¿Y después qué? ... : action-research and ethnography on governance, actors and development in Southern Mexico

F. Guevara

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    The research justification and objectives. Mexico is one of the most natural resource-rich places in the world. However, it is also a country that has shown many contrasts in the use of its resources, human relations and the overall distribution of its richness.   The justification of this research lies in the question why the development of small villages in Mexico has stagnated, despite their richness in natural resources, cultural and political organisation, and the efforts made by (non)governmental agents. Specifically, the role of interveners like researchers and development practitioners in the local processes was an issue for study. In fact, some of these interveners are seen to be doing more or less the same thing in the same villages for decades. They experiment with technology options or other development initiatives without having an effective relation with the villagers themselves and without a deep inquiry of the local problems – putting aside the relevance of understanding the reality of the villages, their actors and the overall way of local organisation. The general objective of the research was to understand this reality, embedded in a national legal and political context. The specific objectives were: 1.       To study the local context of two small villages of Southern Mexico in terms of their governance, exercise of power and strategies used to address local development. 2.       To illuminate local and informal politics in two Mexican villages through the development of participatory power maps. 3.       To identify the bottlenecks in terms of the use of natural resources (NR) and how different actors cope. 4.       To identify, understand and assess empowerment at individual and collective levels and seek ways of framing and supporting local development visions.   The approach. This PhD thesis explored an innovative methodology to investigate historical, socio-political, environmental and cultural realities of two villages: it combined action-oriented and socio-anthropological research approaches. The action-oriented approach made the villagers crucial actors in the re-construction, collection and analysis of information. They participated in different workshops and engaged in collective reflection exercises during the period of 2003-2005. This was facilitated by a research team that was previously trained on facilitation skills and participatory methods and tools. Through these exercises the villagers publicly reflected on their village life providing the researchers with an inside perspective. This made the villagers look at themselves as actors in a regional and institutional context. Finally, as a result of the workshop reflections, in both villages the villagers took the initiative for collective projects. By using the conventional socio-anthropological approach the researchers realised that the action-oriented approach had only revealed part of the village reality and that some of the evidences publicly gathered, forcedly needed a cross-checking. In this sense, the socio-anthropological work helped to illuminate and understand the reality that mainly existed of a front stage and a back stage in every village. Hidden acts and behaviours of inhabitants that were influencing the villages’ lives could thereafter be placed in another perspective.   The two approaches produced valuable information for a detailed analysis on the functioning and structuring of the two isolated villages in Oaxaca and Chiapas states. The description of a governance system of customary laws, the so-called ‘usos y costumbres’, was used as an entry point of the analysis. This system is considered the ruling and running mechanism through which the villagers construct and reconstruct their social order. The functioning of the system was unravelled by analysing its history and current organisation (mainly the local actors) of the studied villages. Besides, the history of the villages was investigated through a participatory re-construction of important dates. This delivered the most recognised events at each village. This particular information was a first input for the analysis on the current functioning of the governance system and the local actors. In this study, both organisations and individuals with responsibilities in the functioning of the village’s life, were defined as local actors. In this way, actions, relations and conflicts over the use of local natural resources were made explicit. This actually pictured the local governance system and how it functions in the context of the national governance framework.   The results from the research are presented in five empirical chapters. They give details on how the villages function: their organisation strategies, their governance and their development ideas; from both collective and individual points of view. The chapters are containing case studies that show the front and the back stages of the villages and their implications in local development. The findings. Mexican villages are very complex and permanently (re-)shaped through local logics, daily practices and concerns. This makes them often appear as non-sense entities to certain external actors. The usos y costumbres represents a system of practical norms and values, validated and reproduced over time for self-government in small villages. Villagers sometimes even consider the system more important than state law for ensuring local order. Indeed, the system plays a crucial role in the settlement of local power dynamics, the constitution of local actors, the decision making over the use of natural resources and the capacity building, particularly in leadership formation. In this sense, collectivism and communalism are still daily practiced in the villages in order to achieve short-term development goals or addressing personal aspirations. However, one of the reasons the villages remain relegated is because of the current complex context in which they are immersed. For instance, they are faced with state laws and interventions that often conflict with their subsistence logic. Therefore, there is not strange to see how interventions are only utilised by the local actors to address the village’s development according to their own local views or to meet their basic needs or personal aspirations. Interveners, on their part, try to influence local dynamics and processes in the search of delivering their messages and mandates. Over time this has resulted in interesting social force fields which are manifested in complex relations between small villages and interveners. In the case of the state law, struggles arise because certain norms and rules represent rigid, non-logic and inhuman frameworks for the locals. This has placed villages and their inhabitants in different dilemmas during the last decade, particularly for the use of their own natural resources.   The fact is that interveners are still looking at the development of small villages as a series of projects and activities within their policies and initiatives rather than a long-term process that is locally conducted and permanently constructed. Actually, this challenges both national and local ruling frameworks since contrasting perceptions, conflicts of interests and local dilemmas have emerged and put natural resources at a permanent risk. The villages’ current situation - in terms of the pressure over their natural resources, the lack of a long-term local project, the absence of proper development opportunities for their context and the forces of globalisation- is strongly challenging their communalism and collectivism. This automatically influences their local processes of governance and development but also the relations among the villagers, since the basic needs like food, housing, health and education are more difficult to meet. Breaking federal and top-down laws and out-migration are therefore becoming normal escape strategies.   Finally, this study indicates existing opportunities for a better relation between researched-researcher. This can be achieved by combining different research approaches. In this case, over a period of three years, the on-and-off presence of the researchers in the villages in combination with participatory and action-oriented activities and conventional socio-anthropological fieldwork built a solid trusting relation between researchers and villagers. This also resulted in certain actions that villagers undertook at the village or individual levels.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Richards, Paul, Promotor
    • Almekinders, Conny, Co-promotor
    Award date5 Nov 2007
    Place of Publication[S.l.]
    Print ISBNs9789085047711
    Publication statusPublished - 2007


    • ethnography
    • rural development
    • community development
    • agricultural sector
    • government policy
    • natural resources
    • mexico
    • action research
    • governance

    Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of '¿Y después qué? ... : action-research and ethnography on governance, actors and development in Southern Mexico'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

  • Cite this