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Year : 2014  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 245-256

Breaking the Bounds of Rationality: Values, Relationships, and Decision-making in Mexican Fishing Communities

Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, USA

Correspondence Address:
Nicole D Peterson
Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.145135

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Date of Web Publication20-Nov-2014


In fishing communities in Baja California Sur, Mexico, fisheries management is heavily influenced by models of individual economic rationality held by biologists and others involved in management, in which fishermen 'choose' to overfish because they are motivated by selfish individual rationality. Yet there is much that is neglected by these models, including the pressures of economic markets, family and community expectations, and cultural and personal value systems. Actual decisions about fishing and resource management rarely match the expectations of classical or neoliberal economic models of individual behaviour. I argue here that rational choice theory is a historically and culturally constructed discourse that becomes a taken-for-granted lens for viewing behaviour around the world. The effects of this discourse can be seen in the policies that are derived from them, as shown through this case study.

Keywords: conservation, discourse, economics, fishing, decisions, culture, Mexico

How to cite this article:
Peterson ND. Breaking the Bounds of Rationality: Values, Relationships, and Decision-making in Mexican Fishing Communities. Conservat Soc 2014;12:245-56

How to cite this URL:
Peterson ND. Breaking the Bounds of Rationality: Values, Relationships, and Decision-making in Mexican Fishing Communities. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2014 [cited 2020 Apr 6];12:245-56. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2014/12/3/245/145135

   Introduction Top

Anthropologists and others have been successful in showing how ideas about the natural and social world(s) vary across cultures, and shape people's perceptions and actions. Yet, as many scholars have demonstrated, some ideas, particularly those from Western cultures, have become default, taken-for-granted ways of understanding and representing the world, and that this has far reaching implications. For example, Escobar (1998: 55) argues that the concept of biodiversity has become a globally deployed discourse that "articulates a new relation between nature and society in global contexts of science, cultures, and economies." Other concepts about environmental management have also been critiqued for carrying with them troubling culturally-based assumptions (Luke 1995; Brosius 1999), including the definitions of community (Agrawal and Gibson 1999), neoliberal development (Wilshusen 2010), risk (Wynne 2002), and fire management (Mathews 2005), among others. Even the term conservation has become controversial, as researchers argue about whether or not non-intentional management actions count as conservation (Berkes and Turner 2006).

In this paper, I discuss the creation and management of Loreto Bay National Park in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. I examine a set of ideas that are widely used in environmental conservation programmes. I argue that these ideas linked to economic rationality, including selfishness and incentives, have become part of a hegemonic discourse. These ideas are used to justify conservation programmes and activities, by explaining why people act as they do and what kinds of programmes or policies might change their behaviour. In addition to asserting control over the behaviours of certain groups, these ideas marginalise other potential motives or values involved in environmental management and ignore alternative visions of relationships to nature.

In the creation and management of the Mexican national marine park, I have identified two sets of discourses about human behaviour regarding the management of nature. While these discourses are not entirely distinct, there are significant differences in how behaviours and motivations are understood and explained. One model, primarily in use by the marine park staff and those working with environmental organisations, relies on ideas about economic incentives and the choices of selfish individuals, similar to those found in rational choice theory. The other set of discourses, belonging to the fishermen and their families who work and reside within the park's boundaries, more closely resemble Granovetter's ideas of embeddedness (1985), in which relationships and other sets of non-economic values influence possible actions. This paper examines how the assumptions of individual economic rationality-particularly those that see the individual as the locus of decision-making and utility maximisation-dominate environmental policies and practices. I argue that rational choice theory, a set of historically and culturally specific ideas about behaviour, effectively silences any alternatives, such as those expressed by the residents of the area's fishing communities.

Drawing on critiques of rational choice theory, I argue that discourses about behaviour lead to assumptions and policies that do not match local experiences, expectations, or needs. Defining environmental issues as economic problems negates the social, cultural, and political contexts in which these issues develop, and ignores historical patterns of resource use, conflicts between competing resource users, and long-standing political and economic inequalities. In contrast, local community discourses present the challenges of management as an outcome of relationships and embedded action. In examining the contradictions within, and differences between, these discourses, I suggest that dominant models of behaviour that privilege economic rationality are insufficient for understanding the dynamics of conservation and development. This leads to an appreciation for how the underlying assumptions of economic models can come to dominate and simplify ideas about behaviour, as well as a critique of economic incentives in conservation. In addition, I present an alternative to this dominant model of conservation, built on ideas of the fishing communities themselves, studies of bounded rationality, and other alternatives to rational actor theories.

   Methodology Top

Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico

0 The Loreto area has been enmeshed in global markets for marine products since the colonial period, exporting goods like pearls, salt, shark livers, and scale fish (del Barco 1980; Crosby 1984; Peterson 2005). Many of these ventures can be characterised by cycles of booming production and resource exhaustion, in between each of which the local residents who worked in these industries returned to subsistence fishing and agriculture until the next industry boom. For example, fishing for sharks was a vibrant local industry until vitamin A was synthesised in a laboratory in the late 1940s and shark livers were no longer commercially valuable (Jordán 1995: 144). Similarly, pearl extraction industries would exhaust the oysters within their technological reach, and then leave the area until new equipment allowed them to reach deeper beds, as happened in the 1870s (Cariño and Monteforte 1999).

Over time, the Mexican government started playing a larger role in regulating natural resource uses through concessions and regulations. Government institutions like Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT; Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources) appeared in the 1980s and 1990s. However, resource extraction was still driven by market demands, monopoly-driven markets, and low monetary values placed on the products, which encouraged greater fishing effort to meet basic needs (Vásquez-León 2012). In addition, government agencies like SEMARNAT and Comisión Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca (CONAPESCA; National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing) competed for control over the resources, reflecting differences in how the resources were understood and managed. Specific patterns of institutional and organisational relations emerged out of this history of resource management and continue to shape management decisions and institutions (Peterson 2010).

In the Loreto area, several groups have long histories of using marine resources, including commercial fishermen and tourism businesses. Commercial fishing employs a majority of residents outside of the town of Loreto, as well as some non-local fishermen. Local fishermen primarily use nets or line to fish, depending on the season and on individuals (some prefer line to prevent by-catch). A small number engage in illegal spearfishing. Non-local fishermen also arrive in small groups to camp in the area or on large sardine or shrimp boats that fish in the area. Tourism became an important local industry starting in the 1970s, and has largely focused on sport fishing. Tourism interests include recreational (tourism) fishing outfits, hotels, or restaurants in the Loreto area that cater to tourists, and many expatriate and seasonally resident US and Canadian citizens.

Conflicts between fishermen and tourism owners over shared fish species and access to geographical areas have been common. Currently, the fisheries are in decline and tourism is growing-although tourism has also suffered from global recessions, drug violence, and events like 9/11 that alter demand (for evidence of fisheries decline, see Sala et al. 2004). Yet these two industries are crucial for local livelihoods, and both depend on marine products that often enter global markets in one way or another.

Loreto Bay National Park

The Loreto Bay National Park (LBNP) is a marine protected area that includes 206,580 ha of the Gulf of California just off the coast of the town of Loreto, extending north and south to include the fishing areas of several small fishing communities as well as the beaches and islands used by fishermen, tourists, and others. The park was established in 1996 by presidential decree in response to petitions from Loreto-area residents (primarily those involved in tourism interests) who wanted to halt what they felt were damaging fishing practices in that part of the Gulf of California.

I have been studying the Loreto area since 2001, using anthropological methods of participant observation, interviews, and surveys. From 2001 to 2003, I split my time between the offices of the LBNP and the fishing communities, observing their work and patterns of interactions, as well as conducting formal and informal interviews. I attended many meetings about the management of the LBNP during this period. I interviewed most of those involved in its creation about the local history and reasons for requesting the marine park. I also spoke with most tourism fishing business owners, many of whom were heavily involved in the marine park meetings over the years. Since 2003, I have returned to Loreto almost every other year, with an increased focus on the fishing communities. The research thus covers these different groups, many of whom have somewhat distinct spheres of activity and culture. Yet these groups share concerns about the policies and programmes of the LBNP, and I use my data to examine their ideas and beliefs, and the ways these intersect to create the LBNP policies and programmes.

Both commercial and tourism fishing groups have a stake in the LBNP. The tourism business owners spearheaded the campaign to create the LBNP. Some of these owners are also environmentalists, involved in local or international campaigns and organisations that aim to protect the local natural environment. Other environmentalists also have an interest in the area, and include local residents (US citizens and Mexicans), non-local Mexican and US scientists working in the biological or ecological sciences, and non-local environmentally-focused NGOs working with local groups, like The Nature Conservancy.

The variety of fishermen who live in the town of Loreto or in nearby communities largely fish in the area that is now the LBNP, and many have lived and fished in the area for their entire lives. This group is also the weakest politically and economically, as many live day to day on what they can earn from fishing. As with the other groups, the fishermen are a heterogeneous group, with diverse interests that often follow their style of fishing and involvement in tourism. What unites this group is that they depend on commercial fishing for their livelihood. Non-local fishermen were not included in the LBNP discussions or management, but are still important for understanding some of the dynamics surrounding the park because of their impact on the resources (Peterson 2011).

Another set of local actors are the marine park staff members, which include biologists, environmentalists, and some former commercial fishermen from Baja California Sur and other states. The park staff mediates the different interests of the various actors through group and individual meetings, and is central to the creation and implementation of the park policies and programmes. The marine park bureaucracy saw its mandate as based in local desire for the marine park, and the means for fulfilling this firmly based in ecological science. Bureaucrats in Mexico City from SEMARNAT and Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP; National Commission of Natural Protected Areas) are also important for the LBNP, but affect the park primarily through interactions with the marine park staff.

The creation of the LBNP intensified the antagonisms between tourism and fishing interests. As I argue elsewhere (Peterson 2011), the marine park, particularly the management planning process, became another arena for asserting control over the local resources through excluding certain uses and users. This can be seen in the debate about what to regulate in the marine park; sport fishermen involved in tourism, for example, almost always wanted more controls placed on commercial fishing, particularly for those species they fish in common. Similarly, old disagreements, such as territorial disputes, were often transformed into arguments about the marine park and its regulations. Reasons for excluding or regulating certain users varied depending primarily on the industry sector to which the speaker belonged. Underlying almost all of these arguments was the idea that some parties were incapable of properly controlling their use of resources, and as a consequence, would destroy the local ecology.

Overfishing was overwhelmingly seen by most Loretanos as the park's primary problem. The discussions about managing the park went beyond who was to blame for overfishing to focus on why others continued to overfish and how to stop this. People often implicitly drew on ideas about other people's potential to negatively affect the resource: whether by ignorance, desperation, need, or desire. Most tourism operators, scientists, and government officials believed that commercial fishing was responsible for depleting the fish stocks. They wanted to know why commercial fishermen overfished and what could be done to stop this. They presumed that individual self-interest led to overfishing and proposed regulations-in the form of a marine protected area-as a solution to this 'tragedy of the commons' (Hardin 1968).

For example, the president of a local environmental NGO argued that the local commercial fishermen would take what they could to pre-empt other fishermen from doing the same. Many local people viewed vigilance as a preventative policing activity: "Vigilance of the park is like having the police on the streets to prevent robberies; if there are no police, then there will be crimes" (interview with Loreto-area environmentalist, 2002). Other environmentalists explained that fishermen lacked initiative, took no responsibilities for their illegal overexploitation of resources, and lacked cooperation and unity to create a means for changing this. "They choose to overfish," as one environmentalist claimed. To prevent this choice, environmentalists pushed for stronger regulations and enforcement. Their proposals drew on management theories developed from Hardin's 'tragedy of the commons' and other collective action problems, which support increased government regulation and private ownership (for a critique of these, see Ostrom 1990). By focusing on individual economic rationality, this approach creates a management emphasis on individual motivations and behaviours (McCay and Jentoft 1998). This theory has had a significant impact on how local resource problems are framed and handled.

Different fishermen claimed various reasons for the local ecological situation. Many blamed migratory fishermen who fished in the area after exhausting the resources in their own states or areas. A few explained that the industrial sardine fishing was responsible for depleting the local population of food for larger fish. Other fishermen focused on the difficulties of protecting migratory fish in a small area and of monitoring projects that can assess what can be sustainably fished. Some fishermen claimed that nets were a problem because fishermen could not control what they caught, contrasting this with (illegal) spearfishing (buzo or pistolear) that allowed them to be 'choosy' in their work. Overall, fishermen recognised their own impact on the area, but preferred to lay heavier blame on other kinds of fishing.

For all of these groups, control through regulation was a solution for a lack of temperance by those too shortsighted to moderate their own desires for fish. These assumptions are central ideas of economic rationality-that behaviour is a result of individual effort (or lack thereof), and that unchecked, individuals will inevitably try to maximise short-term utility at the expense of long-term sustainability (Fletcher 2010). While those I interviewed believed that they themselves were able to resist maximising their behaviour in the service of ethical or financial long-term interests, they did not see the same kind of restraint from others.

The park was thus conceived as a way to mediate the unfettered self-interest of others (which was paradigmatically opposed, of course, to its supporters' own measured and properly controlled self-interests), with the management plan providing regulations that would enforce this. Depending on the user's perspective, these rules would improve resource amounts, benefit local communities, or restrict options for commercial fishermen. Regulations were therefore about both possibilities (for improving resources and community) and constraints (on work). The staff of the LBNP also implemented educational and economic development programmes as a way to encourage fishermen to conserve the local environment.

   Argument Top

Regulating the Loreto Bay National Park

The Loreto national marine park was created on a model of natural resource management drawn from work by environmental environmentalists and biologists around the world (PNBL 2000). Its conservation goal, as outlined in the park decree, is sustainable use of the resources and sustainable development, with a primary concern for the value of endemic species and maintaining ecological balance (DOF 1996). To this end, the decree states that the only permitted activities are those that are related to preserving the aquatic ecosystems and their elements. The original focus of the park was eliminating activities that did not contribute to the ecological value of the area. The term value is borrowed from economic models as a way to bring attention to the non-economic benefits of the environment, while still using a core idea of economic rationality, and is broadly defined to be the benefit of the area for general ecosystem health, as indicated by species diversity and populations.

The initial management plan was written in 1998 by biologists in La Paz, the state capital a few hours away, and restricted almost all uses of the area because of the perceived damage caused by them, leaving most people unable to use the resources. Especially for the tourism businesses that had supported the marine park, this was a great disappointment, as they had not expected that their own activities would be so severely regulated by the park. The outrage of the tourism sector led to the production of a second version of the plan in 2000. According to LBNP staff members, the second version was drafted after meetings between the park staff and local resource users in Loreto, including tourism businesses and fishermen. These discussions led to a greater appreciation for local challenges faced by fishermen, including the volatility of fishing markets, an arcane and poorly enforced permit system, and competition from non-Loreto residents fishing in the area. The proposed solution was three-fold: regulations, Loreto-area fishing permits, and economic development projects.

Local permits, long supported by most in the local fishing communities, would restrict fishing in the area, eliminating outsiders who had been known to fish in the area with general Mexican permits. In essence, local permits would lead to a form of privatisation of the fisheries by giving control of certain marine areas to certain groups. While there were no plans to subdivide the area further, the privatisation was another of Hardin's solutions to this 'tragedy of the commons', still based on the ideas of individual utility maximisation. Specifically, here the assumption was that local actors would be motivated to properly regulate the usage of their immediate environment lest they fish themselves out of a livelihood (which would not be a strong motivation for outsiders who could just move on to the next fertile fishing grounds).

The second management plan elaborates the themes from the original decree, of conservation and protection of the area and the advantage of economic development alongside conservation. Like the 1998 document, this plan specifically discusses the local characteristics that give scenic, scientific, educational, and recreational value to the area and that had favoured the development of tourism and fisheries there (PNBL 2000: 3). The general objective of the marine park in this plan is stated thus: "to define and establish strategies and mechanisms of management that permit the preservation of renewable and non-renewable natural resources present in the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto and to restore the critical environments, promoting social development of the communities of the area" (PNBL 2000: 13; my translation). Fishing communities in this plan are discussed as wanting to protect the natural resources and give up environmentally damaging practices, as part of the justification for the marine park (PNBL 2000: 8). The plan includes economic and social development as a goal, suggesting that alternatives to fishing could encourage support for conservation, suggesting a new move to integrate conservation and economic development (McShane and Wells 2004). However, this aspect is left unspecified in the document. More specific objectives include developing regulations for adequate development of sustainable industries, scientific investigations to identify and solve management problems, environmental education that involves local communities in conservation, and inspection and vigilance of the area to enforce rules and maintain security, with the help of local communities (PNBL 2000: 14).

In the 2000 management plan, local fishing communities are primarily discussed with respect to overfishing and its solutions. Commercial fishing is discussed with particular attention to the possible causes of overexploitation, including chinchorro nets used on the seafloor, both purse seines and drifting nets; illegal diving and spearfishing; bycatch of juveniles; and fishermen from other states who "look to maximise their earnings in as little time as possible" (PNBL 2000: 40). These problems are those that the management plan intended to resolve through rules governing specific marine zones, based on ecosystem boundaries and current uses of an area. The plan also discusses the overexploitation and decrease in the natural resources with high commercial value, such as snapper, bass, grouper, clam, and shark (PNBL 2000: 40). While only outside fishermen are explicitly given motives of profit maximisation, the focus of the section is on economic values, rather than aesthetic, social, or cultural values (see also Stern 2010). The absence of discussion about the specific characteristics of the local economy or its drivers reveals a lack of interest in motives for fishing and a reliance on standard assumptions of selfish, profit-maximising, 'tragedy of the commons' behaviours. In contrast, the tourism industry is characterised as 'low-impact' and even beneficial to the local economy, with a focus on its ecological and recreational values, ignoring the economic values that can lead tourism businesses to ignore regulations such as catch limits (which only receive a brief note in the management plan). The model in use by the marine park thus relies on the expectation that potentially problematic behaviour (of commercial fishermen) is motivated by self-interest and money, which should be controlled through regulations and penalties for breaking these rules. Because the fishermen were seen to be the problem, they were to be the ones regulated.

However, despite this period of discussion and its revised focus, the second management plan was also poorly received by local residents, leading to another round of discussions and formal meetings for a third draft. By the time I arrived in July 2001, the groups were scheduled to meet again and make more changes to the draft plan. After the meetings ended, the unedited and contradictory recommendations were sent to Mexico City, where SEMARNAT would use them to create the new management plan. I planned to be back in Loreto in the fall of 2001, and hoped to see how the plan was introduced to the communities. However, it was to be another year and a half before the plan was finally published in January 2003, due to poorly understood administrative delays in Mexico City.

Many fishermen believed that the resulting plan would be the first one in Mexico to include rules from fishermen. These rules would include protecting certain areas by not fishing at certain times (April to July), and not fishing yellowtail north of Carmen Island for a year, to complete a study. Vigilance was a major preoccupation for the fishermen, and they expected the marine park regulations to make their own activities legal, while prosecuting illegal fishing and outsiders. Several fishermen suggested that, as it had done with the shrimp trawlers, the marine park might also be able to halt poaching (guaterismo). Their experiences also led them to believe that further negotiation of the marine park management would be possible.

In the meantime, in the absence of a published plan tailored to the LBNP, the marine park staff was expected to manage the area by enforcing federal laws. How they did this changed over time, reflecting both difficulties in enforcing the laws (discussed in detail in Peterson 2010) and shifting perceptions of the management needs of the area, including changing ideas about the fishermen and their motives.

A comparison of the 2000 (PNBL 2000) and 2003 versions (DOF 2003) of the management plan reveals few changes, and modifications only serve to increase protected or restricted areas, including newly protected seamount areas. Rules concerning permits and authorisations in the 2003 version were also quite similar to those in the 2000 plan, and primarily involved re-distribution of some permits to new agencies (in the case of commercial fishing) and changed some permits into authorisations or concessions. A small change in wording also allowed aquaculture projects to proceed with or without local community fishermen, while the 2000 version required their involvement (Rule 66, Chapter X (2000) or XI (2003).

Writing the regulations for the marine park was thus a multi-stage process that involved negotiating with various groups about their perspectives and beliefs, many of which included ideas about the causes of the fisheries decline. Beliefs about causes, motives, and behaviours became part of the management plan through this process and influenced local marine policy, with the idea of the 'tragedy of the commons' and the presumptive selfish rationality of individual actors having particularly strong impact on the resulting policies.

The marine park in practice: education and capacity-building projects

In addition to regulating marine resource use through rules, the marine park staff created educational programmes and economic alternatives to fishing, both of which also reveal assumptions about behaviour, motives, and values. Educational activities included working with local people to communicate the reasons for the marine park, specifically the deteriorating marine environment, and inform them of the regulations affecting the area, including both federal laws and new rules specific to the LBNP. Economic development incentives for local people have become popular tools for conservation in what are called integrated conservation and development (ICDP) projects (McShane and Wells 2004). In the case of the LBNP, the marine park began working with local fishermen to develop alternatives to commercial fishing, such as tropical aquarium fish export and clam aquaculture. While these new industries were still based in marine resource use, they were seen as less exploitative of natural resources, and thus more in line with the conservation goals of the marine park. In addition, the hope was that fishermen would move to these more lucrative industries, giving other resources time to recover naturally.

These education and development activities drew upon ideas of rational choice theory. Initial educational efforts, which included discussions about the development of the 2000 management plan, were intended to inform fishermen about their impact on the local ecology, under the assumption that this knowledge would lead to different decisions about resource use (see Vásquez-León 2012 for a similar case). This idea is in line with the assumption in rational choice theory that more information will change behaviour from selfish maximisation to rational evaluation of the environmental costs (MacDonald and Corson 2012). Several environmentalists and tourism owners argued that the fishermen needed to learn how to use the resources sustainably, and to understand the impact of commercial fishing on the environment. The conservationists and tourism operators especially focused on the 'falta de educación' or ignorance of the fishermen as a cause of their overharvesting of species. In these cases, the proposed solution was to offer educational programmes that would have an impact on younger members of the communities even if, as many thought, the older generation was too set in its ways to change. Education in and of itself was viewed as the solution to resource use issues, particularly when ecological models were so strongly grounded in questions of the 'tragedy of the commons,' for which communication is often seen as an important solution (Ostrom 1990).

However, as the marine park staff learned, understanding the impact of fisheries was not the problem. The fishermen were well aware of the decline of fish populations and the role of fishing in it. Over the years, the staff members shifted their focus from assumptions of selfish maximisation stemming from ignorance to understanding the complex relationships between fishing, markets, and educational opportunities. After learning more about the fishermen and their knowledge of the area, the marine park became interested in creating alternatives to fishing, and the kinds of education needed for that.

The view that economic development can help serve protected areas around the world has increased in popularity over the past few decades. The ICDP model assumes that when profits are available from other sources, economic incentives will shift local actors' focus away from exploiting natural resources for profit. In the LBNP, economic development projects emerged as a primary form of interaction between the marine park and the fishing communities. Beyond workshops that helped the fishermen form cooperatives that would allow them to acquire newly required fishing permits, the staff also began working to bring alternatives to fishing into the communities. As the park director said, he felt guilty for taking away resources from the fishermen, and felt the park had a role in supporting these communities.

Over the next few years, the marine park supported several different kinds of projects managed by people in the fishing communities. Of special note were aquaculture and tropical fish export projects, which were thought to be less intensive uses of the area's resources, especially given that their products fetch higher market prices. Using their expertise as biologists, staff members were able to provide technical support to several projects, and also helped some groups find funding for equipment and other needs. While slightly more nuanced than the idea that the fishermen's actions stem from a lack of knowledge, this model interprets the fishermen as trapped within economic constraints that determine fishing behaviour. Development programmes like these often focus on replacing lost income rather than curbing selfishness, with the emphasis often on purely economic motives. For the marine park staff, the fishermen were still simply following an economic rationality.

Education was seen as the solution for both cases-teaching fishermen about their resources or training them for new jobs. The basic assumption of the marine park, conservationists, and tourism operators about the fishing communities was that the fishermen were not interested in, or capable of, conserving or 'successfully managing' the natural resources, and that they required help to do so. The assumption was that fishermen needed to be educated about the long-term economic and non-economic values of the natural resources or given economic incentives to compensate their 'lost' economic value, despite lifetimes of ecological knowledge (including an awareness of the unsustainability of the fisheries) and a long history of moving to new employment. The park staff's ideas about fishermen behaviours, their focus on profit motives, incentives for conservation, and alternative employment opportunities are evidence that models of economic rationality dependent on ideas of selfishness and economic value dominate policy decisions (MacDonald 2010). These projects are more than just exercises of power over the fishermen-they assert the priority of economic rationality over other forms of motives or values.

Despite their popularity, overall these kinds of combined ICDPs have had limited success (Wells et al. 2004; Sunderland et al. 2008). Often, this is due to overly optimistic goals, problematic assumptions, unconvincing local participation, uncertain financial sustainability, low benefit generation, or donor demands for rapid success. In addition, many of the projects appear to have misidentified the threats to the resources (Wells et al. 2004). Recent work dismisses the possibilities for the win-win solutions that characterised earlier viewpoints, and instead focuses on trade-offs, gains and losses (Hirsch et al. 2011; McShane et al. 2011). However, "the trade-offs concept can itself be applied in ways that oversimplify or obscure important issues," (Hirsch et al. 2011: 260), often by reducing costs and benefits to simple economic values.

ICDPs are often critiqued for their (primary) focus on economics at the exclusion of other values. For example, they often focus on a specific kind of value of nature, envisioned as ecosystems services in their current form, but under a variety of guises historically (Tallis et al. 2008). The idea is that the environment is undervalued, and that to protect or conserve it, one should emphasise the monetary value that it has (Brown et al. 2002). Ecosystem services, for example, are a way to understand the value of nature for providing specific kinds of benefits. In one review of World Bank projects with this component, two criteria for success are suggested: payments for nature become motivation for conservation behaviours, and markets are also created for the products (Tallis et al. 2008). Both of these criteria are focused on income in exchange for conservation, and higher income is a specific marker of success for the projects discussed.

However, assigning economic value to natural resources leads to the reclassification of nature as a set of commodities or goods, and appears to be a symptom of a global discourse McAfee (1999) calls a "post-neoliberal environment-economic paradigm" spread by efforts in sustainable development or similar "green developmentalism" projects (McAfee 1999; see also Campagna and Fernandez 2007). McAfee argues that this discourse abstracts nature from its context in the process of putting it on the market as a commodity. Ironically, under neoliberal policies and practices, the environment enters the global market (Castree 2008) at the same time that conservationists claim to be protecting it from capitalism (Igoe and Brockington 2007).

In reviewing World Bank projects, like the article mentioned above, McAfee (1999) sees a similar interest in pro-growth policies that create international markets that can increase efficient allocations of resources and value, primarily through capital exchange. Yet for McAfee (1999), this use of market and capital to conserve nature creates a set of ideas about nature that divorces it from the context of meanings, knowledge, and values, and leaves only economic market values. The World Bank, as a dominant economic power, creates a powerful discourse about what nature is and how it can be used, as seen in McAfee's (1999) analysis of the biases of how benefits are defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity.

In imposing economic ideas of value on nature, economic discourses are also given greater credence and power. In particular, those who interact with nature are brought into this market-based narrative and assigned certain motivations and behaviours. These people become eco-rational subjects who value nature in specific ways (Goldman 2001); incorrect values can lead to criminalisation (Igoe and Brockington 2007). Economic values thus become the only acceptable way to understand and interact with the environment, ignoring other ways to understand, appreciate, and use the environment. As Vásquez-León (2012) argues, neoliberalism in Mexican fisheries has emphasised the exploitation of natural resources through policies of privatisation, regulation, and an emphasis on tourism. The result has been a neglect of local economic development efforts.

Solutions to perceived degradation then rely on simplifications and flawed solutions (Leach et al. 1999) like rules, education, and ICDPs that devalue local knowledge (Fay 2007) and institutions (Berkes et al. 1989). Market competition becomes the dominant model and the expectation for behaviour (Harvey 2005; Büscher and Dressler 2007). These kinds of discourses create a context in which economic cost-benefit analyses dominate discussions (Hajer 1995; Fletcher 2010). Ideas of expertise (Mitchell 2002) and unequal structural relationships (Fortwangler 2007) contribute to the continued dominance of this model over environments and people. As a result, other motives and values are ignored.

There are thus repercussions for relying on a model of economic rationality to explain behaviour and suggest solutions. In viewing overfishing as an economic problem with an economic solution (rules with fines, education, and development, all understood as responding to profit motives), a whole host of situational factors is erased from consideration (Stern 2010). These include the Mexican government's long history of exporting natural resources and access to them, political inequalities and corruption, and the market monopolies for fishing and other goods (Young 2001). The problem becomes one of individual fishermen following economic needs, rather than a system of relationships and inequalities with long histories and wide-ranging effects. Following Ferguson (1990), we might argue that in the Loreto case, overfishing is designated as a technical problem (too much fishing), caused by poverty, which can be remedied by economic development. I would suggest that economic solutions are now often offered up as easily as technical solutions once were, and that the same kinds of mystifications are involved. Conservation, in becoming an economic problem, misses the greater context in which nature and humans interact.

An alternative view

The fishermen and their families often (though not always) understand the management issues, educational programmes, and alternatives to fishing in a way that is different from that of the conservationists, tourism business people, and marine park staff. The response of many fishermen to the management plan drafts was outrage. Many believed the LBNP was another attempt by the recreational fishermen to remove them from the area. As one fisherman said, "they want us to disappear." Even later versions of the plan were unpopular with the fishermen because they eliminated many of their fishing grounds and restricted the use of nets. Already struggling to make a living, fishermen saw new restrictions as an increased burden on their precarious economic situation. However, over time, meetings with the marine park staff created greater agreement with the goals and policies of the LBNP. "Over coffee," as one park staff member said, fishermen and staff members began to understand each other. As a result of these meetings, the park staff began working to get local permits for the fishermen. The latter generally liked the proposed permit system as they saw it as a way to exclude non-local fishermen and improve their own ability to receive government support. Local fishermen also saw non-local fishermen as a larger issue than the regulations, which some of them supported believing that there was a need to better manage marine resources.

Yet even so, there is still the issue of why the fishermen take so many fish from the sea. In contrast to discussions about the 'tragedy of the commons', none of the fishermen said they were taking more fish for economic gain. Very few, if any, fishermen were becoming rich by fishing. Their standard of living was increasing over time, but not dramatically, and often because of other employment. While many enjoyed a life on the sea, several actually said that they did not want to fish. I heard repeatedly from fishermen that "fishing is not a life." In this case, fishermen are not maximising their profits by taking as much as they can to earn excess income.

While many scientists, environmentalists, and others talk about selfishness or choice, the fishermen themselves argue that they catch the amounts they do because otherwise, they cannot afford the gasoline, oil, and equipment needed to continue fishing in addition to their household needs for food, clothing, and transportation. Prices for the fish they catch are low, in part due to the market relationships. Fish buyers pay little to the fishermen, fish markets pay less for the fish, and so on. One fisherman claimed that "buyers offering higher prices were run out of town," while others emphasised the constant problems with their current buyers. The choice in this case needs to be seen as distributed over an entire market, rather than in an individual's choices. Fishermen's options, in terms of pay and income, depended in large part on someone else.

From what many told me, fisherman fished to put food on the table. A small community survey in 2003 suggested that fishing incomes, which range from MXN 400-600 pesos per week, could barely cover household expenses (Peterson 2005). It was a more or less steady source of income, even if it was not going to make someone rich. Produce or income from agriculture is seasonal and risky (Vásquez-León 2012); many fishermen moved from agricultural areas to fish, and local desert-like environments also discouraged farming. Winter was often slow for fishing, but fishermen were able to go out a few times a week and bring in something to eat or sell. Ranching was another option for some people, though required a large investment in animals and extensive areas of grazing land in the desert. The fishermen saw their behaviour as rational within the options they had, and as self-preservation, not selfishness.

However, the fishermen were concerned about the marine park's ability to enforce their rules and obtain the permits for the fishermen. For many fishermen and their families, the marine park staff seemed constrained by their relationships with other agencies and places, unable to do their jobs. One fisherman claimed that "politics was to blame," in that the relationships between political parties or political actors made enforcement or other activities of the marine park impossible to complete. In their eyes, the marine park staff was caught in webs of relationships that constrained their actions, rather than that the marine park staff was acting out of individual interest or economic greed. Several fishermen expressed disappointment that the park staff were effectively "powerless," as they had hoped to see "a change in local government" that might allow for more local control of, and access to, both marine and economic resources. Ultimately, the fishermen saw the marine park's inability to regulate as a result of its relationships to other agencies, or its location in a specific political landscape. These differences also appear in how the fishermen understood two of the other projects of the park-education and economic development.

The fishermen, contrary to claims by many scientists and environmentalists, felt that although they knew the area and its problems quite well, scientists and environmentalists systematically ignored their knowledge. The fishing families did think that education would help them, but they felt that education for their children was the only way to escape the fishing economy. Few saw any future in fishing. Instead, education was an opportunity to acquire skills, credentials, and networks needed to move into non-fishing employment. Some students, almost entirely women, have completed high school and college or training courses and have begun to work in tourism, education, or other kinds of jobs in Loreto or other towns. However, many young people with high school degrees married young and remain in the community, fishing or married to fishermen. Some educated women are finding new opportunities within the community as teachers, store or restaurant owners, or government representatives, but most are still dependent on fishing for some or most of their incomes.

In addition, the fishermen and their families were searching for alternatives to fishing as well, though their ideas about the alternatives reveal a different set of values and motives than the economic ones proposed by the marine park staff and others. They also saw economic development projects as a chance to make connections with other groups-new relationships that might bring new, better livelihoods.

Tourism promises a larger income, but the fishermen do not believe it provides stable, year-round work (see also Vásquez-León 2012). Nor does it employ many of the community members, who lack many of the specialised skills, like English competence and computer skills, required for this work. Some women work in the kitchens of hotels, preparing meals for the workers or, rarely, tourists, and a few young people work as waiters, gardeners, or in maintenance. For a while, many local community members helped construct the newest resort; however, completion of construction meant that all of the labourers were no longer required. During my visit in 2011, many awaited the inevitable news that they were to be let go. Meanwhile, the hotel hired new people to work with customers, bringing them in from Loreto or other cities in Mexico. The owner suggested that community members were just not capable of the work he needed at the price he offered. In my discussions with the hotel owner and those who have left his employ, it is clear that the community residents were unhappy working for the hotel, either because of pay, overwork, or high expectations. The labourers have returned to fishing and some of the temporary workers have stayed in the community to fish as well.

Some people in the community claim that the opportunities to work in the hotel are not worth it, even for the amount of money it provides. Most had eagerly anticipated the jobs a large resort would offer, but after several years, had become disillusioned. Guards and workers returned to fishing even before their jobs were eliminated. Women working in the kitchen often left if their husbands were fishing. From their descriptions of their experiences and reasons for leaving, it seems that several issues prevented employment from being satisfying for them. First of all, experiences with the new hotel must be understood in the context of those with the previous employment options. The larger hotel was built on the land once owned by a couple from the United States that ran a small boutique hotel. This had provided steady work for some women and a few men for almost 10 years. These owners had been generous in their wages, and had ensured that many families had at least one person working at the hotel through a rotating work schedule; others in the community sold handicrafts at the hotel. Known by their first names, the owners had come to community celebrations and had provided help with medical care and other problems. Most in Playa Tranquila had considered them members of the community, and were heartbroken when they sold the hotel and left the area.

In contrast, the new owner was barely known to those who worked for him, let alone their families. The hotel, both in the relationships with the owner and its physical fence separating it from the community, was seen as distinct from the fishing community. A new road between the hotel and the highway bypasses the community entirely. The community expectations were not met by the newest addition to the community, making this relationship unworkable for many. Given that many discussed the hotel in terms of these relationships, we see that these, and the expectations surrounding them, are central for understanding some of the employment decisions in the community.

In addition, a major complaint about the new hotel were the wages, which were low compared to those paid by the boutique hotel owners. Previously, women who worked at the boutique hotel had been able to invest in their homes, adding cement walls and floors, used appliances, and indoor plumbing. Current wages at the hotel were not sufficient to meet household needs, leading families to pool resources like housing, food, and transportation. Like fishing, incomes were not leading to excess money, and this was particularly difficult after a period of relative wealth. Finally, the hotel was also criticised for the treatment of labourers. Several women in the kitchen fell ill, and many interpreted their problems as caused by lifting massive pots, heat in the kitchen, falls from slick floors, or general exhaustion caused by overwork.

During my interviews over the years, fishermen and others have proposed potential employment opportunities, ranging from trash services to worker-owned squid processing plants. Many women have started their own home-based businesses, which some have turned into international enterprises (Peterson 2014). Unfortunately, the proposals have never gotten permits or funding support, and the women's businesses provide only supplemental income to the household. Other opportunities, such as aquaculture or tropical fish exporting, provide sporadic and small incomes as well, and are unlikely to feed a family. Fishermen and their families, except in very rare cases, are unable to find work that meets household needs.

In the case of Playa Tranquila, we see that fishing is relatively stable and provides for some household needs compared to other local opportunities, and most residents are unable to acquire other employment for a variety of reasons. In other cases, employment does not meet expectations set by previous employers, either in terms of relationships or wages, leaving employees dissatisfied and likely to leave, unless they are let go first. In this case we see that ICDPs, when they assume primarily economic motives for fishing and employment, miss many of the other values and motives assigned to occupations. In the case of Playa Tranquila, the fishermen and their families are also looking for stability, the ability to support their families, respect, and longer-term relationships. The decisions of the fishermen were rational, but not entirely driven by economic values of profit maximisation.

Instead of seeing their behaviour as maximising gains for themselves, fishermen saw their activities as one of very few options for providing basic needs for their families. There was no choice involved, as nothing else would work. In addition, any 'tragedy of the commons' was not due to individual greed, but the structures and relationships of a larger market that minimised fish prices and maximised the cost of gasoline and other expenses, including food (Young 2001). Their exchanges of labour were also governed by relationships, rather than profit motives. In many cases, fishermen and their families used local and non-local social networks as a way to acquire resources for small businesses or medical needs, such as the local norm of using a raffle to raise money for hospital stays, or asking the marine park to intercede in issues of electricity or employment. Those in the fishing community do not see their barriers as economic or their futures in terms of profits, but in terms of relationships and the opportunities that might come from these, such as new jobs that might provide a more stable livelihood for themselves or their children.

This view corresponds to some of the theoretical ideas of bounded rationality, which has developed in part as a response to rational actor models of individuals as utility maximisers (Hastie 2001; also see review in the Introduction to this special section). Bounded rationality is an alternative that recognises, based on real-world observations and studies, that decision-making occurs in response to the social context, limits of human knowledge and processing, and multiple motives and values (Zsambok and Klein 1997; Kelly and Karau 1999; Hastie 2001; Ortiz 2005; Strauss 2008).

Psychologists, anthropologists, and others have used critiques of rational choice theory to argue for alternatives to this as a means for understanding behaviour. These have included cultural transmission (Henrich 2002), goal-focused theories (Krantz and Kunreuther 2007), distributed cognition (Hutchins 1995), and social embeddedness (Beckert 2003). Each of these attempts to address the limits of rational choice theory with regard to the individual basis of behaviour, selfishness, the lack of context, and utility maximisation, each in different ways. My argument here has been that a focus on the selfish, maximising individual as the locus of decision-making is problematic, and one discourse among many regarding individual or group behaviour. These other theoretical frames address some of these criticisms. The two I find most compelling in terms of the case above are those of distributed cognition and social embeddedness. Distributed cognition approaches cognition, such as decision-making, as a product of people within a sociocultural and technological context. From this approach, I have been able to model decisions as based on contexts, habits, and relationships (Peterson 2010). Social embeddedness also emphasises the role of relationships and social networks in behaviour, drawing on Granovetter's (1985) work with weak ties and embeddedness. This approach calls for examining the meaning of action, rather than its optimality, in a particular context. These embedded meanings are shared with others, at least in part, and based in habits, practical consciousness (Giddens 1984), or tacit knowledge (Beckert 2003). In this case, interpretation and intersubjectivity are crucial elements of the decision. The importance of relationships also indicates that other values that affect decision-making-values of connectedness, well-being, and fulfilment-that get lost in economic analyses.

These criticisms are not new in anthropology. Douglas argues that Mauss's influential The gift is itself a "plank against English utilitarianism," (1992: 156) which privileges the utility of exchange. Mauss himself believed that the concept of economic interest is a modern creation (Hirschman 1973 in Douglas 1992), but that individuals do have interests that interact in various exchanges, outside of those of the market. Mauss's examples were of gift exchanges, which appear very different from those of Playa Tranquila's engagement with fisheries. Yet at the centre of each are relationships that create possibilities beyond those imagined by utility maximisation theories. And in documenting alternative exchange relations, Mauss is challenging the primacy of the kind of economic and political models of his day, which still remain pervasive in ours. Mauss did not talk about dominant or alternative discourses, but argued nonetheless that these models were not representative of how all societies work. My point here is that this universality of utility maximisation is assumed in many places, and that the consequences can be problematic.

These ideas from bounded rationality and anthropology mimic some of the ideas expressed by the fishermen and their families about their experiences, and suggest some potential directions for new research and theories of behaviour. Taken together with bounded rationality, they also suggest that rational choice theory is only one discourse among many, despite its dominance in policy contexts. As I suggested earlier, fishermen used an alternative model to rational choice for explaining their own behaviour. They did talk about selfish maximisation when talking about other people who they thought were behind the local resource degradation. In some contexts or for some topics, individual rational actor models are used, and it is likely that these two models coexist for the fishermen, and may be dependent on the context or topic. It is also possible that rational choice theory will replace their own model in some, or even all, situations.

Some might argue that community ideas of choice are still rational, and I agree with this. However, community members do not choose to overfish in the way that rational choice theory proposes, as selfish individual maximisers. Yet environmentalists, government officials, and the marine park staff use assumptions and ideas from rational choice theory to explain the behaviour of the fishermen and others, and then create policies and programmes from these ideas, while ignoring other 'choices' in the local system, such as those to set low prices for local fish. At this point, these policies appear at best ineffective, and have lead the marine park to change their strategies over time. However, misunderstanding fishermen motivations has also prevented the marine park staff from identifying potentially more successful strategies. Rather than focus on disincentivising fishing through regulations and fines on fishermen, other more strategic places could be regulated, such as the market relationships that determine fish prices.

   Conclusion Top

Choice, if you'll pardon a feeble fishing pun, is a red herring. Discussing individual choices will miss the ways that behaviours and what we call choice interact with a larger context of relationships with employers and government agencies, markets for fish and labour, and the marine park policies, to name but a few. To model behaviours and motives as entirely focused on selfish utility maximisation is to ignore different ideas of value, exchange, and decision making, and other influences on decisions. This case adds another perspective to our understanding of the economic models that dominate our society and others-the ways these models drive economic, environmental, and social policies. In many ways, models of economic rationality are increasing the marginalisation of people like those in Playa Tranquila, both by justifying neoliberal control over local resources, and by delegitimising their own ideas about the environment and livelihoods (see Cruz-Torres 2001).

Instead of focusing on economic incentives, this case suggests a focus on relationships, both in terms of what they can provide (through social networks, entitlements, etc.), and the limitations they can create through things like market pricing and monopolies, as well as how relationships are perceived in light of both of these, such as in the case of the new hotel. In any case, local understandings of opportunities and limitations are based on how relationships function, rather than any assessment of financial benefits for the individual. In some sense, this brings us back to a more traditional anthropological or political economic focus on economic systems as relations of exchange-deeply social ways to get and share resources. There is little space in modern ideas of orthodox economics for decisions and motives beyond that of the selfish individual. In recognising the value of relationships for the fishing families, the focus is on the ways that opportunities and rewards are predicated on connections beyond those of the individual, and that individual motives and incentives are only a part of this.

In conclusion, I am arguing here for the importance of considering the existence of alternatives to rational choice theory when designing policies and practices. Rational choice theory is a historically and culturally constructed discourse that becomes a taken-for-granted lens for viewing behaviour around the world. The universal application of its assumptions has real effects on people through the policies that are derived from them. Given the wealth of research in psychology, anthropology, and other social sciences that question some of the fundamental aspects of the theory, this discourse should not hold the sway it does in environmental policy-making.

   Acknoweldgements Top

This article was made possible through the support and friendship of those in Playa Tranquila, the Loreto Bay National Park, and others in the Loreto area. Funding for field research in Mexico was provided by the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (UC MEXUS), the Anthropology Department of the University of California San Diego, and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Additional support was provided by the Center for US-Mexican Studies (CUSMEX), the Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies at the University of California San Diego, and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University. I would also like to thank Cindy Isenhour, Jim Igoe, and the rest of the American Anthropological Association conference panel on rational actors in conservation for creating an environment for thinking through these ideas, and Eric Hoenes del Pinal and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the piece.[65]

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Zsambok, C.E. and G. Klein. 1997. Naturalistic decision making. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.  Back to cited text no. 65


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