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Satellites and Senses of Place: Remote Monitoring of Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve

Creative Commons 'BY-NC' version 4.0 license

Remote sensing technologies, such as satellite imagery, along with geographic information systems (GIS) computer programs, which can analyze complex spatial data, are emerging as key instruments in the global conservation toolbox. These rapidly developing technologies allow for new visions of forested landscapes and new forms of social and ecological analysis, and my research investigates both the production of scientific knowledge enabled by remote sensing and GIS, and how this knowledge is used and transformed in application by conservationists. Drawing on over 14 months of field research in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve -- widely recognized as one of the most difficult places in the world to do forest conservation -- I analyze how Guatemala's continued history of violence and inequality intersect with technoscience, environmental knowledge, and governance. I present ethnographic accounts of the work of remote monitoring, information processing, and map-making in a joint state-NGO computer lab; the use, interpretation, and transformation of maps and reports by conservationists; and the intersections of this official knowledge with daily lives and livelihoods inside the reserve. I analyze diffractively across these sites and sources, bringing together mundane data processing, images and reports, conservation decisions, local subsistence practices, and both ordinary and exceptional violence.

This research reveals the unexpected movements of meaning and politics across scales, the co-construction of official, centralized knowledge with multiple senses of place, space, time, and identity, and the ways in which science and technology are embroiled with deeply felt desires for clarity in a reserve characterized by uncertainty and rapid change. I argue that the violence and political paranoia that characterize post-civil war Guatemala are deeply entangled with the production and interpretation of scientific knowledge about its landscapes and people. Finally, I analyze how this knowledge can facilitate collaboration across social and political difference, while also reinforcing those differences and their embedded power dynamics. This research draws together and contributes to science and technology studies (STS) and environmental anthropology, and also contributes to broad interdisciplinary and applied discussions on the politics of conservation and development practice by examining the dynamics of authority, technology, and knowledge in environmental governance on a troubled landscape.

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