Introduction As one arrives at Celestún, the road crosses a bridge over the Ría Celestún, a body of salt water connected to the sea and fed by freshwater brooks. This is where crab fishermen come to tend their traps. From the bridge, one can also see many small boats called lanchas, one beside the other, moored to rose-coloured bollards on floating docks. These vessels, covered with small parasol roofs and bereft of ice coolers, are intended for ecotourism rather than for fishing. Their owners chat in the shade while waiting for tourists. Not far away, employees of Ducks Unlimited de México (Dumac) are cleaning trucks with big pails of water beside the headquarters, a house where researchers both work and live. This snapshot gives an idea of some of the changes that have happened in the village of Celestún and that are transforming its local economy. These changes are closely linked to the inclusion of the village in the Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve. Activities linked to environmental conservation and the development of its ecosystems have been underway for more than a decade, progressively involving the village inhabitants. This process now offers certain economic alternatives to fishing which, half a century ago, was the primary economic activity in Celestún but which is now in inexorable decline. It also provides opportunities for people who have been excluded from fishing activities. The local economy is being transformed, and now includes environmental conservation – as it is understood at the international level – and the practices it permits. How do these changes occur? What do they reveal about local organization and the weight of ‘traditional’ activities such as fishing and salt farming? Are these changes radical? Permanent? Is a new rural economy being founded on conservation? Taking our cue from the literature on the relationships between nature, conservation, and neoliberalism, we will see that the changes underway are more complex and sinuous then they might appear to be at first glance. We will also note that the activities, practices, and discourse that have prevailed up until now in the local economy, particularly those in fishing and social networks, are still present, as shown by sea cucumber fishing. Adjustments and
compromises (see Wilshusen 2010) among different economic systems are being made between, on the one hand, the economic practices and organizational forms traditionally conducted in Celestún and, on the other, the environmental conservation interests and their neoliberal rationale. These negotiations are influenced by Celestún’s socio-economic context and its insertion into globalization mechanisms. After briefly discussing studies concerning the relationship between conservation and neoliberalism, we will take a look at the main changes that have occurred since the 1950s in the economy along the Yucatán coast and in Celestún in particular, and we will describe the village’s main economic activity, fishing. We will then present how environmental conservation concepts, discourse, and practices have been incorporated and developed in Mexico, the Yucatán State, and the village of Celestún. In the last two sections, we will identify the environmentrelated production and service activities based, on the one hand, on a local conservation economy and, on the other, on the recent sea cucumber market. We will then analyse the overlaying practices that are driving the evolution of a local economy that is largely based on a globalization rationale. This research is based on ethnographic fieldwork. In 2009 and 2010, the authors jointly conducted 82 days of ethnographic fieldwork in the village of Celestún. This is in addition to research carried out by the main author and three graduate students in five other villages within the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007, and in the Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve in 2009 and 2010 – a combined total of 18 months of fieldwork that forms the foundation for this ethnographic analysis. A multimethod qualitative approach (Denzin and Lincoln 2000) was adopted, based on multi-site case studies (Marcus 1995; Yin 1994). First, we analysed the institutional logic underlying the social construction of coastal spaces by examining environmental development programmes implemented by the state and by national and international NGOs in the Yucatán Peninsula. We then examined the mechanisms of social construction of this coastal space, as well as their application, interpretation, and repercussions through fieldwork in the coastal villages under study. To do so, we analysed the practices and discourse of the various groups of actors in the six villages through participant observation, nearly 200 semi-structured interviews, 68 short questionnaires, mapping of land use and place names, and audiovisual documents. Interviews and questionnaires were processed using discourse analysis software (NVivo 8®). This programme facilitated our work to establish, test, and classify the discourses of different groups of actors using a tree-diagram of keywords to identify elements related to the environment, conservation, productive activities, and the biosphere reserves.