A Revolutionary Civilization: National Parks, Transnational Exchanges, and the Construction of Modern Mexico

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Between 1934 and 1940, Mexican bureaucrats created and administered forty national parks. An average of 20,000 hectares in size, the majority of these parks resided within one hundred kilometers of the nation's capital and contained coniferous forests. The contents of these parks embodied neither wilderness nor distant frontiers but instead marked a civilized combination of accessibility and symbolic nature in the territory recognized by the social-reform-minded government as central to the nation's past. The timing, intention and process of national park creation in Mexico reveals a unique combination of revolutionary social reforms, transnational intellectual exchanges in widespread political incorporation that brought vast numbers of citizens into a growing federal bureaucracy through environmental policy.1 Tensions existed among rural and urban peoples, scientists, educators and farmers, and national, regional and local interpretations of the parks, but the encompassing ideological revolution and the populist reforms of President Lázaro Cáardenas (1934-40), drew upon national parks as a method of popular incorporation rather than a means of exclusion.2 By the end of Cárdenas's term, national parks were distributed across seventeen states, including those most densely populated. This result was not coincidental. Mexican national parks were formed out of the crucible of revolutionary reforms that altered the dynamics of citizenship and governance in radical ways, establishing a framework for the expansion of political participation to previously marginalized groups by redistributing millions of acres of land, building rural schoolhouses and fostering union activity.3 These reforms demonstrated a firm, if sometimes fleeting, commitment to changes that would allow lower-class groups more complete integration into public life, yet parks were demonstrably modern as they did not mark a return to a pre-Columbian wild past but a revolutionary future. Recognition of this confluence of processes and characteristics gives Mexican parks their own place in a dynamic and changing global history that nevertheless led to the adaptation of the national park concept to protect nature worldwide.


Civilizing Nature: National Parks in Global Historical Perspective is volume 1 in The Environment in History: International Perspectives series.

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