An examination of the politics of interspecies place making and biodiversity conservation in the context of the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale.

As Maan Barua (2014) writes, stories are a form of knowledge, and can be mapped along the tracks of people in contact with other human and nonhuman actors (Barua 929, citing Ingold 2011). Barua states: “Ethnographic research is about following such stories, to track how they are bound up with institutions of power, political struggles, or historical events”; mapping, thus, provides a “methodology that renders visible the material lives and spaces of animals” (929). Examining the experience of subalterns interfacing with elephants, Barua asks “how are their lives, or tracks, caught up in fields of power?” (924). This same question can be similarly applied towards mapping the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale: in what way is the gray whale caught up in entanglements, or “fields of power”, and what does a mapping of the gray whale reveal about its political ecology? As Barua describes, the process of mapping the organism’s route is a process of tracking, or making visible (929).

In an effort to make visible the political ecology of the gray whale, I have employed location-based technologies and user-generated online videos in my methodology to trace the gray whale’s migratory route along the Pacific Coast of North America. After selecting a diverse set of whale watching videos uploaded to YouTube (see playlist here), I then mapped these videos according to their location via Google Maps (see map here or view below). The visceral form of archival documents (consisting of the audio-visual content itself, which serves as an affective real-time documentation of inter-species experience), such mapping, tied to critical analysis, reveals the politics of biodiversity conservation and changing landscapes in the political ecology of the gray whale. By tracking the gray whale’s movement via user video uploads to YouTube, we can trace or ‘make visible’ two elements: as a first stage, user videos allowed a mapping of the gray whale’s migratory path, which I have further traced by geographical location via Google Maps; secondly, and what emerges in more symbolic significance, the “process of relations” between humans and the gray whale in terms of inter-species connection also becomes visible in the process. Yet, while this methodology helps to make visible the gray whale’s political ecology, the affective power of this material also obscures factors affecting individuals at the local level. Thus, as Hinchliffe writes, making present is “a process that also makes some things absent” (90), as whale watching tours obscure the value of the whale as new form of commodity.

The literal act of tracking the gray whale during whale watching excursions, combined with the first-person point-of-view nature of the videos uploaded, function in co-constitutive fashion to form an archival document, or assemblage of documents, that makes the gray whale present via affect. This is true as the gray whale is presented in its natural habitat, along its migratory route, and during biophysical performance (feeding, breaching, mating, and protecting the young). These videos also reveal a continuation of the human aspect of tracking for consumption. However, no longer are the whales being tracked for whale meat; today the tracking is for ecotourism consumption: the visceral act of watching from close proximity on the ocean waters; the act of documentation for personal and public presentation; and, on rare occasions, the pleasure of inter-species physical contact. Making the gray whale present by mapping its migration route through human interaction today, therefore makes visible the perception of the whale as a new tourist commodity, revealing contemporary forms of whale tracking as it occurs in real-time and edited for optimal viewing thereafter.

Hinchliffe (2008) argues, the human world cannot be rendered a “mute and stable background to the real business of politics” (89). He thereby seeks to identify what a politics involving nonhumans might look like, stating that “living assemblages (organisms, habitats, landscapes) have to be present, or made present […] if they are to be conserved” (ibid.). He states: “representation becomes a matter of more than one identity, a more complex field of becoming” (94) and moreover “involves engaging with potentials, including likely presence as well as differentiated presences” (ibid.). In this sense, the politics of making the gray whale present via tracking makes visible biocapitalism, also “a highly contested issue” (95). Efforts to conserve the gray whale succeeded in the campaign to stop the salt mine expansion in Baja, Mexico. Here an examination of political ecology plays out: the living assemblages constituting the gray whale’s biological ecosystem were entangled in fields of power (Barua 929) as corporate ownership of the salt mines sought to expand following NAFTA. Yet after a concerted fight by grassroots organizations, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox agreed that the survival of the gray whale relied upon habitat protection. Thus, in making present, or making visible, the whale for its inherent value, what also becomes present is the structures of power that are caught in the whale’s political ecology. Following this event, the whale itself became a commodity itself in the form of a new tourist attraction, a commodity for spectacle and viewing pleasure. Affect and viscerality in whale watching tours excite the senses and provide a sense of connection to one of the largest and oldest living mammals on earth.

As Hinchliffe states, “the embodied present thing also needs to be representative of other things in order to gain conservation value” (89). The gray whale was first protected under conservation strategies when it represented a rich source of oil. Therefore, its commodity value was traded for conservation value, allowing a new form of value to be applied in the guise of ecotourism, demonstrating what Barua refers to as “the fraught politics of cohabitation” in an “unequal terrain” as the gray whale coexists in a network of “other, often more powerful, actors” (926). Barua continues: “human and animal lives are lived collectively within fields of power” and they proceed through (post)colonial histories (Barua 928). Young (1999) identifies recreational whale watching as a rapidly growing area of ecotourism, fueling multimillion dollar enterprises (582). The conditions for multinational development corporations to enter the Mexican market were opened following NAFTA, affecting small-scale, local fishermen who would previously rent out their skiffs for whale watching tours. Russell (2010) states: “In 2008, tourism generated 2.7 million direct jobs. It is Mexico’s third biggest foreign exchange earner, behind only oil and remittances as legal sources of foreign currency. In 2008, 1.96 million worked in the tourist industry and the record 22.6 million foreigners who visited Mexico brought in $10.8 billion.” (Latin America Monitor: Mexico (August 2009, pp. 6–8), quoted in Russell, page 553). Consequently, the new tourism industry negatively impacted the Mexican majority, causing “declining incomes, widespread insecurities, the end of land reform, and accelerating migration to labor, seasonally or permanently, in the United States.” (Leticia Reina, Elsa Servín & John Tutino, 2007; cited in Russell, page 508). Neoliberal policies, therefore, failed to create sufficient employment for rural residents, leading to persistent poverty and increased out-migration (Russell 516). As Barua states, “the voices of the rural poor are a telling absence” (924).

Following the development of Cancún, the Mexican government and bank officials opened Mexico’s coastline to other major tourist developments, including Los Cabos and Loreto on the Baja California peninsula. As Russell (2010) states, “Los Cabos soon emerged as a major tourist center since it is only two hours by air from Los Angeles and offers a Jack Nicklaus-designed eighteen-hole golf course. In 2006, 2.7 million passengers deplaned at Los Cabos airport (New York Times (January19, 2007, Sec. F, p. 1); quoted in Russell, 553). As Russell identifies, the process of tourist development involved the expropriation of land from local residents, in exchange for low-paid wage labour. “Infrastructure was developed at government expense, and land was then turned over to large corporations, many of which were foreign” (Proceso (October 8, 2000, pp. 43–44); quoted in Russell 553). The increase in tourist development caused a decline in jobs for rural Mexicans, leaving displaced agricultural workers with few choices; many turned to border-crossing in search of new opportunities in the United States (555), and leading to an influx of new residents in border states. Russell provides a table of border state population increases from 1970-2000 which specifies Baja California: the population in 1970 was 870,421; following NAFTA, the population increased to 2,487,700 by 2000, a 186 percent increase over thirty years, making the U.S.-Mexican border “the most porous border in the world and the most heavily guarded […] with 350 million crossings a year” (568). Russell further attributes the majority of this traffic to the increase of maquiladoras, foreign-owned factories operating in Mexico, primarily within border regions (ibid.).

For a working assemblage of the video playlist, please see below (use the password: ANT351). This video follows the migratory pattern of the gray whale according to the videos mapped in sequence.

Works Cited:

Barua, Maan. 2014 Bio-geo-graphy: landscape, dwelling, and the political ecology of human–elephant relations

Gupta Akhil and James Ferguson. 2001 Culture, Power, Place: Ethnography at the End of an Era. In Culture, Power and Place. Gupta Akhil and James Ferguson eds. Pp 1-32. Durham: Duke University Press

Hinchlife, Steve. 2008 Reconstituting nature conservation: Towards a careful political ecology. Geoforum 39:88-97.

Russell, Philip L.  2010 The History of Mexico From Pre-Conquest to Present Routledge New York

Tsing, Anna (blog). Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species

Young, Emily H. 1999 Balancing Conservation with Development in Small-Scale Fisheries: Is Ecotourism an Empty Promise? Human Ecology Vol. 27, Issue 4, pp 581-620