Authority, Expertise and Power in Mexican Forests: A Discussion with Andrew Mathews

Tuesday May 22, 2012

4-6:00 PM

Engineering 2, 599

Join us for a discussion of Science & Justice member Andrew Matthew’s recently released book, Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise and Power in Mexican Forests (MIT Press).

Greater knowledge and transparency are often promoted as the keys to solving a wide array of governance problems. In Instituting Nature, Andrew Mathews describes Mexico’s efforts over the past hundred years to manage its forests through forestry science and biodiversity conservation. He shows that transparent knowledge was produced not by official declarations or scientists’ expertise but by encounters between the relatively weak forestry bureaucracy and the indigenous people who manage and own the pine forests of Mexico. Mathews charts the performances, collusions, complicities, and evasions that characterize the forestry bureaucracy. He shows that the authority of forestry officials is undermined by the tension between local realities and national policy; officials must juggle sweeping knowledge claims and mundane concealments, ambitious regulations and routine rule breaking.
Moving from government offices in Mexico City to forests in the state of Oaxaca, Mathews describes how the science of forestry and bureaucratic practices came to Oaxaca in the 1930s and how local environmental and political contexts set the stage for local resistance. He tells how the indigenous Zapotec people learned the theory and practice of industrial forestry as employees and then put these skills to use when they become the owners and managers of the area’s pine forests–eventually incorporating forestry into their successful claims for autonomy from the state. Despite the apparently small scale and local contexts of this balancing act between the power of forestry regulations and the resistance of indigenous communities, Mathews shows that it has large implications–for how we understand the modern state, scientific knowledge, and power and for the global carbon markets for which Mexican forests might become valuable.

Andrew Mathews, "Authority, Expertise and Power in Mexican Forests"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
22 May 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Andrew Mathews , Assistant Professor of Anthropology at UCSC, spoke to us about his new
book, Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise and Power in Mexican Forests. Drawing on his
background in forest ecology, Mathews investigated the uses of and discourses around fire in
Mexican forests using historical, ethnographic, and scientific methods. Although pine forests
need fire for growth and regeneration, the Mexican state has demonized the use of fire,
characterizing it as destructive, catastrophic, and abnormal. For officials, who are tasked with
the responsibility of maintaining orderly landscapes, the practice of using fire to maintain the
forest seems messy and incomprehensible. Because of the dominance of this official discourse
and because of the illegality of burning many of the people Mathews spoke to claimed that fire
was not used to maintain the surrounding forests (even though there was evidence of fire
histories). Although there is an official form to apply for permission to burn, no one has ever
applied. Mathews argued that these “official channels” prevent agricultural practices from
becoming official knowledge, silences multiple knowledges, and prevents people from
understanding the agricultural uses for fire. His ethnographic work, for example, shows that the
younger generation only had negative views of fire as something that needed to be fought and
controlled. Older people, on the other hand, tended to see fire as a kind of ally in growing crops,
not a dangerous force outside of human sociality. As fire is made illegal, agricultural history is
forgotten. The government’s demands for legibility and transparency are producing doubt and
confusion. Overall, Mathews showed how looking at fire helps us to think about “The State” in
a concrete way and opens up important questions about which forest management practices can
survive and in what form.

During the Q&A Jenny Reardon asked about how Mathews’ hybrid methods articulated different
forms of evidence. Mathews said that he looked for resistances and uncertainty in his methods.
He was interested in surprise and the limits of method. Multiple knowledges destabilize each
other in productive ways. Anna Tsing picked up the question of science and justice and wanted
to know if there was such a thing as “justice for pines.” Mathews talked about the agencies of
pines and how they have memory and imagination build into their structure. Matthias wanted to
know what nations have against fire. Mathews said that the distrust of fire stems from
imaginaries of rural disorder and power of fire to transform landscapes in unpredictable ways.
Transformation is difficult for governments to deal with, since they strive to create order. These
and other questions helped to further draw out the stakes of Mathews’ project and connect them
to larger S&J questions about interdisciplinary knowledge, more-than-human justice, and the role
of discourse and state regulation in shaping technoscientific practices.

Posted in Past Events, Uncategorized.