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Less protection for better conservation? A politicised relationship between a city and its protected area in the vicinity of Nevado de Toluca (Mexico)

Samuel Depraz, Elsa Sanial, Andrés K. Rees Catalán and Andrea Salinas Rojas


The Nevado de Toluca Mountain is a protected area located near Toluca, the fifth largest city in Mexico. In 2013, Nevado de Toluca National Park was downgraded to an Area of Protection for Flora and Fauna. This new status aims to allow a measured use of natural resources in the Park, while also enhancing their control by stakeholders by means of supervised management plans. Tolerate and control, rather than forbid and fail, should thus better address the social pressure due to many surrounding suburban activities. This article will show, however, that the new status is not primarily geared towards improving nature conservation policies. Instead it is revealing a new pattern in stakeholder relationships, as well as power asymmetries and development gaps between rural and urban areas, with the possible privatization of forest resources. This trend also questions the liberalization in the management of protected areas at the international scale.

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1The relationship between protected areas managers and neighbouring communities generally involves a kind of tradeoff between rivalry and cooperation. For more than a generation now, this tradeoff shifted towards a desired strengthening of participation, thus a more integrated protection management (Phillips 2003; Borrini-Feyerabend et al. 2004; Western & Wright 1994), which is actually considered to be the only acceptable way to make nature protection regulations socially acceptable (Kareiva et al. 2012). However, reconsidering social issues in protected areas did not often result in the downgrading of a national park: yet that is actually what happened in October 2013 for the Nevado de Toluca National Park, a protected area located about 20 km from Toluca, the capital city of the State of Mexico with a population of almost 1.8 million people. Advocating better participatory dynamics and broader governance patterns around the park, a presidential decree issued by the newly elected President Peña Nieto decided the reclassification of the National Park into an Area of Protection for Flora and Fauna (APFF). This means a less binding status that is geared towards better regulation of observed tensions in the management of the national park, with the possibility of controlled resources extraction, while enhancing the low efficiency of protection measures at the same time. This factual framework served to support an international research programme – the SELINA Programme of the French National Research Agency (ANR), led by Pr. Jacques Imbernon of the CIRAD (Montpellier, France) and the École normale supérieure of Lyon (France), alongside the ICAR Research Institute of the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (Toluca)during which several field surveys were carried out between 2012 and 2014 to gain insight into the reasons underlying this downgrading. This gave rise to a key hypothesis that the main issue regarding this downgraded classification was not the efficiency of nature conservation policies. Instead it has revealed a new pattern in stakeholder relationships, as well as power asymmetries and development gaps between rural and urban areas, with the possible privatization of forest resources.

2This article aims to reveal – through a critical analysis of stakeholder positions and arguments generated during the reclassification process – the implicit grounds that underlie the environmental rationale which led to the paradoxical idea that ‘less protection could allow better conservation’. Questioning the intents that are mainly produced by urban institutions and liberal interests in dominant positions allows searching for other possible reasons to downgrading.

3The first section therefore briefly outlines the ecosystem services provided by protected natural areas, along with tensions that are present in the vicinity of Nevado de Toluca National Park. The second section explains why the reclassification concept emerged, while the third section shows how the arguments put forward are biased with respect to the expectations of the concerned rural communities. The last section presents an analytical model describing the constellation of stakeholders involved so as to reach a discussion where it will be evidenced that the main rift is not ecological but is based on imbalanced attention to spatial justice and local development issues.

An ambiguous relationship with the city aggravated by a blurred regulatory framework

4The mountainous and forested Nevado de Toluca protected area, which peaks at around 4,700 m ASL, has developed an ambiguous relationship with its city. It provides many environmental services, both ecologically – drinking water supply for the Toluca basin (30%) and even for the greater Mexico City region (14%), timber, arable land tempered by the elevation – and socially, i.e. it is an identifiable site for local communities as it becomes a periurban area for recreation and free activity when blanketed in snow in winter. It is also a traditional place of pilgrimage and initiation rites for the minority indigenous Matlatzinca community, which is permanently present on the western slopes of the volcano – called Nro’ maani ne vegetau (home of the Gods). However, Nevado de Toluca is also subject to the development of several extractive activities of varying intensity: illegal logging, commercial export-oriented floriculture (Gómora Jiménez et al. 2006; Orozco Hernández 2007), high chemical input potato production (Dolci 2013) and mineral ore extraction. It could also be considered as a no-go zone relative to the city, which exports criminal activities to be out of the view of public authorities.

5The poor regulatory control of the site could also be partly be explained by the legal uncertainty that has prevailed since the founding of the park. At Nevado de Toluca, as elsewhere in Mexico, the development of agriculture has been favoured by the Mexican Agrarian Reform of 1917 and the establishment of community agricultural units according to the ejidos system. We will consider here under this expression all the agricultural units (núcleos agrarios) created by the Agrarian reform, knowing that besides the small peasant communities of the ejidos a minor part of land distribution (approx. 8%) has also been made for indigenous communities under the form of bienes comunales. As of the 1930s, this system – which is pivotal to Mexican rural identity – attributed collective land rights to a total of 54 rural communities spanning almost 89% of the Nevado de Toluca area (Vulling Garza 2008). This was nevertheless challenged by the creation of the protected area in 1936, since the national park statutes prohibit this type of agriculture and even provide for the revocation of land rights. To overcome this contradiction, a 1937 decree proposed setting up internal park zoning in the form of a “National Forest reserve” to allow sustainable use of forests to benefit local communities in some areas. The goal was to “ensure the subsistence” and “some economic benefits to the worker’s settlements that usually live from forestry […] when forest conditions allow”, after the text of the 1937 decree, cited in (EUM 2013). But this decree never actually came into effect. Even worse, agricultural land rights continued to be allocated after the park was founded, thus generating a regulatory dualism situation with regard to land and forest management. Conservation area and agricultural units are clearly overlapping (Map 1).

Map 1 – Location of the Nevado de Toluca Protected Area and its coverage by agricultural units

Map 1 – Location of the Nevado de Toluca Protected Area and its coverage by agricultural units

Author: Sanial 2017.

6This legality dispute de facto hampered real enforcement of protection constraints associated with the national park status. Control of the area was therefore complicated throughout the 20th century, with protection being ‘only on paper’, while farming continued as usual, due to the fact that around 5,000 to 8,000 inhabitants were living within the protected area and that Toluca urban growth was under way in the north-eastern part of the park (Candeau Dufat and Franco Maass 2007). Nevado de Toluca’s ‘out-dated’ regulatory setting (Ceballos 2011) thus did not prevent the Park from degradation without ensuring sustainable use of natural resources. This led to the loss of 14,000 ha of forest, i.e. 25% of the protected area since the park was founded, especially on the northern side, around Tenango del Valle, mainly for extensive grazing or maize and potato cultures. Triggering landslides associated with soil denudation occurred, e.g. at Villa Guerrero in the south-eastern part of the park on 21 September 2010. However, we could point out the catastrophic discourse used in the study on the reclassification of the Park, often warning against “going in certain areas beyond a no-return point”, with “countless negative effects” such as the “vanishing of huge superficies of forest” or of “thousands of tons of soil trough erosion” (see Ceballos, 2011: 7). This militant and inflated tone is lacking precise assessments of the problems, so that the information about degradation cannot be taken for granted.

Downgrading, an official answer to a long-standing focus on rural community integration

7In an attempt to enhance regulation of periurban activities that could impact the park, Mexican federal authorities decided to downgrade the park in 2013 to an ‘Area of Protection for Flora and Fauna’ (APFF). At first, a Biosphere Reserve status was proposed (interview with the Head of the National park, 2012). However, this status assumes that there is a balanced relationship between local communities with their environment, which is actually not supposed to be the case around Nevado de Toluca – according to the institutional discourse and the reported environmental degradation. So the APFF status was finally preferred and chosen. This status, which is less binding than the national park classification, allows sustainable use of natural resources in a buffer zone created within the protection area, based on the idea that this could be more in line with the interests of local communities (Ceballos 2014). The aim was to boost users’ respect for natural resources they are interested in rather than, de facto, simply letting free access to the area – due to a lack of effective control on resources – and see the forested areas deteriorate, as an echo to Garrett Hardin’s analysis on the tragedy of the commons (1968).

8This most recent downgrading example reflects an emerging international trend called Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing and Degazettement (PADDD, see also​ for a global overview of this trend). This trend is generally defended in the name of the high number of people in nearby communities and their access to resources, but also in terms of budget priorities (Mascia and Pailler 2010), since some of the monitoring costs will be locally endorsed and the extraction of resources should generate shared financial benefits for the State and for local inhabitants. Situations should nevertheless be assessed case by case at the local scale. With regard to Mexico, it is also essential to analytically determine whether this could be a potentially successful solution for periurban national parks that are not functioning properly as a result of excessively high social pressure and/or unrealistic environmental constraints.

9The decision to downgrade the Toluca National Park could – on paper – support the Mexican trend towards creating so-called ‘inclusive’ protected areas that address the concerns of rural communities. This involves the establishment of Biosphere Reserves (BR), a strategy that has been followed since 1971 as a result of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere programme, and Areas for Protection of Fauna and Flora (APFF) since 1988. On the national scale, Mexico stands out for its long-standing focus on rural community integration, and it has even been an international leader in setting up Biosphere Reserves since the 1970s. This position should be understood as a reflection of the revolutionary agrarian identity that underlies contemporary Mexican society – it would have been hard to accept to exclude smallholders’ expectations from all measures for controlling rural areas. There are convincing examples of the gradual integration of farming communities in the protected area management rationale, even along the neovolcanic axis that comprises the Nevado de Toluca area, such as in the Mariposa Monarca BR (Rees Catalán 2015).

10Indeed, nature protection has taken a unique pathway in Mexico by being early politically designed with and by farmers since agriculture is considered to have been the cornerstone of the Mexican Revolution. The first national parks in Mexico were part of the revolutionary effort (Wakild 2011) and considered as a natural resource protection tool for the benefit of rural societies. Although this goal was essentially unheeded throughout the 20th century, since industrialization and development were Mexico’s key priorities (Semarnat 2010), a “specifically Mexican conservation pathway” (Dumoulin Kervran 2009) was clearly confirmed after 1978 through the influence of the biologist Gonzalo Halffter in the overall direction of the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme. Halffter stressed the need for local- and regional-scale social participation in natural resource management. Even though the MAB programme was still markedly biocentric on the global scale (UNESCO 1996), he promoted the capacity of rural communities for ‘rustic’ use of natural resources compatible with nature protection, even asserting that “without those ‘rustic’ areas it is impossible to protect a significant share of the current biodiversity efficiently” (Halffter 1994: 6). The pattern observed at Nevado de Toluca was thus in line with this historical policy thrust and highlighted a real focus on field applications. The rationale of the reclassification decree of 1 October 2013 was explicitly based on this argument – farmers must recover their legitimacy to agricultural plots allocated to them within the park, that is an effective right to access the forest resources – which could, at last, allow to implement the 1937 decree to allow sustainable use of forests and natural resources in the park (EUM 2013).

A biased assessment of the rural situation in Nevado de Toluca

11Surprisingly enough, the proposed solution overlooks the precise analysis of the rural context and uses oversimplified arguments to describe the local situation (Mastretta Yanes et al. 2014), which calls into question the inclusiveness of the reclassification process. We will highlight hereunder three limits in the official discourse before analysing the implicit interests and the ideological grounds that could explain the strong politicisation of the situation.

Downgrading without the support of local communities

12The current regulation that defines national parks in Mexico does not exclude the possibility of implementing a management plan within the national park area or setting up ‘traditional agricultural usage’ or ‘controlled natural resource extraction’ zones, according to the General law on ecological equilibrium and environmental protection (LGGEPA) of 2004, article 52 (Ceballos 2011: 11). Actually, adaptations could have been made possible within the existing framework without downgrading the National park. However, this regulatory option has not yet been considered since this type of internal zoning within national parks was deemed ‘too restrictive’ for local inhabitants (Ceballos 2011: 16). The change of category thus reflects a willingness to go further in enhancing access to natural resources, though not only for local inhabitants, since it will provide opportunities for commercial activities on a larger scale than what rural communities can undertake.

13Indeed, the regulatory change is not particularly in line with the practices of local inhabitants in the park area, neither will it benefit to the few communities that have already implemented tourism facilities, such as San Juan de las Huertas. Between 2013 and 2015, this small rural community successfully lodged an appeal (amparo) to the Supreme Court of Mexico against the downgrading process, claiming its right to maintain the ban of any other activity than its existing, community managed eco-tourism plot.

14Moreover, the loss of the ‘national park’ classification represents a potential obstacle to the development of ecotourism at the site – the ‘national park’ status has the most value on the international scene and explicitly provides for tourism development more than any other protection title. With the new status, resources extraction will be made easier, but the access to the summit of the volcano – a traditional place of pilgrimage for local people – will be restricted within an 84 ha area called the Subzona de Protección Paso del Venado (CONANP 2013) and will follow a ‘low environmental intensity tourism’ model, thus prejudicing some localities (Toscana Aparicio and Granados Ramírez 2015).

15Last but not least, the way the reclassification has been implemented seems to confirm a very distant management strategy, because no participatory process has been set up, apart from a few public awareness meetings and discussions with municipal authorities at the site. Moreover, local ejidos agricultural authorities have not participated: if downgrading officially occurs for local populations, it is not made with them. Another – unsuccessful – appeal, led in 2014 by the conservationist figure Luz Emilia Aguilar Zinser, denounced the downgrading as it would actually mean “legalizing the devastating activities in the Park area, taking in account the fact that the recategorization process was made with important vagueness and gaps, without consulting either local inhabitants or field experts” (quoting the litigation).

An overly catastrophic ecological diagnosis

16Assessments of land-use statistics are generally allusive and often give rise to a strictly conservation-oriented discourse with a decidedly alarmist tone (see section 1). However, a closer look at the only academic, refereed scientific article published on plant cover in Nevado de Toluca National Park shows that the urbanization front has stabilized since 1972, and that illegal cropland encroachment in the park is actually receding (Franco Maass et al. 2006a/b). Encroachment in the park thus mainly occurred prior to 1972, so pressure on ecosystems has now stabilized (Mastretta Yanes et al. 2014). The only negative assessment regarding the 1972-2000 period was based on forest samples in which the per-hectare tree density actually regressed in highland Pinus hartwegii forests, sometimes with a 30% logging rate (Endara Agramont et al. 2013). But the causal link with illegal clearing cannot be generalized since the assessed sites were all located near a road and only covered an area of a few hectares. Moreover, according to the thirty-year averages, there might have been an overall decrease in rainfall volumes and a raise of the average temperatures in the park (figure 1); and even if Hancox et al. (2010) doubt it, the climatic parameter remains under-scrutinized. Besides, the unmanaged park forests are also particularly vulnerable to parasitic diseases. In short, the findings of the ecological assessment could be questioned on the basis of additional factors that might have contributed to the reduction in the forest density. Finally, a current GIS analysis, carried out within the framework of a Franco-Mexican research programme focused on the Nevado de Toluca site (SELINA programme, dir. Jacques Imbernon), also tends to show that a forest recovery process is under way, with the only exception of a few private plots in the north-eastern part of the site. Hence, the ecological assessment of the Nevado de Toluca National Park is incomplete since it is mainly based on abductive reasoning, with insufficient identification of causal chains of forest clearing, when evidences for forest recovery also exist.

Figure 1 – climatic changes in the Nevado de Toluca area

Figure 1 – climatic changes in the Nevado de Toluca area

Source: The World Bank Group, Climate Change Knowledge Portal / Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of University of East Anglia (UEA), 2015

17Local communities are also highly aware of the importance of forest protection, as reflected by their comments, especially amongst inhabitants with land rights to community forest plots in the park (Salinas Rojas 2016). The protection mantra is clearly rooted in the conscience of local communities and in education. Individual firewood harvesting does take place, as admitted by farming community leaders (comisarios ejidales), but remains limited to the fringes of dwelled areas (our observations) and cannot be compared with plundering on a much larger scale that is sometimes carried out by armed gangs in the park.

A naive assessment of supposed benefits for rural communities

18In practice, the fact that the economic activities in most communities on the northern side of the park are now under urban influence must be taken into account, since it implies less dependence on natural resources (especially livestock grazing land and forestry). Hence, the reclassification rationale errs on the side of traditionalism. Opening the park to sustainable forest use implies an interest in timber resources, which is not necessarily the case in all of the farming communities anymore. Moreover, even in the few communities where agricultural activities remain predominant, the conditions for successful logging by the communities are very specific. A study of local communities in the vicinity of the park that have actually set up a timber sector (Agua Bendita, Palo Seco) revealed the importance of a set of timber and non-timber resource access rules, built on the long term, for a successful collective forest management. Part of the area of these ejidos is located outside the park, which has enabled such organizations to be operational for timber extraction for a long time, with proven and reliable management plans. The downgrading will allow them to expand easily their activity within the new protected area. At Agua Bendita, timber sawing and sales were managed on a community scale according to success factors similar to those outlined by Ostrom (1990): clearly defined boundaries of the community harvesting area, self-organization capacity, participatory management, collective control and graduated sanctions. This highlights that, contrary to the conclusions drawn by the study conducted prior to reclassification of the park, free access is not the only method of resource appropriation by local communities.

19However, a study of these places that were exemplary with regard to community resource use also highlighted that the few local communities that had the capacity to handle such forestry activities were those that were the farthest away from the urban influence, on the western side of the park. The scarcity of employment alternatives actually maintained the interest in natural resource use. Moreover, these forest management cases were based on community organization features that would be hard to extrapolate to other places, i.e. high harvestable forest density, community vitality, relatively youthful beneficiaries, and low rate of workers commuting to Toluca (Sanial 2014). Map 2 illustrates the comparison between all of the ejidos located within the protected area and the ejido Agua Bendita, where community forest management is highly dynamic. This comparison was made on the basis of the above-mentioned features and enabled identification of communities with potential (socioeconomic and environmental) for setting up community forest harvesting operations.


Map 2 – Patterns in the potential shift of farming communities towards the timber sector

Map 2 – Patterns in the potential shift of farming communities towards the timber sector

Author: Sanial, 2015.

21And, even if there is an effective local willingness to set up a community forest harvesting sector, the administration’s distrust with regard to the self-organization capacities on the local scale is, in the field, a stumbling block to sustainable community forest management. Finally, the current cost-effectiveness of the local timber sector is low due to competition under highly liberal strategies and low-cost timber imports – only a community organization tailored to the commercial pressure of private sectors could be sustainable in the long term (Sanial 2014). The expansion of such practices throughout the protected area therefore seems questionable, even after some ejidales zones in the park have opened to sustainable forest use.

A constellation of stakeholders under urban influence

22Under these circumstances, who could mainly benefit from the downgrading? We intend to apply a critical method similar to that developed by Landy et al. (2014) regarding Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai (India) so as to demonstrate that, far from being reduced to a dichotomous view of an opposition between protection and development, the situation at Nevado de Toluca mountain reveals the constellations of stakeholders involved in management of the area and the amazing coalitions of interest around the partial protection deregulation process.

23There are many stakeholders present who could be ranked, according to their interest in favour of protection, from armed gangs playing the role of free riders in the exploitation of resources to the conservation authority of the CONANP (Figure 2, horizontal arrow) – see also Héritier and Lebreton (2017) for a detailed presentation of the constellation of actors in the area. However, this rift is hard to explain in practice, since the protection mantra is shared, even for divergent reasons, by most stakeholders. Inhabitants and community farmers themselves are mainly in favour of forest protection, for reasons concerning aesthetics, the purity of the site, and because ‘payments for ecosystem services” (PES) is now granting ecological restoration initiatives that are carried out in the park from the time when this environmental programme was launched on a national scale, in 2007. It is thus essential to introduce the social justice criterion (vertical arrow) to highlight that the main gap is probably not between conservation and resource extraction, but rather in terms of symbolic appropriation, social recognition and benefit sharing by the different stakeholders in the area. “Social justice” means here the claim for an even access to natural resources and a symbolic legitimation of local communities in front of possible private, large-scale economic interests in the forest area. The rift is here a question of scale (local/global) but also a question of places (urban/rural).

Figure 2 – The constellation of stakeholders at the urban/rural interface around the Nevado de Toluca protected area (Mexico) ranked after their commitment to environmental protection and social justice

Figure 2 – The constellation of stakeholders at the urban/rural interface around the Nevado de Toluca protected area (Mexico) ranked after their commitment to environmental protection and social justice

Depraz, after the model of Landy et al., 2014.

24The main operational value of this vertical cleavage is clearly illustrated in the land issue. Rural land property was, in Nevado de Toluca, doubly secured by Federal control. First of all, lands in national parks are officially – from the outset or after expropriation – State property. Regarding Nevado de Toluca, although the lands had generally been allocated in the form of collective agricultural land rights in ejidos, they remained effectively de jure under State ownership since ejidos are actually usufructuary: only collective land-use rights were allocated, while the land officially remained State property. Moreover, according to the Agrarian reform launched by the Decree of 1915, that was incorporated into art. 27 of the 1917 Constitution, those agricultural land-use rights were pooled and personally distributed, but remained non-transferable and inalienable.

25However, since 1992, the country officially abandoned the agrarian reform. Since then, land registration and allocation of collective land plots to each beneficiary has been under way, with the privatization of lands in sectors with high commercial potential (periurban areas open to construction, areas with plantations and intensive export-oriented crops). This phenomenon had yet not affected Nevado de Toluca because of its national park status, which still protected the land from privatization and prohibited logging of the forests. But the transition to the APFF status, which can cover private lands and allows resource extraction, released the second lock to the transfer of land ownership and henceforth opened the forests to ‘envious’ loggers from outside of the Nevado de Toluca region (Lebreton et al. 2015). Conversion into an APFF means that anyone can from now on purchase and use lands for private purposes. This clearly means that it is possible to sell community land to benefit private operators with a high financial and commercial capacity.

26Downgrading thus does not lead to effective strengthening of protection, but instead represents a very liberal political shift of direction on a local scale. Land privatization is the main concern of Nevado de Toluca rural communities, as highlighted by their protests: “Our volcano is not for sale” (slogan of the 1 May 2014 protest). A public petition has demanded the publication of the list of all private owners that have acquired land in the perimeter of the APFF. The commissar of the ejido San Juan de las Huertas also declared in 2013, after de downgrading, that the decree would “open land to external, private investors” without any local consultation. The downgrading process thus appears to be heading in the direction of providing enhanced opportunities for economic exploitation of the forests by urban entrepreneurs (e.g. for paper mills, carpentry/joinery, packaging factories) – Toluca being one of the biggest industrial cities of the country – but also for bigger tourist operators, a possible ski resort having been discussed for a long time already on the mountain. The 2013 decree, issued by the President himself, is also a political gesture, since Peña Nieto was formerly Head of the State of Mexico – the State authority of Toluca, where he gathered his strongest political support. All this could potentially undermine rural communities and their possibilities for the joint use of forests.

27This rift on the question of social justice and maintaining equitable land access, while questioning the farming community model, is an ideologically sensitive issue in Mexico. It could, however, be mitigated via mediators in the critical sense of Bruno Latour – the emergence of programmes for the payment for ecosystem services in protected areas in Mexico has indirectly and likely unexpectedly led to greater involvement of local communities in dealing with protection issues, and especially to greater institutional proximity between these communities and institutions – even though the sectoral compartmentalization of the administration remains very restrictive in Mexico (Salinas Rojas and Roussel 2011). Federal (CONAFOR) and State (PROBOSQUE) forestry institutions still have a tense relationship with nature protection institutions (CONANP, SEMARNAT) with regard to protected forest management methodseach group of institutions has implemented potentially competing and uncoordinated ecosystem service payment programmes. The rapid turnover of farming community representatives is another obstacle since it prevents these elected representatives from gaining experience. After discussing these shortcomings, we should now underline the onset of social learning and rural community empowerment in favour of local development principles. In particular, the work of forest engineers over the last decade has prompted the emergence of a form of regional planning, with an independent profession that is developing expertise, beyond PES, to serve rural development projects.

Conclusion: a conflict of representations rather than uses

28The shifting trends in the Nevado de Toluca protected area highlight the power forces involved in local land management and the obstacles to rural development in Mexico. The urban-forest interface, with latent domination of external representations and interests at the protected site, is clearly revealed here via the national park reclassification process. It is not so much the protection of nature that is at issue, since the pressures are actually limited. Despite the inclusive aims of the downgrading rationale, it is ultimately the land control issues and spatial justice that underlie the discussions in a ‘legitimacy dispute’ (Gauchon 2008) in which the importance of ejidos has never been clearly recognized. Quoting “spatial justice”, we will follow here the criteria as described by Young (1990) and adapted to geography by Harvey (1992) to conclude that rural communities are being more oppressed than before by the new regulation, since the downgrading process reinforces the “symbolic violence”, the “powerlessness” (exclusion from decision processes) and the “cultural imperialism” shaped by urban stakeholders that defines rural communities from the outside, following a stereotyped pattern and making them paradoxically less visible (Young 1990: 59).

29The downgrading process has proved to be a key moment for understanding the shift in power relationships between stakeholders, as well as changes in urban/rural relationships in a new development setting. This supports the theory that national parks and most other nature protection statutes are urban products and domination tools (Héritier and Laslaz 2008) since they are primarily designed by stakeholders from the city to meet its needs according to its lifestyle representations of nature. This urban-centric representation prevails, even in participatory processes in which local rural stakeholders are involved—the discussion is focused primarily on schools of thought pre-set by the protection promoters.

30The capacities for action, self-organization and adaptation of communities in the vicinity of the park are actually poorly understood. They are overlooked in practice to the benefit of higher decision-making levels and challenges, and they are still under-represented in current governance arrangements regarding this protected area.

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List of illustrations

Title Map 1 – Location of the Nevado de Toluca Protected Area and its coverage by agricultural units
Credits Author: Sanial 2017.
File image/png, 2.0M
Title Figure 1 – climatic changes in the Nevado de Toluca area
Credits Source: The World Bank Group, Climate Change Knowledge Portal / Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of University of East Anglia (UEA), 2015
File image/png, 257k
Title Map 2 – Patterns in the potential shift of farming communities towards the timber sector
Credits Author: Sanial, 2015.
File image/png, 1.4M
Title Figure 2 – The constellation of stakeholders at the urban/rural interface around the Nevado de Toluca protected area (Mexico) ranked after their commitment to environmental protection and social justice
Credits Depraz, after the model of Landy et al., 2014.
File image/png, 201k
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Electronic reference

Samuel Depraz, Elsa Sanial, Andrés K. Rees Catalán and Andrea Salinas Rojas, Less protection for better conservation? A politicised relationship between a city and its protected area in the vicinity of Nevado de Toluca (Mexico)Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 16 | 2017, Online since 30 November 2017, connection on 18 May 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Samuel Depraz

University of Lyon (Jean Moulin/Lyon 3) – Laboratoire EVS - UMR 5600 CNRS. Email: Samuel Depraz, assistant professor in Geography and Planning, focuses his researches on the socio-economic dimensions of protected areas in European and Latin American countries. He published Géographie des espaces naturels protégés (ed. A. Colin, 2008) and co-authored the Atlas mondial des espaces protégés (ed. Autrement, 2012). His latest projects are dealing with the social acceptance of environmental regulations and planning projects in rural areas.

Elsa Sanial

University of Lyon (Jean Moulin/Lyon 3) – Laboratoire EVS - UMR 5600 CNRS and CIRAD - UMR Innovations et développement. Email: PhD Student at the University of Lyon and CIRAD, her researches focus on agroforestry adaptations of cocoa farmers to a post-forest context in Côte d'Ivoire. The stakes of farmers’ innovations in cocoa agroforestry are identified considering socio-environmental variables such as: forest and tree rights; domestic timber value chain; environmental context. She also realised researches in protected areas in Cap Vert and Mexico. Generally, her work is focused on relationships between societies and environmental resources (especially forest ones) at landscape level.

Andrés K. Rees Catalán

University of Lyon (Jean Moulin/Lyon 3) – Laboratoire EVS - UMR 5600 CNRS. Email: Andrés Rees Catalán is a PhD candidate in Geography and Planning at the University of Lyon, France. His recent researches focus on protected areas management in Mexico and Chile. He is mainly interested in understanding participatory and inclusive initiatives, public-private partnerships and governance processes in natural resources management, mostly in rural areas, along with their territorial impacts.

Andrea Salinas Rojas

University of Lyon (Jean Moulin/Lyon 3) – Laboratoire EVS - UMR 5600 CNRS. Email: Holding a PhD in geography and planning from the University of Lyon, she is an associate researcher at the EVS research unit (UMR 5600 CNRS). She works on social organizations that are dealing with the use, the share and the management of forest resources in protected areas. In a context of internationalization of forest policies, she analyses the empirical networks which are emerging in the forest management between state actors and non-state stakeholders as an important part on territorial governance.

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