LASA/EANLAS: Rethinking Trans-Pacific Ties: Asia and Latin America

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Mayan Indigenous Human-Water-Life Ontologies and Hydro-Development in Guatemala: A Legal Anthropological Reading

Thu, February 17, 8:00 to 9:30am, Virtual Building, VR111


This paper is grounded in and draws on my long-term collaborative legal ethnographic work with Maya Q’eqchi’ communities living in the north-west of the Guatemalan Alta Verapaz department in academic and policy research projects, spanning almost 20 years, about the state-led violence and genocide during the 1970s and 1980s, local transitional justice processes and the impact of hydroelectric dams. This complex multi-layered ethnographic landscape of the hydro-development water conflicts in Q’eqchi’ territories, like many others in indigenous lands and territories around the world, raises not only fundamental challenges regarding the anthropocentric boundaries of the human rights paradigm but also demonstrates some of the ontological differences between indigenous and Euro-Western legal conceptualizations about water, rivers, mountains and life. Therefore, I argue that it is necessary to destabilize the dominant Euro-Western legal concept of water as a commodity, a natural resource to be extracted and used for human consumption. So far, ontological plurilegalities, such as the discussed Maya Q’eqchi’ plurilegal water ontologies, have been under-theorized in the fields of international human rights law and environmental law. I argue that legal scholars should take seriously the possibilities of the existence of different realities, where the relations with water and life include acknowledging more-than-humans too. I call for a new mindset in these international legal fields in order to pave the way for urgent rethinking of the human right to water and, more broadly, human rights by unsettling the modern divides of culture/nature and human/more-than-human