Susan Guyette


Traditional economies in New Mexico differ from the mainstream American sense of economy in many ways. Interrelationships between culture, economy and the land necessitate a value-based approach. Rather than focusing on growth in economy-building, a focus on strengthening local economic forms or “making the old ways new again” is likely to help retain NM’s unique regional distinctions.


Clearly, the American mainstream model of business development, with a failure rate of over 60 percent, is not the ideal. Instead, taking a close look at those traditional economies in NM that survived well over hundreds (Hispanic) and thousands (Native American) of years will lead us to a sustainable economy.


Success economically, if the cultural strengths of NM are to flourish, depends upon working with communities effectively to build upon the existing economic systems—rather than an emphasis on introducing new forms and attracting large-scale, corporate businesses. Entrepreneurial activity is the strength of NM. Nationally, 80 percent of tourism businesses are entrepreneurial. Tourism, one of the top two sources of employment in NM, is largely supported by entrepreneurial businesses. Yet, current promotional efforts tend to support a draw to large businesses.


What is the purpose of business? The depth of this question is rarely considered outside of the mainstream sense of business-for-profit. Decisions shaping a business concept might look different in a traditional community—such as working to keep traditional culture alive and strong. Small-scale business development requires careful consideration of cultural values. Will there be a community climate of competition or cooperation? Will business profits be reinvested back into the community? The business with the good “cultural fit” reinforces cultural values as well as providing financial support. A strong network of locally owned businesses functions as a “safety net” in times of economic fluctuations, as well.



There exists a basic distinction between business and economic developmentone that is frequently misunderstood. Business development is specific to one enterprise; whereas, what is termed “economic development” refers to a whole system of interconnected businesses, entrepreneurs, traditional economic activity—and if considered in a holistic perspective, all resources, including natural and environmental.


True economic development takes a great deal more time and effort than larger-scale business development. A solid, yet flexible foundation is created through expertise developed in local communities and diversification within the economic system. In other words, internal strengths or capacity of a community develop over time, and dependency on external development and management expertise is minimized. Environmental stewardship is considered for long-term conservation of resources.


As small-scale, entrepreneurial and locally-owned businesses develop, economic leakages to a larger, urban economy are reduced by offering a diversified and linked range of services. In small-scale local economies, true economic development only occursas economic multipliers increase, as leakages to the outside economy are reduced, as traditional items are produced, as traditional bartering, roadside vending and subsistence systems supplement cash income (thus reducing dependency on full-time employment)and as cottage industries flourish and support extended families. This scenario contrasts sharply with business development focused on profit margins and the number of jobs created.


As a frequent measure of success, the number of jobs created does not necessarily translate to a long-term means of sustainable earned livelihood. Local community needs may include employment options that offer freedom of schedule to participate in the annual cycle of cultural activities critical to cultural survival. In NM, this ranges from participation in traditional dances to acequia (irrigation ditch) cleaning. For rural and traditional (Hispanic, Native American) communities, there is an expanded range of employment options that also sustain culture, family, community, economy and environment—meeting basic needs of residents.


Government emphasis on attracting large corporate businesses to locate in NM does not foster the formation of small, local enterprises. The large-scale approach comes from a focus on generating tax dollars, rather than on increasing earned livelihood for local residents. The end result forces small, local businesses out of business, as an observer of the change in NM businesses over the past 25 years can readily see.



In many cultures, the reason to own a business is to support the extended family and the community. The values of generosity, cooperation and connectedness in relationship characterize the traditional communities of Northern NM, rather than individual gain. Gradual business development, without large loans, is the traditional business style. In rural NM communities, multiple income streams are the norm. The “commons,” or the benefit of all in the community, is the “net worth.”


A culturally-based system of earning income for family members still exists in some of NM’s traditional communities. Several family members participate in making and selling items, pool the inventory, and then divide the profits among the participating family members. This style of business encourages family cohesion and incentive for family members based on traditional values. Since much of culture and language is taught through everyday activities, in context, the future of cultural diversity depends heavily upon culturally appropriate economy.


Technical assistance can either support continuity of local lifeways, contributing to the uniqueness of NM, or skew the underlying values, thus changing the unique local cultures that define regional identity. Commodification of people and natural resources is not congruent with local cultures. Use of the terms “best practices,” “branding” and “return on investment” are examples of cultural bias and commodification. The “best” business model is the local, value-based enterprise form.


What is needed? Cultural value-oriented entrepreneurial training, based on inventories of local skills and desired employment, supported with micro-loans and grants, access to free- and low-cost promotion—in a coordinated system, rather than a piecemeal approach. Support for those programs fostering cooperatives, entrepreneurs and small farms —Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute, the Center for Southwest Culture, Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship, and New Mexico’s Own—are examples of great work needing more support.


The shift that must occur for traditional communities to benefit is away from the profit motive and toward the community motive. This does not imply a lack of profits or jobs, only that profit is not the driving factor at the expense of culture, environment and community cohesion. Small-scale development carries less financial risk. The lower the capital investment needs, the greater likelihood of sustainability in economic and seasonal fluctuation.



Resilience, or the capacity to adapt to changing conditions, is central to sustainability. When wealth is defined by cultural capital, family, generosity and close ecosystem ties, communities embracing place-based practices are prepared for adaptation to shifting circumstances in the natural world.


Cultural worldviews underlie all actions leading to resilience. At the crossroads, will NM retain unique regional economies based on culture, or become even further blended with mainstream US culture? Our future economy can be based on local farms, small businesses and entrepreneurial activity. Where we purchase determines which type of business thrives. Chose wisely, for our cumulative actions determine which forms will flourish into a sustainable economy.



Susan Guyette, Ph.D. is Métis (Micmac Indian/Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. She is the author of Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions; Planning for Balanced Development; and the co-author of Zen Birding: Connect in




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