Unsettling: Land dispossession and enduring inequity for the Q'eqchi' Maya in the Guatemalan and Belizean frontier colonization process

Liza Grandia
Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley
July, 2006


Engaged with political ecology and agrarian studies, this dissertation explores the fate of Q'eqchi' migrants who fled highland coffee plantation labor over the past century to establish subsistence farms in the northern lowland Maya forests. Now at the edge of the agricultural frontier, the Q'eqchi' (Guatemala's second largest Maya group, numbering almost a million people) find themselves in conflict with conservationists who established protected areas across the region throughout the 1990s. Questioning teleological frontier narratives, I argue that the lowland Guatemalan colonization process unfolded unevenly and repeatedly ripped Q'eqchi' settlers from their homesteads---thereby replicating the very same land inequities that first precipitated the national impulse for colonization. Based on twenty months of field research in the departments of Izabal and Pet in Guatemala and the Toledo district in Belize, I found that land-legalization projects financed by multilateral development banks ostensibly to help small holders are actually exacerbating land speculation by facilitating the voracious expansion of cattle ranching onto Q'eqchi' land. Eerily reminiscent of government policies displacing of Q'egchi' peoples from their territory at the end of the nineteenth century to provide land to foreign coffee investors, the contemporary unsettling of Q'eqchi' people by cattle ranching likely will be further accelerated by two globalization processes on the horizon, the Puebla to PanamPlan (PPP) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Through a theory of enclosure and perpetual primitive accumulation, I contend that the agrarian displacement of the Q'eqchi' is as much about controlling labor as it is about land.