Friday, September 23, 2011

Natural disasters (not)

It is hard to live and especially to drive in Guatemala during the rainy season, which is effectively half of the year, and not be astounded, if not alarmed at times, by the frequency of landslides and flooding.  That is, if one is not from here. The other day, driving back to Quiche from Antigua, I was stopped on the highway for about half an hour around kilometer 105 (that's about halfway between Tecpan and Los Encuentros, where the highway that leads through Quiche starts). We had ground to a complete half and then cars on our side began to inch forward slowly. About half a mile later, I saw what was causing the stoppage. It appeared as though a substantial chunk of the mountain on the opposite side of the highway (roughly the western side, along the right hand side of the lanes heading towards Guatemala City and the south) had fallen down as a result of the constant rains of the previous night. I have seen a lot of landslides (although not quite as many as last summer along the CA-1 between Guatemala and Los Encuentros), but I have not seen boulders that big anywhere here. There were huge chunks of rock that were nearly the size of cars. Three lanes of the highway were blocked off effectively -- both southbound lanes and one northbound lane. There were some tractors and cranes out, and they had managed to clear one lane, and the police were directing traffic so that some cars heading southbound could go through, and then some going northbound. I've gotten used to seeing roads blocked, fallen trees on the highway, large accumulations of mud blocking a lane or so, but this was pretty terrifying, because it appeared as though as much of the slope above was now on the ground as remained standing.

This put me to thinking about why there are so many landslides along the highways, and, more generally about the string of disasters that we have had this past week in Guatemala. Monday afternoon, there were 4 earthquakes, ranging between 4.7 and 5.8, concentrated in the department of Santa Rosa, to the east of the capital. And then there was an avalanche in Santa Cruz Barillas in Huehuetenango. At the same time, there appeared an article in the papers that the government disaster-response agency, CONRED (Nartional Council for the Reduction of Disasters) had run out of funding. There were a lot of people displaced in Santa Rosa, and in Huehuetenango people were buried in the avalanche. At least one person died immediately, and about 15 were missing. A total of 11 people had died, as of Friday, September 23.

Clearly, earthquakes are going to happen in a country where there are many seismic faults. But the human impact of these occurrences is anything but natural. By calling them "natural disasters," we mask the highly social causes and the extremely unequal impacts. It should not escape anyone's attention that the vast majority of people who are displaced, rendered homeless, injured or killed in floods, landslides, avalanches, and earthquakes are poor people of color.  You got that one, right? Remember Katrina, everyone? The flood waters might have been color-blind and class-neutral, but the communities that were constructed in the most vulnerable areas were predominantly poor and working class communities and communities of color (although, as many commentators have pointed out, the Ninth Ward, which received most of the media attention during the flood and its aftermath, had many working class and middle class home-owning families).

Many years back, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, I heard a talk by a Marxist geographer named Phil O'Keefe that forever changed the way that I looked at such catastrophes; I think the title was "How Natural is a Natural Disaster?" Phil's central points were basically what I have stated above: that calling such events "natural" is a way of avoiding (or hiding) the social roots and impacts. That if we do not look at underlying social and economic inequalities, such as highly skewed landholding patterns, or the limited availability of jobs, that lead to poor people building their homes on the slopes of volcanos or in flood plains, then we miss much of the story. And by continually referring to these as "natural" disasters we deny the role of capitalism -- and highly conscious choices by those in power -- that have led to and exacerbated those gross inequalities.

So, this helps understand what are, unfortunately, entirely everyday occurrences in Guatemala.  I am not an expert in civil engineering or highway construction, and so I do not know why the highways routes were constructed precisely in the way that they have been. It is a mountainous country and there are probably not a lot of ways to trace a line from the capital to the altiplano that would not involve bisecting a couple of dozen mountains. I do know enough about the way things work in Guatemala to know that contracts for things like highway construction and highway repair go to the buddies of whatever politicians are in power at the moment. And probably also for highway design. I haven't researched any of this in Guatemala, mind you, but I have studied the social causation of disasters, and also processes of "modernization" and "development" in developing countries in general, and how modernizing elites and states grab onto "development" projects for political (and financial) ends.  Cronyism and corruption are such an ingrained part of the way that the state functions in Guatemala that they seem entirely unremarkable. Of course the roads were probably poorly planned in the first place. Some government, enamored of the ideology of modernity, promoted the idea that building highways would integrate Guatemala's rural areas into the modern nation-state (when actually they probably mostly serve to facilitate the transportation of the products of international capitalism into rural areas, disrupt subsistence economies, and promote consumerism -- I mean, we don't actually believe that Coca Cola is creating any jobs in Quiché, do we? Just checking. Good! Now we can move on).

The highways were probably planned without taking into account what might happen to the mountains that were being slashed through in the long term. Undoubtedly, the highways were built in a shoddy fashion -- some friend of a politician got the contract and wanted to be sure he'd get hired again to do the repairs. No interest in building roads that would last; that goes against the grain of rapacious capitalism.  And so the roads are almost designed to be vulnerable, and to need repairs. And so when rocks fall, when the road surface is covered with mud and gravel, when we see gaping holes in the surface of the mountain slope, drivers mostly just sigh, downshift, work our way around the obstruction, grumble, curse, and go on.  We all grumble about this, but no one expects anything very different of the state and its buddies in private capital.

The road conditions in rural areas are equally treacherous, although there are not as many mudslides in my part of Quiché.  Up here, the road I travel most days from Chinique to Santa Cruz, RD-2, has deteriorated steadily over the past few months of the rainy season. Every few days a new pothole appears; there are sections that are so deeply scarred and pocked with potholes that it is impossible to find a smooth stretch (usually when there are potholes, you can find a space between and around them), and so driving is bumpy, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous -- certainly for one's tires and chassis, but also to one's life and limb, as cars swerve and veer to try and find the least bumpy way around.

We can also use this analysis of social geography to look at the large number of traffic accidents and the demographics of fatalities. Last week there was a truck that ran off the road in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, San Marcos. It was carrying about 50 jornaleros (day laborerers), and several dozen people were injured as a result of the crash, and three or four died (one immediately and the others within a day or two from their injuries). At first glance it seems tragic but, again, unfortunately, pretty unremarkable in a country with a high murder rate and a large number of armed assaults daily.  But if we look more closely, we have to ask why were there 50 people crowded into a truck that fell into a ravine? Which leads to other questions: why were people using a truck as means of transportation? And why were there so many day laborers traveling? The answers have to do with poverty, lack of safe and reliable transportation, and patterns of landholding and the lack of employment opportunities. People who have adequate land to support their families don't go to work as day laborers. People who have jobs that pay decent salaries don't go work as day laborers. A truck is not a very safe way to get around. However, there are few alternatives in rural areas. Driving along the highways, I see dozens of pick-up trucks whose beds are crowded with 10, 15 or more people, including women with infants strapped across their backs. I don't think most people in rural areas spend a lot of time thinking about safety. There are few means of getting around, and if the alternative to climbing into the bed of a truck that might be old, creaky, have stripped tires or a corroded axle, is waiting on the side of a highway for a bus that might not come (and whose mechanics might be as bad as or worse than that of the pick up), or walking, or not getting to where you need to go, the pick up looks pretty good.

And if you need to get to work, and you don't have enough money to buy a bicycle, or it's too far away to bike, then the calculation is simpler. You need the Q30 or whatever you are getting paid for your day-laborer job, because that will purchase corn and beans and rice and salt to feed yourself and your family.  If you don't get to that back breaking, poorly paid job, no frijolitos for the family. So when that truck comes along belching diesel, you don't think twice about jumping into the back with 49 or 50 other people. You stand, maybe, or if there's room you sit down, squeezing your hips and legs into the small spaces you can find. You pull your baseball cap down, and huddle into the Hollister sweatshirt you bought at a Paca, or maybe a sweatshirt bearing the name of a U.S. sports team that you bought when you were working in los estados, or that a migrant relative brought or sent back. Maybe you munch on an elote (an ear of corn) or warm yourself with a chuchito (a small tamal filled with a spicy sauce and little chunk of chicken or meat), chat with your friends, stare out at the road, or try to catch a nap. You don't really have the luxury of thinking about whether the driver is going to drive safely, whether he is going to start chatting on his cell phone, whether he can maneuver the truck around the curves and slopes, around potholes and landslides. You have even less luxury of considering whether it's too rainy or the roads are too bad to be out on the highway on this or any other day. The roads are awful; this is the rainy season; you live where you live and job is where it is; the truck is what's available, and so off you go.


  1. I found myself thinking towards the end of your piece about some of the preferred recreational activities of the well-to-do. Careening down slopes on little boards at xx m.p.h. past trees, jumping out of airplanes, mountaineering, race car driving, and so on. I was thinking about those who have the privilege of deliberately forsaking safety. Those who have the mansion on the ocean's edge, and have four other houses to go to. I was thinking how disconnected the class of people must be who have engage by choice in dangerous risk-taking so that ... why? so that they can feel more alive once in a while? ... how disconnected they might be from empathy with those whose lives are at risk as a matter of sheer survival on a daily basis.

    Good piece, LMK. Another angle on "environmental justice" -- in addition to question of where factories and other manmade threats to health and life are located, this question of the corralling of the poor/working class into locales and means of transport more prone to "natural" disaster.

  2. Thanks, Ilyse. And you're right, wealthy people sometimes choose to live in vulnerable environments... but that is a choice.