Conflicting Interests and the Meaning of Trust in the Struggle over Petén’s Tropical Forests

In her PhD research project anthropologist Margit Ystanes explores the conditions under which a concession holding community of loggers and chicleros (men extracting chewing gum base from the forest for export purposes) in Guatemala enters into collaboration with representatives of national and foreign ‘developers’ of tourism. Ystanes suggests that people’s concept of trust should stand centrally in a comprehension of why the cooperation forum does not appear to fulfil all its proclaimed intentions.

Photo: Flickr


By Sanne Kasin


Under the working title Precarious trust. Conceptualisations of trust, self, and the social, and the fragile collaboration of the Mirador development and conservation process in El Petén, Guatemala, 35 year old Margit Ystanes is approaching the end of her PhD research project. Ystanes, who is based at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen, places local conceptualisations of trust (confianza) in an analytical light.

The struggle over the forest and La Mesa Multisectorial (The Multisector Roundtable)

TestingThe research focuses on a forum of cooperation with regards to the development of archaeological tourism in the protected tropical forests of Petén, Guatemala. The ‘object of desire’ is both the tropical forest, how it should be understood and related to by human beings, and the archaeological site of El Mirador.This is one of the most important ancient Mayan sites in the country, and it is regarded by the Guatemalan government to be of great significance both symbolically, as icon of the national identity, heritage and prestige, and economically through its projected generation of vast tourist revenues.

The last decade has been marked by conflicts and tensions concerning whether the area should be developed for tourism or not. The disagreeing parties are among others: concession-holding local communities and NGOs on one side, and the archaeological excavation project, which now also doubles as a tourism/development project, private businesses and foundations taking the role as donors (and perhaps also investors), the government, and researchers on the other. In 2006 the multi-sector forum called La Mesa Multisectorial (from now on referred to as La Mesa) was formed with the intention of functioning as a forum for collaboration, dialog and decision making for the Mirador and surrounding areas. All groups considered to be stakeholders are represented in La Mesa, and decisions are made by consensus. La Mesa, as such, has jurisdiction over the area, but so has the state organ CONAP (National Council for Protected Areas of Guatemala). At the time Ystanes’ fieldwork was ending, the process of determining which organ ultimately had the final say was just starting.

Ambivalence and scepticism

El MiradorYstanes has been following and studying how the representatives of concession holding villages and others are experiencing the process. She discovered feelings of ambivalence towards the collaboration. The concession holders are happy to be included as they are given the right to speak and vote, but at the same time they are deeply sceptical towards the reason for why they are being integrated in the process. Ystanes tells that they ask themselves whether the intention of the other actors is to legitimise decisions that are actually not in their interest, and that they frequently deliberate whether or not it would be better for them to withdraw from this forum altogether. To understand why it is not working as expected, Ystanes argues that it is necessary to look at the local conceptualisation of trust.

- It is common to speak of societies with high or low degrees of trust. But trust is not the same everywhere. It is different from place to place, and it is conceptualised differently by different people. I attempt to explain what trust is and what it does in a Guatemalan context. Through this, one may also analyse other aspects of society such as systems of value etc.

Local communities surrounding the Mirador are awarded forest concessions by CONAP. This gives them the right to practice sustainable logging and collection of other forest resources in exchange for their assistance in the “control and vigilance” of the threatened forest. As such, the concessions are regarded as a tool both for economic development of local communities, and for protection of the forest by making local communities responsible for it.
Concession holders, CONAP and environmentalist NGOs participating in La Mesa claim that while the system of concessions is not perfect, it is nevertheless the most successful model for forest preservation and development of local communities yet attempted. The spokesmen of the archaeological project and its donors and investors however, argue that logging cannot be done in a sustainable way, and must thus be stopped as they regard it as destroying the forest.
- Concession holders are reluctant to place their trust in the intentions of these elite actors. They are not against working in tourism, but they are concerned about how they will be included in this business, because of their lack of English skills, insufficient knowledge of the tourist trade, and the fact that the elites are putting up all the money for investment in infrastructure, hotels, etc. It is hard for them to imagine that they will end up as anything but underpaid workforce in the same way as often happens to marginalised people in Guatemala; relegated to the category of mano de obra barata (cheap labour). On the other hand, this is not just about the villagers not trusting the intentions of the elites. The representatives of the archaeological project and other elite actors also express doubts about the capacity of villagers to make rational, informed and reasonable decisions with regards to their own future, or with regards to the management of their common “natural and cultural heritage”.

When the story of the Mirador process is to be told, narrators usually take as their starting point a proposal by the archaeological project and its donors/investors that lead to a serious conflict in 2002. It involved converting large areas of multiple use zones, where concessions can be awarded, into core zones where tourism and research are the only legal activities . A presidential decree in 2002 awarded the proposal legal precedence over existing legislation and the concession contracts. Local communities fearing for their livelihoods challenged the legal validity of the decree, and after a conflict ridden and difficult process the decree was eventually rejected by the Constitutional Court in 2004, and finally revoked by a new presidential decree in 2005.
- However, the issues raised by the decree are yet to be resolved as the cessation of logging activities is still on the table. Moreover, the local communities are even more deeply committed to the concessions as an important source of income, pride and identity than they where almost a decade ago, when the concessions were more recently awarded. The fact that the actors pushing for a rezoning of the concession areas and now a halt in logging activities are socially and economically positioned above concession holders and are perceived by concession holders as manoeuvring to create huge profits for themselves, introduces power and inequality as important aspects of this process. It is no surprise, perhaps, that trust is still precarious, even lacking, between those who had backed the decree and those who had challenged it.

Restraining conditions for trust building in the Mirador process

El Petén jungle- I have found that trust is a delicate and fragile matter. And it appears as a big and important thing for most people I know there. When I read what academics, often economists, sociologists or philosophers have written about trust, I discover that they do not elaborate so much on how trust is conceptualised in different societies. For example, trust and mistrust have different social meanings and involve different kinds of interactions, loyalties, anxieties, and so on, in Guatemala compared to Norway.
- In order to understand better what is going on in the Mirador process, it is necessary to explore how trust is conceptualised by the people involved and in the wider Guatemalan context. The mistrust is still present all the time in this process, even though they have a focus on building trust between the participants. In fact, one of the organisers of La Mesa told me that he reckoned they would have to spend the whole first year just getting to know each other and building trust between participants before the decision making could really begin. It is no surprise perhaps, that many people complain that the process is not going anywhere.

Trust and mistrust at different levels of society

- I analyse trust in different levels of society. You may say that in Latin America in general there is a widespread low trust in institutions. Guatemala also has a high rate of crime; people are sometimes afraid of walking in the streets. They try to minimize the time they must spend outside their home, or try to always walk together with someone else. In some cases a neighbourhood may establish a committee of protection through which they get together with sticks etc. in the streets to haunt down intruders. In general people feel little trust and a high degree of doubt about the people around them, whether those are strangers or persons they are close to.

In the case of personal relationships, for example, people often mistrust the fidelity of their spouse or the behaviour of their children when they are not around to control it, they mistrust their friends, etc. In fact, people often say that the persons most likely to try to seduce your boyfriend or girlfriend will be your own friends! At the same time, the ability to keep secrets is considered very important in close friendships, which are usually described as being marked by confianza. People who are well-liked are often described as trustworthy. This indicates that trust is highly valued despite all the talk about its absence. Furthermore, it is also thematised in many aspects of Guatemalan culture, such as conceptualisations of friendship and family relations, intimacy, romance, society, politics, etc. It is an aspect of many kinds of social interactions, both in meetings with strangers and with close friends, in street interaction, in forms of address, in the work place, and so on. As such, it can be used as a prism to explore many aspects of Guatemalan society and to shed some more light on the political process which is the focus of this process. For example, confianza in the Guatemalan context is fundamentally related to matters of social hierarchies, and to gain an understanding of how this works is important for working out why persistent mistrust becomes such a huge hindrance for the Mirador process.

Along with the research Ystanes works as a member of the board of program for the bachelor degree in Latin American Studies at the UiB. She is eager to continue investigating the concept of trust in Latin American societies. When she finishes at the end of this summer, she hopes for a post doc.


Tags: Guatemala
Published Mar. 1, 2010 8:42 PM - Last modified Oct. 25, 2013 4:39 PM