In the past, environmental conservation has emphasized the protection of the physical environment through the exclusion of humans. As a result, the local inhabitants in and surrounding protected areas often perceive conservation policies to be a threat to their land-use rights and source of livelihood. The objective of this project was to examine the social conditions that contribute to local cooperation with conservation programs through a case study of the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve (Durango, Mexico).
This article was excerpted from the author’s 1992 dissertation, Common Ground: Ranchers and Researchers in the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve. Doctoral Dissertation, Anthropology. University of California, Riverside. Andrea Kaus lives in California and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
From 1988 to 1990, baseline data were collected of the spatial and temporal distribution of human populations and land use in the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve. Formal and informal interviews were conducted with the local residents and conservation program’s researchers regarding their views of the environment, the protected area, and each other. The potential for conflict exists between local ranchers, who value the land as pasture for their livestock, and the researchers, who view the area in terms of its ecological importance separate from human land use systems. The Reserve management has maintained good public relations in the area directly surrounding the field station and has successfully rescued an endemic species of tortoise from extinction.
The local residents accepted the Reserve’s presence as a perceived means to protect their land from outsiders, and they have developed long-term friendships with many of the researchers. However, the Reserve’s establishment has had little influence on regional forms of land use, with the exception of the local cessation of hunting and poaching. For continued cooperation and increased participation of the local residents, a management plan is needed that integrates basic and applied research and encourages the researchers to understand and confront the land use problems faced by the ranchers.
An unexpected and bizarre form of land use generates income in the towns near the Reserve and threatens the credibility and influence of the scientific endeavors undertaken in the Reserve. The MapimI Reserve overlaps an area known as La Zona del Silencio (the Zone of Silence) which attracts tourists and curiousity-seekers from all over the world. These people and their guides are locally referred to as zoneros or silenciosos. They are generally considered to be slightly daft or a nuisance, but they represent a substantial population of strangers who wish to see, experience, and take away with them a memento of what they perceive to be the strange essence of the MapimIan desert. For them, the Reserve’s resource is its rare atmosphere which they believe transforms the magnetic waves of the zone and results in strange phenomena and occurrences, from mutations in the flora and fauna to meetings with space aliens.
How did such a strange and internationally-held belief in the Zone of Silence get started? It was deliberately invented to generate tourism and sold to the world via the mass media. Its development is a story worthy of its own dissertation on how information, no matter how erroneous, can spread across the globe and develop from a tall tale into accepted fact. The thread of the story starts in Green River, Utah, in 1970. On July 2, the U.S. military base there fired an Athena test missile southwards which was intended to land at or near the White Sands military base in New Mexico. Perhaps someone on the Green River base made a mistake or perhaps the equipment itself was faulty. Whatever the case, the missile did not land at White Sands or in New Mexico or even anywhere near the U.S.-Mexican border. Instead it continued 400 miles south and fell from the sky in the southeastern corner of the state of Chihuahua, a few scant miles from where the Reserve’s field station is now located.
The story might have ended there, for hardly anyone saw the rocket fall. A few shepherds in the hills thought perhaps an angel had fallen. A rancher living closeby was frightened and then angered as his cattle broke out of the corrals in their panic. People in the towns attributed the flash of light to an unusually bright falling star or meteorite. Maybe nothing more would have been said, except that the U.S. government came looking for its wayward missile and did not want anyone to know about it. Consistent with governmental common sense, no one asked the rancher whose cattle had been spooked where the missile had landed, or even asked anyone residing in the general vicinity. Instead, people from Gomez-Palacio were hired to scour (quietly) the Bolson for the missing missile while U.S. planes scouted from the air. It was finally found after three weeks, buried nose-first in a sand dune.
A local security force was formed to protect the missile from vandals and sight-seers, captained by a town resident named Jaime González. A small marble marker commemorating Jaime stands alone on a small hill in the Reserve overlooking the Zone of Silence.
What happened to the missile? “Los americanos” built an airstrip near where the missile fell and set up camp while they built a special extension from the railroad to the sand dune. The missile and the dune were dug out, put into bags, loaded into the train and planes and taken away. The americanos left, taking the railroad tracks with them and leaving an airstrip and half a dune stripped of its treasure in what was destined to become La Zona del Silencio.
The story might have ended here as well. The ranchers watched with relief as the invasion left as quickly as it had come. The workers went back to Gomez-Palacio without ever really knowing what the fuss had been about. The U.S. government was mute on the subject. But Jaime, two local landowners, and their friends in Gomez-Palacio noticed the importance that had been attributed to an otherwise godforsaken region, and they began to talk of the possibility of building a hotel in the area to encourage tourism and interest in the area.
What happened next is not quite clear. Some say that Jaime started to play up the importance of the region and his role in revealing its mysterious occurrences. Others say that the landowners embellished the story of the missile, added some pseudo-science and local folklore, and fed the story to the regional media. Or maybe it was the work of a few scientists who wanted some public attention and a share in the hotel business. A growing group of supporters contend that “La Zona” really exists and that the landowners and their scientific friends had the guts to go against the established scientific community to bring to light some strange desert phenomena.
Whichever the case, the local newspapers and later the national media picked up a bizarre story that continues to unfold in the newspapers and airwaves of North America. According to the self-proclaimed founders of the Zona del Silencio, the strange magnetic anomalies of the atmosphere prevent radio transmission in specific points and make the needles spin on magnetic compasses. The magnetic waves are so unique that they create a vortex that draws in material from the upper atmosphere, hence the strange behavior of the missile. According to a pamphlet put out by a group of zoneros from Quebec (sponsored by the Canadian Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the Quebec Museum), the center of this vortex is called the “Vertice de Trino” and is located where the three states of Coahuila, Chihuahua and Durango meet. Metallic, cosmic dust can be gathered here with a magnet. The case of the “rational meteorite,” or Allende meteorite, which fell in the general region of the Zone (give or take 100 miles or so) in 1969, is often cited as corroborating evidence. The meteorite allegedly avoided a Russian satellite and orbited the Earth once before crashing in Allende, Chihuahua (GarcIa 1988). A comparison of the Zone is frequently made to the Bermuda Triangle, the Egyptian pyramids, the sacred cities of Tibet, and Cape Canaveral, all of which lie between the 26th and 28th parallels (Hunt 1984). The general impression left by these stories and supported by regional inhabitants (but not Reserve residents) is that “things fall from the sky” in the Zone. One of the founders also claims that NASA planned to build a scientific facility in the Reserve area to investigate the phenomena and the possiblity of extraterrestrial communications.
To these basic claims have been added every imaginative story and theory that might come to the human mind. Among others, these include:
- Abnormal mutations in the flora and fauna in the Zone. In general, the plant and animal populations are considered to contain larger and more robust individuals than ‘normal’ populations outside the Reserve. Typically cited are triangular shapes on the tortoises’ shells, the occasional purple coloring of nopal coyotillo (Opuntia violacea), and the large size of human individuals in the Zone. An unpublished, unseen, but often-cited study also contends that the blood of the inhabitants of the Zone is different.
- The attraction of outerspace debris to the vortex of the Zone of Silence, as evidenced by the Allende meteorite and the strange rocks found in the desert (GarcIa 1988). Small pebbles with desert varnish, an iron manganese coating common in desert environments, are considered to be pieces of meteorites. The Zone also has the reputation for being an ancient area with a close connection to the past and future. Hundreds of zoneros come each year to look for fossils, artifacts, meteorites, or anything curious, all of which they take away with them. The rock shops throughout the region also sell geodes, fossils and artifacts from the Zone.
- Extraterrestrial communication from both above and below the desert floor (Perez 1991). The vortex and strange magnetic waves are also believed to provide the ideal atmosphere for the reception of outerspace communication. Groups of zoneros regularly hold conferences and overnight meetings in the Zone (usually in the Reserve itself), where they claim to see and hear beings from other worlds. One group, El Centro de Investigacion de AntropologIa Cosmica de la Escuela Filosofica Lu Men (The Research Center of Cosmic Anthropology from the Philosophical School of the Light), believes that an ancient race of tall, yellow Maya (the lost civilization of Tulum-Balaam) live directly below the Reserve and that the cerros are really hidden pyramids (Ral Perez, pers. com. 1989). This subterranean civilization is called MAGNETO TZEN or “Tierra del Magnetismo.”
Does the Zone of Silence exist at all, even with respect to the mildest of claims? Neither I nor anyone with whom I spoke (apart from the zoneros) had any trouble with either their radios or compasses while working in the Reserve. The claims of mutations refer to natural phenomena; the triangles are a normal pattern variant in the Bolson tortoise populations and the pads of nopal coyotillo turn a shade of violet during a dry spell. In addition, the human population is made up of all sizes and types, just like any of the surrounding populations. However, the only local person most of the zoneros have seen either in the Reserve or in Gomez-Palacio is the resident of the Reserve’s field station, who indeed is bigger than most. Yet they do not seem to notice that many of his cousins or brothers do not come up to his shoulders, even with their hats on.
As to the Zone itself, there seems to be little consensus on exactly where it is. It was originally considered to be the place where the missile fell. This is also the place marked on the topographic maps of INEGI and the road maps of American Automobile Association. Sometime in the last twenty years, the spot moved to closer to the preson of El Tapado, where an engineer working for PEMEX claimed his equipment stopped functioning. Since then, the exact spot has marched its way north, and the hapless visitors may be guided to any number of areas in the Reserve. Most guides take their customers to an area where they can collect fossils near the preson of El Macho, or further south, to an area which is littered with the little smooth pebbles that look like meteorite debris. In addition, the local residents find the zoneros a nuisance and tend to get them to move on by indicating that the zone is just a little further down the road. Upon being asked where la Zona could be found, a local rancher told a carload of people that they needed to keep following the road until they saw martians jump from one side of the road to another. The amazing part, he commented later, was that they thanked him. Another group of zoneros arrived at the field station and asked one of the workers how to get to the Zone. The young fellow, struggling to be polite and truthful at once, only replied, “Nunca van a llegar (You are never going to get there).”
During 1989 alone, over 650 people arrived at the field station asking for the Zone of Silence. Since the main road to the zonish area detours away from the field station, one can assume that many more people actually visited the Zone itself (or thought that they did). People come from all over, alone, with local guides, with foreign ones, or with school excursions. The tourism is not limited to Mexicans either, though that is the predominant nationality of the visitors. People from the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Chile, and Uruguay arrived at the field station in 1989-1990. The extent of the Zone’s influence is amazing. It seems that nearly every cab driver in Mexico has heard of La Zona del Silencio (though not of the MapimI Biosphere Reserve). In 1992, a popular FM Spanish radio station in Los Angeles treated its listeners to an entire morning of callers expounding on the mysteries of the Zone of Silence. The disc jockey had even contacted an L.A. engineer to add an expert opinion regarding the magnetic forces in the Zone and the reasons why voices would not travel over the radio there.
The Zone of Silence may be no more than a thorn in the side of the Reserve management, but it has a tendency to dig in and truly irritate the researchers. It is an especially unfortunate form of tourism which relies on fabrication of events and phenomena and encourages fossil and artifact collection. Zoneros drive off the main roads to explore or camp. They take firewood, leave trash, destroy property and leave gates open, the ultimate sin in an area of livestock production. They frequently have to be rescued since they are rarely prepared for the distances, the quality of the road, or the lack of water. In addition, many leave angry when they do not find the strange things they seek. Buses of schoolchildren arrive at vacation time, and one can only guess at the type of environmental education they are receiving about the area.
The subtle threat presented by the Zona del Silencio is that the philosophy and influence of the biosphere reserve is mixed with propaganda regarding the Zone. The media does not help, often including the field station and the Reserve as the scientific component of the Zone or by indicating that the Reserve was established to protect the Zone. It has perpetuated a myth that the field station is no more than a front for secret government research, and that the water tower is really an observatory for extraterrestrial phenomena.
The Instituto de EcologIa has had to limit the entrance of visitors into the field station. Zoneros arrive thinking that the Laboratorio del Desierto is a hotel, and are often quite angry (and unprepared) when they are informed the facilities are for research activities only. The Institute’s informal policy is to give a short guided tour and talk about the Reserve and ongoing research activities. However, this is usually unsatisfying for both the researchers and the zoneros. In addition, the zoneros like to take mementos of the Zone, and have at times taken scientific equipment, parts of experiments or field studies, or specimens of the flora and fauna, including tortoises. Worse than being a nuisance, the zoneros perpetuate a false idea about the area and, because of the mythology’s popularity, obscure the objectives and activities of scientific research in the Reserve.
The local residents do not believe in the Zone of Silence. When asked about strange phenomena, they invariably reply that they do not see strange things in the desert, only strange people. The only unexplained oddity in the Reserve are the desert lights that flicker, blaze and bounce in the distance. The researchers claim it is a common desert phenomenon, and the local residents say that the lights are strange, even spooky, “pero no son nada (but they’re nothing).”
The attitude of the residents towards the zoneros is more ambivalent. The zoneros represent a potential source of income for the residents. The local boys hire themselves out as guides, and one settlement keeps a supply of sodas and candy to sell to passersby. They are prevented from developing Zone tourism to any extent due to their liason with the Reserve management which disapproves of any encouragement of the zoneros’ presence or perpetuation of the belief in the Zone of Silence. Yet, it is not clear whether the local residents would be interested in further development of tourism. The ranchers fear that it would mean a better road, more people, and greater risk for their property and livestock. In a workshop in the field station in 1990 at which the Secretary of Tourism for Gomez-Palacio was present, the ranchers demanded that zoneros be kept out of the area and off of their land. One of the researchers from the Reserve management had to intervene in the discussion to point out that the zoneros would always come to the Reserve; the reasonable objective was to regulate and guide the development of tourism in the region.