What we call Man's power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.         --C.S. Lewis

 Guatemalan army officers inspect an army-operated sawmill in the Petén, 1964.

Guatemalan army officers inspect an army-operated sawmill in the Petén, 1964.

My dissertation, "Environmentalists with Guns: Conservation, Revolution, and Counterinsurgency in the Petén, Guatemala, 1944-1996," reconstructs how forest management and the military state developed in tandem in the context of the Cold War.  The institutions built to protect and exploit the jungles in the Petén, a northern frontier famous for its vine shrouded Maya ruins, were an unappreciated pillar of the authoritarian regimes that ruled Guatemala for most of the latter twentieth century.  In the Petén, fortress-style conservation based on dubious science and anticommunist security imperatives served to prevent the peasantry from making claims to public lands.  That ahistorical and exclusionary model of forest management has continued to justify violence directed against small forest users since the return of democratic governance.

At the center of my study is a unique agency called FYDEP (pronounced 'fee-dep'), which governed the Petén from 1959 until the late 1980s. FYDEP was an autonomous military command that was responsible for building infrastructure in an undeveloped frontier, but it was also a profit-seeking logging enterprise, a conservation agency, and regional police force. Blending those diverse tasks into what amounted to a parallel state, FYDEP was a unique entity in Guatemalan history. But it was significant as more than a historical curiosity. The Guatemalan army created FYDEP for the explicit purpose of waging a counterinsurgency against the peasantry, who had organized--even in the face of brutal repression--to expand the bounds of Guatemalan democracy and make public natural resources available to smallholders. By walling off the forests as the privileged domain of the military and "apolitical" scientists, FYDEP acted to physically contain peasants, while delegitimizing their political agenda as "irrational" and a threat to nature.

FYDEP's extractive reserves and border exclusion zones were converted in the late 1980s into the system of interlinked conservation areas that now comprise the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest contiguous protected area in Central America. The MBR is the product of four decades of bloody military dictatorship that reached genocidal proportions. Although packaged to tourists as a relic of a lost, primeval wilderness, its woods are thick with history.

 The remains of the FYDEP archive, now rotting away in an unmarked shack in Santa Elena.

The remains of the FYDEP archive, now rotting away in an unmarked shack in Santa Elena.

I conducted the research for "Environmentalists with Guns" over the course of three years, making use of archives in Guatemala City, Antigua, various sites around the Petén, Chiapas, Michigan, New York, and Washington, DC.