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Living on Scorched Earth: the Political Ecology of Land Ownership in Guatemala's Northern Lowlands


This dissertation examines Q'eqchi' Maya survivors of Guatemala's genocidal counterinsurgency campaign that burned over 440 villages to the ground. I argue that lowlands Q'eqchi's communities' struggles for land were not won or lost on civil war battlefields, but are still being determined through the contested politics of land ownership on scorched earth. I present the implications of my argument for territory, identity and development through four case studies based on 17 months of ethnographic fieldwork.

First, case studies of former development poles reveal that people displaced during Guatemala's civil war (1960-1996) associate the military's scorched earth counterinsurgency strategies with contemporary scorched earth conservation enforcement. I employ a political ecology approach to argue that conservation (creation and enforcement of protected areas) and neoliberal land policies (projects to map, title and register land that privilege private property) articulate in a single territorial project that facilitates the contemporary dispossession of small land holders.

Second, I show how genocide survivors articulate a Q'eqchi' identity through land claims in titling and conservation projects. Lowlands Q'eqchi's share narratives of suffering for territory, which they trace from the colonial period to the present. My ethnography reveals the challenges Q'eqchi' communities face in linking their land claims to the broader Pan-Maya movement, which is dominated by Western Highlands Maya. As such, I caution against subsuming Guatemalan politics of indigeneity to the politics of the Pan-Maya movement.

Finally, I show how conservation and development projects have become the terrain of post-war politics in Guatemala. Whether they like it or not, international development agencies have become arbiters of land conflicts. In the process, they must decide whose battle was righteous, who is indigenous, who is a peasant, which lands are sacred, and whose struggle for territory merits title and enforcement. Development projects that have important juridical and material effects on land tenure--land titling, community based natural resource management, payments for environmental services--largely ignore complicated war histories. Given that international development projects ally with regional and national elites, including the military, these projects can authorize violent exclusions that reproduce racialized hierarchies. I conclude by showing that who becomes a land owner and who becomes dispossessed not only decides outcomes of civil war struggles, but also shapes how people can forge their livelihoods in the future.

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