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We address the contributions of indigenous peoples and rural farmers to the sustainability of both the environment and humanity itself in today’s world, which result from over a decade of epistemological and methodological reflections (Grupo Talpuy: 1984-1997; Miranda Zambrano, 2011; Mazabel and Miranda Zambrano, 2013; Miranda Zambrano et al., 2014).

Rural areas have experienced crisis since time immemorial. There are continued tendencies for exclusion, impoverishment, and dispossession of natural and sociocultural heritage, migratory pressure, dependence and thus extinction throughout Mexico (Miranda Zambrano, 2011; Miranda Zambrano et al., 2014). Little has been elucidated, particularly in social sciences, natural sciences, and related fields of study, regarding the origin of the landlocked panorama. Consequently, the situation is becoming even more difficult, goods and heritage are under pressure, disputes, threats, and aggravation, by actors both external and internal.

What are the causes and what prevents us from making substantial changes in this sector? What paradigm sustains and legitimizes the historical endurance of rural areas in the face of long-established oppression and exclusion? Where does their construction begin, how are ejidos organized, recognized, valued, maintained, and how do they contribute to rural tourism?

Objectives, Methodology, and Object of Study

We compare the management, assimilation, and appropriation processes in regard to the sustainable rural tourism projects operated by two ejidos[2] using the sustainability paradigm. The study of the structure and management of these ejidos enables us to put the two rural tourism projects into context, including aspects of local culture, community business culture, local knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Our research was conducted in two agricultural ejido communities; the first in the state of Guanajuato, the Balneario Ejidal Ojo de Agua de Ballesteros (BEOAB, Ejido-owned waterpark in Ojo de Agua de Ballesteros) in the city of Salvatierra, and the second in Mexico City, the Parque Ejidal Eco Turístico San Nicolás Totolapan (PEESNT, Ejido-owned ecotouristic park in San Nicolás Totalapan). Information was gathered in situ in both communities, where authorities (mayor, ex-commissaries, surveillance personnel, and administrators) and a group of ejidatarios served as lead researchers. Expert farmers (project founders, historians, local foresters, and ecologists) also participated in the study as researchers.

Participatory observation techniques and open questions were used to design the questionnaire, in a qualitative methodology context. The interview guide contained 29 basic questions, corresponding to a study of the reality and complexity of each community studied. We included life stories with “symbolic character” where applicable, as well as the exchange of knowledge in order to carry out “farmer-to-farmer” development with social actors from both projects visiting one another.

We conducted a participatory assessment inventory to gain a better understanding of the geographic area by identifying its attributes and potential while recognizing its problems and limitations. This assessment resulted in a wide panorama, yet in this study we only analyzed a segment of the overall results. The cross-sectional study was performed sequentially between January and June 2012.

The BEOAB is composed of 900 acres of land, including a forest (with a heavy cover of flora and an important presence of local fauna), a crystalline 19-acre lagoon, 16 waterholes (thermal, with an inclination for health tourism), and agricultural land, its atmosphere is clean, and its climate temperate, among other natural attributes.

At the heart of the Ejidal Waterpark project—a social enterprise for more than ten years—are 60 ejidatarios who are motivated and actively manage the park to ensure the integrity of their property and natural heritage, as the inflow of water to the waterpark depends on this. This project not only has local impacts, but it also supports the ecological preservation of ten municipalities in the area’s hinterland aside from its indirect environmental contributions to water conservation and ecological preservation of the central Mexican states of Guanajuato (southern Bajío region), Queretaro, and Michoacán.

The PEESNT has managed 2300 acres of forest thanks to 336 ejidatarios and 15 years of work, both as a tourism business and a Reserva Ecológica Comunitaria (REC, Community Ecological Reserve. Its strategic importance lies in being an important part of Mexico City’s ecology as it is located within the biological corridor surrounding this large metropolitan area. It also generates water for the Federal District from the groundwater collected in this watershed. It is the principal project relating to rural community ecotourism, both at the national and Latin-American levels. It integrates various production-oriented projects within the park. The central axis for further advancing the project focuses on generating employment and income, with reinvestments in infrastructures and in providing a “better living” for all beings.[3]

The problem shared by social enterprises is the threat of dispossession, collapse, and loss of property and heritage due to external pressures. In the case of the BEOAB, the clandestine poaching by pajareros (birders) and skin collectors is tied to the illegal logging by woodsmen and the growing interest of financial capital by those interested in seizing resources, especially water, causing irreparable damage to the forest (for example, the recent installation of a Korean assembly plant a few metres away from the waterpark, and foreign companies acquiring rural land in the region).

The main problem and a rising threat faced by the PEESNT and its hinterland is the hydrological and land imbalance affecting influential areas such as Mexico City as a result of forest exploitation, erosion, soil removal, water runoff, and human encroachment from urban development policies, or lack thereof. According to data from the Special Commission for Integral Water Management, the Federal District’s water deficit will grow from seven cubic metres per second to more than 18 in just a decade, as a consequence of population growth and deforestation. Each acre of the Chichinautzin corridor, the aquifer recharge, is losing 2.5 million litres of this non-renewable resource every year (Miranda Zambrano, 2011: 152).

Today, both ejidos experience identity (cultural and political) resistance regarding their territory, which empowers them toward an unwavering commitment to themselves, their families, and the ejido, and, therefore, contributes to water and forest sustainability. They are learning basic and innovative skills for service and production management in the context of sustainable ecotourism. To better understand this social phenomenon, it is important to comprehend how ejidos were created and what the term implies in the contemporary world of rural Mexico.

The Ejido in the Mexican Context

Upon unraveling the history of the ejido in Mexico, the persistence of rural communities in regard to land and territory becomes clear. It shows, among other things, that when communities wish to provide services previously unexplored by them, as in the case of rural community tourism, their objectives go far beyond the tourist service itself. The background is that tourism for, and in communities is nothing but another great strategic effort in order to continue defending and entrenching their goods and natural heritage, with the support of a living identity approach in addition to an eco-socio-centric approach. The goal is to show and elevate the events that created disruption through actions and thoughts of rupture or change (Villoro, 1998: 43). Let us see why.

The Mexican Revolution, between 1910 and 1920, was a period of vicious clashes between the old Porfirian bourgeoisie defending their privileges, and other social sectors, mainly peasants, demanding greater participation in the distribution of national wealth.[4] In the first decade of 1900, there was a popular insurgency in Mexico due to dissatisfaction with the presidential election, tied to a movement known as Maderism, which was against the reelection of Porfirio Díaz who represented the dominant power groups, the town elite, the masters and stewards of estates, whom he kept safe from the labourers, but soon the whole Republic was wrapped in the Maderist Revolution (Camacho de la Rosa, 2007: 21, in Miranda Zambrano, 2011).

In the national context, rebels were attacked by Díaz’s government, determined to kill insurgents. The land dispute was ever incontrovertible. General Emiliano Zapata and his alternative proposal outlined in the “Plan de Ayala” was clear: the revolution will not end until the land taken from the people is returned, until every elite in every community are expelled from each village, until communities re-take their social structure, built over centuries, and until the evil ranchers and landowners are extirpated from Mexico (Miranda Zambrano, 2011: 107).

After the agrarian revolution, the ejido was established in terms of people’s rights based on the Mexican Constitution itself as well as the Mexican Agrarian Law, involving social ownership of land. Thus, the articulation of ejidos results from historical and social processes that the various regions of Mexico lived through; in other words, the characteristics of previous organizational schemes, of processes of control, and political participation in the defense of the land and cultural heritage tied to it, of the progress or setbacks supported or confronted with the regional power (Mazabel and Miranda Zambrano, 2013: 198).

Subsequently, the State granted and conceded rights to its population, as in this case, of land as social property. However society—more specifically communities or collectivities—provide a sense of practicality to the management of their lands. It is precisely at this point that ownership and social identity play a central role in the social construction of these territories (Mazabel and Miranda Zambrano, 2013).

In the case of the ejidos under study here, it should be remembered that the Zapatista and Pancho Villa movements had a significant impact. In San Nicolas Totolapan several Nicolaitans were among General Zapata’s personal bodyguards, and the forest (today the Ejido Ecotouristic Park) was a hiding place hosted and supported by the people. Ojo de Agua de Ballesteros, however, supported Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a far-left leader of the revolution, on his journey through the Republic as they progressed through their lands from the municipality of Celaya (Mazabel and Miranda Zambrano, 2013). Both territories, having obtained the designation of ejido, synthesize a history where processes of collective pain are exacerbated and, therefore, bear a definitive seal on their recent identity.

These facts somehow explain how integration is promoted and how the group has survived as a community, providing a certain awareness of their own identity and reinforcing attitudes of defense and combat against external groups, where the past justifies the present (Villoro, 1998: 44).

The long history of struggles over and forming roots in land and territory shows that communities and ejidos in Mexico are incorporating multi-functionality in their agricultural activities. Thus, the rural ejido tourism is explained as a strategic reserve, where tourism activities imply a new interpretation of their environment. These adjustments in social identity appear to lead—as one of their main consequences—to a reduction of agriculture in the area. Rather than the often-predicted demise of the ejido as a social identity, we are witnessing its revitalization.

In short, strategies and mechanisms of socialization exercised within the ejido strengthen its resilience. The ejidos studied here engaged in rural tourism as well as in the defense of their property and their natural and cultural heritage.

Theoretical Lenses and the Pre-eminence of Change

In the academic world and outside its scope, we note the encouraging presence of a movement that aspires to contradict the Western paradigm of globalization. In particular, the need to reconsider and question the fundamental thinking (focus, direction, philosophy, and rationality) seated in “techno-centrism” and “growth mania,” which are aspects that criticize humans’ dominion over Nature that lies in egocentrism. Ecocentrists assume that Earth is inert and passive and legitimately exploitable. Human beings think of themselves as separate and superior to Nature, in the objectivized natural world that holds only instrumental value, typically quantified in monetary terms, as a resource to exploit, expropriate, and, in the lesser of cases, transform (García Miranda, 1996; Gonzáles, 2008; Miranda Zambrano, 2011).

At the other extreme, a number of academic movements are increasingly more critical of the global impact, perhaps wanting to end the environmental chaos and threat to humanity currently at stake worldwide.

Wallerstein (2004) proposed a form of conservation that is ontology-driven and anti-systematic, while Naess (1995) introduced archetypes with a sociocultural focus and concepts sustained in continentally owned epistemologies. These authors’ main merits are in highlighting the substantial differences between the egocentric eurocentrism to give way to the unveiling of paradigms from denied or invisible sociocultural sectors (based on an ecocentric paradigm). This derives from considering humans as part of the chain of life, where everything that happens to one member of the system affects another and its ecosystem at the micro, macro, and mega levels (see figure 1).

In this line we find “eco-sophy” and the deconstruction of the economy (Leff et al., 2005); the epistemology of the South (de Sousa Santos, 2010); the concept of “Good Living” (Albó, 2009; Quijano, 2010; Houtart, 2011; Caudillo-Félix, 2012; among others); complex and “multiversity” thinking (Morin, 1994); and the re-dignified American indigenous holistic line of thought (Toledo, 2005; 2006; Boege Schmidt et al., 2008; Miranda Zambrano, 2011; among others); and, more recently, the proposal of the quantic conscience economics (Pigem, 2013).

However, as de Sousa Santos (2010) claims, this does not mean that we can rule out or “completely” ignore Western culture. On the contrary, through ecocentric thought, which is based on knowledge and a relational understanding of Nature and Life, we can retrieve elements of Western culture and, in the process, humanity itself. It is in the indigenous communities of Latin America—particularly Mesoamerica, the Andes, and the Amazons—that we can find a dormant underground prominence of this line of thought (see figure 1).

Indigenous Communities and Rural Tourism

It is gratifying to observe a renewed conception of indigenous communities in the above panorama. Until a few decades ago, anthropology and history—led by Caso (1996), León Portilla (2001), and Levi-Strauss (1988), among others—expressed their concern about the value of these communities as they distinguished them as social actors with unparalleled and ancient idiosyncrasies, reflecting their own identities and cultures in ways differing from egocentric thinking and paradigms.

It was not until the 1990s that the works of Grupo Talpuy (1984-1997), Martínez-Alier (1992), Geertz (1994), García Miranda (1996), Lenkersdorf (1999), and others catalyzed the recognition of these communities as actors bearing a differing epistemology that stems from a cosmovision, culture, knowledge, corpus cognoscitivo, and science and technology that reproduce and evolve based on the sacred association with Nature and the Universe—which should be unequivocally preserved. Currently, the authors cited as leaders of the ecocentric thought mostly provided guidelines regarding the importance of time-honoured rural communities who hold the keys, codes, symbols, and secrets of sustainability. By their presence they reproduce the dynamics of inflowing energy and the substance of Life where the interrelations of this creative source are manifested: constellations, plants, animals, fungi, rocks, water, soil, landscapes and vegetation, or upon physical, biological, or ecological processes such as climate or hydrological change, life cycles, flowering, fruiting, germination, breeding or reproduction periods, as well as ecosystem recovery phenomena (ecological succession) (Toledo, 2005).

In the tourism field, in recent years indigenous communities have made inroads in the rural sector, as a result of a shift toward economic decentralization (CDI, 2005), in virtually trying to correct inequalities and, therefore, initiating the emergence of new tourist destinations under the pretence of redirecting the course of the excessive actions against Nature.

Experiences have often been encouraging, while others had disastrous and catastrophic impacts on both the environment and sustainability. Consequently, alternative tourism analysts appeared, in different fields such as ecotourism, ethnic-tourism, rural and experiential tourism, agrotourism, or spiritual tourism. Authors like Paré and Lazos (2003), Pera and Mc Laren (2002), Molina (2006), Santana (2006), Vigna (2006), and Miranda Zambrano (2011) have denounced their disastrous impacts on sanctuaries and live relicts that concentrate the “wise life” (biodiversity seedbeds: water, soil, flora, fauna, climate, soil microorganisms, etc.). In fact, these forms of tourism hold a hidden and threatening discourse; the neoliberal capitalistic context with its egocentric focus implies dispossession (again) of nature and cultures as a hidden purpose.[5]

We cannot fail to highlight learning experiences such as that of Pueblos Mancomunados (Oaxaca), El Parque San Nicolás Totolapan (object of this study), Escudo Yahuar y Aru Macao, Misol-Ha, Agua Clara, Welib-Ha (Chiapas), or the Red de Ecoturismo de Los Tuxtlas (Veracruz).[6] At the Latin-American level, there are enriching experiences—in Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Argentina—where several claim to be “paradigmatic models” (Miranda Zambrano, 2011). The ejidos studied fall in the latter experimental framework. What do they do to confront and stay away from neocolonialism disguised as an alternative project?

The Vertigo of Indigenous Tourism: Communal Resistance Actions in Favour of Life and Nature

Ejidos like San Nicolas Totolapan and Ojo de Agua de Ballesteros hoist rural tourism projects as an objective in the spirit per se of service. There, the sense of cooperation and self-service of indigenous cultures funnels into the natural and spontaneous flow of the business. However, at the core of such service there is a complex expression of an intimate perspective and commitment. They put all their efforts in the preservation, protection, and defense of property and assets in order to continue to generate a culture favouring Life and Nature. In other words, they do not launch rural tourism projects upon the mere capitalist logic of economic growth (egocentric). The logic, justified by tourism assistance, structures and synthesizes a sequence of agricultural and environmental activities. The “common people” observe and enjoy only the external face known as “service tourism,” however when scrutinizing and looking at the behind-the-scenes actions, interesting discoveries regarding the resistance in favour of these Life-giving cultures are made.

Resistance to Land Privatization

Both ejidos challenged the forced entry into the Programa de Certificación de Derechos Ejidales y Titulación de Solares (PROCEDE, Ejidal Property Certification and Solar Entitlement Program)[7] because it was obvious to them that it was a pitfall or slow and certain death of their heritage and communal ejidal organization, and therefore was not an option. “We will fight tooth and nail and give up our own life” is the recurrent discourse, as the generation that manages today’s projects experienced in their youth the agrarian revolution of 1910 where their family members lost their lives in defending their land and territory. Zambrano (2001) believes that territorial struggles and conflicts arise when varying perceptions of ownership, dominion, and sovereignty over a space come into close contact. Meanwhile, Toledo (2005), Bartra (2008), Concheiro Bórquez and López Bárcenas (2006), and Miranda Zambrano (2011) corroborate that in a fight for land, the claim of nature and the reproduction of life are incorporated and manifested through a sustainable culture within and around it. In the same fashion, the proposal for rural tourism is nothing but a manifestation of temporary defense and preservation of heritage. Therefore there is a certain degree of correlation and agreement, and re-generation of the laws and principles of Life.

Under these circumstances, both ejidos proudly and with dignity declare they had not accepted such exhortation, and would continue according to the traditional collective work forms and norms, just as it has always been since its creation. Avoiding the virtual dismantlement and the subsequent fragmentation of communal property gives them the nationwide distinction of being one of the few indigenous ejidos that did not accept to enter the Program.

Poor? We Are Rich!

How does this poor-rich binomial contradiction of acknowledgment in the ecotouristic rural community management affect both ejidos? It is common knowledge that to work in the area of tourism, it is necessary to show in order to seduce the public interested in that segment. In the case of both ejidos, and for countless generations, the social actors have been stigmatized as poor people who do not know anything and are not worth anything. Consequently for some it is complicated to enter the tourism industry and disregard such an identity. However, upon seeing that natural goods and heritage were threatened, they imagined a completely original scenario. “My voice and my hands shook when I did my first tour, I didn’t know what to say, I thought the visitors to the forest would laugh at me, and no matter how much I pinched myself I couldn’t keep myself under control, so I almost escaped. But I had to get into it, my trees couldn’t wait anymore; people were cutting them to use as mere firewood…” [Our translation of a personal communication, 2012]

As both projects grew, they empowered their actors. Today when you ask, “are you poor?” you get an exploding answer to the tune of “Me, poor?! I’ve never been poor! I have my forest, I am high on life, and I have more than everyone who lives in the city. We used to think we were poor, but we hadn’t yet noticed that […] we are richer than everyone! [Our translation of a personal communication, 2012]

Communities have learned to resist with a renewed look at their heritage while avoiding their dispossession under various external contentious strategies. They question the prevailing idea that if you are “poor,” then it is fair to get paid less than the market price. They know about prices, about value, and no one will take away what Zapata fought for.[8]

“We Communicate with Nature”

The horizontal and cultural relationship of inter-subjectivity with Nature, and with elements subjacent to Nature, is shared in the tourism actions for both groups of social actors. In other words, the indigenous ideological cosmovision is transmitted to visitors as an educational message from the heart. Consequently, it is common for them to be motivated or, in the best of cases, form a link with Nature: “We speak with trees, water, we hug them . . . children watch us, they imitate us, that is why they never come just once, they always come back!” [Our translation of a personal communication, 2012]

Thus, the ejido’s identity has been built on the basis of ecocentric thinking around physical assets and forest culture. Social capital is developed, leading to complex networks and social relations both internally and externally. In addition, the multiple skills and abilities of the actors involved flow with an open dialogue on sustainability issues. Visitors from the city learn to experience new feelings as they read symbols that once were unimaginable in their habitus.

Among Fear and Never Trodden Paths: Safeguarding and Invigorating Natural Assets and Heritage

On innumerable occasions, San Nicolas Totolapan faced uncertainty and chaos due to threatening invasions. In 1997, the community received a proposal to work on a mega project on their land, led by companies such as Coca-Cola, General Motors, and Chrysler, who considered a total of 26 projects, among which were included the installation of themed museums such as “tree museum,” “car museum,” and “bullfighting museum.” The agreement was based on a 99-year concession (Miranda Zambrano, 2011).

Had it come into effect it would have practically stripped the ejido lands, before the population’s very eyes. Authorities were convinced during night-time assemblies and, exhausted, finally accepted the sale. However, when analyzed after the fact, we all stood together and set out to march and cancel the pre-sale. And that was really hard! Authorities were dismissed, and people were wounded.” (Personal report, October 2012)

Zambrano (2001: 40) states that when a conflict arises there is a transition from a cultural territory to a political one, where the subjects collectively define the multiple contours of the land. In other words, we are talking about a cultural to political transition—formulated in the expressions of resistance that are summarized in the figure of the ejido.

Setting Up the Ejido Park

In the case of San Nicolas, the forest was under attack from a never-seen-before plague. It had become more resistant, and the insect population continued to increase. Seedlings and saplings did not take root; residents testified on how the forest was “falling apart!” At the same time, there were invasions, violence, crime, usury, and uncertainty in the forestlands. The “urban sprawl” became increasingly, and more than ever before, a devastating threat (Chávez de la Peña, 2002). For more than 50 years, the land had not returned any income to its owners. Facing this bleak situation, the solution was the creation of the Ejido Park, with the understanding of primarily recovering the forest. In the past 15 years, it has established itself as the leading park in its market segment, offering horseback riding, camping, mountain biking, bird watching, educational farming, food, trout fishing, etc. The term “forest trip tour” best summarizes its attractions.

Ongoing Monitoring and Multiple Actions to Protect Assets

Ojo de Agua de Ballesteros is known for the ongoing and strong monitoring of its heritage. The rupture with the mainstream establishment is attributable to actions by local residents who can barely read and write, who acknowledged the challenge of facing touristic presentation duties that are completely unknown to them. They made their way, they fenced springs because people kept contaminating the water with detergent, preventing it from being used for irrigation or conservation purposes. The waterpark took the heat for abrupt changes in daily practices, often facing harsh externalities. Some of the actions taken are:

  1. Training authorities and ejidatarios (collective landowners) during events related to the protection of natural heritage and its relationship to productive projects.

  2. Initiatives to support municipal security and enforcement of fines to those who do not play an active role. Natural assets are watched 24 hours a day by groups of adults and young members, on a rotating basis.

  3. Filing paperwork with forest authorities in order to fence the forest. After eight years of proposals before the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT, the Mexican Department of Environment and Natural Resources), they agreed to sponsor the installation of a perimeter fence surrounding the majority of the forest, therefore greatly reducing pillaging.

  4. Fines (and in extreme cases a penalty) for those caught subtracting from, or destroying the natural heritage.

  5. Establishment of a co-participatory project with the University of Guanajuato for the recovery of natural assets and touristic development: for recognition as a Community Ecological Reserve.

Over 30 projects, in total, have been achieved in favour of preservation, restoration, forestation, reforestation, and recovery of native species. Tourism services are optimized thanks to projects such as fish breeding, an ejido restaurant, and overall beautification of the site. People used to swim and rest at the waterpark, it is believed that they will return when they notice that the mountain is green and the water is nice and clean!

With these actions of care and defense of the forest, springs, agricultural land, and the lagoon itself, Ballesteros generally energizes and benefits from productive activities, but its long-term vision is set on sustainability.


The ejido management experience shows that a community taking on goods and wealth undeniably differs from the egocentric commercial organization we know. These tourism projects rest on a commitment to the ecological conservation and sustainability, where ejidatarios express a repertoire of knowledge and skills to keep their own property, which is a central aspect of the ecocentric thought.

For the ejidos, the rural tourism paradigm is an opportunity to continue to maintain their link with Nature and Life through multiple use of the ecosystem, the vast number of species, watershed management, water management, variations in climate, soil management, ecological zones, productive and reproductive cycles, etc. Thus, productive communities are a concrete example of the value of the reproduction of social and natural biodiversity, and of lower impacts on other communities in the country and the world.

Rural tourism is an area of environmental education for visitors where social actors show their skills and abilities and knowledge while offering experiences that dignify them as human beings.

The ejidos are reaching out in defense of the dynamics of the energy stream and mainstay of Life where the interrelationships between the natural and the human are manifest. Nature marvels in the Human Being and humans merge into the substance of Life. Bartra (2008: 375) explains that peasants are indispensable not because “they produce cheap goods without subsidy,” but because they reproduce social and natural diversity, whose value lies in its use rather than its exchange. In short, rural tourism is a scenario that provides some security for the recovery and reproduction of ecology and sustainability.