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Capitalism and Maya Autonomy in Mexico’s Forest Frontier, 1902-1945

Thu, March 31, 1:00 to 2:30pm, Westin Seattle Hotel, Adams


From the early to mid-twentieth century, Mexican government officials were perpetually looking for ways to control Quintana Roo and its resources. Under populated and resource-rich, it represented tremendous untapped economic potential. Furthermore, officials perceived it as a vast black space upon which they could impose (at various moments) either revolutionary ideals about labor organization, forest conservation efforts, colonies of yeoman farmers, or dump prisoners and other undesirables.

Despite having the will to do so, and even after international demand for Quintana Roo’s resources exploded, the Mexican state could never assert its dominance over nor impose its vision upon Quintana Roo, nor the region’s inhabitants. In this paper, I argue that the local environment, in addition to Maya desire for autonomy, was a key reason that eastern Mayas retained their independence well into the twentieth century. Tropical diseases conspired to keep federal officials at bay. Seasonal downpours and tenacious flora quickly overtook infrastructural projects, leaving the region inaccessible. River depth prevented Mexican vessels from navigating (and thus, monitoring) the Rio Hondo, which marked Mexico’s border with Belize. Thus, a thriving contraband trade continued unabated, a trade in which Mayas participated. But eastern Mayas did not remain autonomous only because of their environmental context. Mayas exploited the environment to serve their economic advantage and thus sustain their independence. In so doing, they often ignored forest-use regulations and sold forest products illicitly to foreign consumers. Forests provided them with favorable work opportunities in logging and chicle tapping, well-paying and generally preferable to other options like cane cutting. Mayas used forests as insurance against destitution, safeguards during droughts and locust plagues, both because of the edibles and the jobs that forests provided. Mayas were thus protected by the physical space they occupied, and were able to use local resources to maintain autonomy from Mexico.