When participation meets empowerment: The WWF and the politics of invitation in the Chimalapas, Mexico

David Walker, John Paul Jones, Susan M. Roberts, Oliver R. Fröhling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations


Emerging out of radical theories about the uneven nature of power and underwriting practices that assist marginalized peoples in constructing their own development strategies, "participation" has recently come under fire for being co-opted and mainstreamed by governmental and nongovernmental agencies, part of a new development "tyranny" that betrays the concept's populist roots. The issues surrounding participation are nowhere more hotly debated than in the area of conservation, where the requirements of ecological sustainability often collide with the demands of indigenous people seeking to control their own natural resources. As we show in this article, the issues become even more complex when the ideals and practices of participation circulating within a nongovernmental organization (NGO) are met by indigenous forms of empowerment, based not only on the resources of a remote and biologically diverse forest, but also on a pool of knowledge about development discourses themselves, including those of participation. Our case study examines interactions between an affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund operating out of Oaxaca, a state capital in southern Mexico, and a group of indigenous Zoque-speakers living in that state's Chimalapas forest. We interpret the collision between the NGO's "participation" and the Zoques' "empowerment" by employing "progressive contextualization," an approach that leads us to identify and analyze the wider sets of conditions underpinning the encounter. We find that the Zoques invert a generic and aspatial politics of participation by insisting on a territorially-based, and thus intensely spatial, "politics of invitation" as they negotiate the complexities of participation within contemporary development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)423-444
Number of pages22
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The story we are telling, centered on events of 2004, has an important precursor in the work of conservation NGOs involved in the Chimalapas in the 1990s. In 1991 a small forestry management NGO, Maderas del Pueblo Sureste, A.C. (MPS), began work in the region, as part of a WWF Bosques project funded by USAID’s Biodiversity Support Program. MPS’s goal was to plan and implement a locally managed ecological reserve in the Chimalapas forest. Though populated at the top by urbane Mexicans, MPS was known for its close participatory work with campesinos living in small settlements within the forests (Umlas 1998; Doane 2001). MPS’s efforts, however, were soon caught up in political disputes between the two powerful Chimalapas municipalities (San Miguel and Santa María) and other communities (Caballero n.d.). Further, as Doane (2001) elaborates, MPS’s reputation as a largely left-leaning organization created tensions between it and state-and national-level authorities (both PRI-dominated at the time), and the government’s ability to rely on long-established systems of patronage turned the local authorities of San Miguel and Santa María against the NGO. As a result, the local authorities threw MPS out of the region, thwarting the NGO’s attempt to set up an ecological reserve and threatening MPS staff with hanging were they to return. In a powerful communiqué published in the national newspaper, La Jornada, the authorities took control of the terms of participation in the formation of any ecological reserve in the Chimalapas:

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the National Science Foundation under the auspices of research grant SBE-GRS # 024329-5, ‘‘Transnational Networks of NGOs.’’ We thank other members of the research team whose work has been integral to the larger project: Sarah Moore, Laurel Smith, Margath Walker, and Jamie Winders. The assistance of staff at WWF-UK and WWF-Bosques, particularly David Ortega, is appreciated, as are the contributions of several interviewees from San Miguel Chimalapa and Santa María Chimalapa, particularly Cuauhtémoc Martinez Gutierrez. We also thank Thomas Bassett, Katherine Gibson, Richard Gilbreath, Andrew Grimes, Dorothea Kleine, Diana Liverman, Katharine McKinnon, Tad Mutersbaugh, Wolfgang Natter, Phil O’Neill, Jeffrey Popke, Patricia Price, Sarah Radcliffe, and Paul Robbins for their comments and assistance.


  • Empowerment
  • Mexico
  • NGOs
  • Oaxaca
  • Participation
  • World Wildlife Fund

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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