- Green Wars: Conservation and Decolonization in the Maya Forest by Megan Ybarra
In 1990, the guatemalan government, with the support of international environmental NGOs, created a protected area system to encompass one-third of the country's landmass. In the northern Guatemalan departments of Alta Verapaz and Petén, this new declaration built upon reserves that had been designated in the 1970s in what conservationists called the Maya Forest a tropical forest straddling parts of Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico. In Green Wars, Megan Ybarra demonstrates that these protected areas were created in an undemocratic process, as most people living in these regions did not know that the parks existed upon their creation. Green Wars traces how the history of these protected areas is linked to the struggles local Maya Q'eqchi' residents faced in claiming territory following their return to Alta Verapaz and the Petén after fleeing violence during the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. Ybarra draws on several years of research in various Q'eqchi' communities and work with local NGO projects to demonstrate how "global conservation practices limit the possibilities of Indigenous [End Page 298] land activism" (p. 24) by denying Q'eqchi's land titles and violently expelling them from protected areas.
Ybarra's green war analytic illustrates how narratives of narcotrafficking and conservation reframe Indigenous genocide survivors as narcos or land-hungry immigrants seeking to destroy forests, which enables their expulsion. Conservation in the Maya Forest, in fact, hinges on this violence, both during the past Civil War and in the present, to expel Indigenous peoples from their lands and create "white wilderness imaginaries" (p. 52). Drawing on theoretical frameworks from feminist political ecology, Indigenous studies, and postcolonial theory, this book is an important read for anyone working in conservation and also serves as a guide for critical field work for human geographers and those in related social science fields.
Ybarra documents how the creation of these protected areas is the most recent manifestation of racialized dispossession the Q'eqchi' population has faced. Q'eqchi's have experienced the Spanish invasion, liberal governments granting their lands to German settlers, displacement and genocide during the Civil War, and now current state attempts to reject their territorial claims on the basis of their status as narco-peasants or in the name of conservation. Ybarra contends that these narratives framing Q'eqchi's as Civil War insurgents, land-hungry migrants, or narco-peasants limit "indigenous life chances" (p. 138) by imposing structural violence (inadequate state provision of services, shortened lifespans), physical violence (forced removals from protected areas with burning of crops and houses), and individualization (rather than recognizing these Indigenous peoples as a body politic). Instead, Ybarra argues, Q'eqchi's should be seen as Indigenous people who have been continually racially dispossessed and are seeking territory that forms part of their Indigenous identity. They have an inherent right to territory, one that should not be predicated on their capacity for being good Indigenous environmental stewards (a designation based on outsiders' values, which can change) or the impossible demonstration of residing in areas since "time immemorial" (since they have been repeatedly racially dispossessed) (p. 118).
The uncomfortable argument at the heart of the book is that conservation in the Maya Forest is a territorial practice that is inextricably tied to violent, racialized dispossession in both the past and present. Many international NGOs working in Guatemala claim to be apolitical and ignore the role of the Civil War in enabling protected area creation while framing its survivors as land-hungry migrants that need policing, thus "making indigenous territorial rights unthinkable" (p. 58). Drawing upon Foucault's biopolitics and Mbembe's necropolitics, Ybarra argues that recent narratives labeling poor rural residents as narcos simply because they live in trafficking corridors allows violence against them to be justified and helps maintain protected areas devoid of residents. Both...