Conservation and Society

: 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 35--48

Indigenous Peoples, Representation and Citizenship in Guatemalan Forestry

Anne M Larson 
 Centre for International Forestry Research, PO Box BOCBD, Bogor 16000, Indonesia

Correspondence Address:
Anne M Larson
Apartado J-148, Managua, Nicaragua


Forestry decision-making is still largely centralised in Guatemala. Nevertheless, elected municipal gov­ernments can now play a key role in local forest management. These local governments, with some ex­ceptions, are the principal local institutions empowered to participate in natural resource authority. Some theorists argue that such elected local officials are the most likely to be representative and downwardly accountable. But do these political institutions have the ability to represent the interests of minority and historically excluded or oppressed groups? Latin American indigenous movements are fighting for new conceptions of democracy and practices of representation that recognise collective rights and respect for customary law and authority. How does this approach weigh against elected local government? This arti­cle compares how elected municipal governments versus traditional indigenous authorities represent the interests of indigenous communities in forest management. It traces the historical context of relations be­tween indigenous people and the state in the region, and then presents the findings from case studies in two Guatemalan municipalities. The article finds that both authorities have some strengths as well as im­portant weaknesses, thus supporting arguments for the reinvention of both liberal democracy and tradi­tion in the interest of inclusive citizenship.

How to cite this article:
Larson AM. Indigenous Peoples, Representation and Citizenship in Guatemalan Forestry.Conservat Soc 2008;6:35-48

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WHICH LOCAL INSTITUTIONS are chosen and recognised in the process of decentralisation (Ribot 2005)? What are the implications for local democracy? Some scholars argue that new institutions being created and supported under de­centralisation are undermining representation and the emergence of democratic local government (Manor 2004; Ribot 2004; Ribot & Larson 2005). At the same time, powerful arguments are challenging Western ideals of democracy and its ability, as currently conceived, to rep­resent the interests of groups that have been historically marginalised or excluded, such as indigenous peoples in Latin America (Van Cott 1994, 2000a, b; Yashar 1999).

This article analyses the dynamics of forestry decen­tralisation in two Guatemalan municipalities 1 , both with populations that are over 90 per cent indigenous. Institu­tional choice in this context is among elected and 'other' non-elected local institutions. It is about the degree to which elected authorities fulfil their mandate to be representative and accountable and the degree to which non­elected bodies can serve these same functions. In the Guatemalan case, the National Institute of Forests (INAB) has chosen to work through municipal govern­ments, helping establish municipal forestry offices in a third of the nation's municipalities. To some extent, how­ever, the municipal forestry offices act as deconcentrated offices of the INAB with little discretionary power. They carry out responsibilities delegated by the INAB and serve as intermediaries among the INAB, municipal gov­ernments and local residents. Nevertheless, in part be­cause they are hired and supervised by the municipal government, some municipal forestry offices have re­sponded to local demands in important ways.

One of the municipalities analysed here is seen by the INAB as having a particularly 'successful' forestry of­fice. The other is a municipality in which the INAB has been unable to establish a local forestry office due to the opposition of a local traditional authority, which some­what forcibly took control over the forest sector, and has refused to allow the INAB to work there. These sharply contrasting cases are used to interrogate the implications of institutional choice and of municipal versus traditional authority specifically, in light of indigenous demands for representation, citizenship and the respect for collective and individual rights.

Questions, Hypotheses and Methods

What are local priorities with regard to forests among in­digenous people, and to what extent do elected municipal versus traditional authorities represent or respond to their interests? Some scholars and practitioners assume mu­nicipal authorities to be more likely to be representative, because elections (and other oversight applied to local government) open greater potential space for downward accountability and active citizenship. Other scholars and practitioners expect indigenous authorities to better un­derstand and speak for the demands of indigenous people, and see them as an important interlocutor with the state. The research presented in this article finds no simple an­swer; rather, both hypotheses are valid. Using two case studies, this article analyses current debates on institu­tional choice and recognition as they affect representation and citizenship.

The article argues that it may not be possible for politi­cal parties and local governments that form part of a state that has historically repressed the indigenous population to unproblematically become representative of and ac­countable to that same population. Critiquing which insti­tution the central government recognises may be less important than examining the processes by which indige­nous peoples seek representation and perform citizenship through both types of institutions. In the two cases dis­cussed in this paper, indigenous peoples engage actively with both municipal and indigenous authorities, but in different ways, under different circumstances, and with different results.

The background research for this study is based upon the review of existing publications [including non­governmental organisation (NGO) studies, municipal de­velopment plans and forest policies] and recent historical documents on Guatemala, as well as extensive interviews, primarily in the capital, over a period of 3 years. The field research, discussed in the empirical section, in­volved two visits to the departmental capital of Quiche and two week long visits to the field sites with a research assistant, in January 2005. About thirty in-depth inter­views were conducted in each, with municipal, indige­nous, NGO and national government officials, as well as with a variety of rural community leaders. [2]

Outline of the Article

This article is organised into five sections including this introduction. The next section addresses theoretical questions regarding democracy, with particular emphasis on Latin American indigenous history and movements. The third section examines forestry decentralisation in Gua­temala and presents the two case studies. This is followed by a discussion and analysis of representation and citi­zenship based on the findings, and finally a short conclu­sion.

 Theoretical Considerations in Latin American Context

'Institutional choice' refers to the entities chosen by gov­ernments to receive powers under decentralisation and, most importantly, to the political, ideological and theo­retical positions underlying that choice (Ribot 2005). The 'recognition' of a particular local institution in turn con­fers power and legitimacy and 'has multiple effects that can shape democratic inclusion' and forms of belonging (Ribot 2005: 15). Following this logic, the recognition of downwardly accountable institutions, usually locally elected governments, will deepen inclusive democracy and citizenship, whereas the recognition of other parallel institutions such as traditional authorities, NGOs or stakeholder committees may undermine elected authority (Manor 2004) and create opportunities for elite capture (Ribot 2004).

In contrast, other theorists celebrate pluralism, which could be described for the purposes of this discussion as the recognition of numerous local institutions, as a good in and of itself (Wollenberg et al. 2005), in that it ac­knowledges diversity and the importance of debate and negotiation. Many at least identify an important role for civil society organisations in the construction of democ­racy (Fox 2004; Larson 2004). The articles in this volume provide contradictory evidence on the role of social movements or community organisations and their relation to local government. These studies suggest the impor­tance of history and context to understanding the condi­tions under which the choice of certain institutions leads to more inclusive outcomes.

Local Democracy in Historical Context

Any discussion of institutional choice in Latin America must be based on an analysis of the needs and demands of the region's indigenous movements and an understanding of the historical relations between these populations and the state. Since the 1990s in particular, these movements have made powerful arguments for the transformation of the region's democracies in radical ways, based on an ex­panded conception of citizenship and the construction of pluricultural and multi-ethnic states (Van Cott 2000a, b). They argue for a pluralist democracy that includes not only respect for individuals and their ideas but also for collective identities based on socio-cultural differences (Ticona Alejo 2000). The discussion here touches on a series of five points of important historical and cultural significance for the region, before going on to discuss debates regarding customary authority.

The first point of debate is the myth of the mestizo na­tion-state and the history of indigenismo 3 as the state sanctioned policy to assimilate and destroy indigenous populations. Virtually all Latin American constitutions failed to recognise, until very recently, that their popula­tions are not, in fact, mestizo, or uniformly of mixed race and culture: 'children of a mythical European father and Indian mother' (Van Cott 1994: 3). Throughout Latin America, from countries with populations that are 1 per cent indigenous to those that are over 50 per cent, the myth that the original inhabitants have disappeared has been perpetuated by the dominant, if not majority, non­indigenous leaders.

This policy of exclusion is rooted in the colonial pe­riod, which established 'a rigid race-based class hierar­chy' and the construction of nation-states through the 'conquest, domination and exploitation of indigenous peoples' (Van Cott 2000a: 2). Indigenous policies under independence evolved from annihilation, to forced re­moval to reservations, and, finally, to indigenismo, which was broadly adopted by 1940 and is still predominant in laws enacted as recently as the 1980s aiming 'to trans­form Indians into undifferentiated citizens' (Van Cott 1994: 260). Inclusion, citizenship and class mobility, then, required assimilation, and those who chose to main­tain their indigenous identity remain excluded (Eckstein & Wickham-Crowley 2003).

Indigenismo is based on a racist ideology of guardian­ship or tutelage, the protection of Indian welfare and pa­ternalism, with education as a tool for cultural assimilation and the defence of culture as folklore (Tresi­erra 1994). Tresierra (1994) traces indigenist principles through the history of the Mexican state, identifying dif­ferent configurations of accommodation and policy but always with the same fundamental philosophy, even with the rise of 'participatory indigenismo' in the 1980s and 1990s. He argues that the primary goal of the state is to gain access to Indians' lands and natural resources. When indigenist strategies fail, the state's recourse has regularly been to turn to violence and repression.

This violence was particularly brutal under Guate­mala's military governments in the second half of the last century (Adams 1994). Hundreds of indigenous commu­nities were annihilated during the war that ended with peace accords in 1996, by an army that sought 'to rein­vent the Maya … as a people bereft of history, of mem­ory, and above all of agency in their own affairs' (Maybury-Lewis 2002: xvi).

A second important point of debate is the growing rec­ognition that the regions' democracies are not, in fact, consolidated, due to the failure of the liberal democratic model-based on notions of individual universal val­ues-to protect the rights of indigenous individuals. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, many Latin American countries returned to democratic rule after a period of authoritarian regimes, by instituting formal structures of democracy, such as elections and the right to organise. In parallel to this democratic opening, eco­nomic liberalisation and structural adjustment policies (SAPs) were also implemented (Yashar 1998). The result­ing distribution of income and wealth in Latin America remains highly skewed, with SAPs only deepening exist­ing inequities (Eckstein & Wickham-Crowley 2003).

Van Cott (2000a) argues that democratic consolidation thus faces two fundamental challenges: the legitimacy of a political system theoretically based on equality but with worsening economic conditions, and the gap between formal rights and the effective practice of citizenship, particularly for the poor. In Latin America, the configura­tion of new democracies occurred in a context of weak rule of law, weakening states and strengthening rural el­ites, resulting in states that serve 'private interests rather than the public good' (Van Cott 2000a: 5). Under these conditions, neither the political, civil or socio-economic dimensions of citizenship (Marshall 1963) are guaran­teed, in practice, for groups that have traditionally suf­fered discrimination. Even in countries where civil rights have improved substantially, permitting safe spaces for the rise of indigenous movements today, political spaces are still substantially blocked while economic conditions worsen.

Liberal democracies based on universal individual rights may claim to represent all people equally but in practice 'privilege certain dominant voices over others' (Yashar 1999: fn. 32). In the context of state repression, violence and policies of assimilation, it is no surprise that indigenous people fail to believe that such discourse, or even its institutionalisation in national law, will guarantee and protect their individual rights. Hence, indigenous movements are challenging the liberal notion that the in­dividual be the only unit of representation, demanding in­stead that 'the state simultaneously protect members' individual civil and political rights and recognise indige­nous communities as a political unit' (Yashar 1999: 92, emphasis in original). In a sense, guaranteeing collective rights provides a legal basis for fighting assimilation, which in practice had been the only avenue for indige­nous people to gain equal citizenship.

A third critical element is the powerful challenge to the liberal democratic model implicit in demands for indige­nous self-determination, respect for indigenous territories and greater indigenous political participation. Indigenous movements are promoting multiple forms of citizenship and the formation of states based on diversity and plural­ism (Jelin & Hershberg 1998) and the guarantee of national representation (Yashar 1998). The demand for autonomy is a collective political demand for a new pact between indigenous groups and the rest of society and the state (Diaz Polanco 1991). That is, very few indigenous groups in Latin America are demanding politi­cal sovereignty, but rather to be able to live according to their own socio-cultural traditions in the context of the nation-state and increase their political representation and participation in decisions that affect them (Field 1996; Yashar 1999; Perreault 2001), as well as to propose new forms of development such as 'development-with­identity' (Laurie et al. 2005). Autonomy and self­determination are conceived of as necessary for inclusive citizenship.

The fourth important element of history is the wide­spread lack of legitimacy and discrediting of political parties throughout Latin America and demands for alter­native forms of representation. If the Latin American state protects elite interests, one of the key mechanisms through which this occurs is political parties. Seligson's (2004) study of democracy in ten Latin American coun­tries found that political parties in all but one country were given the lowest score (35.5 on a scale of 100) on citizen confidence in comparison with seven other na­tional institutions: Catholic church, police, armed forces, Supreme Court, election tribunal, municipal governments and Congress.

Numerous scholars speak of a generalised crisis of rep­resentation. Van Cott (2000a: 9) writes that 'Latin American politics is dominated by unrepresentative, oli­garchic, personalistic parties with weak roots in society, which obstruct the access of popular groups and periph­eral populations (in most countries, the majority of the population) to political decision-making spheres.' Social movements-not only indigenous-have thus aimed to strengthen citizen's rights and create alternative channels of access and representation to the state, though at the same time, the formation of indigenous political parties has sometimes been successful (Sieder 2002a).

Writing on Guatemala, Fonseca (2004: 139) argues that political parties are 'elitist, patrimonialist and majori­tarian' and constitute a serious obstacle to democracy (for more on citizen perceptions of Guatemalan democracy, see Baviskar & Malone 2004). Nor are they in any way representative of Guatemalan society. For them, he ar­gues, 'representation' means adopting the right moral, cultural and political language during election periods. A divided citizenry has been unable to challenge this and build alternatives. This is true in spite of the fact that Guatemalan law allows citizens to run for local office without being a member of a political party, if they are backed by a civic committee.

The challenges of entry into the political sphere, even at the municipal level in majority indigenous municipali­ties, provide a fifth important historical pattern. The Bo­livian case best highlights the obstacles to participation faced by indigenous peoples. In 1994, important changes were incorporated into the new constitution. It estab­lished collective as well as individual citizens; recognised collective rights to self-government, special representation and ethnic pluralism, along with individual rights; and made the uniform state more flexible to include a di­versity of ethnic political structures (Van Cott 2000a, b). At the same time, the Law of Popular Participation was passed promoting decentralisation and structures for citi­zen participation in municipal decision-making, in par­ticular recognising the role of traditional indigenous leaders and organisations and thus acknowledging this expression of collective identity (Postero 2004).

Nevertheless, the results were limited. Recognition, in this sense, was not enough, and democratic institutions still limited representation. Postero (2004: 203-204) ar­gues that structural obstacles kept indigenous representa­tives out of local office while increasing the divisive role of political parties in community affairs. The law estab­lished a generic structure for municipal meetings based on western models that did not match the different forms of authority or representation of either the lowland or highland indigenous groups (see also Beneria-Surkin 2004). Even when indigenous people were able to par­ticipate, they were forced to work within prescribed agendas and processes, such that discussions centred on filling the requirements for access to funding rather than promoting debates about autonomy or cultural rights. Postero (2004: 204) concludes that 'the basic institutions of power, racism and traditional political parties had not been sufficiently challenged by the reforms'.

Despite widespread distrust of political parties, mu­nicipal governments and the reform process, decentralisa­tion is largely seen as compatible with indigenous demands for autonomy and greater self-determination. There are cases in which it has clearly offered new points of entry into politics, new spaces for participation and new kinds of accountability (Yashar 1999; Sieder 2002a; Postero & Zamosc 2004). Some argue that it is a neces­sary but insufficient condition for indigenous representa­tion (Warren 1998).

The Risks of the Customary

History clearly presents profound structural obstacles to the full political incorporation of indigenous peoples into the Latin American nation-state as it is currently con­ceived. It illustrates some of the demands and successes of a large and vibrant indigenous movement, and it dem­onstrates the 'power of indigenous rights-as a social movement and a critical discourse-to raise important is­sues for emerging democracies at this historical moment' (Warren 1998: 206). The fundamental democratic issue here is the balance of autonomy and inclusion (Sieder 2002b), of individual and collective rights, and the chal­lenge of guaranteeing both 'in an ideologically meaning­ful, practically feasible, enduring way' (Yashar 1998: 39). This is not an unproblematic task. Numerous authors have raised concerns about the risks and limitations of customary authority and practices.

Traditional leadership is also almost always exclusive, even when it is not hereditary. In Zimbabwe, as in many other countries, 'traditional leadership is based on gender, seniority and caste [and is] conferred upon male elders of certain lineages' (Mapedza & Mandondo 2002: 12). Kas­sibo (2001, cited in Ribot 2004) found that traditional au­thorities were re-emerging as a reaction to the women's movement and to local democracy in Mali. Autonomous communities under traditional rule can lead to a detach­ment from national life and politics and limits to political pluralism within the community (Sanchez 1999), as well as persistent discrimination against women, the formation of fiefdoms with no outside checks on power, and the pressure to conform to tradition and hence limits to indi­vidual voice (Yashar 1999).

Mamdani (1996) argues that protecting 'the customary' protects people as a group but not individual rights. He argues that there is an opposition between the individual and the group, between civil society and community, be­tween rights and tradition. The failure to enfranchise in­digenous or ethnic groups, then, is a failure to protect their individual rights and to create the conditions neces­sary for the development of the citizen essential for a ro­bust civil society. Nevertheless, this is precisely the dichotomy that indigenous movements and scholars in Latin America are seeking to overcome.

Democratic or undemocratic, liked or not, traditional leaders often have a certain degree of local legitimacy (Ntsebeza 2004). This legitimacy appears to be linked to two roles that they are likely to play. On the one hand, they may control the distribution of important resources that are necessary for local livelihoods. This is the case in many African countries where chiefs control land distri­bution or have been reinstated in such roles under recent 'decentralisation' policies (see, for example, Ntsebeza 2004). On the other hand, they may be seen as leaders who will protect communities or ethnic groups from out­siders. This role better reflects the Guatemalan indige­nous authority presented in the following section. In light of this legitimacy, projects that simply exclude traditional authorities may fail (Oyono 2004). Wollenberg and Uluk (2004) found that gaining the village head's approval for a project gave it legitimacy and acceptability to villagers; the elite were gatekeepers for relations with outsiders, though they were not necessarily representative or downwardly accountable.

Sierra (1997) emphasises the need for internal debate within indigenous cultures and societies; 'reasonable ap­peals and dialogue should always be present, both within ethnic worlds and between ethnic peoples and national society' (de la Pena 2002: 148). Benhabib (2002: ix) pro­poses a 'deliberative democratic model that permits maximum cultural contestation in the public sphere, in and through the institutions of civil society'. The goal is not to preserve cultures, she argues, but to expand inclu­sion. Similarly, identity should not be about returning to a mythical past but rather its reinvention in the present (Hall 1990).

 Forestry Decentralisation in Guatemala

Guatemala is an exceptionally ecologically rich country. According to the Environmental Profile of Guatemala (IARNA/URL/IIA 2006), it contains fourteen Holdridge Life Zones; and the northern Mesoamerican land area constituted by Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, an area comprising less than 0.5 per cent of the earth's land sur­face, is home to 17 per cent of all known terrestrial spe­cies and holds second place in a list of the twenty-five regions of the world with the greatest number of species and endemism. At the same time this highly diverse natu­ral wealth has been subject to rapid deterioration, due in part to a development model that has earned the country a place among lower middle-income nations based on a highly skewed distribution of income and land, and to the nature of the institutions behind that model (see [Table 1]).

Over the past 50 years, Guatemala's political culture has been shaped by the militarisation of society, violence, terror and authoritarianism. The return to a civilian presi­dent in 1986 was interrupted again by war in the early 1990s, with renewed guerrilla attacks as well as new state sponsored assassinations, death threats and disappear­ances. Peace accords were officially signed in 1996. Three important decentralisation laws, discussed below, were passed in 2002, adopting important aspects of the accords. Some scholars argue, however, that they fail to address the problem that 'many rural Maya distrust their local government officials as much as the state bureauc­racy' (Fischer 2004: 97).

Like the state in general, forest management has also been highly centralised, and by law, forestry decision­making still is. The formal decentralisation process began in 1998 with the Forestry Institute's Project for the Strengthening of Municipal and Communal Forests (Bos­com), as well as numerous related projects supported by NGOs. 4 Boscom works with local governments to set up municipal forest offices (OFMs), with 116 established as of mid-2005 out of a total of about 330 municipalities (Larson & Barrios 2006). The Forestry Law (101-96) spe­cifically states that municipal governments should support the INAB in fulfilling its functions and be spokespersons for the policies and programmes 'INAB designs for their municipality' (Article 8), but pressure for more substan­tive decentralisation has increased over time.

As in most countries, there are many goals behind de­centralisation. Decentralisation was promoted in the peace accords as an important process for building citizen participation. For the INAB, however, the original prior­ity in establishing municipal forestry offices was simply to facilitate its own work. Increasingly, however, another goal (for the INAB and the private sector in particular) has been to promote support for forest management-the recognition that forests can be logged without deforesta­tion-in light of conservationist and indigenous objec­tions to logging.

All municipal governments have a right to 50 per cent of the tax income from forest licenses and can log or par­ticipate in incentive programmes on municipal lands. Be­yond this, the Decentralization Law (Art. 6) states that when 'each municipality deems it convenient, it will so­licit its incorporation into the decentralisation process.' This involves establishing an OFM, which then usually takes partial or full charge of domestic permits (mainly for firewood use), chainsaw registration, control of illegal activities and of forest fires, and technical studies for the national reforestation incentive programme Pinfor (INAB-GTZ-DDM-SECONRAD 2004). Since transfers of responsibility are done on a case by case basis, how­ever, the OFMs' role varies among municipalities.

Though these responsibilities are limited, transferred gradually at the discretion of the INAB and do not in­clude many substantial decisions, in practice Guatemala has one of the most thorough-going forestry decentralisa­tions in Latin America. This is in part because few other countries have a programme for training and developing municipal forestry capacities. It is also because, over time, the INAB has become one of the main central gov­ernment institutions to interact on a regular basis-thus building state-society relations-with municipal govern­ments and the rural (largely indigenous) population. Though the Forestry Law implies a deconcentrated, one­way relationship with municipal government offices, in practice a new set of demands have been brought into the national dialogue: the recognition of traditional rights and customary practices in natural resource management.

The formation of municipal forestry offices brought two particular pre-existing points of discord into the local arena. First, broad sectors of the indigenous population object to logging, due to cultural conceptions of nature and/or the lack of benefits for the communities logged. Second, many poor indigenous people strongly resent the legal requirement to obtain a permit for the domestic use of firewood (OFMs facilitate the implementation of this regulation, established by law in 1996).

The research sites, Chichicastenango and San Juan Cotzal, are located in the cool highland pine forests of the department of Quiche, in the Altiplano, a region with poverty levels of 75-90 per cent (World Bank 2003). The population of Chichicastenango is K'ich'e and Cotzal, Ixil. Agriculture, and particularly subsistence agriculture, is the central economic activity, though Chichicastenango is also a popular tourist destination and has a thriving ur­ban commercial centre and craft sector. Quiche is recog­nised as one of the central arenas of armed conflict up until 1996, and its horrors had severe economic and so­cial consequences. In Cotzal, most of the population relo­cated during the war, many were killed, and according to residents, those who have 'returned' are often not prior residents but their children and grandchildren.

The political party associated with the massacres of this period is the right-wing populist Guatemalan Revolu­tionary Front (FRG), the party of dictator General Rios Montt. The FRG drafted, often forcibly, indigenous peo­ple into local Civil Defence Patrols, training them to use brutal methods of repression against their neighbours. In both municipalities, however, the FRG had won the re­cent mayoral elections. To explain this apparent anomaly, many people with whom we spoke pointed out that the FRG is far better organised and funded than alternative political parties or civic committees and claimed that its candidates used highly questionable, if not illegal, tactics to gain support. In addition, indigenous voters have sometimes expressed the importance of 'voting for the winner' in order to avoid future conflict. [5]

The rest of this section discusses the politics of choice in decentralisation before moving to the case studies. These are presented first with regard to mechanisms of participation in general and then with regard to the local forest management authority specifically.

Politics of Choice

Guatemala's central government has not exclusively cho­sen municipal authorities as the official recipients of de­centralised powers, but municipal governments are substantially 'recognised' in law and practice. Indeed, they receive 10 per cent of the national budget as well as other taxes, and municipal autonomy is recognised by the 1985 constitution and the 2002 decentralisation laws.

In addition to municipal governments, though, based on the peace accords, the Municipal Code (Decree 12-2002) also recognises indigenous authorities. These in­clude 'indigenous mayors,' an entity originally set up by the colonial government to oversee indigenous popula­tions. Though only about eighteen still exist in the coun­try (Tavico, pers. comm. 15 November 2004), indigenous mayors must be 'recognised, respected and promoted' where they still remain (Art. 55). The Municipal Code also orders municipal governments to consult with in­digenous communities or their authorities regarding any affairs affecting their rights or interests (Art. 65).

The Decentralization Law (Decree 14-2002) defines decentralisation as the transfer of decision-making power to municipal authorities and to 'legally organised com­munities, with the participation of municipal govern­ments' (Art. 2). The Law of Urban and Rural Development Councils (Decree 11-2002) establishes the official mechanism for community participation in local and mu­nicipal level decision-making: the Community Develop­ment Councils (COCODES), formed according to the 'principals, values, norms and procedures' of each com­munity, and above these, Municipal Development Coun­cils (COMUDES), are composed of the mayor and councillors, plus up to twenty representatives selected by the COCODES, as well as representatives of other public and civil society entities from the local arena.

For its part, the INAB stands out among central gov­ernment institutions in Guatemala for its professionalism and independence. Importantly, the central government does not control a majority of the board of directors. In fact, one administration's attempt to take control of the institute for political gain, recognising its extensive reach into rural municipalities, failed in part because the board of directors voted against the government's position. The INAB's success at maintaining professionalism over poli­tics, in a highly politicised country, helps explain its reti­cence in permitting municipal authorities (seen as political and party dominated) to participate in forestry decision-making. Nevertheless, the INAB has specifically chosen to work with municipal governments in promoting the decentralisation of forestry related responsibilities. As we will see below, the 'choice' of the Auxiliatura Indigena in Chichicastenango, then, does not represent the INAB's policy but rather the adamant refusal of the indigenous authority to allow the the INAB to help estab­lish a municipal forestry office.

Mechanisms of Participation

Representation is discussed here with regard to citizens' relations with (1) elected municipal governments; and (2) the authority in charge of forestry. Neither in Chichicas­tenango nor in Cotzal do local leaders view municipal governments as representing their interests, 6 but they have been more successful in the former in pressing some citi­zens' demands; however, Cotzal's forestry office has offered important points of engagement where the elected authorities do not. This section examines the former set of rela­tions; the following section looks specifically at forestry.

In Chichicastenango, the formation of the COCODES after the 2002 law flowed easily from existing grassroots structures that had been developed with the support of lo­cal NGOs. Over a 5 year period, each canton had estab­lished a coordinating council for its myriad local committees. Second level coordinating bodies were formed by organising these eighty-two cantons into eight micro­regions. In 2000 both organisations were legally recog­nised by the municipal government, and in 2002, the presidents and vice-presidents of the coordinating bodies of each micro-region became community repre­sentatives to the Municipal Development Council. The local councils in each community officially became the COCODES.

The councils worked on municipal issues in coordina­tion with the municipal planning office and other mem­bers of the Municipal Development Council (other NGOs and municipal officials). The mayor who participated in this process was an interim mayor who served for only 1 year after the elected mayor had been forced to leave of­fice, prior to the next national election. The results were the published Municipal Development Plan 2003-13 and the municipal government's approval, more or less, of the 2004 investment budget proposed by the communities themselves. In particular, in an unprecedented event, each of the eighty-two communities received an equal portion of investment funds, $4375, to spend on projects previ­ously submitted and approved by the municipal govern­ment. No organisation had previously tried to influence the municipal budget in this way.

The process, however, met opposition from municipal government, traditional political parties, some associa­tions that preferred to work individually and former lead­ers of the Civil Defence Patrols (RUTA 2002). Though a few municipal officials were supportive, others accused 'civil society' of interfering with municipal autonomy. Ironically, some were clearly proud of having a municipal development plan but still highly suspicious of the par­ticipatory process. By early 2005, civil society organisa­tions and municipal council members clearly had different agendas regarding meetings. There was no evi­dence, for example, that the council understood that civil society or COCODES representatives should participate in Municipal Development Council meetings. Several people told us that the current mayor had been trying to sideline the efforts of the COCODES, and they were not optimistic. 'People are still afraid to speak out' and will only do it in groups like the development council meet­ings, 'where they have the support of others' (interviews, January 2005).

The COCODES in Cotzal appear to be far less devel­oped, though Cotzal also has a municipal development plan, and during certain periods that this was being gen­erated, there appeared to be several important and possibly even regular meetings between the local government and communities. Nevertheless, this was organised by outside donors who are no longer present. The formation of COCODES had been instigated by the local govern­ment with, according to accusations, apparent favouritism to supporters of the mayor's political party. According to the municipal government's planning office, the same kind of structures exist as in Chichicastenango. That is, there are COCODES at the community level, and the mu­nicipality is divided into eight micro-regions, whose rep­resentatives attend Municipal Development Council meetings. Nevertheless, municipal commission heads suggested that this model was not actually put into prac­tice. Several stated that meetings were held 'when there was a reason to do so,' such as a problem or crisis that needed to be addressed; individuals named in interviews by the mayor's office as members of the environment com­mission stated they had not been aware of any meeting in months.

In general it appeared that COCODES existed only in a few communities, and members were often unclear what they were for. There were also no regular meetings be­tween the municipal government and auxiliary mayors, who serve as community representatives to local govern­ment. Auxiliary mayors were only occasionally called to meetings, or simply approached government officials as needed regarding problems in their communities, as did other local leaders. In Chichicastenango, however, there were weekly meetings between the mayor, the indigenous authority and local leaders such as the auxiliary mayors. [Table 2] provides a summary comparison of the two mu­nicipalities

Forest Management Authority

The municipal government of Cotzal formed an OFM at the initiative of the mayor (and by agreement with the INAB), because of what he perceived as problems of un­controlled logging, forest fires and the need for environ­mental education in the municipality (Toma, pers. comm. 22 January 2005). Though formally accountable to the municipal government, the OFM has a close relationship with the INAB, which has its regional office a short dis­tance away in Nebaj. In the specific context of the Ixil region, where there was very little logging prior to the en­trance of the INAB, the INAB is seen as bringing in two 'evils': logging and the enforcement of burdensome rules for the poor.

In both municipalities, these objections are exacerbated by several other factors. Though the INAB promotes sus­tainable logging in principle, illegal activities account for up to half of all logging (Abdiel, pers. comm. 16 Novem­ber 2004). It has also made mistakes, such as issuing log­ging permits based on titles that were later found to be contested. The INAB personnel are sometimes seen as 'arrogant', and they do not openly question laws seen by locals as unjust. Finally, there is little demonstrated de­sire on the part of the INAB's foresters to engage with indigenous traditions.

Cotzal's OFM was established in 2000 with support from the INAB's Boscom project, though it was fully funded by the municipal budget after 2 years. The OFM's primary objectives were to prevent forest fires and pro­mote reforestation. It established a municipal tree nursery in town with some 25,000 seedlings, as well as smaller ones in a few communities. Ten hectares were under management for reforestation through the INAB's Pinfor incentive project; fourteen more were in the approval process. Fire brigades had been trained in several com­munities and educational campaigns had been done on the radio, mobile loudspeakers and in rural communities.

The OFM is in charge of authorising domestic use permits, though few people actually solicit them. 7 But rather than threatening people with fines for not getting a permit, the emphasis is on reforestation. The permits require that five seedlings be planted for each tree felled-unless there is effective natural regeneration-and people purchase these seedlings from the municipal nursery. Site inspections were only done for about fifteen of the thirty­five permits requested in 2004.

The OFM also organised the participatory development of a Municipal Forestry Plan, with over 180 people par­ticipating from the eight micro-regions. In that plan, the principal forestry problems were collectively identified and solutions proposed. One of the most important of these solutions was the recovery of the Mayan cosmovi­sion. The specific meanings of this term vary, but for the community participants in Cotzal, this means cutting down a tree in accord with the phase of the moon, asking nature for permission to cut trees and demonstrating 'spiritual respect for nature in thanks for the benefits it offers', among other things (Alcaldia Cotzal/Boscom n.d.).

The OFM, in some ways, serves as mediator between the INAB and the communities. Community residents see the INAB as 'the cop' who is trying to control them. The OFM officer facilitates, or softens, the INAB's entry into the municipality and talks to communities about logging, on the one hand, and the importance of reforesting, as well as the legal requirement to get a permit for firewood and tree felling, on the other. For the mayor, the OFM has been important in diminishing conflict by demonstrating to communities that the approved logging taking place in the area is both legal and responsible (Toma, pers. comm. 22 January 2005).

To the INAB, the OFM's primary role is to facilitate the INAB's ability to control both legal and illegal log­ging and decentralise services through someone who knows local customs (Garcia, pers. comm. 19 January 2005). There is little recognition that the learning process could go both ways. In spite of the explicit discussion of the importance of recovering the Mayan cosmovision in the Municipal Forestry Plan, for example, the municipal forester stated that preserving Mayan traditions was not a part of his job.

The situation is very different in Chichicastenango. The INAB has not been able to establish a municipal for­estry office due the intransigence of the indigenous mayor's office, known as the Auxiliatura Indigena, in spite of months of negotiation and the tentative agree­ment of municipal authorities. At one point, the INAB even proposed establishing the OFM in the Auxiliatura rather in the municipal government offices, but the offer was refused. In this case, the rejection of the INAB ap­pears to go beyond the conflicts discussed earlier, to a fundamental contradiction regarding jurisdiction and power over natural resource management.

The indigenous mayor is primarily a religious and cul­tural authority with the goal of protecting local Mayan traditions. The office has no legal role in relation to gov­ernment but maintains important local power and legiti­macy. The mayor himself is fundamentally a Catholic religious leader in the context of the highly syncretic re­ligious traditions of Chichicastenango, overseeing the co­ordination of the people and rituals of the cofradias. This mayor is selected by a group of male leaders known as principales. The election is for life, and the current leader, only recently selected at the time of this study, told us that 'you cannot say no'. It is a voluntary position that involves no remuneration. The Auxiliatura is an of­fice established by the principales and which receives funding from the municipal budget to staff a full-time person. This is the authority that has argued for local con­trol over forestry. The office is highly controversial, and complaints were directed there, not at the indigenous mayor specifically.

In addition to the real fear that logging will increase if the INAB is permitted to operate more fully in the mu­nicipality, indigenous leaders in Chichicastenango are challenging the INAB's conception of the forest as a source of income and its right to impose that conception in 'their municipality'. These indigenous authorities be­lieve in conservation and in supporting and rebuilding the Mayan cosmovision. In 2001, the Auxiliatura assumed the issuance of domestic permits, on its own terms, based on informal agreements with the municipal government and the INAB. The INAB has continued to issue logging licenses in the municipality, over the indigenous author­ity's objections, though social pressure, as well as some­times violent protests, has led people to reconsider making such requests.

The Auxiliatura limits domestic extraction to three loads of firewood and three standing trees every 6 months and requires the planting of two to five trees for every one felled. 8 The permit costs about $0.40. Permits are usually issued by the principales under the Auxiliatura's supervision. As in Cotzal, the primary message is that people should reforest. Nevertheless, there appears to be no site inspection, either before or after the permit is is­sued; there is no funding, legal authority, municipal for­est policy or even a tree nursery. [9]

On the other hand, many people believe that deforesta­tion would be rampant without the role played by the indigenous authority. Though there are numerous objec­tions to the way in which it has managed its powers, in­cluding intransigence about working with the INAB or NGOs, 'manipulating people', 'lack of transparency' and 'failing to design an environmental or forest management policy', residents did not trust handing over forestry au­thority to the INAB or the municipal government. Rather, in interviews for this research, they advocated for a solu­tion that fully included the traditional authority, as well as for the greater transparency and accountability of that authority. ([Table 3] provides a summary of the forestry authority in the two municipalities.)

 Representation and Citizenship

Elected municipal authorities in both Cotzal and Chichi­castenango demonstrate important weaknesses with re­gard to representation. In both cases there were convincing accusations of doubtful practices to win vot­ers, and in neither case are the resulting governments par­ticularly open to communication or the participation of broad sectors of constituents in local decision-making. The apparent difference between the two municipalities is that Chichicastenango has relatively stronger civil society organisations that have constructed participatory struc­tures over a period of several years, making it possible to make more effective demands.

As mentioned earlier, other researchers have pointed out the weakness of the democratic process in Guatemala (Fonseca 2004). The possibility of running non-party candidates should increase options for entry into the po­litical sphere and thus improve local representation, but such a candidate ran in Cotzal and lost. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss Rios Montt's FRG further, but those who supported the civic committee candidate pointed out the difficulties of competing with a well or­ganised and well funded party with national backing in a poor rural setting.

The comparison of the two municipalities highlights the importance of civil society in making representative democracy work, particularly when trust is low and elected governments are not accountable. Without organ­ised demands Chichicastenango's COCODES would not have won the budget allocation for community projects. This experience also supports previous studies highlight­ing the need for both civil society organisation and open­ness of municipal government for the construction of local democracy (Fox 2004). Here, an interim mayor pro­vided that opening.

In Cotzal the difference between the municipal gov­ernment as a whole and the forestry office is quite strik­ing. Though the government is basically seen as autocratic and having little communication with the popu­lation, the OFM is viewed quite favourably in the com­munities where it operates. This appears to be largely due to the personality of the head of the OFM office.

To what extent does the OFM represent local de­mands? OFM personnel have excellent relations with at least some rural communities and have played an impor­tant role in bridging the gap between local desires and the INAB's legal obligations. Being able to speak Ixil is particularly important. Clearly the domestic permit require­ment is not imposed in an authoritarian manner, some community members have benefited from projects such as tree nurseries, and a few community members now have access to income from forestry incentives. Most im­portantly, the municipal forest policy was developed with important local participation and represents the interests of broad sectors of the rural indigenous population.

Nevertheless, it is notable that the OFM failed to rec­ognise any role in supporting a priority solution proposed in the municipal forest policy: promoting the Mayan cosmovision. Also, outside of a few communities, local leaders in general, including those who work on envi­ronmental issues, knew little about the OFM's work. The head of the forestry office saw his job as fulfilling the INAB's orders and making them more palatable locally, but not as representing the interests of local people to the INAB. The participatory process that resulted in the mu­nicipal forest policy was not promoted by representative elected authorities but rather by mandate from Boscom. Still, local people have more influence on local forest policies than before.

In Chichicastenango the dispersion of authority was clearly recognised as a problem for the municipalities' forests. The lack of action on environmental concerns, though broadly expressed as a high priority, contrasts with the grassroots process for the use of municipal funds for development projects. In addition, the failure to iden­tify a forestry authority that is legitimate both locally and for the INAB made it far more difficult to develop or im­plement any forest policy. In this vacuum, violent pro­tests had occurred in response to isolated actions. [10]

The leaders of the civil society process that effectively engaged with the municipal government did not use their organisational capacity to try to influence the Auxiliatura. This suggests the need for formal accountability mecha­nisms to encourage or facilitate citizen engagement and indicates problems with the 'closed' nature of this tradi­tional authority. Interestingly, however, no one inter­viewed suggested that excluding the indigenous authority was an optimal solution. This is in part because, in spite of its weaknesses, this authority comes much closer to ar­ticulating the interests of many indigenous people: openly defending the cultural value of forests and the Mayan cosmovision and opposing logging. On the other hand, the Auxiliatura did not propose any real policy beyond demanding local control and still enforced the domestic permit requirement, leading some detractors to question its motives and complain that it was 'just as bad as INAB.

The process to formulate the municipal development plan and 2005 budget was an important example of de­mocracy and citizenship at work, but the residents of Chichicastenango are still very far from feeling like citi­zens. Municipal government offices serve a formal pur­pose for required interactions with official authorities. In interactions with the state on sensitive issues, Guate­mala's indigenous people feel highly vulnerable. The public domain has always been a place where the more powerful get their way. The state does not reaffirm their identity; the indigenous authority does. This is true even when elected mayors, or forestry office officials, are in­digenous, because they are often more urban, wealthier, better educated and look down on indigenous traditions.


Guatemala's central government has largely chosen and recognised municipal governments as recipients of decen­tralised responsibilities. But in neither case study is the elected municipal authority representative or downwardly accountable, with the exception of one particular con­juncture in Chichicastenango when organised citizens were able to pressure an interim (and more open) mayor to respond to their demands. Political parties and the state in Guatemala have not represented the poor majority. In­deed, they have actively engaged in policies to annihilate and, in less violent moments, assimilate the indigenous population. Today, a complex and painful history im­pedes elected authorities from becoming trusted, repre­sentative and accountable entities.

Municipal governments have also received some new responsibilities-though limited decision-making pow­ers-with the implementation of forestry decentralisation policies. In the case study municipalities of Cotzal and Chichicastenango, decentralisation resulted in greater en­forcement of a domestic timber permitting requirement. In Cotzal, enforcement occurred through the formation of the forestry office, and in general there was greater impo­sition and acceptance of the forestry institute's rules and priorities than in Chichicastenango. There was also sub­stantial grassroots participation in the formulation of a municipal forest policy, though it is unclear if and how that will be used. The municipal forester defended the in­terests of local communities in some minor ways that helped reduce conflict with the INAB.

In Chichicastenango, compliance with the domestic permitting requirement was established through negotia­tion with the indigenous authority, which opposed the INAB's agenda and right to intervene in the municipality. In contrast to the OFM in Cotzal, the Auxiliatura spoke out in defence of indigenous rights, opposing logging and promoting the Mayan cosmovision as a model for re­source management. At the same time, however, the Aux­iliatura failed to promote any kind of concrete strategy for resource conservation or management and, like the elected authorities in both municipalities, was not down­wardly accountable.

Given the historical context, how can decentralisation best promote democratic local governance that takes the excluded sectors of the population into account? This study suggests that which institution is chosen and recog­nised may be less important than how each one is, or can be, used to support processes of representation, account­ability and citizenship. With regard to forests and for­estry, elected municipal officials, municipal forestry staff and the indigenous authority are all relevant to indige­nous representation in the local sphere. Each demon­strates elements of success and failure in representation and accountability, and, in the historical context of Gua­temala, none is sufficient on its own for building these.

What role did each of these institutions play in sup­porting processes to increase indigenous citizenship? Only municipal officials are elected by universal suf­frage, and hence have some aspect of institutionalised broad-based downward accountability, but their account­ability is limited by Guatemala's historical context. Chichicastenango's organised citizens were essential to making this institution work on their behalf, albeit tempo­rarily. Though this was not enough to change the nature of the local municipal government institution more per­manently, at the time of this study they were preparing to exert greater pressure on the newly elected government. Further research would be needed to ascertain the extent to which these actions resulted in further processes to build citizenship.

The municipal forester plays the role of intermediary among residents, the INAB and an otherwise largely un­accountable municipal government. Though his powers are limited, he was able to carve out a small space for ne­gotiation that had not previously existed. Nevertheless, he did not see his role as representing or promoting local in­terests, nor did active citizens in Cotzal see this particular actor-in part because he has limited powers-as important in building processes of representation or account­ability.

In contrast to the two former institutions, the Auxilia­tura avidly defends indigenous rights. It does not depend on the pressure of grassroots actors to do this but rather sees itself as a spokesperson for indigenous interests. Its relationship to its members is 'top down', however, and not accountable. Its actions could result in greater respect for indigenous rights and autonomous spaces, which may be a necessary-but insufficient-condition for building citizenship. It is notable that the grassroots organisations that lobbied the municipal government successfully did not even consider approaching the Auxiliatura with the demands (regarding the environment and natural re­sources) that they believe this authority should be ad­dressing.

To be heard, poor and excluded or marginalised groups, such as Latin America's indigenous peoples, need organisations and collective action, allies, interlocutors and sympathetic, or at least open, government officials. Through these actors and institutions, their individual and collective concerns-whether organised around their sense of community and identity or around individual in­terests-can be translated into policy. They should not have to give up their identity-such as through assimila­tion-to be included. Rather, customs, traditional authori­ties and autonomy can help defend their right to inclusion.

Inclusion is not the necessary outcome, however, whether municipal or traditional authorities, or a combi­nation of both, are recognised. Like the elected municipal authorities, the indigenous traditional authority studied here also has serious problems with transparency, repre­sentation and accountability. The struggle for democratic and responsive leadership is clearly necessary at all levels and in all spheres and will take time. The policy question then becomes how to support processes that make it pos­sible to challenge structures of subordination wherever these exist: in political parties, elected governments and traditional authorities. This would include making it pos­sible for citizens to organise without fear; assuring effec­tive and accessible recourse mechanisms for those who are faced with threats or retribution, and promoting a cli­mate of dialogue, reconciliation and respect for difference.


The author thanks Jesse Ribot, Tomila Lankina, Ashwini Chhatre, Solange Bandiaky and two anonymous review­ers for providing detailed comments on earlier drafts, as well as all of the participants in the Institutional Choice and Recognition Comparative Policy and Research Meet­ing (Bali, 15-18 June 2006) for their insightful discussion of these issues. I particularly want to thank my field as­sistant in Guatemala, Jose Miguel Barrios, for his excel­lent research skills and Jesse Ribot and World Resources Institute for funding the study upon which this article is based; that research included two case studies in Nicara­gua as well (Larson 2005).[56]


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