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  • Notes from the Field
  • Barbara Rose Johnston (bio)

In "Contested Visions: Technology Transfer, Water Resources, and Social Capitol in Chilascó, Guatemala," Curtis Holder offers the informed and uninformed reader a provocative look at the unintended human and environmental consequences of economic development. His essay examines the record of twenty years of development intervention in Chilascó, a village in Baja Verapaz that has played host to a hydroelectric dam, seen communal lands deforested to cover the community's share of rural electrification costs, participated in agroforestry and soil conservation programs, and devoted land and labor to the cultivation of broccoli for the export market. More than twenty nongovernmental organizations currently work in Chilascó improving access to health care, education, sanitation, and crop diversification. These efforts, coupled with Guatemalan government efforts to develop water resources, stimulate ecotourism, and encourage the production of export crops, have produced an array of unanticipated assaults to the landscape, hydrology, and socioeconomic system. The construction of a hydroelectric dam, water diversion to irrigate broccoli crops, and timber harvest to finance community costs of accessing the electrical grid all contribute to degenerative change in the watershed. Thus, a severe reduction in downstream flow, which previously fed a two-tiered, 200-meter waterfall, has undermined community plans to develop the area as an ecotourism destination. Holder calls for a more holistic approach to economic development, where technological intervention is proposed, implemented, and assessed to reflect broader recognition of the human environmental needs and dynamics of the watershed, not just the specifics of a community.

It is clear that in the case of Chilascó technology transfer has occurred within a development context where environmental and social impacts were either not assessed, or such factors were not significant in the decision-making process. Thus, easily predicted impacts are occurring: the hydroelectric dams are transforming local hydrology, reducing water availability, and contributing to increased conflict over water rights. What is less apparent from Holder's essay is that rural Guatemalan communities rarely have the power to play any decisive role in the economic development activity that occurs around them. [End Page 284]

As noted by Holder, Chilascó is a small village (some 378 families in 1992) where more than 20 NGOs currently operate. This high level of NGO activity speaks loudly to the recent history and current poverty of the community. It also speaks loudly to the failures of the Guatemalan government to provide for the basic needs of a rural community. Health infrastructure and public health services, education, sanitation, and electricity are typically the primary services that government provides to its citizens, yet in rural Guatemala all too commonly, these basic services are lacking or provided largely through the efforts of international donors.

In his essay, Holder focuses on technology transfer and micro-level consequences and allows the reader to gain some sense of the complicated nature of systemic change. His essay generally ignores the question and dynamic reality of power. Political histories, political structure or lack thereof, and historical inequities very much structure the priorities of local, national, and international governance and economic development assistance. That technological intervention occurs haphazardly, producing an array of benefits that can, at times, work against the efficacy of other interventions, is not surprising or unusual, especially in rural Guatemala, where inequity and dysfunctional governance are the dominant features of life.

The rural districts of Guatemala are largely populated by Mayans whose lives are still very much involved with the effort to rebuild family and communities traumatized by the intense violence of the past decades, where hundreds of thousands were killed in state-sponsored violence that the United Nations has determined to be genocide. Recent estimates now suggest that some 400,000 and perhaps as many as 600,000 Mayans were massacred or disappeared. The difficulties of rebuilding communities, let alone a nation, traumatized by decades of violence cannot be understated. Nor can the difficulties of building sustainable rural communities be understated, given a political context where power is largely concentrated in the urban core in the hands of an elite group of Ladino families that own the nation's prime agricultural land, major industries, form the power core of the military, and have power...


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pp. 284-286
Launched on MUSE
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Ceased Publication
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