Intersecting processes, illustrated and analyzed

Intersecting processes is a term I use to help students and researchers conceptualize directions that would address more complexity in socio-environmental studies (Taylor and García Barrios 1995; Taylor 2001c). The term addresses the same terrain as “unruly complexity”—to analyze social and environmental change as something produced by intersecting economic, social and ecological processes that operate at different scales requires attention to the ways these processes transgress boundaries and restructure “internal” dynamics, thus ensuring that socio-environmental situations do not have clearly defined boundaries and are not simply governed by coherent, internally driven dynamics. However, I use the term intersecting processes to suggest that different strands can be teased out in a somewhat disciplined fashion. This will be evident in the following presentation of a case of soil erosion in a mountainous agricultural region in Oaxaca, Mexico, which I have based on the analysis of Mexican colleagues Raúl García-Barrios and his brother Luis (García-Barrios and García-Barrios 1990).

The severe soil erosion evident now in the municipality of San Andrés is not the first occurrence of such a problem in the region. After the Spanish conquest, when the indigenous population collapsed from disease, the communities abandoned their terraced lands, which then eroded. The remaining populations moved to the valleys and adopted laborsaving practices from the Spanish, such as cultivating wheat and using plows. As the population recovered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, collective institutions evolved that reestablished terraces. Erosion was reduced, soil dynamics were stabilized, and perhaps some soil accumulation was stimulated. But this type of landscape transformation needed continuous and proper maintenance. If a terrace were allowed to erode the soil would wash down and damage lower terraces; there was the potential for severe slope instability. What made the necessary maintenance possible were collective institutions, which first revolved around the Church and then, after independence from Spain, around rich Indians called caciques. These institutions mobilized peasant labor for key activities—not only maintaining terraces, but also sowing corn in work teams and maintaining a diversity of maize varieties and cultivation techniques. The caciques benefited from what was produced, but were expected to look after the peasants in hard times, a so-called moral economy (Scott 1976). Given that the peasants felt security in proportion to the wealth and prestige of their cacique, and given that prestige attached directly to each person’s role in the collective labor, the labor tended to be very efficient. In addition, peasants were kept indebted to caciques, and could not readily break their unequal relationship. The caciques insulated this relationship from change by resisting potential laborsaving technologies and ties to outside markets in maize.
The Mexican revolution ruptured the closed system of reciprocal obligations and benefits by taking away the power of the caciques and opening the communities to the changing outside world. Many peasants migrated to industrial areas, sending cash back or bringing it with them when they returned to the community for periods of time. Rural population declined; transactions became monetarized; and prestige no longer derived from one’s place in the collective labor. With the monetarization and loss of labor, the collective institutions collapsed and terraces began to erode. National food-pricing policies favored urban consumers, which meant that corn was grown only for subsistence needs in this area. Little incentive remained for intensive agricultural production. New laborsaving activities, such as goat herding, which contributes in its own way to erosion, were taken up without new local institutions to regulate them.

This is a diagram I drew to help me narrate this story to others and to highlight a number of themes pertaining to intersecting processes, which will be reviewed in subsequent posts.

Intersecting processes leading to soil erosion in San Andrés, Oaxaca (from Taylor 1997c). The dashed lines indicate connections across the different strands of the schema. The zig-zag lines indicate institutions that rely on relationships of inequality. See text for discussion.

Extracted from Taylor, Peter J. 2005. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. U. Chicago Press.

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