Instituting Nature

From Politics, Science, and the Environment

Instituting Nature

Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests

By Andrew S. Mathews

A study of how encounters between forestry bureaucrats and indigenous forest managers in Mexico produced official knowledge about forests and the state.





A study of how encounters between forestry bureaucrats and indigenous forest managers in Mexico produced official knowledge about forests and the state.

Greater knowledge and transparency are often promoted as the keys to solving a wide array of governance problems. In Instituting Nature, Andrew Mathews describes Mexico's efforts over the past hundred years to manage its forests through forestry science and biodiversity conservation. He shows that transparent knowledge was produced not by official declarations or scientists' expertise but by encounters between the relatively weak forestry bureaucracy and the indigenous people who manage and own the pine forests of Mexico. Mathews charts the performances, collusions, complicities, and evasions that characterize the forestry bureaucracy. He shows that the authority of forestry officials is undermined by the tension between local realities and national policy; officials must juggle sweeping knowledge claims and mundane concealments, ambitious regulations and routine rule breaking. Moving from government offices in Mexico City to forests in the state of Oaxaca, Mathews describes how the science of forestry and bureaucratic practices came to Oaxaca in the 1930s and how local environmental and political contexts set the stage for local resistance. He tells how the indigenous Zapotec people learned the theory and practice of industrial forestry as employees and then put these skills to use when they become the owners and managers of the area's pine forests—eventually incorporating forestry into their successful claims for autonomy from the state. Despite the apparently small scale and local contexts of this balancing act between the power of forestry regulations and the resistance of indigenous communities, Mathews shows that it has large implications—for how we understand the modern state, scientific knowledge, and power and for the global carbon markets for which Mexican forests might become valuable.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262016520 320 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 19 b&w photos, 4 maps, 4 graphs, 2 figures


$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262516440 320 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 19 b&w photos, 4 maps, 4 graphs, 2 figures


  • …Mathews offers a provocative, new approach to environmental research, one that is rooted in anthropology and social forestry but would be equally at home in a geography, sociology, conservation biology, STS, or policy class. The text would be highly useful for graduate students and senior-level undergraduates.

    Nora Haenn

    Human Ecology

  • In this fascinating book, Andrew Mathews studies, with much great detail and in great depth, the ways in which Mexico dealt with the protection and management of forests in the twentieth century, particularly between 1926 and 2001. Mathews's study, which is wonderfully researched and very well written, traces the roles of the modern state, bureaucracy, science, conservation, and indigenous communities, among other factors, in the dynamic between Mexican forests and the people that surround them.

    Camilo Quintero


  • Andrew Mathews has produced an engaging and theoretically rich text that spans disciplines and draws important conclusions about our understandings of knowledge, nature, and the modern state.

    Alexander J. Myers

    Rural Sociology


  • Oaxaca offers residents, travelers, and scientists a kaleidoscope of ecological diversity—from the colorful traje (clothing) of ethnic groups to multitudinousplant and animal life expressed in the various species of maize and the complex range from alpine to tropical forests. In this superb analysis, Andrew S. Mathews captures the interplay of indigenous, government, business, and environmental interests competing to control the forests. Much more than an examination of political policy, ecological exploitation, and conservationist efforts, Mathews's book provides readers with a thoughtful meditation on contemporary issues of Oaxaca's forests.

    William H. Beezley

    Professor of History, University of Arizona

  • In this fabulously readable contribution to the anthropology of the state and of scientific and practical knowledge, Andrew Mathews reinforces his anthropological sensibilities with an agronomist's keenly trained eye and an archival historian's capacity for patient detection. As interested in ignorance as in knowledge, and with illuminating emphasis on role performance in the projection of expertise, he reconstructs how, in one small corner of Mexico, local people—bureaucrats included!—have colluded in sidestepping official indifference and exploitative greed toward on-the-ground social and natural realities, thereby often unexpectedly extending the life of a crucial natural resource.

    Michael Herzfeld

    Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University, author of Evicted from Eternity

  • I like this book because it presents a useful analysis of a new aspect of state theory and development by integrating it with debates about science policy, science studies, and expertise. Moreover, it does so in a clear, scholarly, and empirically strong way. At various times while reading this book I found myself thinking that my students should read it, nodding my head in agreement, or wishing that there were more books like it.

    Tim Forsyth

    Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science


  • Winner, 2013 Harold & Margaret Sprout Award given by the Enviornmental Studies Section of the International Studies Association
  • CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2012