SPECIAL SECTION: GREEN WARS
Year : 2018 | Volume
: 16 | Issue : 2 | Page : 114--124
Deploying Difference: Security Threat Narratives and State Displacement from Protected Areas
Elizabeth Lunstrum1, Megan Ybarra2,
1 Department of Geography, York University, Toronto, Canada
2 Department of Geography, University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Department of Geography, York University, Toronto
State actors are increasingly treating protected areas as sites of security threats and policing resident communities as though they are the cause of this insecurity. This is translating into community eviction from protected areas that is authorised by security concerns and logics and hence not merely conservation concerns. We ground this claim by drawing upon empirical work from two borderland conservation areas: Mozambique's Limpopo National Park (LNP) and Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR). In both cases, we show how these security-provoked evictions are authorised by the mobilisation of interlocking axes of difference that articulate notions of territorial trespass with that of a racialised enemy. Rather than a new problem or phenomena, we show how these axes are rooted in prior histories of state actors rendering racialised subjects dangerous, Cold War histories in both cases and a longer colonial history with the LNP. We also show how standing behind these evictions is the nation-state and its practices of protected area territorialisation. From here, we illustrate how the rationale behind displacement from protected areas matters, as evictions become more difficult to contest once they are authorised by security considerations. The cases, however, differ in one key respect. While displacement from the LNP is an instance of conservation-induced displacement (CID), although one re-worked by security considerations, eviction from the MBR is motivated more centrally by security concerns yet takes advantage of protected area legislation. The study hence offers insight into a growing literature on conservation-security encounters and into different articulations of conservation, security, and displacement.
|How to cite this article:|
Lunstrum E, Ybarra M. Deploying Difference: Security Threat Narratives and State Displacement from Protected Areas.Conservat Soc 2018;16:114-124
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Lunstrum E, Ybarra M. Deploying Difference: Security Threat Narratives and State Displacement from Protected Areas. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2018 [cited 2020 Aug 13 ];16:114-124
Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2018/16/2/114/228994
South Africa, and its cherished Kruger National Park, has emerged as the epicenter of commercial rhino poaching. Under public pressure to ramp up its response, the Department of Environmental Affairs presented a media release outlining its “progress in the war against poaching and plans for 2015” (Environmental Affairs 2015). Despite its provocative title, the report reads as a technical list of responses, many amounting to a militarisation of conservation practice, reflecting the fact that rhino poaching is understood as at once a threat to conservation and national security. Yet also tucked within the release is a reference to the displacement of communities from Mozambique's adjacent Limpopo National Park (LNP) (also see Environmental Affairs 2014). How did eviction from a national park come to be seen as a legitimate security strategy, namely proof of progress in the “war against poaching”?
Moving from Africa to the Americas, Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) has become a key site for interventions at the nexus of conservation and drug trafficking (McSweeney et al. 2014). The MBR is part of Guatemala's protected areas system, which was created during the end of the 1960–1996 civil war and before the return to democratic processes through the Peace Accords. More than two-thirds of the sub-tropical lowlands of the Petén region have state protected area status. In cooperation with other state agencies, the Guatemalan security state uses conservation laws to draw upon historical practices of evicting poor indigenous people and burning their homes and crops. This is not simply a case of conservation-induced displacement. During the civil war, and now the so-called 'drug war', the state authorises displacement on the grounds of security threats rooted in racial ideologies of dangerous subjects.
What unites these cases is that these displacements from both the LNP and the MBR are justified increasingly by security considerations and not solely by conservation concerns. Hence, we bring the cases together as a comparative study to highlight this broader trend and expose how it is unfolding. In attending to this, we show how state authorities authorise these security-provoked displacements by deploying interlocking axes of difference. While difference is not inherently dangerous, state agents mobilise it to articulate anxieties of territorial trespass with a racialised enemy. Together, these re-frame residents as 'security threats'—whether the insurgent-poacher or the subversive-narco—whose relocation is necessary for national security. Such difference, we illustrate, is rooted in prior histories, Cold War histories in both cases and older colonial histories with the LNP. In relation, we show that it is discourses of the nation-state under threat combined with state territorialisation practices that ultimately enable eviction. These two cases, however, differ in one telling respect. While displacement from the LNP is an instance of conservation-induced displacement (CID), albeit one re-worked with security considerations, contemporary eviction from the MBR is justified primarily by security concerns. It is hence an example of the broader category of displacement from conservation areas rather than CID. Nonetheless, the state takes advantage of protected area legislation to enable these evictions. These two cases hence offer insight into different articulations of conservation, security, and displacement. Finally, we show that the justifications for eviction make a difference. Namely, more than offering a new rationale for eviction, once security rationales transform conservation space and practice, it becomes more difficult to contest the resulting land-tenure regimes, as security itself is presumably at stake. We turn to these arguments after a brief discussion on methodology and review of the literature.
This paper employs a comparative case study approach, the value of which rests in its ability to investigate similarities and differences across particular phenomena unfolding in geographically distinct spaces. This, in turn, enables understanding of deeper and broader processes (Ragin 1987; Herod and Parker 2010). Our selection of the LNP and the MBR rests in the fact that in both locations we are seeing the rise of evictions from protected areas justified increasingly on security grounds. This comparative approach enables three interventions into our understanding of this process. First, it allows us to provide preliminary evidence for the claim security-provoked displacements from protected areas are not random but rather a growing trend, a claim we also support by drawing upon existing scholarly literature. Second, the comparative approach enables us to show similarities across space. Here we show security-inflected displacement in both cases is authorised by axes of difference, whereby notions of territorial trespass merge with that of a racialised enemy. Such difference, we show, is rooted in and hence revives prior histories. Third, it is through comparative analysis that we are able to show dissimilarities in how security-inflected displacement plays out. Namely, it is in noting salient differences across the cases that leads us to draw the distinction between conservation-induced displacement and displacement from protected areas more broadly, a distinction that allows for a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between conservation, security, and displacement. It is also important to note the drawbacks of comparative studies. Despite their benefits, they leave less room for detailed analysis of a particular case and also in-depth discussion of methodology. We compensate by providing some of these details elsewhere (Ybarra 2017; Lunstrum 2014, 2017).
For a brief overview of case-specific methodology, the Southern African portion of the research is based on over 100 interviews in Mozambique and South Africa with park officials, anti-poaching officials, and community representatives from 2004 to 2016 along with review of government documents, newspaper articles, and websites. The Guatemalan portion of the research, conducted between 2006 and 2015, is based on over 50 interviews and 1,000 household surveys on land tenure and conservation attitudes in Petén, as well as over two years of ethnography working in partnership with Q ‘eqchi’ Maya communities and conservation organisations in the region.
Finally, a note on terminology. There now exists a rich literature on conservation-induced displacement. While some scholars have adopted an expansive understanding of the concept that includes restrictions on access to resources (Cernea 2005; Witter 2013), we follow Agarwal and Redmond's stricter definition, that is, the physical removal or eviction of communities from their homes.1 In both of our empirical cases, moreover, the displacement unfolding is involuntary.2 Hence we use the terms “displacement”, “removal”, “dispossession”, and “eviction” interchangeably all to mean involuntary physical removal and relocation (also see Agarwal and Redford 2009).
Where conservation meets displacement, security, and difference
Large-scale evictions from national parks began in the late nineteenth Century, when the world's first parks themselves came into existence. The timing was not by accident, as such removal was seen necessary to realise the essence of national parks as spaces of ‘wilderness’ , especially in North America and Africa. As the national park model spread, so too did displacements of residents living within recently designated park borders from Africa to the Americas, with displacements and hence violence often amounting to originary moments in the creation of protected areas. While colonial and post-independence era displacements from parks have largely been tied to this colonial wilderness imaginary, independent nation-states have also evicted residents from parks on grounds that these projects would enable national development (Neumann 1998; Spence 1999; Wakild 2011). Such evictions, both historically and today, share qualities well documented in the scholarly literature.
First, they are often organised by the state, or more specifically state offices and actors. It is states, both colonial and post-colonial, that have had the means and desire to gazette large land tracts and repurpose them into protected areas. Once re-classified as national (or colonial) territory, states can then override tenure rights and, with varying degrees of success, clear lands of human settlements, agriculture, and small-scale resource extraction. Related, protected areas have become consequential sites of territorialisation and state formation. More explicitly, protected areas enable states to transform land into state territory or symbolically loaded state property and enable states to consolidate power over these spaces, enabling state formation. They do so by creating various opportunities ranging from revenue generation, national subject-formation (of displaced communities and colonial settlers alike), and the protection of resources deemed valuable and vulnerable to the re-scripting of non-human nature as 'national resources' or 'national heritage' (Carruthers 1995; Vandergeest and Peluso 1995; Neumann 1998; Brockington 2002; Jazeel 2005). More recent scholarship on neoliberal conservation has investigated how such displacement is motivated or encouraged by private actors who work through the state to profit from recently emptied landscapes (Ojeda 2012; Gardner 2016). The larger point, however, is that as states are still the primary actors behind these evictions, protected area designation and the underlying displacements still enable states to consolidate power over newly created conservation-territory, resources, and populations (even if this is done in consort with private actors).
Second, protected areas eviction (and creation) has long been a racialised form of dispossession. While racism shapes simultaneous processes of inclusion and exclusion, specifying who is included in the nation and who must be banished elsewhere, this plays out in specific ways in protected areas. Here, the state participates in interpellating non-dominant populations with cultural, linguistic, class, and national markers of difference as territorial trespassers – as invaders or interlopers. More specifically, the supposedly dangerous figure that stalks the jungle or lurks within the bush takes on the connotations of the racialised, savage interloper: a greedy, slippery, opportunistic, or lazy person who takes without investing in the land (Slater 2002; Neumann 2004a; Hartmann et al. 2005; Mavhunga 2014). While the primary marker of difference deployed here is that of race, this racialised transgressor is also typically constructed as male (Neumann 2004a). Stepping back from these studies, we see the category of the 'park invader' as one that is formed through the deployment of politically loaded meanings associated with axes of difference, ones that enable conservation agents to disavow residents' land rights. Here we are building on critical race and post-colonial theories that explain axes of difference not as ‘objective’ markers of difference, but the politically loaded social construction of multiple forms of difference that intersect to create mutual systems of discrimination (Hall et al. 1978; Crenshaw 1991; Gilmore 2002). To be clear, difference is not inherently negative, nor does it authorise displacement. Rather, various actors actively articulate racialised difference with understandings of territorial exclusion and trespass. It is the deployment of this reworked, loaded notion of difference unfolding across unequal power relations that provokes displacement.
Beyond these similarities, evictions from protected areas are marked by consequential differences. Most salient for our purpose is the fact that not all are justified solely or even centrally on conservation grounds as Neumann (2004b) powerfully shows. Other rationales include evicting people to ‘develop’ them or interpellate them as national subjects and also to access valuable natural resources (Spence 1999; Brockington and Igoe 2006; Sandlos 2008; Dowie 2009). This moves us to distinguish between conservation-induced displacement (CID), where eviction is justified on conservation-related grounds, and a broader trend of displacement from protected areas, whereby justifications may spill beyond the bounds of conservation rationales. In fact, even looking back at the multiple state rationales behind conservation makes us complicate the assumption that all evictions from protected areas are motivated strictly or even primarily by conservation concerns.
These trends of state creation and territorialisation of protected areas, racialised dispossession from their borders, and the multiple rationales behind these evictions have characterised displacements from protected areas historically and today. Set against this background, we are currently beginning to see a new rationale for such displacements. Namely, while the 1980s marked a turn away from protected area displacement on the ground that it violated human rights and led to poorer conservation outcomes, the pendulum has swung back towards acceptance of eviction (Terborgh 1999; Wilshusen et al. 2002; Wilson 2016). Increasingly, these evictions are justified at least in part on security grounds. Built upon a long history of conservation's ties to military personnel, logics, and organisational structure (Ellis 1994; Neumann 2004a), we are seeing a growing trend in treating conservation issues as security issues and responding accordingly (Kelly and Ybarra 2016; Massé and Lunstrum 2016). In extreme cases, this amounts to green militarisation (Lunstrum 2014), or the use of military personnel, logics, and technologies in the pursuit of conservation (Ojeda 2012; Ybarra 2012; Devine 2014; Lunstrum 2014; Duffy 2016), along with a broader buildup of military actors in conservation spaces, whether or not their mandate is environmental protection (Ybarra 2016). Firmly rooted in this broader context, military actors and security logics are beginning to play a pivotal role in authorising the removal of communities from protected areas (Ojeda 2012; Devine 2014; Lunstrum 2016; Massé and Lunstrum 2016).
We build from these trends to show first how the dovetailing of conservation and security is leading to evictions from protected areas motivated by security considerations across geographically distant locations, namely Southern Africa and Central America. These evictions, moreover, are authorised by mobilising notions of difference, bringing together notions of territorial trespass and racialised difference rooted in prior histories. We also show how, while some examples of security-provoked displacements from protected areas are instances of CID, in other cases conservation rationales all but disappear and hence are examples of displacement from conservation areas more broadly. But even in these cases, protected area territorialisation, including related legislation, facilitates displacement. Together these cases suggest complex, diverse articulations of conservation, security, and displacement. Our concern is that regardless of whether eviction is motivated jointly by security and conservation concerns (the LNP) or much more centrally by security concerns (the MBR), the result is that it is more difficult to contest the evictions once security is a motivating factor, a theme we return to in the conclusion.
Conservation-Security Provoked Displacement from Mozambique's Limpopo National Park
To understand current rationales behind displacement from Mozambique's Limpopo National Park (LNP), we must jump the border into South Africa's adjacent Kruger National Park. Kruger is now the epicenter of the so-called 'rhino wars'. Incidents of commercial rhino poaching have grown from 13 in 2007 to 1,054 in 2016, reflecting the escalating value of rhino horn in Asian markets. These numbers are concerning given that South Africa is home to the majority of the world's remaining 25,000 rhinos. As the name 'rhino war' suggests, the problem is increasingly framed as an issue of security, beginning with national security (Molewa 2013). This spins on the fact that South African state actors and segments of the public routinely understand rhino poachers as decimating rhinos as national treasures and violating territorial sovereignty, especially given that many come from neighbouring Mozambique. As such, their border crossings are repeatedly read as infiltrations undertaken by nefarious foreign nationals bent on destroying the nation's heritage (Lunstrum 2014, 2017). While unfolding within South Africa and the adjacent borderlands, these practices reflect a larger rendering of commercial poaching as an issue of national if not global security. Poaching within and beyond South Africa is orchestrated by global criminal syndicates, often a concern of national security (Molewa 2013). Poaching in East and Central Africa, moreover, is suggested to have ties to alleged terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Lord's Resistance Army, despite a general lack of evidence (Duffy 2016). As such, commercial poaching has even been understood as a joint national and global security threat by the U.S. Obama Administration (Obama 2014). Framed as a security issue, it hence becomes commonplace to speak not of rhino and biodiversity conservation but 'rhino wars' and the larger 'war to save biodiversity'.
The securitisation of commercial poaching—that is, the rendering of poaching as a security threat—has shaped South Africa's response, for example, with the deployment of the army within Kruger and along the border with Mozambique (Interviews 2015; Lunstrum 2014; Environmental Affairs 2015). Militarisation is likewise heading into Mozambique as the country beefs up its own security forces to stop the movement of poachers into Kruger (Interviews 2013, 2015, 2016; do Limpopo 2013; Massé and Lunstrum 2016).
Yet a more subtle form of conservation security is underway. Approximately 7,000 people are currently being relocated from Mozambique's LNP, an eviction justified increasingly as an anti-poaching security strategy and promoted heavily by South Africa. To grasp this, it is instructive to look briefly back at the park's history. In the late 1900s, South African officials began to meet with counterparts in Mozambique and Zimbabwe to discuss possibilities for joining Kruger National Park with adjacent lands in neighbouring countries. The result was the creation of the tri-country Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) in 2002. While Zimbabwe had a pre-existing park to contribute, Mozambique did not. So, with strong pressure from South Africa, Mozambique transformed a defunct colonial hunting reserve into the LNP. Before the LNP's designation in the early 2000s, Mozambican officials argued that the reserve should become a multi-use zone that would allow human habitation. South African state and NGO officials, however, insisted that the core of the land be gazetted as a more restrictive national park requiring the removal of resident communities. Their rationale was that inhabitants would disrupt the feel of wilderness that could bring tourism revenues and that they would threaten Kruger's wildlife (Büscher and Schoon 2009). After South African demands won out, Mozambican officials also began to justify the evictions but on the grounds that this was for community safety, as the park was being restocked with dangerous wildlife (Interviews 2004-05).
While relocation stalled for a number of years, it began to pick up pace around 2012 after rhino poaching hit the scene (Lunstrum 2016). The arrival of rhino poaching helped rekindle the urgency around relocation, transforming its rationale. Today, while the initial rationales for relocation remain, it is now also deeply motivated by a sense that young men from communities in and near the LNP are hired by criminal syndicates to hunt rhinos while others harbour weapons and poachers from the outside (Interviews 2013, 2015, 2016). With some communities only a short walking distance to Kruger, an emptied park would create a spatial barrier between Kruger and potential poachers. As a high-ranking LNP official explained:
…having a village within close proximity of the border, it creates a safe-haven near the border and an operational base from where you could launch [poaching operations]... And if you move that safe-haven to the perimeter of the park, the buffer zone, a poacher would now have to walk 50 km through a protected area before they even got to Kruger. And so doing resettlement is one of the strategies to support the reduction in poaching. (Interview 2013)
The security rationale for relocation is further reinforced by the argument that an emptied park is easier to police as poachers would no longer be able to hide in plain sight. (Interviews 2011, 2013)
Relocation from the park is technically the responsibility of the Mozambican government, which supports relocation as a security strategy (Interviews 2016; also see Republic of Mozambique 2015, 11). But strongly encouraging these displacements is the South African state as seen in official state documents celebrating relocation as proof of “progress in the war against poaching”(Environmental Affairs 2014, 2015). What is equally telling is that a number of LNP officials supporting relocation have actually been South Africans whose salaries are paid by the South African Peace Parks Foundation. This in fact includes the official quoted immediately above explicitly justifying relocation as an anti-poaching security strategy.
Deploying Understandings of Difference, Organising Evictions from the LNP
South African demands for relocation on security grounds are supported by a particular mobilisation of difference, one that brings together notions of territorial trespass and a racialised Other. To understand how such difference is deployed, it is necessary to turn to how it is rooted in regional history, both the Cold War category of the ‘insurgent’ and colonial category of the ‘poacher’ . These come together in the trope of the poacher-as-insurgent.
Beginning with 'the insurgent,' in South African state discourse, rhino poaching emerges as far more than an environmental threat. It is increasingly framed as a war and more specifically an insurgency, one directed at South Africa. For instance, David Mabunda, former South Africa National Parks (SANParks) CEO and current Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife CEO, has argued that wildlife protection should be handed over to the Army, explaining, “This is no longer a conservation war—it is a war on [South African] sovereignty so we should look at it in terms of our national security. Poachers from neighbouring countries come heavily armed in the still of the night and kill our rhino. This is counter-insurgency and we should respond accordingly” (quoted in Defence Web 2015). The language of insurgency also frames the language of retired Army General Johan Jooste, who oversees SANParks' national anti-poaching operations (Lunstrum 2014; Smith and Humphreys 2015). It is similarly creeping into the tactics and branding of private anti-poaching companies, such as Counter Insurgency Tracker Training (CITT), which provides “quality man and animal tracking courses” to conservation organisations including SANParks (CITT 2015).
This move to frame poachers as insurgents is evocative not only because it mirrors a powerful global discourse of insurgency given new life within the 'War on Terror' (Anderson 2011) and unsubstantiated suggestions terrorist groups profit from poaching (Duffy 2016), but also because it has historical traction. During the fight against white supremacist rule, anti-apartheid activists coming from within South Africa and neighbouring countries like Mozambique were branded as ‘terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’ determined to bring down the apartheid government. Reflecting the broader Cold War context as it articulated with state racism, insurgents—understood by the ruling party as predominately black political agitators—were seen as infiltrating threats to both white rule and the capitalist economic system (Rich 1984).
The current incarnation of the rhino poacher as ‘insurgent’ , a racialised politically-threatening and politically-motivated trespasser, revives this apartheid Cold War history, giving it discursive punch. In fact, a high-ranking South African anti-poaching official with a background in apartheid counter-insurgency operations drew an explicit connection to the apartheid era, explaining:
Even in the height of our bad times here in South Africa [i.e., anti-apartheid ‘insurgency’ ], there was never a time where you had two to three insurgencies a day, armed insurgencies, never. Today we have up to 80 a month! A sovereign country allowing armed people, but not only with hunting rifles, often assault rifles as well, to enter illegally and plunder my resources and take them out of the country illegally. That's part of the predicament. (Interview 2013)
Hence, the predicament is one of mass insurgency, reminiscent of a time when white minority sovereignty itself was felt to be under threat at the hands of black ‘insurgents’ . What is ironic is that this new 'insurgent poacher' has no political agenda, hence denying the very essence of what typically constitutes insurgency. Even so, its use is discursively productive.
To fully grasp the racialisation of the rhino-poacher-as-insurgent, however, we must grapple with the older colonial construct of 'the poacher'. The origin of many national parks across sub-Saharan Africa, especially white settler states like South Africa, rested in European settlers creating Edenic landscapes in which to nurture a European sense of belonging, a move itself enabled by indigenous dispossession (Carruthers 1995; Igoe 2004). In short stride came the criminalisation of indigenous habitation, farming, and hunting. Such racialised dispossession gave life to 'the poacher'. Necessarily a ‘black’ or ‘native’ African is a shifty fellow, albeit one with often impressive bush skills, who threatens the environment, not to mention a European sensibility of Edenic wilderness (Neumann 2004a; Mavhunga 2014). He takes what is not his, what he has invested neither his labour nor money into. This colonial construct haunts the current rhino poacher who is understood as entering where he is not welcome to reap wealth to which he has no claim, in the process threatening wildlife as national treasures and those tasked with its protection. Looking back even further, indigenous Africans were racialised as Other as a core feature of settler nation-making long before park boundaries were drawn. It is this prior colonial move of racialised nation-making that made evictions possible in the first place and hence that is foundational to environmental conservation across much of Africa and beyond (Carruthers 1995; Neumann 1998; Mollett 2010).
In short, the South African trope of the rhino-poacher-as-insurgent emerges from both colonial and Cold War histories. This is a racialised subject position whose race is overdetermined: insurgents during the fight against apartheid and poachers from colonial history onward are both understood as essentially untrustworthy, shifty black Africans. In a place like Kruger where protected areas are still largely seen as the provenance of the descendants of European settlers (Kepe 2009; Hughes 2010; Meskell 2012; Büscher 2016), and where men coming to hunt rhinos have largely been black Mozambicans, the poacher-as-insurgent is rendered multiply foreign in terms of his nation, labour, and race. So when a Mozambican enters Kruger to hunt rhinos, he is seen not merely as a poacher but as a dark and menacing insurgent bent on infiltrating South African sovereign territory and greedily decimating its heritage, amounting to an act of war.
This racialised rendering of the rhino poacher is productive: it authorises displacement. Interestingly, it is not the case that all conservation officials deploy this language, and I have never heard a Mozambican official turn to the language of insurgency. But its routine use in South Africa, a country that has long had substantial influence on the LNP and process of relocation, provides part of the larger context in which displacement comes to make sense. More broadly, it is through these moves that the eviction of communities comes to be understood as an obvious response not only to poaching but also ending the insurgency and winning the war.
Guatemala: Security-induced displacement in borderlands, conservation areas, and the ‘drug war’
The crown jewel of Guatemala's protected areas system is the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), created in 1990 by expanding a forest reserve and increasing land use restrictions. Today, more than 2.1 million hectares in the Petén department are protected areas on the Mexican border. Most residents did not even know the MBR was created until after the laws were passed. Thus, conservation education took the form of telling people about rights they had already lost. As Sundberg (2003, 2004) illustrates, the 1990s marked a period when marginalised communities maneuvered for land rights after conservation-induced displacement took place.
While this conjunctural moment re-territorialised Petén in the name of conservation, its borderland location made it a security concern long before and after this moment. In popular discourses of security and sovereignty, newspaper articles ask questions like “how did Guatemala lose 50,000 square kilometres?” (Gutiérrez Martínez 2017). Guatemalans still decry the loss of Chiapas and Campeche to Mexico. On both sides of the border, non-indigenous elites raised concerns about indigenous peoples' loyalty to the post-colonial state. Mexican and Guatemalan central elites made physical and racial difference dangerous when they authorised displacement on that basis (Nolan-Ferrell 2012). Petén's borderland status is the reason why it was later a key site for successive military dictators seeking to (re)make Guatemalan territory as part of an anti-guerrilla Cold War campaign during the civil war (1960–1996). During the war, the military state first declared Petén an empty frontier that needed to be incorporated into the nation; then the military collaborated with USAID in promoting settlement, where forest-clearing was evidence of ownership required by Guatemalan law to obtain formal land titles; and finally, both USAID and the state decried settlement as deforestation (Grandia 2012; Ybarra 2012). State territorial claims repeatedly disavow collective memories and associated land justice claims—for settlement, then for conservation, and today to fight the so-called drug war. Across all three moments, the military territorialised the Lowlands under a security framework.
Eventually, military claims to save the Guatemalan nation from the threat of Cold War communism were revealed as thin facades for genocidal massacres. This broader context set the stage for the ways in which Petén's territorialisation coalesced on three inter-related threat narratives that framed residents as conservation's constitutive Outsiders, rationalising conservation-induced displacement. First, illegal logging was identified as a ‘Mexican’ problem, where supposed foreigners were stealing valuable Guatemalan natural resources. Second, Petén was supposed to suffer from a 'population bomb'. When the population seemed to rise precipitously in a short period of time, international conservationists decried “immigration” and even refugee right to return (Ybarra 2017). Few scientists acknowledge the irony of claiming deforestation as a population growth crisis in a country where 200,000 people were murdered or disappeared. Finally, Petenero locals successfully institutionalised their stereotype of indigenous Q ‘eqchi’ s as forest-eating ‘termites’ . This narrative served to frame forest-clearing practices as pathological to a supposedly nomadic people, naturalising their dispossession. Whereas poor farmers were potentially politically dangerous during the Cold War, in the conservation era they became environmentally dangerous. It is of note that park officials call communities ‘invaders’ even when they acknowledge that their existence predates the creation of protected areas (Interviews 2008, 2013). In all three narratives, threats to the environment came to be read as threats to the post-war state, where protected area conservation required displacement. Hence, communities were displaced from the protected area on conservation grounds, but these environmental threats were first understood as security threats.
There were dozens of evictions in the MBR communities in the 1990s, as well as a series of semi-voluntary resettlement agreements. Today, however, most conservation displacement amounts to a war of attrition. Rather than physical violence, CONAP (Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas, national parks agency) has primarily worked with cognizant state agencies to ensure that they do not provide basic services like schools and running water to ‘invader’ communities. Rather than a singular moment, state agencies coordinate to ensure that families cannot send their children to school or bathe in their homes.
By the mid-2000s, in a rising tide of drug trafficking territorial violence, the Guatemalan borderlands became a security threat again. Conservationists were part of a rising tide that brushed off post-genocide calls for demilitarisation in favour of increased funding for the drug war (Ybarra 2017). Scientists coined phrases like “narco-deforestation” (McSweeney et al 2014), and the New York Times warned that the MBR was becoming a “rapidly deforesting mini-narco-state” (Schmidt 2010). This hyperbolic language offers no evidence that drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) have any interest in deforestation, much less a political agenda to take over the state, but threat narratives nonetheless authorise violence on their behalf.
A 2004 drug-trafficking related 'state of emergency' deployed the military in Laguna del Tigre National Park. Rather than query the effect of massive troop deployment in tropical forests, US conservationists hailed this as an important victory to save the endangered scarlet macaw (e.g., Gunyup 2005: 62). Hence, conservationists strategically endorsed military build-up, justified by narco-security threats, as a means of ecological protection. Ybarra was unable to find any information that confirmed either that macaw protection was part of the army's mandate in Laguna del Tigre, or that massive deployment saved the macaw. In recent years, state laws formalised the military's territorial claims to patrol the Maya Forest. Conservation practitioners suggest that this is necessary because CONAP officials do not carry weapons, so only the military can patrol the forest. At the same time, they acknowledge that soldiers sometimes kill endangered species for food, or even just out of boredom (Interviews 2009). As we discuss below, it is during states of emergency that the military evicts communities from protected areas.
While the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR 2015) found that the central state declared 10 states of emergency within a decade “as a means of social control” for prolonged and unstated periods of time, it noted that those in northern Guatemala (including the MBR) were in response to valid drug trafficking threats. The problem with the security state's resurgence during states of emergency in protected areas is that securitisation strips people of their rights, treating them as presumptive criminals, instead of protecting them. As Oscar Martínez (2016: 66) explains, “International organisations have pumped Guatemala with money intended to protect forested areas and archaeological sites. How does the state show the donors they're tough? By targeting the weakest, and accusing them of being narco-traffickers, which makes the state look even stronger.” In other words, state security forces do not evict drug traffickers or ranchers who illegally clear land, build airstrips, and use core protected areas for cattle grazing.
Instead, state security forces target vulnerable communities: those who are poor, indigenous and often do not speak Spanish, comprising the majority of the 35 'population fronts' that CONAP identifies as “invaded areas” (Rojas 2013). Even when indigenous communities have historical grounds for their land claims, they are repeatedly evicted (e.g., Corzo Márquez 1999). Images of indigenous families displaced by the army in national press evoke little popular sympathy because government functionaries describe these operations as having “strategic objectives to find criminal structures, particularly those linked to drug trafficking” claiming that the community was “supporting or collaborating with drug traffickers” (Valdez and Escobar 2011).
In short, it is increasingly not conservation concerns, but rather security concerns, that are provoking displacement. The fact that the evictions are unfolding within the MBR as a conservation space are, however, significant. Put simply, it is the protected areas laws that make these military operations possible, something state press releases do not mention. Hence, military actions during states of emergency target vulnerable communities for displacement using conservation laws for their eviction, and then claim their numbers as a success for the war on drugs.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve: Where the security state makes ‘difference’ dangerous
In the initial MBR plan, US consultants uncritically observed that “attitudes by most everyone (government officials, industrialists, conservationists) hold that the milperos [farmers] are the 'bad guys' – destroyers of the forest” (USAID 1990: 262). The common thread is that the security state had a mandate to displace the bad guys, during Cold War, 'drug war', and 'war on terror' states of emergency. In the absence of due process, state security forces mobilise racialised threat narratives against indigenous peoples in protected area policing and eviction. In this section, we explain how ‘narco’ maps onto ‘indigenous’ and how this is central to authorising displacement. Key to this analysis is that conservation goals are largely irrelevant to contemporary security concerns and judgments of the state about which communities must be evicted from the Maya Forest.
While international conservationists do not call for large-scale displacement of poor Indigenous communities, Cold War era sedimentations of the 'bad guy' who justifies military action – and increased budgets – necessarily tend to fall on a racialised Other, where the narco-Maya becomes common sense in the twenty first century, the same way common sense notions of Mayas were guerrillas in the twentieth century (Nelson 2009). Today, state actors re-work civil war narratives of indigenous peoples as guerrillas with that of narcos. As K‘iche’ Maya activist Domingo Hernando Ixcoy explains, “They still see indigenous people as a mass… If they catch people with drugs they become narco-Mayas. You never see headlines about narco-Ladinos! We participate as individuals but we are seen as a collective” (Nelson 2015, 21). While media and state security forces treat Ladinos (non-Indigenous people) as individuals who can be judged by their actions, they judge indigenous people through racialised interpellations first, and only then by their actions. During the Cold War, the counter-insurgency state mobilised the trope of the two-faced Indian to question the loyalty of many rural Mayas, shifting the burden of proof onto citizens that they were not guerrilla collaborators. The trope of difference as disloyalty continues to shape state security logics long after the Cold War's end.
As above, government press releases do not claim that indigenous peoples in protected areas are drug traffickers—they are read as “supporting or collaborating” these efforts because they are not sophisticated enough to organise crime themselves. To the extent that drug trafficking is understood as a problem of the 'two-faced' Maya, this is because he is the same ignorant (read non-Spanish-speaking) figure who was ‘duped’ by guerrillas during the civil war. Today, many Guatemalans question whether DTOs operate with impunity because they travel only through willing communities. If this were the case, any 'narco-Maya', who is displaced or killed, brought his fate on himself. This framing allows other Guatemalans to reassure themselves that they are only vulnerable to drug violence if they are ‘narcos’. Likewise, state officials claim that people they evict, arrest, and/or kill are narcos who deserved it.
Even Guatemalans who reject conservation-motivated displacement see evicting drug trafficking collaborators as urgent for the nation's safety. As Guatemalan homicide rates rose through the 2000s (reaching 40 per 100,000 at its peak), security became people's primary political demand. Following from this, a 2011 state of emergency in Petén evicted communities illegally settled in the MBR core areas in the name of the drug war. In her work on Mexico, Wright (2012) explains how the central state's failure to provide security is transformed through narco narratives, where anyone who suffers violence is at fault for associating with so-called narcos. Rather than small-time users or dealers who can be rehabilitated, the rural sites of landing strips in the MBR means that people associated with them are assumed to be traffickers, responsible for driving supply of harmful drugs. Beyond this, the 2017 head of US Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, has repeatedly referred to smugglers as “narco-terrorists,” citing the Central America route north as a route vulnerable to disease (such as the Ebola virus) and ideology (such as ISIS) (Kelly 2014). When the Guatemalan state takes up the US's call to fight back against 'narco-terrorists', it does so based on Cold War strategies. In short, what we are seeing is that the state's deployment of a racialised Maya articulates with fears of territorial trespass to make displacement from the MBR seem an obvious security strategy in the face of narco-trafficking.
Deploying Understandings of Difference, Provoking Displacement in the LNP and the MBR
The land tenure rights of resident communities have long been severed within, and in the name of protected areas, with such dispossession routinely justified by mobilising understandings of difference. What the LNP and the MBR draw our attention to is security as a growing rationale for displacement from protected areas. In both cases, land tenure rights are overridden, at least partially, on the grounds that communities pose security risks, actual or potential. And in both cases, the security threat hinges upon the Othering of communities slated for displacement rooted in prior histories.
Recognising this new trend allows us to see both how these displacements fit within historical patterns and to grasp what is new. First, standing behind both evictions is the nation-state. In both cases, it is state practices of territorialisation along with the special legal status of protected areas that enable displacement. In the LNP, the resettlement now underway was initially scheduled a decade ago for the reasons outlined above. This was long before rhino poaching entered the scene. This earlier context is important. A massive wildlife re-stocking programme—itself a key feature of state protected area territorialisation giving rise to the LNP—makes it all but impossible for communities to live in the park (Interviews 2004–2005; Witter 2013). But if these were not enough to provoke their movement, the state ultimately holds a trump card whose power rests in the legal status afforded to national parks. More specifically, both the 1997 Land Law and the national Constitution make an exemption for protected areas, giving the state right of eminent domain and therefore the right to evict (Lunstrum 2008). And it is state territorisation embodied in protected-area and broader legislation that will ensure that the eviction takes place. In short, as rhino poaching now provides urgency for relocation, evictions were already underway given state territorialisation unfolding as human-wildlife conflict and are ultimately guaranteed by existing protected area legislation.
A similar dynamic is at play in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve, where the military state called on communities to settle the land in the name of the nation, and then decried this settlement as deforestation. Since 1990, police and military forces enforce CONAP's land claim, even against returned war refugees (Corzo Márquez 1999). While communities with registered land titles that predate the Protected Areas Law cannot be evicted, those that did not finish the onerous land titling and registration project can be. Again, even before the cadastral park boundaries were mapped, protected areas trumped individual property claims, often not even allowing remuneration for lost land. By the 2000s, those same communities were read as threats to security in terms of drugs and/or terrorism, which further erodes legitimacy they might have to land claims, claims already weakened by prior protected area legislation.
The state also stands behind these evictions in a way that pushes us beyond historical patterns of forced removal. Namely, conservation displacements are justified increasingly by security discourses and the underlying constructions of resident communities as the insurgent-poacher and subversive narco, that is, as racialised Others involved in threat economies. In both cases, the threat is deemed as one directed against a nation-state, whether South Africa or Guatemala, and their too porous national borders, reflecting that the LNP and the MBR are both borderland conservation areas.
Despite their telling similarities, the cases differ in a key respect that sheds light on the growing articulation of security and conservation. With the LNP, the desire to stop rhino poaching emerges from a sense that South African territory is under 'foreign attack' but equally from a commitment to protect the rhino. As such, displacement from the LNP is an example of conservation-induced displacement (CID), that is, displacement in the name of ecological protection. This is the case even given the security twist, which only heightens the seeming need for displacement. With the MBR, however, the state justifies current eviction on the basis of the drug war, even though protected areas laws make evictions possible. So this is a case of displacement from protected areas more broadly and not CID given that conservation concerns are not a motivating factor. This distinction allows us to see, once more, how not all displacements from protected areas are motivated by conservation concerns and how different articulations of security and displacement unfold within protected areas. Sometimes security-provoked displacements are equally examples of conservation-induced displacements, but sometimes not. Yet regardless of whether eviction is motivated by conservation concerns, protected area territorialisation and related legislation helps make displacement possible as we saw above. What this shows is that state protected areas—including their special legal status and the territorialising acts through which they are created—are useful to the realisation of security agendas.
Implications for Biodiversity and Land Justice Agendas
Perhaps the most prescient insight gleaned from the comparison of the cases is that the addition of security as a rationale for displacements makes a difference. Simply put, once displacement is motivated on security grounds, it is more difficult to contest. This emerges from the sense that it is the security of the nation-state, if not global security, that is at stake. As such, security-based rationales provide an alibi for displacement from protected areas (Massé and Lunstrum 2016). In this way, placing the issue of community tenure within a national security framework makes it difficult to reconcile biodiversity and land justice agendas precisely because it interferes with the ability of communities to contest displacement once they are framed as security threats. Beyond concerns over the rights and well-being of already vulnerable rural communities, these evictions fly in the face of conventional wisdom that for biodiversity agendas to be effective, they must actively respect, engage with, and show the benefits of conservation to resident communities (Wilshusen et al. 2002; Child 2004). It is these very communities, after all, that have the power to protect landscapes not as abstracted ‘resources’ but these as embedded within the socio-cultural environments of daily life.
Even from an instrumental perspective, to remove resident communities is to remove the protections they afford. For instance, some protected areas post-relocation have seen the arrival of commercial poachers or cattle ranchers who find it easy to exploit an emptied landscape (Greenough 2003; McElwee 2006; Grandia 2012). Displacement, in other words, can provoke ecological harm. Once displaced, moreover, members of affected communities may be more likely to turn to ecologically damaging practices like commercial poaching and deforestation either to make a living in the face of poverty (made worse by eviction) or as explicit acts of resistance (Mavhunga 2014). In fact, we are beginning to see preliminary evidence of this in the LNP. Relocated to poorer environments outside the park, young men are more amenable to being recruited by poaching syndicates (Serino 2015; Hübschle 2016; Lunstrum 2016). This leads us to the stark conclusion not merely that the best way to ensure biodiversity agendas is to protect land tenure (Dowie 2009; Brashares et al. 2014), but also that not doing so may reinforce the very security challenges that are calling for relocation in the first place. In short, once security imaginaries transform rural stakeholders into insurgent-poachers or narco-Mayas—that is, as security threats—these imaginaries strip these groups of legitimacy to demand land justice. Hence, to defend land tenure of vulnerable communities, it is vital to critically engage with conservation agendas. More than this, it is also increasingly necessary to grapple with, and in turn, disrupt security agendas and the notions of difference upon which these agendas and their resulting displacements come to make sense.
This article would not have been possible without the many people who generously shared with us their insights through interviews, surveys, and other forms of engagement. We are also grateful for the incisive feedback provided by Sharlene Mollett, Noella Gray, several anonymous reviewers, and audiences at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting and the Political Ecologies of Conflict, Conservation, and Capitalism conference. The Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the University of Washington Simpson Center Society of Scholars generously provided financial assistance.
Even though our paper focuses on physical eviction from protected areas, there are more subtle forms of displacement at play in both sites that we do not delve into due to space restrictions. In the early days of the LNP (2001-2012), displacement was technically voluntary. In practice, there was no real element of volition given that communities were routinely the victim of growing human-wildlife conflict as the park was restocked with wildlife and as social services were progressively moved outside park boundaries (Interviews 2004-05; also see Witter 2013). In the current context of rhino poaching, there is no longer talk of the relocation being voluntary (Interviews 2016).
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