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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.