My dissertation, "Environmentalists with Guns: Conservation, Revolution, and Counterinsurgency in the Petén, Guatemala, 1944-1996," reconstructed 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 the vine shrouded Maya ruins at Tikal, 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.
In the late 1980s, the Guatemalan military’s extractive reserves and border exclusion zones were converted into the system of interlinked conservation areas that now comprise the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest contiguous protected area in Central America. Although packaged to tourists as a relic of a lost, primeval wilderness, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is the product of four decades of bloody counterinsurgency that reached genocidal proportions. Far from an untrammeled wilderness, its woods are thick with history.
The research for "Environmentalists with Guns" is the result of three years of archival work in three different countries. I made use of archives in Guatemala City, Antigua, various sites around the departmental capital of the Petén; in the Mexican state of Chiapas; and in Michigan, New York, and Washington, DC. I am grateful to the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council, and the Mellon Foundation for the generous support that made that research possible.
Currently, I am expanding the dissertation into a book that takes a longer view of politics, violence, and forestry in the Petén—from the first democratic uprisings inspired (and aided) by Mexican revolutionaries in the 1910s, to today’s ongoing drug wars. Beyond the book manuscript, I am working on two articles, one about Latin American foresters trained by the US Forest Service in Puerto Rico, and another about the many ways that popular fables of the ancient Maya “collapse” have influenced scientists’ understanding of tropical forests and the people.