Human Ecology of Forest Frontiers in a Mexican Rainforest

This research focuses on an inclusive social-ecological understanding of forest-frontier landscapes that takes seriously the local knowledge actors have about them, and the value and benefits actors derive from them. This is done through empirically grounded research that connects social and natural sciences’ insights with the lived experiences of local actors.

The region of the Selva Lacandona in the state of Chiapas in Southern Mexico is the largest remaining area of tropical rainforest in Mexico, and is currently threatened by an increasing deforestation rate. The municipality of Marqués de Comillas (hereafter MdC) is important because it is embedded in the Selva Lacandona which has been designated as a priority area for conservation that provides important ecosystem services to the region. Currently, in the MdC region only 40% of original primary forest exists scattered around a mixed matrix composed of human settlements, secondary forests and agricultural and pasture lands.

The MdC region has been extensively studied in terms of ecological and biological processes, but knowledge about local perceptions regarding landscape changes and rainforest management is still lacking; studying these would be crucial for understanding the region’s environmental history. I will explore the social-ecological dimension of the landscape transformation in MdC, and contribute to the scarce literature on complex and interconnected dynamics between humans and nature that play an important role in driving landscape transformation. This project is part of the FOREFRONT programme which targets nature's benefits in agro-forest frontiers: linking actor strategies, functional biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Theoretical Framework
This research is framed on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s ‘assemblage theory’. In assemblage theory, an assemblage is understood as a set of relations between heterogeneous entities that work for some time. Assemblage theory is helpful to focus on how the assemblages that emerge from the animate and inanimate together produce the world. In this theory, the concept of affect is central because it brings socio-material relations into being. An ‘affect’ refers to the capacity to affect or be affected. An affect represents a change of state or capacity of an entity. In this line of thinking, matter is not considered inert or ‘just’ the background of human activity; it is seen as having agency: the capacity to make human and non-human entities ‘do’ things. In this sense, then, agency is conceptualised as a collective property of elements (human, non-human, etc.) related to one another. Since the elements that together make up assemblages cut across micro and macro levels of analysis, assemblage theory prioritises affective relations and obviates determining structures.

The case study proposed here thus contributes to the scarce literature of the type of underlying social-ecological processes (i.e. assemblages) that accompany colonization processes and can create and transform places, and might be of help for putting in place conservation programs that are designed on a more profound (and thus realistic) understanding of the complexity and interdependency of the social and ecological factors that together shape landscape transformations.

Research Question
What affects between humans and non-humans have enabled the emergence of a mixed-matrix of social-ecological landscape assemblages (forests, pastures and agricultural lands) in MdC during the last 45 years?

The research design is based of a mixed-methods approach that consists of gathering data from a variety of sources and using a variety of methods which will be useful for identifying assemblages and affects. My mixed-methods will include qualitative data such as ethnographic tools (participant observation, interviews and photo-voice) and document review; quantitative data such as geographic information systems (GIS) tools and ecological data (from my PhD and Postdoc colleagues). I work on two contrasting case studies that represent the current situation of the MdC landscape: one where the predominant land-uses are pastures and agriculture with little forest, and one where there are large patches of forest combined with other land-uses.

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