Megan Ybarra is an Associate Professor in the UW Department of Geography, and a faculty associate of the UW Center for Human Rights. Her new book, Green Wars: Conservation and Decolonization in the Maya Forest, published by University of California Press, examines how environmental projects have contributed to the criminalization and displacement of Q’eqchi’ Maya communities in lowlands Guatemala. Ybarra demonstrates how international conservation efforts reinforce narratives stigmatizing indigenous communities as “migrants,” “invaders,” and even “narcos” on their own territories.
Dichotomies of indigenous territoriality and dispossession
Professor Ybarra’s focus on these issues began during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer during 2003-2005, when she first worked in the “Zona Reyna” region of Guatemala’s Quiché department. The Zona Reyna, like much of Guatemala’s northern lowlands, is cast as a frontier of settlement, a redoubt for guerrillas and narcos, or a wilderness. What has not been widely recognized is the region’s history as traditional territory of Q’eqchi’ Maya communities: “That was what really sparked me thinking about why K’iche Maya are read as having a homeland, and having territoriality; whereas Q’eqchi Maya are read as not having a homeland, and not having territoriality, even though it’s clear that in the Zona Reyna they preexisted a number of newer settlements.”
Ybarra aims to use her research to destabilize these dichotomies: “Many of the people who I knew who were very active in human rights and understand Maya peoples as genocide survivors, but were still taking for granted this binary system in which you have a set of peoples who clearly have territoriality that needs to be recognized, defined and understood and legalized; and you have another set of other indigenous peoples who don’t have territoriality. And they haven’t necessarily thought about where that system came from, what kinds of dispossession it enables, and the kinds of conversations that people don’t then have to engage in that are particularly important around archaeology and conservation.”
Ongoing legacies of displacement
It was unasked questions like these that prompted Ybarra to shift her research focus from an initial interest in land-titling processes to broader questions. “When I first came to know Guatemala, there was a lot of emphasis on having people gain legal recognition of the rights they already had. The premise of the World Bank project in Petén, Guatemala, for example, was the classic Hernando de Soto neoliberalism: give people legal recognition of what they own and they can use it as collateral, they can build, they can become entrepreneurs. We ran a survey in 2009 that replicated the structure of a survey in 1999, and one of the things that was left unquestioned in 1999 was how many of the people surveyed believed that they would ever be able to formalize their land rights. How many of them were owners, versus how many are in a situation that’s much closer to sharecropping? And they know that they’re never going to have title to the land. Instead, as the land becomes more valuable, they are more likely to be displaced.”
Current inequalities, Ybarra demonstrates, are part of an ongoing legacy of displacement: “This notion that people have land rights and we just need to formalize them was a way of eliding the massive structures of unequal land tenure that had happened over and over again. For Q’eqchi’s in the lowlands, this history dates to 200 years ago, when the liberal regime gave all this land to what they call ‘the Germans’—really Germans, Belgians, a few Dutch, and lot of British folks—even though other people were living on it and considered themselves owners.”
She notes how international development initiatives have reinforced these historical dynamics of erasure of indigenous territory: “What was really key for me in understanding the land-titling project was that the World Bank project administration knew that there were enough Q’eqchi’ Maya living in the Department of Petén to trigger the indigenous safeguard, but they said that those people weren’t indigenous to Petén. That’s the moment at which the entire project is rendered, I would say, morally and legally invalid.”
Ybarra examines the history of the “Maya Forest,” a massive conservation project spanning Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize to show how international conservation NGOs are also implicated in the dispossession of indigenous territory: “I started going back and looking at annual reports and seeing how openly Washington D.C.-based conservation project managers were openly advocating for the dispossession of indigenous people while they were still in the midst of a genocidal civil war. I consider myself cynical, but it was shocking to me, that it was folks like Conservation International who were first claiming ‘land-grabbing’—not by the state, the military, not by cattle-ranchers, not by oil companies, but rather by the people who in fact lived on the land and were simply claiming that they lived on the land and it was theirs.”
No easy solidarity
Ybarra hopes that by documenting these conflicts, those responsible for directing such projects will no longer be able to claim that they are unaware of their impacts: “Oftentimes what you hear is, ‘oh, well, no one told me, I didn’t know.’ It’s the classic wielding of ignorance in a way that fails to acknowledge the systematic advantages that privilege brings. So I hope that doing this research makes it harder for people to say, ‘I didn’t know,’ and makes it easier for people like me to call them to account.”
Green Wars concludes with a call to critical solidarity and material decolonization. But Ybarra is reluctant to offer easy answers to the question of how to engage with accountability: “I’m not always comfortable telling other settlers, or settlers of color, what to do. I am comfortable in the Latinx community, where we have a lot of work to do to reckon with the ways celebrating an indigenous past with things like quote-unquote ‘Aztec dance’ and claiming an indigenous heritage is a kind of cultural appropriation. Sometimes what I find is that most people aren’t actually doing enough work to be accountable in solidarity. To me, I can’t learn about Q’eqchi’ territoriality without learning about the Treaty of Medicine Creek here, and all of the current work of Coast Salish peoples in our region. I’m embarrassed to say that it hadn’t occurred to me to do that work until indigenous peoples in Guatemala asked me to. I’m grateful that they asked. I hope that we all take on accountability, but what that looks like—there is no easy solidarity.”
Professor Megan Ybarra’s research and organizing offer an example of how to ask hard questions and hold both ourselves and others to account. Her ongoing commitments include solidarity with Q’eqchi’ communities in Guatemala and local indigenous-led movements; as well as local work around immigrant rights and resistance to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.