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Q'eqchi' Mayas and defense of territory : learning through the contentious politics of land in “post-conflict” Guatemala Knowlton, Autumn


My study explores how indigenous Q’eqchi’ Mayas in Guatemala draw political cohesion from their cultural relationship to their ancestral territories when responding to violent dispossession by extractive mining corporations and mono-crop agriculture. Drawing upon participant observation and 39 interviews conducted in the municipalities of Panzós and El Estor in 2013 and 2014, my research considers Q’eqchi’s’ defense of territory (defensa del territorio) as a salient, culturally specific collective action that draws continuity from centuries of conflicts over control of land and natural resources in Guatemala. Throughout Spanish colonization, independence, entry into the world capitalist market, and 20th century political upheavals, conflicts over land have featured consistently. In more recent history, the 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-1996) was a focal point of Q’eqchi’ research contributors’ testimony on their longstanding and interminable suffering for their lands. As a result of favorable conditions for international investors since the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords, the Guatemalan government has opened up the country, and indigenous lands in particular, to large-scale investment and development. Based on my findings, and building on Liza Grandia’s (2012) framing of three “conquests” of Q’eqchi’ lands, my study offers the term “fourth conquest” (Knowlton, 2016), a conquest by corporation, to explain the unique conjuncture of forces Q’eqchi’s face today when defending their lands. Their current tactical focus on land titling and juridical certainty is a response to the renewed invasion of extractive corporations into their ancestral territories. Through applying informal and social movement learning theories, this study considers Q’eqchi’s’ political encounters in defense of land as moments of learning which shape them as political actors and subjects. For Q’eqchi’s, land represents the confluence of cultural and spiritual bonds, material sustenance, and struggles to end political marginalization. A study of the labors involved in defense of territory provides valuable insights into the culturally specific learning processes that both structure and result from myriad political interventions into community, municipal, national, and international politics. Q’eqchi’s are strategically forming short and long-term alliances, and adopting identity claims based on indigenous rights, human rights, Guatemalan citizenship, and their cultural ties to their ancestral territory.

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