Land – Gold – Reform: The territorial restructuring of Guatemala’s highlands

Eric Holt-Giménez | 09.01.2007

September 2007, Development Report No. 16

Many of the current critiques of the World Bank’s “market-assisted” programs for land reform center on the contradictions between the Bank’s neoliberal agrarian discourse and the poor distributive results of its projects on the ground (Sauer, Schwartzman, Barrios 2003; Dias Martins 2005). Taking the Bank to task for the inconsistency between its mission to alleviate rural poverty and the regressive nature of its land reform programs is important, not only because it can help amplify the voices of the landless, but because it helps expose the inherent hypocrisies in the Bank’s non-distributive approach to economic growth and rural development, overall.

However, these critiques do not necessarily shed light on why the Bank continually implements these failed programs with such insistence. Simply pointing to the “Washington Consensus” does not provide a specific understanding of the role of market-based land reform within the Bank’s national development strategies. Without a structural analysis of the Bank’s agenda, it is difficult to understand the political scope of its land reform programs. Further, it is important to consider the Bank’s suite of policies and projects in a particular country in order to know what role land reform (or lack of it) might play in the Bank’s overall strategy. A market-based land reform project may be an agrarian failure for the peasantry, yet still be quite successful in terms of helping restructure the social and economic institutions in a country’s hinterlands in favor of agribusiness, tourism, or extractive industries, for example.

Territorial restructuring seeks control over the places and spaces where surplus is produced by shaping and controlling the institutions and social relations that govern production, extraction and accumulation.

This chapter will argue that in order to construct viable , broad-based resistance strategies that engage the Bank on rural and agrarian issues, one has to understand what the Bank is really doing on the ground, rather than what it appears to be doing. In the case of Guatemala, as in other parts of Latin America, the World Bank’s program for market-led land reform complements its strategy for opening the Western Highlands to extractive industries. While indigenous and agrarian movements do discursive battle with the World Bank’s market-led land reform programs, Bank-driven projects favoring foreign mining interests have unleashed a much more thorough and socio-environmentally destructive transformation of indigenous lands. To understand this process, I will introduce territorial restructuring as a critical development concept, along with its supplementary components: the development hyperspace and the mineshed.

The Bank’s portfolio of development projects in terms of restructuring territorial spaces and places to favor selected forms of capital, particular firms, and/or key political actors. In this analysis, places refers to the physical areas where production and restructuring happens (for example, the mineral-rich, indigenous Highlands of Guatemala). Spaces are the socio-political arenas in which different actors vie for power over those spaces, e.g. the market, policy, and governance structures.

Territorial restructuring seeks control over the places and spaces where surplus is produced by shaping and controlling the institutions and social relations that govern production, extraction and accumulation. This control includes, but is not limited to, different forms of national and sub-national governance. As is the case with neoliberal reforms, control can also be exercised by limiting formal governance in order to allow unfettered access to resources by foreign firms. It is not necessary for the Bank, private firms, or national governments to achieve consensus on the process of territorial restructuring. The ways in which these institutions use Development to re-define and control territory depend much on their separate, frequently complimentary interests. The accumulated result of the activities, tensions, and alliances between these different actors results in the restructuring of national spaces and places, e.g., the markets and municipalities, farms, forests, and roads that make up the local institutions and landscapes. In the process, territorial restructuring encounters friction, slippage, and resistance, all of which may result in unexpected outcomes for the Bank, the government, or the firm. Effective resistance to territorial restructuring in favor of indigenous livelihoods, or redistributive land reform, requires not only unmasking the primary capital interests behind the Bank’s rural development strategies, but also identifying the inherent fissures in its alliances.

The World Bank’s lending in Guatemala is an example in which land reform, environmental projects, and infrastructure projects are all part of a bundle that favors the development of foreign-based extractive industries in the country’s Western Highlands.

Setting aside the Bank’s development discourse for the moment, the governing structure of the World Bank ensures that its operations privilege the “development” of northern capital. In order to facilitate the business interests of the corporations that support its lending member governments (the G-8), the Bank must create stable conditions for the production and extraction of wealth from nation-states in the global South where conditions are socially, politically or economically unstable. This task—not the same as working to stabilize these nation states per se—is accomplished by restructuring conditions not only at national, but territorial scales, where foreign direct investment actually takes place.

The World Bank’s lending in Guatemala is an example in which land reform, environmental projects, and infrastructure projects are all part of a bundle of institutional and financial interventions that favor the development of foreign-based extractive industries in the country’s Western Highlands. While the Bank’s projects for land reform and environmental services fail in their own, stated terms, the Bank’s overall package of projects and policies succeed in establishing a beach head for extractive industries in the Highlands. At the same time the Bank’s public lending was promoting market-assisted land reform, its private sector lending arm was helping Glamis Gold Ltd., a Canadian-American corporation, to re-open the Marlin mine in the Department of San Marcos. Reactivated in spite of local protests by indigenous communities, the mine will open up the Highlands to gold, nickel—and soon—uranium operations.

The World Bank’s land reform projects need to be considered as part of a more comprehensive trend towards territorial re-structuring. Engaging with the Bank over its market-assisted land reform programs—when the thrust of territorial restructuring is the expansion of the mining sector—may not be the most effective way to conserve the environment, protect the interests of indigenous communities, or even to advance re-distributive agrarian reform. An understanding of the nature of territorial re-structuring is important for analyzing the significance of the Bank’s land reform programs, for reading the structural threats to peasant livelihoods in the countryside, and for formulating effective territorial strategies for engagement or resistance.