Mexico’s planners and politicians have long favored river basins as settings for large-scale development programs. In 1951, President Miguel Alemán authorized a project to develop the area drained by the Río Grijalva in the southern part of the country. After years of preliminary study, a pilot project (Plan Chontalpa), covering 91,000 hectares in the Chontalpa on the coastal plain of Tabasco, began in 1966. Funded in part by international agencies, its aim was to learn how to utilize, in a “rational” way, the natural resources of the tropics, so that this information could be used in other similar areas. Another aim was to improve the standard of living in the region and provide opportunities for landless agriculturists from other parts of Mexico. Beyond creating an infrastructure of roads, dams, and canals, the planners also undertook an extensive program of social engineering. The population of the region was resettled in 22 new towns, and collective ejidos were established. In 1976, a team from the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología reviewed the project. Pedro Arrieta Fernández, a social anthropologist, was a member of the team, and in this book he examines the social and cultural changes that occurred.

Although Arrieta Fernández states at the outset that his interest is not to list failures and errors of planning but to understand the project’s broader context and identify its guiding factors, he documents, nevertheless, a familiar development tragedy: the loss of important food sources, the emergence of new crop diseases, damage to soils from improper use of chemicals, and general environmental degradation. He focuses on the project’s social consequences for the people of the Chontalpa area. First he describes “traditional” (pre-1950) Chontalpa society: extended-family households dispersed throughout the marshy region, growing mostly subsistence crops, with members occasionally working as wage laborers on nearby ranches. Although the studies commissioned by the pilot project portrayed the population as disorganized and miserable, Arrieta Fernández found just the opposite: a rich ceremonial life, households bound to one another by complex relations of reciprocity and mutual support, a low level of interpersonal violence, and a relatively rich diet.

In contrast, the people today, forced, in a twentieth-century congregación, into collective ejidos (the military was called in to put down opposition to resettlement, and resisters were driven from the region), live a kind of Orwellian nightmare: eating processed food (who would willingly trade tortillas made from fresh com for ones made of Minsa?), constrained into nuclear family units, often living among strangers, and paid a daily wage, with the important decisions in their lives made by outside experts (bankers, agricultural technicians, planners, and social scientists). As Arrieta Fernández puts it, “This has created the confusing situation in which the ejidatario is defined as an owner but only acts as a day laborer on land he does not control.”

My only complaint about this well-organized and jargon-free study is that it could have been enriched by including more information gathered through ethnographic techniques. The author marshals an impressive array of statistics to support his argument, but his discussion of social patterns and cultural life is overly schematic. We need to understand the unfortunate social consequences of development projects like this one, and an anthropologist is in the unique position of letting us hear the voices of people like those of the Chontalpa, voices usually muted in the aggregate data of development research.