Distraction Free Reading

The Spectrum of Research and Practice in Guatemalan Science Studies

On November 21, 2020, protestors flooded the historic and political center of Guatemala City over the congressional approval of a  budget bill of nearly twelve billion dollars (or ninety-nine billion Quetzales). The proposed budget not only significantly decreased aid to dire and already underfunded public health initiatives but allocated money to ministries known for robbing and vacating government funds. While protestors gathered in the capital’s Parque Central, youth on the frontlines cathartically set fire to the Congressional building only several blocks away and confronted the National Civilian Police (PNC) in order to limit their advancement onto the much larger, peaceful crowd. Guatemala’s recently elected president and former director of the Guatemalan penitentiary system, Alejandro Giammattei, and his administration stood by as the PNC threw tear-gas, harassed, and arrested protestors in sight on charges of illegal protest and public disorder. The relative ease of setting fire to the congressional building has since become suspect as scholars, political commentators and activists have raised concerns about the possibility of counterinsurgency efforts against the wide and very public criticism of congressional decisions. These speculations, modified across class and political divisions, deny transparent recounts of historic events. Consequently, positions of expertise, authority, and objectivity are called into question.

The photo looks over protestors in the street who are standing feet away from the Guatemala Congressional building. The building is on fire, and a smoke plume drifts off into the sky.

Congressional building set on fire by youth protestors. Photo by author.

The audacity of congressional and state officials to approve such an outwardly corrupt budget does not come as a surprise to Guatemalans. An especially violent thirty-year long civil war (1960-1996) and genocide rife with financial and material support from the United States’ anti-communist campaigns, and a succession of national protests and strikes against criminal administrations thereafter, makes November’s mass mobilization nearly routine. Hashtags circling through social media, such as #NoEsElPresupuesto (it is not [just] the budget), remind the public that the budget approval is only the tipping point of year-long administrative neglect. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, white flags were waved in the streets by those who were in desperate need of food and financial aid. Most recently, Hurricanes Eta and Iota made landfall in early November, resulting in fatal floods and landslides that left thousands who were already economically disenfranchised, stranded, and homeless.

Corruption has not only robbed Guatemalans of material necessities such as food, housing, health, and safety but has stripped the nation of social services such as education. At the levels of the university—public and private—students, professors, and staff face scarce resources which affect not only teaching capabilities but funds for Guatemalan funded research. Social scientists and humanities scholars are especially burdened by these restrictions, as these disciplines and their students are some of the most outspoken against human rights abuses, corruption, and inequality. These realities push scholars to work beyond the academy not only in order to make a living but to apply their expertise in amending daily injustices and bettering political outcomes.

The Posts

This series grew from these tensions between the realities of expertise and scholarship, and the negotiation of state discourse and governance in Guatemala. The authors in this series write between their subjectivities as fieldworkers within the country and their research objectives. In doing so, they document how science in Guatemala—with very little institutional support—shapes discourses of trust, responsibility, fact, fiction, and action. By thinking through research conditions rooted in Guatemala’s economic history, political masses, ladino, indigenous, rural, and urban communities, the authors in this series contextualize how social scientists must question processes behind the creation of science and technological projects; the outcomes of these projects; reactions and reflections from the intended audiences of these projects; as well as critically examine how ‘objectivity’ and ‘expertise’ are defined and contested positions of authority.

In June of 2020, two confrontations made international headlines and reminded the Guatemalan public of the privileges afforded to Eurocentric models of investigation. On June 8th, news broke that Domingo Choc Che, an expert on medicinal plants and a Maya Q’eqchi’ spiritual healer, had been publicly executed, burned alive by religious conservatives who had accused the elder of practicing witchcraft. This profound and inhumane loss challenged the foundations of Monica Berger Gonzalez’s faith in anthropology and public scholarship. Through her collaborative and transdisciplinary work with Domingo Choc Che in the documentation, publication, and advocation of indigenous ethnomedicinal knowledge, Berger Gonzalez mediates on her scholarly hesitations and ethical commitments. She concludes with a call to action directed at social scientists.

Barely one week later, one of the country’s most famed Maya heritage sites, El Mirador, became the center of controversy when a United States archeologist proposed a tourist development plan that undermined the conservation work and rights of local indigenous and campesino leaders in exchange for international private development. Through her work with conservation concessions in northern Guatemala, Alejandra Colom analyses the imperialist politics of archeological ownership and documentation. She raises key questions about the relationship between the representation of Maya heritage and anthropological accountability.

These two accounts of the struggle for indigenous and campesino recognition are spectacular examples of quotidian experience in Guatemala. In her post, Elis Mendoza recounts her time spent with the architecture activist group Forensic Architecture as they worked with community members of the village Sepur Zarco to render visible the violent and fatal war crimes committed during Guatemala’s civil war, particularly against women. Mendoza bridges architectural epistemologies with community participatory research to reconstruct the memory and realities of human rights abuses. She concludes by reflecting on the afterlife of the evidence produced, brought forth to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court as testimony against the State.

Nicholas Copeland further examines the politics of evidence. Working with Xinca community members to protect their lands from pollutants caused by large-scale and international mining interests, Copeland analyzes the making of “impartial” evidence by different stakeholders to identify levels of water contamination within the region. He examines the clout of international research institutions and the commitments of researchers themselves, as well as Xinca community members, to argue that objectivity and impartiality are differently defined by ethical and political orders and privileges.

Lastly, Micha Rahder pivots her inquiry to nonhuman animals, wondering how they might find their own agency within conservation initiatives, state politics, and scientific conclusions. By interweaving speculative fiction and fieldwork notes with beekeepers in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Rahder interprets the language and translation of honeybees. This narrative perspective serves as an important reminder for anthropologists and researchers alike to abandon anthropocentric tensions in favor of more nuanced and more considerate research.

The authors in this series provide several important perspectives on the conditions of expertise, authority, and objectivity in contemporary Guatemala. Most importantly, they each demonstrate how social scientists are implicated not only in the documentation of these paradigms but their very constitution.

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