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Disaster Epistemology, Vulnerability, and Mitigation in Guatemala  

Roberto E. Barrios

From 1976 to 2023, disaster studies experienced a revolution in the way scholars think about natural hazards and disasters. Central to this transformation was the emergence of vulnerability theory, which defines disasters as processes that unfold over long periods because of human practices that enhance the materially destructive and socially disruptive capacities of natural hazards. For researchers involved in developing this analytical perspective, the 1976 earthquake in Guatemala stands out as a prime example of the role of social forces in engendering disaster. Beyond the 1976 earthquake, a review of Guatemala’s history of disasters illuminates the intimate relationship between development practices, socioeconomic inequity, and catastrophes from the pre-Columbian period to the early 21st century. Paralleling the rise of vulnerability theory in the 1970s was the growing interest of disaster scholars in the methodological potential of catastrophes to reveal social structures (e.g., kinship organization) and fault lines (e.g., class and racial structures) that are not readily apparent in times of “normalcy.” Moreover, this interest in the revelatory qualities of disasters was accompanied by a number of hypotheses concerning the relationship between disasters and social change. Once again, Guatemala has offered a number of case studies that illustrate how disasters allow researchers to see social structures, inequities, and contradictions and have shed light on why some disasters are conducive to progressive social change while others are not. Specifically, the case of Guatemala demands social scientists understand disaster vulnerability and the transformative potential of disasters within the broader global political–economic networks of colonial and postcolonial extraction and exploitation. As the 21st century progresses, Guatemala struggles with the local particularities of global disasters. Central America is the tropical region that stands to be most affected by anthropogenic climate change, yet the country’s national government has not implemented the hazard mitigation, urban planning, and inequity reduction programs necessary to counteract these effects. From 2015 to 2023, climate change–related droughts and floods displaced thousands of subsistence farmers, many of whom chose to migrate internationally in search of better livelihoods. Similarly, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted a country with a fragmented and critically underfunded health care system and deeply entrenched inequities between urban and rural and Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. As a result, Guatemala’s excess mortality rate during the most acute years of the pandemic (2020 and 2021) more than doubled that of Costa Rica, the Central American nation that was best prepared to confront the global health crisis. Despite the notable role of the 1976 earthquake as a classic example of vulnerability theory and the role disasters have played in inciting socio-political upheavals and change, disaster social science research and disaster risk reduction remain poorly developed in Guatemala.

Article

Reconceptualizing the Social, Environmental, and Political Hazards Associated With Conflict-Induced Displacement in the Republic of Georgia  

Suzanne Harris-Brandts and David Sichinava

Following the Soviet Union’s disintegration in the early 1990s, Georgia entered several ethnic conflicts with its autonomous regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have sought unilateral secession. In total, over 300,000 people—primarily ethnic Georgians—have been forced to flee, finding refuge in other areas of Georgia, and becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). To date, displacement in the country has largely been framed as a conflict-induced phenomenon tied to several acute periods of violence. Yet the hazards IDPs face do not end following their initial displacement. Up to 45% of IDPs have found refuge in vacant, non-purpose-built buildings—so-called collective centers (also referred to as organized resettlement facilities for displaced persons, “დევნილთა ორგანიზებულად ჩასახლების ობიექტები” in Georgian)—including former factories, kindergartens, hospitals, and hotel-sanatoria. There, they are exposed to mold, contaminated soil, sewage, and other environmental hazards. Government mobilization to improve collective centers or relocate IDPs elsewhere has been slow, in part due to weak state institutions and a lack of resources, with the state heavily reliant on international aid. Historically, the state also had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of precarious IDP housing given that the right of return is interconnected with Georgia’s sovereign territorial claims. The hazardous environmental conditions of IDP collective centers have, therefore, been politically weaponized by the government, showcased to domestic and international audiences alike as evidence of the urgency in unifying Georgia’s territory. Since the late 2000s—decades after initial displacement—the government has finally shifted its approach and IDPs are incrementally being granted tenure or being resettled in purpose-built housing. Yet this, too, has prompted a reconceptualization of the social, environmental, and political hazards associated with displacement. In the early 21st century, the environmentally hazardous living conditions of Georgia’s collective centers are being used to justify IDP forced evictions in areas prioritized for urban redevelopment. The result is secondary displacement and an erasure of IDPs’ local histories. In these ways, environmental hazards have become deeply entwined with the social and political aspects of internal displacement in Georgia. The loss of collective centers in prime real estate areas links to a different aspect of post-hazard reconstruction yet one also deserving of attention. IDP identity is embedded within these spaces and should not be simply erased by future development. In such situations, there are socioeconomic and political complexities beyond the acute and pragmatic needs of securing humanitarian shelter away from violence. Thus, the line between displacement-induced hazards and political and environmental ones is blurred, making distinct categorizations less useful. Understanding these interconnections relative to issues of governance, resettlement, housing provision, and urban renewal is crucial to effectively support Georgia’s IDPs.