Walking on Money

It’s mid-day in Cabo Pulmo. October, 2012. The heat is well on its way. I just finished a late breakfast at a small local restaurant called “El Caballero.” Huevos rancheros, juice, coffee, beans, tortillas. I’m talking with Lorenzo*, who has lived in Cabo Pulmo for more than a decade. He tells me more about the story of Meri Montaño, as he heard it from one of the primary founding members of the community. According to this elder, Lorenzo tells me, Meri had a massive amount of land, many heads of cattle and lots of money. She was rich. Meri adopted him, the elder explained to Lorenzo, and eventually gave him everything when she died. This story — about Meri giving all of her land to this particular patriarch—is one of the primary versions of history that gets told about Cabo Pulmo. There are other, competing versions of community history as well.

Lorenzo continues with his version. This elder had no idea the land would become valuable one day, so he sold it piece by piece, often without papers. Some also say he gambled it away. According to one anthropologist who worked in the community in the early 2000s (see Weiant 2005), the land was informally sold, traded, gifted, and passed around for decades. These practices led to an incredibly complex and confusing land tenure situation, which worsened in the early 1970s when the Mexican government tried to clarify and formalize land titles in preparation for impending tourism and real estate development. This transformation from informal to formal tenure systems led to decades of conflict.

Lorenzo talks about increasing land disputes in Cabo Pulmo, especially over the course of the past ten years. All of these disputes can be tied to rapidly rising land values and real estate speculation. These conflicts include a couple of “land invasions,” the last one in 2009. According to Lorenzo, in that instance, about forty people from outside the community invaded Cabo Pulmo point, cut fence wires, and tried to claim the land. Members of one local family sent their own people, armed with machetes, shovels, and even Molotov cocktails. There was a confrontation. Someone smashed a person’s car. The invaders finally backed down and retreated.

Later, Lorenzo tells me, he saw one of the men who took part in the invasion in the nearby town of La Ribera. “Why are you doing this?” he asked the man. He answered: “Because there’s no work.” Lorenzo thought for a minute, then summed up the whole situation…in terms of money and value. It comes down to the valor de la tierra (land value), he tells me. The conflicts, he explains, are all because “people are walking on money.” He finishes the story with a question: “Who could have guessed that this land would someday be worth so much?”

Who could have guessed?

The Baja peninsula as a whole has been marginalized from Mexican politics — and history — for generations. The East Cape is just one of its many formerly unknown and disparaged hinterlands. It was long seen as an impediment to development, a barren, worthless place (see Alvarez 1987; Krutch 1986). But the people who lived there — descendants of missionaries, native peoples, migrants, 19th century colonists, even fabled castaways — have found ways to survive. They have created places of meaning and community, places with long histories and deeply ingrained values. Still, for many outsiders, much of the Baja peninsula remained worthless, valueless, and undesirable.

Times have changed. Today, small communities along the East Cape, such as Cabo Pulmo, are increasingly recognized by the outside world — not to mention the Mexican government — as high value destinations. They are places worthy of investment (see Li 2014), and exploitation. This change of heart was undoubtedly influenced by the East Cape’s beauty, ecological diversity, and uniqueness. But this is also because it’s a place where many outsiders hope to make money. This reconsideration of the East Cape as a renewed place of value, worthy of effort and attention, has also resulted in a broad “conceptual shift” (see Elyachar 2005). It’s a shift in which the formerly valueless is suddenly recast as vital and important. It’s a shift through which supposedly desolate, barren coastlines become conceptually and discursively transformed into places of solitude, beauty, and luxury — ripe for capitalist investment.

This shift occurs through the work of realtors, developers, government officials, planners, and others who help to inscribe the land, ultimately, as a commodity that is commensurable with other commodities (i.e. real estate) around the world (see Li 2014). The East Cape is in the early stages of this process of commoditization. Los Cabos, on the other hand, has been thoroughly transformed into a location that is dominated by the global tourism and real estate economies. The future of the East Cape has not yet been determined. But will it follow the path of Los Cabos?

The East Cape is no longer depicted as a dangerous, remote place. It’s no longer the worthless, “forgotten peninsula” (Krutch 1986) of the Mexican nation. It’s a place ripe for pride and promotion. It’s a safe, appealing, inviting place that promises high returns on investment. It also promises exclusivity — lonely beaches, wide open spaces, and distance from overdeveloped urban centers. For Mexican businessmen, government officials, and politicians, and a slew of international investors, it’s a place that’s primed and ready for integration into the global market. Suddenly, there’s a lot of money to be made from this place with no value. But at whose expense?

Marx’s task was to expose and radically challenge a system that he felt put things ahead of people. Marx’s theoretical work was meant to reverse this dynamic, to free people from the capitalistic tyranny of things (see Hart 2011:8). As David Graeber explains, Marx viewed the capitalist system as perverse because “it saw human beings primarily as a means to produce wealth rather than the other way around” (2005:223). Most debates about Marx’s theory of value, Graeber continues, completely miss the point. The point of Marx’s theory was to critically question why “we continually recreate a world we don’t like, that we find unjust, and in which we have lost control” (2005:222). Marx’s question was why making money has come to take precedence over making humanity.

Graeber argues that value theory gives us a way to understand that the “ultimate stakes of politics are the ability to define what’s important in life to begin with” (2005:15; see also 2013:226). “In value terms,” he continues, “the question becomes: who has the right to translate their money into what sorts of meaning?” (2005:14). Elyachar writes of the expanding neoliberal market as a process that is “simultaneously a mode of dispossessing the poor” (2005:13). What is being dispossessed, ultimately, is the ability to meaningfully participate in defining value — or, what truly matters in human social life.

The East Cape of Baja California Sur is one more site, among many, of dispossession. In the name of social and economic progress, places and communities are being made subservient to development models and real estate markets that, unmistakably, make the needs of people — and communities — subservient to making money. The slow, grinding process of commoditization continues to push many local residents aside, especially those who do not have access to enough money to stay afloat and survive the rising economic tide.

Money reigns supreme in this new conceptual order. It is the access pass that allows some people in and pushes others to the margins. The East Cape, like Cabo San Lucas, Cancún, and so many places before it, is in the midst of a process in which money is rapidly becoming the defining value system. This dispossession eliminates other possibilities, meanings, and potential values. It all begins when the unique values of a place are subsumed by and transformed into the commensurable, comparable value of global markets.

This process of transformation is incomplete. It is also highly contested. Many residents of the East Cape feel that Cabo San Lucas’s path is their inevitable future. So they prepare their exodus accordingly. Others, however, hold out hope for an alternative future. Because for them, the meaning of their land (and home) goes far beyond money. And yet, despite this resistance, and attachment to place, the speculative draw of the land remains powerful. While some residents continue to hope for that alternative future, others find it hard to resist the feeling that they might indeed be walking on money, and now is the time to sell. Trapped within this tension—between making money and making community—lies the future.

*This is not his real name.

References

Alvarez Jr., Robert R. 1987. Familia: Migration and Adaptation in Baja and Alta California 1800–1975. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Elyachar, Julia. 2005. Markets of Dispossession. Durham: Duke University Press.

Graeber, David. 2005. Preface. In the Carnival of Values and the Exchange Value of Carnival. The Commoner. Link.

—2013. It is value that brings universes into being. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(2): 219–243.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. 1986[1961]. The Forgotten Peninsula: A Naturalist in Baja California. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Li, Tania M. 2014. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39 589–602 doi: 10.1111/tran.12065

Weiant, Pamela. 2005. A Political Ecology of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): Case Study of Cabo Pulmo National Park, Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.