Publication details [#3184]

Cahn von Seelen, Kristin. 2004. "This place was paradise": Consumption as metaphor and material concern on Mexico's southern frontier. Philadelphia, Penn.. 332 pp.
Publication type
Ph.D dissertation
Publication language


Are conflicts over natural resources really just about material concerns? To answer this question, I examined a conflict over natural-resource access and use in and near the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) reserve in southern Mexico. Biosphere Reserves are socio-environmental reserves designated by UNESCO and the relevant host-country government in regions recognized for their exceptional biodiversity. Parties to the resource-use conflict came from a cross-section of society in the Calakmul region and represented one of three sectors: environmental and development policymakers (governmental and non-governmental), those working to implement policies (governmental and non-governmental), and those who must live with these policies (both small-scale entrepreneurs and primarily indigenous, subsistence farming families). My methodology entailed, in addition to participant observation, collecting and analyzing the discourse of parties to the resource-use conflict. To learn their respective points of view, I recorded, transcribed, and analyzed the personal histories, folklore, public speeches, workshops, and everyday conversations of people representing all three sectors in the conflict. A pattern emerged: when people talk about resource consumption, they articulate what their way of life is - or what they wish it could be. Conflicts over resource consumption, therefore, are not just about protecting material objects, they are about protecting a cherished metaphor, one's "way of life." In the case of the resource-use conflict in the Calakmul region, it is not simply a question of conservationists working to save trees from subsistence farmers who want to cut them down to grow corn (the material aspect of the conflict); it is also a case of both sides perceiving a threat to their respective ways of life (the metaphorical aspect of the conflict). I concluded that paying attention to how speakers talk about their own and others' resource consumption is central to understanding the genesis, continuation and/or mitigation, not only of the conflict in Calakmul, but of human conflict more generally. (Kristin Cahn von Seelen)