For the Q’eqchi’ Maya Lowlanders, commonsare deeply rooted in the construction of their identity and culture. Commons,for the Q’eqchi’, go beyond the material representation of shared village land.They reveal the relationship between one member of their community with theothers, playing an integral part to the formation of their society.
In the wakeof the escalating global pressures of neoliberal privatization andcommodification, resulting in dispossession and enclosure, commons arere-entering the spotlight as locations of interest and resistance foracademics, anthropologists and indigenous communities alike. Forms of enclosuretoday, as in the 18th and 19th century, are often markedwith violent predations of capitalist accumulation, based on Western ideologiesand discourses (Vasudevan et al, 2007). Liza Grandia, an anthropologist, in hermoving book “Enclosed”, brings to light the struggles the Q’eqchi’ people havefaced in the wake of these events, narrating the forms of dispossession theyhave faced since the Spanish colonization of Guatemala. Her book outlines howenclosure and privatization have manifested over the years through physical,legal and political processes which legitimize enclosure through furthercultural, social and disciplinary processes. This essay will focus on the contemporaryforms of enclosure and dispossession, highlighting how the methods and facets associatedwith historical colonial practice are replicated today. With particular focuson the effects and consequences that the various forms of capitalism have broughtto Guatemala. This essay will explore the scars left by land reforms, primitiveaccumulation and practices of enclosure and ‘economic development’ on indigenouscommunities through the lens of the Q’eqchi’ Maya (Grandia, 2012).
Grandia has worked and lived among theQ’eqchi peoples, or ‘Aj Ral Choch’ (sons and daughters of the earth), since1993. Her deep understanding and knowledge of the Q’eqchi’ history and societalstructure allow for a powerful insight into the repeated dispossession andenclosure they have faced since the 16th centaury Spanish conquestto the modern day (Grandia, 2012). The timeline she constructs through herin-depth analysis provides a chilling narrative of repeated colonial practices,demonstrating how ideological colonial “debris” still plagues indigenous peoplestoday (Adams, 2003, p19). Grandia challenges Harvey’s belief, that contemporaryglobalization has created new forms of dispossession, and the view thatpractices such as primitive accumulation were a “pre-capitalist phenomenon”(Harvey 2003; Hartsock, 2006, p177).
Rather, her work shows that such practicesof dispossession and enclosure are neither new nor old but are the inherent to capitalismacross all forms and time-scales. As such, indigenous peoples, such as the Q’eqchi’have suffered recycled injustices when capitalism collides with their cultureand livelihood (Grandia, 2007, 2012). Historicalcolonial practices, based on cultural discourses of modernity and rationality,are now being echoed through neo-liberalism producing the same outcome ofregulated political subjectivities and forcing their enclosure (Vasudevan et al,2007, 2008; Quijano, 2007). Grandia draws a parallel between Marx’snarratives of English enclosures with that of the Q’eqchi’ Maya and documentsthe various forms of enclosure that have occurred, starting with the Spanishfriars in the 16th century, then under nationalist liberalism in the19th century (through the invitation of German coffee planters). Shenarrates the enclosure that neoliberalism has brought the the Q’eqchi’ throughthe ‘market-assisted’ land reform project introduced by the World Bank, makingthe Aj Ral Choch vulnerable to land grabs by cattle ranchers and transnationalagro-fuel companies. Lastly, she gives insight to potential further enclosureof the Q’eqchi under the proposed Puebla to Panama Plan (PPP), in which theQ’eqchi’ lands will be incorporated into a corporate capitalistic plan underthe banner of ‘economic development’.
While the businesses or elites may changename or form, the Marxist narrative of enclosure, in which labour is controlledand property appropriated, remains the same. Therefore, a strong argument that dispossessionsand primitive accumulation of commons is inextricably linked to capitalismacross temporal scales (Grandia, 2012, Boal, 2001). As such, Grandia’s attentionto the repeated dispossessions of the Q’eqchi Maya can be applied on a broaderscope to examine other forms of contemporary enclosure of public commonsthrough capitalist avenues. Her work brings to the fore the oppression andpractices used to dispossess not only one group of indigenous peoples but tomany within the same region, and potentially, the globe. Her book, and otheranalysis’ like it, bring indigenous people, academics and activists a better understandingof the challenges indigenous people face, therefore giving them a firmerfoundation for resistance.
A major effect of colonialism, corporateglobalization and the rise of transnational institutions throughout the world, isthe European whitewashing of other forms of knowledge and understanding. Thespread, often through violence, of European Enlightenment has constrained muchof the world to European universality (Fitzptrick 1992). The discourses createdby colonial and capitalistic powers, justified by ‘rationality’ and ‘modernity’,have always been upheld and enforced by the law (Blomley, 2003). Theimplementation of law, allows the controlling power a legitimate justificationfor their actions. However, these laws often collide forcefully with theprevious inhabitant’s beliefs. Potentially one of the strongest forcesthreating indigenous understanding and management of commons and nature is the formationof property rights, resulting in (neo)liberal land reforms.
The spatial energy ofcapitalism, when coupled with property rights, endeavours to deterritorializepeople by detaching them from previous relationships with land in accordancewith the requirements of capital (Marx,1867;Mitchel, 1997). As such, indigenous people find themselves removed or separatedfrom their commons through the implementation of property rights under capitalisticforces. To facilitate property rights an imagined emptying of land and commonsis necessary, to develop a void space in which property rights can beestablished (Sack 1986). A powerful precursor to the formation of property rightsand land reforms is the survey. Surveys have the potential to erase indigenousunderstanding of their relation to a place into an object to be measured,mapped and distributed by the new economic and spatial order (Mitchel, 1997).Throughout temporal scales, surveys have been used as a tool for the formationof disciplinary power, redefining space after dispossession (Harris,1993). “Enclosed” brings to light the damage,dispossession and enclosure that the Q’eqchi’ Maya people have faced due to theconstruct of private property that has been forced upon them through surveys.
Perhaps the most damaging of which isthe Guatemalan governments decision to incorporate the World Banks proposal ofa “market-assisted agrarian reform” in 1998. The core belief behind theproposal was that without official property rights, indigenous communitieswould be unable to create capital within a capitalist system, erasing thecultural value with the land held by indigenous communities. However, as withthe erection of property rights within the colonial era and the creation ofproperty rights in England in the 16th century, the process hasmerely reinforced the power of elites and separated the Q’eqchi’ from theirland at a faster rate.
Using legal or illegal violent means, cattle ranchers,narco-traffickers and now agro-fuel corporations are tricking, buying andforcing Q’eqchi’ landowners off their small parcels of land (Grandia 2007, 2012.Through the World Banks project, the agrarian reconcentration is now legallylegitimate. Worryingly, Tauli-Corpuz and Tamang (2007) have estimated that worldwide,the net forest loss from agro-fuel plantations is upwards of 20,000 hectares aday, which is 7.
3m hectares a year. The rapid expansion of African Palmplantations in Guatamala, has seriously threatened food and water security,redirecting or destroying common resources into inedible biofuels. With decreasingresources and land to live on, the Q’eqchi’ way of life is quickly becoming unsustainable(Aj Ral Ch’och). Whilst Grandia emphasis’ the enclosure this leads to for theQ’eqchi’ between biological corridors and plantations, her examination showsthe catastrophic result of forcibly incorporating indigenous communities intoalien concepts such as property rights. The World Bank agrarian land reformsurvey has merely opened up further possibilities for dispossession andenclosure through the neoliberal absurdity that ‘theproblems of privatization can be solved with more privatization’ (Grandia 2012). Theland reforms, through the implementation property rights, are one of the toolsof primitive accumulation. Primitive accumulation, orin the German ‘ursprünglich’, meaning “original accumulation is a process thatcreates the distinction between possessors and non-possessors.
Contradictingthe work of Adam Smith, who argued capital is accumulated from ‘hard-work’,Marx in chapters 25-33 of Capital vol1 explains that money gets formulated intocapital through the creation of a willing wage force. Primitive accumulation,therefore, is how the creation of this willing wage force comes into being.Marx quite strongly states that this accumulation comes from varying forms offorce and violence (Marx 1867). Put roundly, Harvey describes primitiveaccumulations as that which “entails taking land … enclosing it (could be through property laws, renaming it, legalstructures) … expelling a resident population to create a landlessproletariat, and then releasing the land into the privatized mainstream ofcapital accumulation” (Harvey 2005: 145-6). The crux of primitive accumulationis separating a labourer from his means of production, forcing him into wagelabour. Without a means of production, the labourer has no means to accumulatesurplus value and creating a reliance on a wage (Marx 1867).
Through the transformation of the social means of subsistenceinto capital and the evolution of immediate producers into wage-labourers, eliteshave repeatedly used primitive accumulation, within capitalist structures, fortheir personal gain at the expense of the labourers. There is academicdebate as to whether primitive accumulation is a concept that can only beapplied to the Marxist context of 16th century English villagecommons or as a process that is ongoing (Read, 2000; Luxembourg 2003; Perelman1983,2000). Those that believe it to be an attribute of capitalisms distantpast, believe that primitive accumulation arose under specific circumstances oftime, the ideological role of “improvement” (which willbe examined later), and under the foundations of English feudalism thatled to the enclosures of commons and the reduction of subsistence producersinto wage labourers (Read 2000; Grandia 2006). But whenindigenous societies from the colonial-era to the present day, are dispossessedfrom their land and means of production and subjugated by property rights andlaws, what choice do they have than to abandon their social and culturalbeliefs and enter the capitalist market society in the name of survival? Grandia highlights that Marx’s narrative ofprimitive accumulation within the English enclosures context is the “classicform” of primitive accumulation (Grandia 2007, p4). She notes the similaritiesbetween the Q’eqchi’ farmers and the English peasants, as people who enjoycommunity, leisure and subsistence living. Whilst noting these similarities,she questions how, like the English peasants, many Q’eqchi’ have ended upworking for wage labour for capitalists without the force of primitiveaccumulation. The process is a necessary requirement for any expansion ofcapitalism into new spaces, a function to strip any previous pre-capitalistmarket (Grandia 2007). The form of capitalism may change, through time andspace, but the result and the necessary use of force to achieve said resultremain constant (Weber 1978).
The “series of forcible methods” that Marx speaksof within primitive accumulation, including trickery and violence, are still presenttoday. Cattle ranchers, narco-traffickers and agro-fuel companies threaten theQ’eqchi’, set fire to their land, trick them into selling land for worthlessitems, and even go as far as to pay for tips about tragedies, such as illness, totarget the most vulnerable. Once removed from the land the Q’eqchi’ often haveto work for the new business in order to have land to live on or to acquire themoney needed to support their families (Grandia 2012). Those that refuse, orcan not find work, face malnutrition and absolute poverty (Aj Ral Ch’och). Primitiveaccumulation has been, and will continue to be, capitalism’s method of choicein cementing its place in new markets and places. “Enclosed” brings intoreality the continual motion of dispossession of indigenous people under capitalisticprocesses. The Q’eqchi Maya have found themselvesstruggling against a plethora of enclosure methods. Some business, includingthe cattle ranchers, want a synchronic movement of enclosure, bringing the landunder the orbit of capitalism and using the Q’eqchi as labourers.
Whilstothers, such as the agro-fuel businesses have little need for Q’eqchi’ labour,and seek to physically enclose the Q’eqchi off their land with fences andenforcing property rights, legitimized by laws few Q’eqchi acknowledge (Grandia2007, 2012). The introduction of physical techniques of enclosure, includingmaps, surveys, roads and boundary lines has blocked Q’eqchi’ migrationthreatening their access to necessary resources and farming land (Harris 2004).With the once-unquestioned common rights to timber and soil removed, enclosurebecomes a binary of inclusion or exclusion within the dominant market(Vesudevan et al 2007).
Enclosure can also come in the form ofdiachronic movements, making the newly dispossessed more reliant on markets. Asthe Q’eqchi’ are introduced into the capitalist market and have greater contactwith the rest of Guatemala and the world, their reliance and interest onconsumerist products has grown, increasing their reliance on the market and drivingthem into debt (Grandia 2007, 2012). Through the separation of their means ofproduction and increased reliance on non-subsistence food and products, many Q’eqchi’have been forced into abandoning cultural beliefs and communities in order to survive.Ironically, the land reforms and turning the Q’eqchi’s land into pastures andplantations denotes from the colonial discourse of ‘improvement’, turning’terra nullius’ (empty land) into land that can accumulate capital.
As Wood notes,”We might like to think about the implications of a culture in which the wordfor ‘making better’ is rooted in the world formonetary profit”, where economic improvement trumps socio-cultural values andhuman welfare (Wood 1991, p81). Indigenous people, like the Q’eqchi’ whoface such enclosure but maintain their ancestral livelihoods, get squeezed ontofrontiers. These deeply-political areas of “awkward engagement” and “culturalfriction” often result in further violence (Tsing, 2005, xi; Harvey, 2003;Retort, 2005). The combination of a society trying to live in-betweenfeudalistic cattle ranching, transitional agro-businesses, superhighways andbiologically protected corridors often results in conflict. The compression ofso many different drivers, caught up in different beliefs and motivations makefrontiers a prime location in examining the global capitalism and accumulation.Frontiers are important ‘test-sites’ for the varying forms of capitalism.
Ideas,accumulation and practices that are intended throughout a country are oftenfirst sampled in frontiers, in an attempt to normalize them before introducingthem else where. (Foweraker 1981; Retort, 2005, Grandia 2007, 2012). The Q’eqchi’,and other indigenous communities that are forced into frontiers, are oftentrapped in these violent spaces. Not only do they face the struggles offrontiers but often the next generations do too. In communities with highfertility rates, “The peasantry is effectively divorced from the means ofproduction through time” (Foweraker 1981, p175). As such, it is important thatthose unwillingly trapped in frontiers find a way out.
The dispossessed Aj Ral Ch’och who havebeen pushed into these frontiers and stripped of their ancestral common resourcesare adamant to fight against enduring poverty and hunger, through formingcommunal resistance institutions. Whilst Granida focuses more on the problemsthe Q’eqchi face and to a lesser degree their resistance movements, many Q’eqchi’communities are pushing back against the barrage of injustices they face. Awave of community driven regulation in the sale or leasing of land to cattle ranchers,intermediaries and corporate agents is taking hold. Communities gather together,and denounce the Land Reform’s ‘individual land ownership’ to share their landsin a traditional Q’eqchi’ fashion.
With the backing of whole communities and strengthenedcommunity institutions, individuals are harder to target, threaten or trick.Those that do sell ‘voluntarily’, breaching the communal agreement, areexpelled from the community (Alonso-Fradejas 2013). On a wider scale,indigenous people across Guatemala are increasing “campesino a campesion”(farmer to farmer) networks. These networks include knowledge sharing and indigenousfarmer’s markets. These markets, void of intermediaries, drive to improve food sovereigntyand diversification of crops. As such, they not only strengthen the Q’eqchi’farming economy but also break down economic and commercial barriers (Aj Ral Ch’och).
Q’eqchi’ people, human rights organizations and more campaignregularly to the Guatemalan government in an effort for the recognition of Q’eqchirights (Alonso-Fradejas 2013). Tragically, whilst these movements arenecessary and admirable, the Guatemalan government are still largely favouringthe elites and transnational corporations. Founded in liberal ideology, startingwith the German coffee plantations, the Guatemalan government still see ‘development’in purely economic terms.
Entrenched in the colonial discourse of ‘improvement’being gaining capital from the land, the African Palm and sugarcane plantationsare growing at an alarming rate (Aj Ral Ch’och; Grandia 2007, 2012). Foreigndirect investment has grown from $2 billion in the 1990s to $4.5 billion by2005 (World Bank 2006). Obsessed with attracting more foreign investment tocreate wealth, the Guatemalan government are keen to create an accessible investmentclimate.
As such, they are keen to enforce property rights and land titling programmes,such as that of the World Bank, to maintain legal and property structures in afashion that is ‘legible’ to investors (Grandia, 2012; Scott 1998). With suchan attitude, growth of the planation’s will continue to grow, resulting in aneconomic drain from Guatemala into the bank accounts of the foreign corporationsthat own them. More pressingly, the mono-crop culture will create further foodand water insecurity for the Q’eqchi’ and other indigenous communities who havealready been victim to primitive accumulation, dispossession and enclosure. Looking forward, the approach of the Guatemalangovernment and other Latin American governments to see GDP as the mainindicator of ‘development’, implies the vicious cycle of indigenous oppression isunlikely to break. On the contrary, neo-liberal programmes on even vasterscales are on the horizon, under the banner of ‘economic integration’. ThePuebla to Panama Plan (PPP) is an Inter-American Development Bank concept,linking 9000km of dry canals across Latin America, connecting the Atlantic tothe Pacific. The justification for which is bringing the region up to $3billion increase in annual trade and bring ‘economically productive’infrastructure to under-developed areas.
However, in reality, as Grandia playfullyputs it, PPP stands for “Profits and Primitive Accumulation in the name ofProgress” (Grandia 2012, p174). Despite, corporate attempts to ‘green-wash’ and’people-wash’ the project, indigenous communities and activists have shown thatthe transport networks will be used for further common resource extraction andprovide few employment opportunities. Not only will planned infrastructure,including superhighways and pipelines cut through remaining indigenous lands,but infrastructure already built, such as Sierra de las Minas dam, have alreadydisplaced Q’eqchi’ villages (Grandia, 2012).
Illich (1983) argues that state authoritiesoften enclose public space for ‘beneficial’ infrastructure projects, so theycan lay down property rights and bring them under governmental control. Withlittle ‘trickle-down’ benefits for indigenous communities from suchinfrastructure, and the lessons learnt from history, it is clear why there is scepticismand resistance to the project.