- Enclosed: Conservation, Cattle, and Commerce Among the Q'eqchi' Maya Lowlanders by Liza Grandia
Environmentalism is the great moral crusade of our age, one that has defined and shaped a new generation of scholars in anthropology. Liza Grandia has two decades of experience working in her Guatemalan fieldsites, which she first encountered as an employee of an environmental NGO attempting to promote conservation projects. Like Grandia, most of us working in environmental anthropology have gravitated toward environmental themes out of a passion for environmental causes and a desire to make them more effective. As scholars, we see how conservation has emerged as a new and significant form of development, land use, and tool of governance, making it a part of the agrarian problem traditionally studied by anthropologists.
Grandia's Enclosed: Conservation, Cattle, and Commerce Among the Q'eqchi' Maya Lowlanders seamlessly merges a close analysis of the processes that lead to deforestation in northern Guatemala's forests with its preceding agrarian history. The resulting narrative shows how successive waves of enclosure or privatization of indigenous common lands established a pattern of indigenous dispossession from agricultural lowlands and migration into the forested hinterlands. Colonial and liberal-era enclosures—established in the aid of a rural oligarchy dependent on cash crops like coffee and ideologically invested in cattle ranching— have steadily encroached on Maya communally-managed lands, and threatened their livelihoods as subsistence farmers. In turn, for centuries Maya families have been accustomed to move south into neighboring Belize and further north into the forested Petén region when pushed, sometimes with the aid and encouragement of government programs, to [End Page 645] establish new communities there, and to see the vast unpopulated forest as a sure refuge as well as a source of guaranteed subsistence.
Beginning in the late 1990s, these two forms of enclosure—for the market and for conservation—collided to create a serious conflict between indigenous community formation and conservation. Between 1998 and 2008, the World Bank sponsored a project to regularize land holdings and create private titles for inhabitants of untitled common lands. However, it did not have its advertised effect of solving the agrarian problem through the market. Instead, it allowed nearby farmers and ranchers with access to capital to develop speculative real estate markets. Perennially indebted subsistence farmers were easy prey for cash offers on their private parcels; farmers assumed they could resettle on empty hinterlands and could be convinced to sell at very low prices, and buyers could subsequently sell those parcels to capital intensive enterprises at hugely inflated prices.
But another form of enclosure now awaited them. One-third of the Petén is protected under the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Now that the hinterlands have been transformed into forest reserves, indigenous migrants are caught between two types of enclosure—one that encloses land as private property and another that encloses it as nature. In this context, Maya migrants seeking to reconstitute their communities in the vast Guatemalan frontier are recast as invading and devastating "ants." Nowhere have I encountered such a cogent and illuminating illustration of the processes that lead to the "invasion" of national parks and preserves in Latin America. Grandia's analysis of the high cost of environmental enclosures to the Q'eqchi' Maya is presented in light of an avalanche of recent scholarship (e.g., Chapin 2004; Dowie 2009; West, Igoe, and Brockington 2006) documenting the displacing effects of conservation, which has enveloped 12 percent of the Earth's land, of which 80 percent were or are home to indigenous peoples, tens of thousands of whom have been displaced by environmental enclosures.
Grandia's argument is developed over the course of an introduction and a conclusion plus six chapters. Chapter 1, "Liberal Plunder," argues that the need of social and economic elites to control land and labor underlies the development of Guatemala from colonial times to the modern era. She describes the colonial history of Guatemala, the establishment during the liberal era of its coffee economy, and the development of the indigenous Maya people's...