FROM FORCED EXILES AND PARADISE LOST, A REFLECTION AFTER GUATEMALA

Futurize: Panorama And Matter

Javiera Infante For Lofscapes
10.07.2018
(1) Volcán de Fuego visto desde San Pedro, Sacatepequez (2018) ©Javiera Infante para LOFscapes

We currently live amongst a wide variety of conflicts around the world that generate displacements of hundreds of people from their places of origin. This situation not only affects people’s relationship with their environment but also their emotional connection with the landscape of belonging, unleashing a vicious circle of vulnerability and negatively impacting the development of our countries. How can we (re)build resilient landscapes to provide for this need for landscape that we have? Here is a small reflection on the subject after the recent volcanic eruption in Guatemala.

(…)O relation à la fois physique et phénoménale dune société à lespace et à la nature joue une rôle pivot: environnement dans sa dimension physique (y compris les artefacts et les phénomènes sociaux induits), paysage dans sa dimension sensible. (1)

(1) Translation “(…)The physical and phenomenal relationship of a society with space and nature plays a fundamental role: the environment in its physical dimension (including artifacts and induced social phenomena), the landscape in its sensitive dimension. ” in A. Berque, Médiance, de milieux en paysages (París: Bein, 1999).


After the eruption of the Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala, which on June 3, 2018 devastated whole villages, leaving around 10% of the national population affected (2) and in a complex political, economic and social context, I had to spend a week at the site to implement a tool for post-disaster assistance (3). This journey through the site – extremely difficult for the rest – has made me reflect not only on how a disaster is handled in humanitarian terms and in the actions that a State or civil society takes to re(build) a habitat environment, but also on how these actions affect and viscerally address the emotional dimension of thousands of victims. These are people who lost not only their homes and all their belongings but also their connection with the place to which they belonged.

(2) There are 1,714,387 people affected according to official figures as of June 27, 2018. In Guatemala Equipo Humanitario de País. (Guatemalan Humanitarian Team) Reporte de Situación No. 05 (al 27/06/2018). (Situation report) Erupción del volcán de Fuego (29 Jun. 2018) (Fuego Volcano eruption) <https://goo.gl/HtzhZG>
(3) The tool is called KORU and connects the needs after a natural disaster with institutions that can provide the type of help necessary, making the early recovery stage more efficient and accelerating the reconstruction processes. For more information, visit www.koru.pe.

As human beings (4) we relate to the place we live on a physical dimension with the environment and on a dimension of sensitivity with the landscape (5). Every action we take as a society in relation to where we live transforms not only our environment, but has its affect on us and others, negatively or positively, in how we understand our own place, our own landscape. This sensitive relationship to the place in which we live is what gives sense to belonging and identity and, therefore, in some way it generates in us a need to feel that we are from a place: we have a need for landscape. It is not by chance that exile or just the punishment that consists ofexpelling someone from a particular place or territory to temporarily or perpetually reside outside that place(6) was considered in antiquity as one of the maximum sanctions, surpassed only by the death penalty. Leaving forever the land of which we feel a part − our landscape − could be almost like dying.

(4) The word human comes from the Latin humus (earth) plus the suffix of belonging -anus, -ano. In Greco-Roman mythology, they were beings that belonged to the earth and differed from the divine beings that inhabited the sky. <https://goo.gl/yvCzqk>
(5) A. Berque, Médiance, de milieux en paysages (París: Bein, 1999).
(6) Destierro (Exile) in RAE (2018) in www.rae.es, consulted July 2018.


Today, for those migrants, refugees, and victims of one thing or another, groups condemned to forced exile as a result of political, social, economic, and religious disasters and even war (7) difficult environmental and emotional scars are produced. These scars generate circles of vulnerability that are in the majority of cases likely to be affected again in the future. This not only implies great costs in recovery and reconstruction (8), but also deep social wounds, which are almost impossible to quantify. Human displacements are not new in our history, from Babylonian exile to the African migration in Latin America, groups have managed to physically apprehend what it means to inhabit a new territory. Although this has meant merging some elements and provoking exceptional cultural manifestations, giving a new sense to belonging and creating a sensitive relationship with that new landscape, the reality is that in many cases the trauma of the original displacement is something that can be inherited and not so easily forgotten. The state of vulnerability and conflict can continue to be seen even centuries later.

(7) Since the decade of the seventies there has been a bibliography that identified natural disasters more as a consequence of socioeconomic factors than of natural ones. P. OKeefe, K. Westgate y B. Wisner, Taking the Naturalness out of Natural Disasters, in Nature 260 (1976), 566-567.
(8) Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). It is estimated that every dollar invested in prevention corresponds to approximately seven dollars in economic losses due to disasters. The return on prevention investment is very high. In UNDP, Buró de Prevención de Crisis y Recuperación, Reducción del Riesgo de Desastre y Recuperación,(Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, Disaster Risk Reduction and Recovery (Oct. 2010), <https://goo.gl/9XvRZA>


Today, forced exiles occur no longer as penalties inflicted by States, but in a constant equation of vulnerability: poverty, conflicting political, social and economic contexts, fragile institutions, among many other factors that end up (re)constructing a disastrous environment, which can force people into self-imposed exile. These migrants, refugees, and victims end up in camps, shelters, or temporary housing of some sort and often at the mercy of charity with the only hope of one day returning to that landscape of origin (in a sort of Paradise-lost scenario) or finding a new place to start again.

It is urgent to take actions to plan, project, design and (re)build together with the displaced peoples a relationship that is not only physical, but also emotional and which finally provides a sense of belonging and builds new resilient communities. It is this link with the landscape that constructs new stories for the future. Returning almost rhetorically to the thousands of Guatemalans who exist today, there are great opportunities to rebuild a resilient environment, but above all to rebuild that emotional bond and belonging that can fill that need for landscape.

“(…)These events remind us that we belong or we used to belong to a specific place: a country, a town, a neighborhood. A landscape should establish interpersonal links, the link of language, customs, the same type of work and leisure. And, above all, a landscape should contain the type of spatial organization that shelters our experiences and relationships: spaces to meet, celebrate, isolate oneself, spaces that never change and always remain as they are in our memories. These are some of the characteristics that give the landscape its unique condition, its style. These are the things that make us remember it with emotion.” (9)

(9) J. B. Jackson, La Necesidad de Ruinas y otros Ensayos (The Need for Ruins and other essays) [Translation from the translation of Hecht, R. and Martic, D.], (Santiago: Ediciones ARQ, 2012)


Javiera Infante is an architect and holds a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture UC. She currently develops projects and research related to public space, landscape, and development of technologies for natural disasters. She is Academic Coordinator and professor in the Master’s Program in Architecture and Project Process at the PUCP, Lima.

(2) Flujo de migraciones de refugiados en 2002, extracto de video (2018) ©Robert Muggah para BBC News
(3) Mapa de la zona de Escuintla y Sacatepequez en Guatemala (1794) ©British Library Board
(4) Claudio Gay, Paseo a los Baños de Colina(1854) ©Memoria Chilena <http://www.memoriachilena.cl/602/w3-article-99628.html>

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2019-10-28T18:05:22-03:00