insightful treatise of bioprospecting in Mexico contains lessons for all working among peasant and indigenous societies (item #bi2006002284#).

How indigenous peoples interact with their environment and with protected areas also remains a focus. Geographers studied contemporary Yucatec Maya farmers' knowledge, use, and management of their landscapes (items #bi2009004729# and #bi2009004734#), and their past and present use of the dooryard orchard-garden (item #bi2009004602#). In Honduras, shifting cultivation is still very much part of the Miskito economy in the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve (item #bi2009004616#) and Lenca settlements exploit forest resources within the limits of the Guajiquiro Cloud Forest Reserve (item #bi2009004600#).

Geographers have also studied the social construction of space and how ethnic identity is constructed and maintained. One study shows how government agencies map indigenous language, regional cooking, and popular art to register popular cultures in Mexico (item #bi2009004732#). Others demonstrate that the ritual landscape is crucial in defining the territoriality of the indigenous Teenek in the Huasteca region (item #bi2009004735#) and that Garífuna identity in coastal Belize is symbolized and maintained by specific "markers" that carry their identity (item #bi2009004606#). Related research among an Afro-Caribbean population in Costa Rica demonstrates how revitalized "identity practices" can attract tourism (item #bi2005002437#) or define the spatial identity of a region like the Olancho in Honduras (item #bi2009004611#). Today, indigenous K'iche' extend transnational linkages between their homelands, Houston, and Los Angeles (item #bi2006001583#).

A sizable body of research focuses on the management of forest resources and protected areas. An excellent paleoecological analysis records past human occupancy and forest disturbance in El Salvador (item #bi2009004736#). Contemporary land-use/land cover studies use remote sensing and GIS to document changes in the Toledo District of Belize (item #bi2006001798#), in the northern Petén of Guatemala (item #bi2006001797#), and in the Huasteca region of Mexico (item #bi2009004733#). Econometric modeling and analysis of land cover change around Cerro Celaque National Park in Honduras demonstrates the complex and multidirectional nature of land-use changes (item #bi2006002225#), with results from Costa Rica showing similar variability over time (item #bi2008002671#).

Researchers have documented the complexities of managing the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve of Mexico, the hibernation habitat of millions of the butterflies each year, which is both a conservation priority and a spectacular tourist attraction, pointing out that strategies have overemphasized the capacity of the state (items #bi2008000009# and #bi2006003872#). In the Calakmul region, invasive bracken fern creates a destructive "perturbation" invading agricultural lands (item #bi2008000010#), while government development programs there sometimes do and sometimes do not cause deforestation (item #bi2007000012#). Such research begins to question core conservation management practices and Hecht and Saatchi show the significant implications "woodland resurgence" should have for tropical conservation (item #bi2009004737#).

Given the variability and multidirectional nature of land-use/land cover change over time, perhaps it is not surprising that debate still exists over parks-and-people versus protectionist approaches to conservation management. One study compared the "conventional park" of La Amistad in Costa Rica with a "parks-and-people" park of Cerro Azul Meambar National Park in Honduras (item #bi2008002677#). Another documented the factors behind settler land-use and forest clearing in the Sierra de Lacandón National Park, a core conservation zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala (item #bi2006001797#). Study shows that environmental education of residents in communities around Costa Rica's La Selva reserve increases their knowledge and valuation of it (item #bi2008000338#).

A significant collection by Bray, Merino-Pérez, and Barry (item #bi2008002670#) focuses on community-based forestry in Mexico, with the consensus being that community benefit and control leads to better use and protection of forest and other natural resources. Decentralized municipal and community development of forestry resources is common in Honduras where indigenous communities form effective agroforestry groups (item #bi2008002675#). A critique of the Nicaraguan portion of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, however, suggests only a limited role of the local governments and impacted populations (item #bi2007002333#), but the country's forestry law and politics do not promote municipal control over, or community development of forest resources (item #bi2008002679#). A look at forest policy in Costa Rica calls for "hybrid" management with both market-oriented and state-interventionist approaches (item #bi2007000015#).

Geographers focus more today on issues tied to globalization and neoliberal economic changes. An excellent volume shows how these forces impact women's mobility, employment, and political activism along the US-Mexico Borderlands (item #bi2008001273#). Market liberalization has brought supermarket chains to Guadalajara that privilege wealthy over poor (item #bi2008001806#) and the reconfiguration of food retailing networks in the Yucatán has been detrimental for small-scale chile and beef producers (item #bi2008001807#). Global volatility of coffee prices has led local producer in Veracruz to experiment with state livelihood diversification programs, or to migrate and sell their land (item #bi2009000226#). Geographers also focused on the environmental impact of the electricity sector in Mexico (item #bi2008000891#), and on the political economy of the extractive petroleum and mining industries in Guatemala (item #bi2008002672#). With petroleum reserves dwindling today in Mexico, great potential exists for renewable energy resources such as sun and wind energy, but also biomass, water, and geothermal (item #bi2008001225#).

New trends in the literature investigate some of the region's most pressing environmental and social problems, including water resources, municipal autonomy, and migration (item #bi2008004042#). Neoliberal property regimes are quietly changing ancestral patterns of communal tenure and resource use. Mexico has undergone the most dramatic changes through a gargantuan land certification program that is transforming the country's social property into private property, having tremendous consequences on land and natural resource use. This legal certification of communal ejido and agrarian community lands brings multiple outcomes (item #bi2009004601#). An exceptional book explains how campesinos of central Veracruz forge their identity with these agrarian reform, ejido politics, and sugar/coffee cultivation playing defining roles in their uncertain futures (item #bi2008000407#). Scholars have also looked at these changes in the Tuxtlas region (item #bi2007000080#) and in the Yucatán (item #bi2007000431#) where the state's role in sustaining the chicle industry has divided indigenous territories. Research has also focused on the incorporation of ejido lands into the urban area of Guadalajara (item #bi2007000405#), and on the irregularities of tenancy and the applications of land legalization programs in Tijuana (item #bi2008002688#). In Guatemala, land-use and tenure problems at the municipality level point to the inadequacy of the country's property regime (item #bi2008002690#).

The importance and complexity of water management makes it one of the most significant resource issues of the 21st century. Two edited volumes, one based on a benchmark conference in 2001, introduce the key issues related to water use in Mexico. The work includes contributions from academics and public officials on water use in cities, in agriculture, and its extraction from subterranean reserves, with consideration given to community use, development, privatization, conservation, and indigenous rights to it (item #bi2008002680#). Scholars examined how past mid-20th century agrarian reforms and irrigation projects of the "Green Revolution" created water access disputes in the Mayo and Yaqui valleys of Sonora (items #bi2008002693# and #bi2008001881#), but the impacts of contemporary neoliberal land reforms on water use needs more study. Furthermore, the excellent edited collection, La gestión del agua urbana en Mexico: retos, debates y bienestar, demonstrates the inadequacies of the country's contemporary water systems and services, warning of the overexploitation and contamination of more than half the country's aquifers (item #bi2008002663#). Researchers also considered water management at the municipality level in Aguascalientes (item #bi2007000271#) and along the US-Mexican Borderlands (item #bi2006002006#).

Finally, geographers have demonstrated that the destructive impacts set in motion by hurricane disasters in Mexico and Central America, such as Paulina in 1997 and Mitch in 1998, are dependent on the social and geographical context in which they occur (items #bi2008002685#, #bi2009004606#, and #bi2006002087#). One hundred twenty-nine natural disasters struck Central America between the 16th and 20th centuries and 28 hit the east coast of Mexico over the past century, which should condition development in the region (items #bi2006003793# and #bi2007000548#). Indeed, the gap between population growth and economic possibilities increased in Central America during the military conflicts of the 1980s and natural disasters of the 1990s (item #bi2007003050#).

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