De-Colonizing Bio-Politics: Securing the Right to “Life” and Articulating Maya Futures in Southern Belize

  • De-Colonizing Bio-Politics: Securing the Right to “Life” and Articulating Maya Futures in Southern Belize

Presentation by James Stinson, Ph.D. and Filiberto Penados, Ph.D. at the 2nd Belize National Research Conference, 2019.




This paper argues that contemporary struggles between indigenous peoples and states can be usefully interpreted as bio-political struggles over the meaning of development and the right to “life.” Michel Foucault (2003) developed his concepts of biopower/bio-politics to describe the historical transformation in eighteenth century Europe through which the role of the state shifted from a focus on securing borders (sovereignty) toward efforts to secure the life and vitality of the population (biopower). In the words of Foucault, the sovereign right “to take life or let live” came to be complemented by the right to “make live or let die” (Foucault 2003: 241). Studies of international development have widely applied this framework to analyze the dynamics of development projects around the world (e.g. Li 2007; Powell 2006). This paper highlights the cultural politics of biopower by examining Maya-State conflicts over the meaning and effects of “development” in southern Belize. A central tenant of the Maya Movement has been that conventional approaches to development have not worked to secure the well-being of Maya peoples, but have served to threaten and undermine their right to life. In response, Maya people have articulated an alternative bio-political vision that emphasizes Maya assets, collective well being, an intercultural economy, self-determination and respectful relations between the state and indigenous leaders. Interpreting the vision of the Maya Movement as example of an “indigenous bio-politics” highlights the need to de-colonize not just development, but the academic terms and frameworks used to analyze development interventions and their effects.



Key words: colonialism, de-colonize, cultural politics, Indigenous communities, Maya

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