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Agricultura, sociedad y desarrollo

Print version ISSN 1870-5472

agric. soc. desarro vol.10 n.1 Texcoco Jan./Mar. 2013


Libertarian aspects in local knowledge: an example from the water management of Mam peasants in Guatemala


Aspectos libertarios en el conocimiento local: un ejemplo del manejo de agua de los campesinos Mam en Guatemala


Konrad Berghube*


Institute for Organic Farming, Department of Sustainable Agricultural Systems, University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Gregor Mendel Strasse 33, 1180 Vienna, Austria. ( * Autor responsable


Recibido: octubre, 2012.
Aprobado: noviembre, 2012.



The present article investigates whether Guatemalan local peasant knowledge and the corresponding social organisation incorporate aspects of a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian behaviour and attitudes of solidarity and mutual aid in the use and distribution of natural resources. An answer to this question is attempted by using the example of the water supply system and the related social organisation of the Mam Maya village Vista Hermosa in the municipality San Antonio Sacatepéquez of western Guatemala. The local water supply system is composed of 12 different groups that run their own water supply infrastructure project for domestic use and small-scale irrigation. Decisions in these projects are made collectively in an assembly, which allows all its members to have access and the right to speak. Different positions are occupied according to a rotation principle and water and infrastructure are collective property of its members. All these circumstances can be understood as libertarian1 aspects found in the projects. On the other hand, these libertarian aspects are contradicted by the exclusion of non-members of the project from water use, a sometimes competitive behaviour between the different projects, or the - only partly discussed - patriarchal structures in the projects. Because of the identified libertarian aspects, the village water supply infrastructure can be seen as a starting point for learning about the possibilities and problems in a collective and self-organised structure, from which some elements could possibly be adopted for social organizing in other contexts.

Key words: collective action, indigenous people, peasant knowledge, social organisation, western Guatemala.



En este artículo se investiga si el conocimiento local campesino en Guatemala y la organización social correspondiente incorporan aspectos de un comportamiento no jerárquico, anti autoritario, así como actitudes de solidaridad y ayuda mutua en el uso y la distribución de recursos naturales. Se presenta una respuesta tentativa a esta pregunta, usando el ejemplo del sistema de suministro de agua y la organización social relacionada en la aldea Maya Mam, Vista Hermosa, en el municipio de San Antonio Sacantepéquez en el occidente de Guatemala. El sistema de suministro de agua local se compone de 12 grupos diferentes que operan su propio proyecto de infraestructura para proveer agua para el uso doméstico y para irrigación de pequeña escala. Las decisiones en estos proyectos se toman de manera colectiva en una asamblea, lo que permite a todos sus miembros tener acceso y el derecho de expresarse. Se ocupan diferentes puestos con base en un principio de rotación, y el agua y la infraestructura son propiedad colectiva de sus miembros. Todas estas circunstancias pueden comprenderse como aspectos libertarios1 que son parte de los proyectos. Por otra parte, estos aspectos libertarios son contradichos por la exclusión del uso del agua de aquellos que no son miembros del proyecto, un comportamiento en ocasiones competitivo entre los distintos proyectos, o las estructuras patriarcales en los proyectos —que sólo se discuten parcialmente. Debido a los aspectos libertarios identificados, la infraestructura de suministro de agua de la aldea puede verse como un punto de partida para aprender sobre las posibilidades y los problemas en una estructura colectiva y auto-organizada, a partir de lo cual algunos elementos se podrían adoptar para la organización social en otros contextos.

Palabras clave: acción colectiva, pueblos indígenas, conocimiento campesino, organización social, Guatemala occidental.



Natural resources like water can be managed by the mechanisms of the capitalist market, by a national state or by groups of its users (Lee, 1999; Ostrom, 1999). However, a strict differentiation between capitalist market and national state is problematic. By commercialising2 its public enterprises, a national state demonstrates its orientation towards capitalist markets (Kohler, 2008). The option of groups of users dependent on natural resources organising their management by themselves became more popular with the abundant research of Elinor Ostrom and her group. But it is still not that popular in mainstream political and economical discourses. Nevertheless, it is worth to be taken in broader consideration. The self-organisation of the water management by its users, for example, offers a good possibility to adapt the water use and distribution to the local conditions and to the needs of the local population (Reyna Contreras et al., 1999).

Water can be seen as a common property resource, because different persons can use it at the same time and it is in danger to be exhausted if it is overused (Dietz et al., 2003). Common property resources generally can be under a state property, private property or a common property regime, where the state, private persons or groups of users of the resource hold the property rights. A further possibility is that there are open access conditions to a resource. This means that no clearly defined property rights exist (Ostrom, 1999; Bromley, 1992; Feeny et al., 1990). Under a common property regime, users of the common property resources have developed institutions. They can be understood as temporary agreements of how common property resources should be managed by their users (Ostrom, 1992a).

The self-organisation of the use and the distribution of natural resources has different forms. All over the world different institutions for it have been developed (Berkes and Folke, 1998). They can be only informal or formalised institutions with their own rules and officials. The structure of the institutions defines the possibilities of participation for each user in the decisionmaking process. In institutions with a hierarchical and/or authoritarian structure, either powerful persons of a community make the decisions or the institution is controlled by the state. This kind of structure doesn't give the majority of the individuals involved many possibilities for participation in a decisionmaking process. They can only send delegates who represent the broader spectrum of users' needs (Ostrom, 1992b). Palerm-Viqueira (2006) also differs self organised irrigation systems that employ specialised managers for running the system, which act similar to a state bureaucracy.

In the case of a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian institution for the management of a resource, the institution's general assembly of all users plays a central role. In the assembly, all decisions necessary for the common use of the resource are made in consensus (Burnicki, 2002). Forms of a non-hierarchical self-organisation that are based on agreement between the involved actors and on practice of mutual aid can be actually found in non-western societies as well as in western ones. This organisation comes close to an anarchist form of organizing a society (Graber, 2004). The analysis of rural revolts in the global south for example shows grass-roots democratic perspectives and strategies in social (self) organisation. These strategies can serve as examples for changes in western capitalist societies (Staudenmaier, 2008).

The present article investigates the question if, in the context of Guatemalan indigenous peasant social organisation for the use and distribution of natural resources, decisions are made and power is exercised in a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian fashion. Further, it will be investigated which attitudes of solidarity and mutual aid are visible in the found social organisation, what underlying factors play out to bring about a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian behaviour and how it relates to anarchism. These questions will be discussed by using the example of the water supply system of a Mam Maya village, named Vista Hermosa.



The empirical data analysed in the present study stems from a nine-month field research between May 2006 and January 2007 in the village Vista Hermosa, Guatemala (Berghuber et al., 2009). Research methods included free lists, ratings, rankings, transects, yearly calendars, participatory mappings, Venndiagram, interviews and observations (refer to Silitoe et al., 2005; Bernard, 2002; Mikkelsen, 2000; Weller and Romney, 1988), to investigate different aspects of the local knowledge and praxis of the water management of Vista Hermosa (Berghuber, 2008). The resulting empirical data were then analysed with both anarchist theories and those dealing with social (self)organisation. The analysis compares similarities --or overlaps-- and differences between the local praxis of the water management in Vista Hermosa and theories about social (self)organisation and anarchist3 ones.

Libertarian aspects and anarchism

To define libertarian aspects for the present study it is necessary to take a close look at the theory and praxis of anarchism, because in the sense of the refusal of domination, libertarian4 can be used as a synonym of "anarchic" or "anarchism" (Kastner, 2000).


The word anarchy comes from the Greek and means "absence of domination" (Degen and Knoblauch, 2006). For Barclay (1985), anarchy is a form of social organisation that can be relatively often observed throughout the history of humankind. It is perhaps a kind of archetype of human community. In this historical sense, anarchy has to be understood as a form of social organisation without rulers. However, patriachy, the domination of older people over younger, or the domination of sanctions based on religion can be found in "historical anarchies", as which Barclay (1985) considers many ancient hunter and gatherer societies. These kinds of domination contradict anarchist ideas and practices, which arose in the 19th century mainly in Europe.

Anarchism is a social and political theory that not only includes anarchy as the absence of state rule, but goes much further. It became important with the process of industrialisation (Barclay, 1985). Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first person who was a self-proclaimed anarchist (Proudhon, 1992) and so referred positively to anarchism. Only since then people have called themselves anarchists (Degen and Knoblauch, 2006). Up to a certain point and especially in Europe, classical anarchism as a political movement has included socialist values like brotherhood/sisterhood and class solidarity. These connections between anarchism and socialism can still be found in the second part of the 20th century. Later they got partly lost, disillusioned by the experiences of soviet-style socialism (Carter, 1988;Cattepoel, 1979).

It is not so easy to find the lowest common denominator among the different and sometimes contradictory currents of anarchism. In most cases, the refusal of (state) domination is a common starting point. This rejection marks an overlapping between anarchism and post-modern concepts, because they also include the idea of overcoming hierarchies (Kastner, 2000). Furthermore, the great majority of anarchists reject sexist, racist and homophobic discrimination, religion, and the capitalist economic system. The rejection of state domination and structure, of authority and militarism, however, does not mean that anarchism generally is against every structure. It rather questions which structures a society should be based on. Therefore, in anarchism, the organisation of society is often considered decentralised, based on self-determination, self-organisation and voluntary cooperation (Degen and Knoblauch, 2006; Barclay, 1985). In anarchist critique, (national) states with their institutions like bureaucracy, courts, police, military, prisons, secret services and so on are seen as an unnecessary evil. The absence of government, domination and hierarchies in different social relationships doesn't, however, equate violence and the absence of rules (Carter, 1988; Cattepoel, 1979). Rather, state laws are themselves a form of violence. They are a manifestation of political sovereignty that now abstains from the fights that preceded its enforcement (Newman, 2005). Also, political parties have to be considered in conjunction with state rule. They help to stabilise power relations more than they offer possibilities for fundamental social change (Habermann, 2008). In recent anarchist theory, the critique of human domination over the non-human world is becoming more important. This development is connected in part with the fight against the destruction of ecosystems and the extermination of indigenous peoples and their living spaces. Classical anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism are reproached for overseeing concepts like division of labour, domestication, domination over nature or progress in their critique (Zerzan, 2002).

In newer anarchist thought, overcoming the state and its institutions doesn't necessarily mean to abolish it immediately or totally. Many contemporary anarchists want to obtain and to extend free spaces, where emancipatory discourses can be created, forming new or alternative subjects. As a result, emancipatory social practices can be learned and tested. The extension of these free spaces and these practices should diminish the influence of the state (Habermann, 2008; Degen and Knoblauch, 2006) and possibly make it unnecessary. For Habermann (2008), the state is the result of articulating interests within the existing capitalist, racist and sexist conditions. The state and the capitalist market are based on institutions and on the hegemonic subject of the white, male citizen. In other words, behind the idea of the liberal state, a hidden framework of disciplinarian technologies and standardising practices serves to form and regulate individuals. Identities that differ from the liberal ideal are marginalised, punished and disciplined (Newman, 2005). This implies that besides the state's institutions', also the ways of forming subjects have to be fought (Mümken, 2003).

A contemporary anarchist society can be considered as a large number of communes, associations, networks or projects on different levels, which interact at certain points (Graber, 2004). Barclay (1985) thinks of an anarchist society as a variety of small units, autonomous, local and voluntary associations, and different interest groups. None of them can control the others or monopolise power and there aren't any relevant social and economic differences between them. Moreover, economical security exists and an educated population runs the communal tasks. In other words, individuals should be able to represent their needs directly on all political, cultural and social levels. Bookchin (1985) argues similarly; he describes the idea of ecological federative communes: these form a decentralised society, where people live in communities with a "human extension". In them, labour would be closer to craftsmanship than to industry and could also be subjected to rotation like other communal tasks. An anarchist society is also thought of as a society free of violence, because the control-based violence has been overcome. However, a society free of violence must not be confused with one free of conflicts. They would still exist in an anarchist society (Degen and Knoblauch, 2006). Raasch (2009) suggests accepting the existing social conditions and trying to realise anarchist ideas of society here and now, instead of only focusing on fighting an existing system. Anarchist ideas of society thereby must not be seen as totalitarian. They are in a constant process of development.

In relation to the economy of an anarchist society, a rejection of capitalism can be identified first. Classical anarchism was very sceptical towards industrialisation in the 19th century. Anarchists detected that the technical progress would lead to a strictly enforced, regimented organisation of society and to centralised structures. At the same time, industrialisation meant a growing dependence from anonymous, uncontrollable forces and structures of domination (Degen and Knoblauch. 2006). At the end of the 20th century, the anarchist critique of capitalism and the debate of changes in society started to consider ecological approaches. The ecological crises of the last decades, the extinction of the basis of human life and global climate change were broadly discussed. Many anarchists consider all these trends in close relation with the capitalist economy. They can only be controlled by overcoming it (Beyer, 2009). Senft (2009) detects four different concepts of economy in classical anarchism. A first one derives from individualist anarchism and is based on market economy, anti-monopolistic behaviour and autonomous creation of money. Mutual anarchism represents an economy based on the principle of cooperatives, mutual aid (Kropotkin, 1923), justice in the exchange of goods and federalism. Collective anarchism prefers collective production with individual wages. In an anarcho-communist economy everyone contributes according to his/her abilities and receives things according to his/her needs. Complementary currencies, local exchange trading systems, self-help based on cooperatives or approaches that stem from a solidarity economy, like free shops, can be seen as contemporary tactics of an anarchist economy. Presently, they are unable to overcome the capitalist system, but serve as experiments with no capitalist economy (Senft, 2009). CrimethInc (2008) describes an anarchist economy like an "other exchange" in an "other currency". The currency can't be converted to capital and the exchanged "products" are help, inspiration and loyalty. An anarchist economy is based on the needs of the participating persons, and creates products from social relations. Its distinctive economic relation is the gift.

The spreading of anarchist ideas will not be dealt with in the present article. Only the existence of anarchist ideas in some peasants revolts like in Ukraine in 1918-1921 (refer to Naef, 2005; Arschinoff, 1998; Dahlmann, 1986; Hobsbawm, 1971) or in the Mexican revolution (refer to Flores Magón, 2005; Beas and Ballesteros, 1997; Dahlmann, 1986) will be spotlighted. Additionally, the existence of a "peasant anarchism" in Andalusia from around 1850 until the Spanish civil war should be mentioned here (refer to Mettauer, 2008; Kaplan, 1977; Hobsbawm, 1971). Anarchist ideas among peasants were also present in southern Italy in the 19th century (refer to Gramsci, 1991), but they weren't as strong and long-lasting as in Andalusia (Hobsbawm, 1971).

Libertarian aspects

Anarchism is not a coherent, uniform theory, but a tangle of often contradictory ideas that has to be reinvented over and over again (Degen and Knoblauch, 2006). A variety of critiques of reign and of theories of social organisation exists, which are called anarchical. That's why there is a tendency to replace the term "anarchical" with "libertarian". Libertarian in a right-wing context can be used in a sense that adopts some aspects from anarchism, like the refusal of (state) domination. It ignores, however, the agreement of many currents of anarchism with socialist ideas. In the present study, the term "libertarian" is understood and used as derived from anarchism, acknowledging all of its contradictions and developing it further theoretically. It describes, among other things, the attempt to maximise and radicalise the autonomy of single individuals without forgetting socialist ideals including equality of human beings in a social and material sense (Kastner, 2000). In other words, libertarian aspects here don't refer to libertarianism as a philosophy popular with some US intellectuals, but to anarchism. It refers on one hand to the refusal of domination in all social relationships, thereby questioning and overcoming related hierarchies. On the other hand, it subsumes organisational structures of groups and decision-making structures that aren't based on domination of individuals or groups over others.

In this sense, the relationship between single individuals and groups or collectives is questioned. Taking a historical perspective, the people that lived in Europe during the Middle Ages lived collectively. These collectives defined the people, but left them their individuality; it's said that they weren't subjected to attempts of being homogenized (Kuhn, 2007). Collectives in non-European societies have a similar importance and function, but are not organised as states (Kramer, 1978). In a contemporary sense, collectives also have to be thought as groups, in which individuals keep their identity. These collectives must not be confounded with authoritarian socialist concepts of forced collectives under state vigilance. In the modern age, established social collectives have been replaced more and more by a formal state community. This makes modern individuals unhappy and leads them to search for attainable collective forms of living (Kuhn, 2007).

Organising collectives in a non-hierarchical way is a process that has to be learned and developed. Consensus is one guiding principle for following a non-hierarchical decision-making process. It is based on "shock", the "sharing of decisions" and the "right of a veto". "Shock" means that only persons involved in a problem have to work out its solution. Decisions are made by finding a consensus, with which all persons involved have agreed to in a certain degree. This makes sharing of decisions and the right for a veto important. The first means to accept a decision without 100% personal agreement. The second gives every person the possibility to block a decision, if personal needs are not adequately taken into consideration (Burnicki, 2002). Albert (2008) states that decision-making in self-organised structures has to include not only the consensus, but also autonomous decisions from single individuals and majority decisions, as defined by the existing situation. The selected method should guarantee that the persons affected by the decision have sufficient influence on the decision-making process. A possibility for the coordination of different groups is a speakers council. There each group is represented by individuals and decisions are made by a consensus. Before making a decision, however, the achieved consensus has to be brought back to the different groups. This ascertains that no decision is made in the speakers council that contradicts the positions of the respective group (Graeber, 2008).

In a Latin American indigenous context, the concept of "commanding by obeying" appears as theory and praxis of an authority that serves the community (Flores Magón, 2005). It has to be thought of as a representative, which has to organise collective decisions and has no excessive authority.

It is said that this concept can be considered the opposite of an "ordering" and includes the idea of anarchist aspects of social organisation. An example of such is the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), which fights in southern Mexico for a self-government of the local population. It is based on rural, communal and regional autonomy, on a policy of mutual listening, and on a rotation of representation that has nothing in common with forms of state domination. Another example is the organisation of the different districts of the Bolivian town El Alto, which is derived from the organisation of Aymara villages (Zibechi, 2008).

As a movement supported by Mayan peasants, the "zapatism" of the EZLN allows further libertarian aspects to be identified. The first to be mentioned is the non-authoritarian claim of theory and praxis in "zapatism" that permits an "asking forge ahead". On an organisational level, the overlapping is visible on the one hand in the refusal of political parties and parliamentarian structures as forms of representation of individuals' needs. On the other hand, council principles in "zapatism" and anarchism prevent that a caste of politicians is formed that stands out from the population. As an instrument for appointing the councils, the EZLN uses a rotation principle. A further libertarian aspect of "zapatism" is its claim that there must not be a gap between the methods of its politics and its purpose. Finally, "zapatism" -like anarchism-has a transnational theoretical base, which tries to put the struggle of the population of Chiapas in a bigger, anti-capitalist context (Kastner, 2009).


The social organisation of Maya villages in the Guatemalan highland

Some authors Maya from Guatemala claim that the colonial and later independent state of Guatemala is an alien element to the Maya peoples. Without it, they could live well. It is more important for them to establish a Mayan society beside the state and to conserve and develop their culture and their living space at a local and communal level, instead of fighting to take over the power in the state. From this point of view their land is seen as the base for the organisation of the indigenous villages (Mayas from Guatemala, 1995). For Hostnig et al. (1998), this basis is the patriarchal and patrilineal extended family, which can be seen as a densely tied tangle of relations (Birk, 1995c). Inside the family, clear defined tasks exist for men and women; the man is the head of the household, has the financial resources at his disposal, and determines the status that the family has in the village. The woman is responsible for the work in the house and doesn't appear a lot at the different village meetings. Also the so called vecindad, which is a tangle of friends and acquaintances in the village, is important in the social life of its inhabitants. It is the main source of mutual aid for older people in a village (Birk, 1995c).

Some authors Maya also claim that the community is crucial for the Maya society. It doesn't oversee the single individuals and bases the reputation of their members on their abilities and the way they treat other persons in the community. Because of that reputation, individuals obtain their positions in the community (Mayas from Guatemala, 1995). Since the Spanish conquest, the organisation of indigenous villages was based on a civil-religious hierarchy5, which was a combination of local cojradias6 and tasks of civil administration. The latter transferred the Spanish colonial administration to the villages. By tying a civil administration to religious hierarchies, attempts to self-administer indigenous Guatemalan villages until the seventies of the 19th century were made possible. The social order was dominated economically by the milpa system. It is based on the cultivation of maize with minimal input on the land owned by the family. The qualitative security of the amount of food needed by the family is the most important thing. Nowadays, the production of cash crops on irrigated land is becoming increasingly important. Reforms of the Guatemalan state in the 1940s and 50s, the spread of political parties into villages and economical changes damaged the old civil-religious hierarchy. It was replaced by new mechanisms of regulation like co-operatives and committees in the villages. Both include many elements of the old village organisation, like decision-making with a consensus. But they also include certain elements of exclusion like high material and temporal expenditure for the individuals and families that want to participate (Birk. 1995a; 1995b; 1995c).

The organisation of the water management in Vista Hermosa

In the village Vista Hermosa, which is mainly inhabited by Mam Mayas, a water supply system has been developed that is based on 12 different independent projects. These organise the domestic water supply for about 95 % of the village's population and the irrigation of small land parcels for about 50 % of the population. Each project is run by a group of people and has its own water supply, infrastructure. It includes wells, a supply line, an overhead tank and a distribution network in the village. Five of the projects serve only for domestic water supply, whereas seven are for the irrigation of parcels. This kind of organisation was developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the attempt to design one single water project for the whole village went wrong. The success of the water projects lies in providing an easy way to get water to the houses of the growing village and to provide an opportunity to irrigate parts of the fields. Furthermore, the water projects' success leads to the continuous development and construction of new projects (Berghuber et al., 2009).

The most important "structural element" of the social organisation of the water supplying projects is the general assembly of all its members. It is the place where all decisions related with the project are made. Also its rules are designed and changed and conflicts are solved there. Because of its importance, participation is obligatory for all the members of a project. An executive committee, which also represents the project to the outside world leads the general assembly. It is constituted according to a rotation principle. In the assembly, all the participants have the right to speak and to introduce their opinion and their needs. Decisions are predominantly made by consensus, although from time to time there is voting during the meetings7. These votes however resemble a test of how wide-spread opinions are among the participants according to the decision to be made rather than serving the function of a definitive decision. This is in part due to the fact that, after a vote, the discussion on the same topic goes on until a decision is made that everyone can agree with or share8 (Berghuber et al, 2009).

Other "structural elements" are groups with specific functions in the projects. A disciplinary and a vigilant committee exist, again constituted according to a rotation principle. The former serves to maintain obstacle-free general meetings and has to ensure that project members do participate in them. The latter guarantees that the rules of the project applying to the use of the water are obeyed by its members.

In praxis, the social control between the members is much more efficient than the rather occasional walks of the vigilant committee for guaranteeing that rules are obeyed. Furthermore, all the members of a project are divided into maintenance groups. They have to repair damages in the infrastructure of the relating project. These maintenance groups are also active according to a rotation principle. In order to find damages and repair small defects in the technical infrastructure of a project, periodical walks along the tube lines have to be taken. Therefore, four persons are named in the general assembly by the executive committee according to a rotation principle. They have to fulfil this task (Berghuber et al., 2009).


Libertarian aspects in the water management of Vista Hermosa

To find libertarian aspects in the water management of the village Vista Hermosa, they first have to be described in a Guatemalan, indigenous context.

Defining libertarian aspects in the context of the rural water management of Vista Hermosa

The present study shall not attempt to impose intellectual ideas like anarchism upon other societies in a way that could be considered as colonialist. Anarchism developed mainly in Europe and in other parts of the western world during a certain time and under certain conditions. This means that from a western and urban point of view, parts of the world population, like indigenous people, peasants or rural workers shall not be dominantly viewed as potential anarchists. Instead, the present study shall rather facilitate learning - according to Graeber (2008) - from the variety of ways of social organisation developed in the global south. Furthermore, the goal is also to understand its egalitarian, libertarian aspects (Kastner 2000) and to adapt them possibly to the conditions of the more industrialized parts of the world.

Because of this intention, the question is raised how the term libertarian -in the sense used by Kastner (2000)- can be used in the Mam Mayan context, i.e. in a rural indigenous, non-industrialized world that is mainly based on subsistence agriculture. First, it is difficult to apply the connotation of this term and its roots in the specific situation and values of industrial workers of Europe and the USA from the late 1900s and until 1930, to contemporary societies that depend upon their local resources. In other words, the thousands-of-years old closeness between indigenous people and their land (Churchill, 1993) is mostly overlooked in anarchist models of society. Second, to analyse forms of organisation of a society, as it exists in Vista Hermosa with its collective structures and social control, with theories that give a great importance to personal freedom might be in line with Kuhn (2007). He suggests recognising the collective as something very important but not dominating the individuals9. Following Kramer (1978) the collective allows the individuals a wide range of freedom and individuality because of their collective form of life. This means that individual freedom develops, for example, if water is easily available in the private homes due to collective attempts. This circumstance reduces the trouble of daily survival of the single individuals. It gives them the possibility to dedicate themselves to other activities than collecting water10.

The contradictions of the currents of anarchism, which are also included in the term libertarian, make it possible to see some aspects of the water management organisation of Vista Hermosa as related with anarchist ideas, whereas others disagree. Anarchism also means a critique of industrialisation (Kropotkin, 1904), a positive reference on peasant and/or indigenous life (Flores Magón, 2005; Graeber, 2004; Barclay, 1985; Bookchin, 1985; Landauer, 1919). Also, it means organising society in a non-hierarchical way (Graeber, 2008; Burnicki, 2002) and overcoming the contradiction between collective work and life and personal freedom (Kuhn, 2007; Mümken, 2003). This leads to the context of Vista Hermosa. There, on the one hand, libertarian ideas are observed in the structure and organisation of water management. On the other hand, however, domination is visibly manifested in the daily life of the village. One example is the domination of men over women, and another is the acceptance of state authorities from outside the village or the cooperation with different Christian churches. According to Barclay (1985) this can be considered as a contradiction to classical anarchism and to contemporary anarchist theory and praxis.

Libertarian aspects in the investigated Mam Mayan context ofVista Hermosa refer to the structure of social organisation, which is reflected in the water supplying projects. Flores Magón (2005) calls forms of indigenous social organisation "indigenous communitarianism". It is mainly organised by an assembly that serves as the main platform for decision-making. In the assembly, individuals (often only men of a certain age) can directly voice their interests. "Indigenous communitarianism" understands work and resource use as not being oriented towards creating goods with value in a capitalist sense. It views these entities as based on common property of natural resources and on practices of mutual aid. It sees the world as the result of the interaction between human and supernatural forces (Beas and Ballesteros, 1997). Apart from its spiritual element and its restrictions of access to the meetings according to sex and age, there is a lot of overlapping visible between indigenous communitarianism and libertarian ideas. Indigenous spirituality can't, however, be compared to Christianity and thus criticised and rejected with use of the same arguments (Black Elk, 1993). A lot of customs and rites can be found in the water supply projects of Vista Hermosa which clearly have a spiritual background. However, they don't make their form of organisation hierarchical or authoritarian11.

Existing libertarian aspects in the water management of Vista Hermosa

A central point in all currents of anarchism is the assumption that social organisation can function well without domination (Kastner, 2000). Therefore, the first factor to be investigated here are the mechanisms of domination in the water supply projects of Vista Hermosa. In anarchist critique, domination is often related to centralisation. It allows a small number of individuals to impose their will on others. In an anarchist context this threat can be reduced and prevented by self-organisation and decentralisation (Degen and Knoblauch, 2006). So, anarchism does not equate structure with domination and thus refuses it. Instead, anarchism implies thinking about how structures without domination could look like and what their basis could be (Barclay, 1985).

The water supply projects of Vista Hermosa have different "structural elements" (Berghuber et al., 2009) that have to fulfil different tasks. These tasks should put into praxis the will of the project members as represented in the general assembly. To avoid domination within these "structural elements", it's important to know how the will of the members is identified and which persons can participate in the "structural elements" of a water project. Burnicki (2002) suggests using the principle of consensus for non-hierarchical decision-making in self organised groups. Elements from that principle can be found in the decision-making praxis of the water projects. Decisions are made in a general assembly collectively, by all members of a project. There they have the right to have a say and to introduce their needs in the decisions reached. This points to the fact that in its decision-making structure hierarchies and authoritarian behaviour are made difficult or can be prevented. In the meetings, decisions are made by a consensus, because they are only valid if there are no objections and open opposition. The concept of "shock" from the principle of consensus (Burnicki, 2002) is incorporated into the projects, as all persons who depend on their water can participate in the decisions related with the project.

It can't be clearly stated if the right of a veto exists (Burnicki, 2002) in the decision-making processes of the projects. On the one hand, this right can't be found explicitly. On the other hand, problems appear again in the assemblies if the solution found for them isn't sustained by all members of the project. Therefore, they are discussed until a better solution is found. This leads to the conclusion that the goal of the project members is to make their decisions as consensually as possible. Albert (2008) pleads for different forms of decision-making that would result in maximum inclusion of the affected persons. He ascertains that, with the occasional votes in meetings, decisions can be made relatively fast if this is necessary. Ultimately, these forms of decision-making can be considered a part of a pluralistic methodology. As stated before, decisions in the projects made with votes are discussed afterwards again and again. Votes can therefore be considered as parameters of how wide-spread opinions are and not as an instrument for making definite decisions. This would agree with the findings of Birk (1995c), whereas in indigenous communities decisions are made by a consensus.

The rotation principle helps to explain who becomes a part of the "structural elements" of the projects. Its application can be seen as an attempt to make a repression of groups of project members impossible. According to Degen and Knoblauch (2006) this is a requirement for an anarchist form of society. All members of the projects have to participate in the rotation of the functions in them, corresponding to their date of entry to the project. This supports their knowledge of project- related tasks and helps them to critically evaluate the actions of others, who are concurrently in the same position. Possessing this knowledge makes it difficult to act in an authoritarian fashion and to create dependences. The decision-making in assemblies with its culture of mutual listening and the administration based on rotation marks an overlapping with the concept of "commanding by obeying". Furthermore, this process of decision-making has nothing in common with state concepts of reign (Zibechi, 2008). This overlap is a sign of the existence of libertarian aspects in the organisation of the water projects, as "commanding by obeying" is seen by different authors as libertarian (refer to Kastner, 2009; Zibechi, 2008; Flores Magón, 2005).

Solidarity and mutual aid are other practices in the organisation of the water supply projects that can be understood as libertarian. Kropotkin (1923) sees such practices as fundamental for an anarchist society. In the projects, all its members have the same amount of water at their disposal. The hillside location of the village results in differences in the water pressure and availability. The project members in the upper part of the village only get their amount of water if the members in the lower part act in solidarity. They have to maintain their irrigation intervals strictly and must not irrigate more land than permitted. Acting in solidarity also means not to use water from projects for domestic supply for irrigation. The collective running of the projects can be understood as practising mutual aid. It results that the women don't have to collect water and allows them to overtake different tasks in the projects. There is also mutual support between members. They support each other if someone has to change the private and not project-owned water connection to his/her household, if a member suffers from a serious sickness, a death in the family or another difficult situation.

The collective structure of the water supply projects of Vista Hermosa can be considered according to Kuhn (2007) as "concrete social collectives". There the question remains whether there is freedom for the single individuals in these collectives. Moreover, it has to be asked how contemporary individuality and subjectivity can be regarded as (Mümken, 2003) and realised in collective structures in an indigenous context. Joining a water supply project occurs voluntarily. It however causes some restrictions of the personal desires in relation to the use of the water of a project. It also obliges its members to participate in the assemblies, in the common work on the infrastructure, and to make periodical payments. These obligations hinder villagers from joining a project. The projects' profits of freedom are that individuals (mainly women) are no longer forced to cope with the tribulation of the water supply for a household on their own. Also the members of an irrigation project can irrigate small pieces of land and so obtain a further income.

An additional point to consider in the analysis of the libertarian aspects of the water supply system of Vista Hermosa is the mutual relationship between the different projects and their mutual aid and solidarity. The individual projects are mainly independent, and, with some exceptions, are without a closer organisational link. According to an anarchist point of view, this implies a contradiction. On the one hand, as suggested by Graeber (2004), a variety of autonomous projects that intersect at different points can be seen as anarchic. With Barclay's (1985) point of view the single water projects can be considered as small units of autonomous, local and voluntary associations. None of them can exercise a certain power over the local water supply system. On the other hand, the fact that there are hardly practices of mutual aid between the different projects speaks against this point of view. The projects and its members see themselves in competition rather than supporting each other mutually. This latent competition is visible in the following example: the members of one project relatively often reproach the members of a second one for having damaged the infrastructure of the first project during their maintenance work. Another case of competition is the location of the supply line of a new project. It is sometimes constructed so close to that of another project that damages of the older supply line occur or that its maintenance becomes impossible.

A central aspect that has to be dealt with in the investigation of libertarian aspects is the existing or achieved distribution of property. For Flores Magón (2005), the idea of a common property of resources like arable land, forest, or water is inherent both to "indigenous communitarianism" and anarchism. It often appears in rural revolts with an anarchist shaping. Not only parts of the Mexican revolution are supported by this idea (Flores Magón, 2005), but so are the peasant anarchism of Andalusia (Hobsbawm, 1971) and the Machno movement of the Ukraine (Arschinoff, 1998). In the water supply projects of Vista Hermosa the water belongs to the members of the project. This means that there is a contradiction in the possibility of a common use of water. It is only possible within the group. Non-members of the project are excluded from the use of a former public accessible water source. Therefore, ownership of the water within individual projects is problematic in libertarian view as a hierarchisation of the water supply occurs.

Finally, libertarian aspects in the water supply projects can also be seen from an economical point of view, even when theoretical ideas of an anarchist economy are rare. Anarchists agree only to the fact that in an anarchist society there is no place for a capitalist economy. A collective organisation established to satisfy the needs of the people is often seen as a base for a free economy (Degen and Knoblauch, 2006). Help, inspiration and loyalty are changed in this kind of economy and its characteristic economic relation is the gift (CrimethInc, 2008). The water supply system of Vista Hermosa, which obviously can't be separated from its surrounding capitalist economic reality, is organised collectively. This fact gives it a libertarian character. In the projects for a domestic supply it is also common to supply neighbours who aren't members of any project. Water thus becomes a gift. The irrigation projects and the projects for a household supply however also depend on money. Its members contribute to the project in the form of membership fees. Furthermore, the irrigation projects serve explicitly for the creation of a monetary income for the owners of a water connection, which contradicts an economy oriented towards cooperation and gift-giving.



The analyse of the water supply system of Vista Hermosa permits different aspects of its organisation to be discovered. Some of them can be seen as libertarian, according to the contradictions of this term as defined by Kastner (2000), whereas other aspects are in opposition to it. The collective organisational structure of the rural water management can be understood as a first libertarian aspect; although it is restricted by the fact that patriarchal domination within this organisation structure is seen only in small parts as a problem. A second libertarian aspect of the water supply projects stems from the fact that project-related decisions are made in assemblies. All project members have access to them and the right to have a say. This structure should prevent temporary members of the different "structural elements" with their special functions from getting into a dominant position, which might result in domination of other members of the project.

"Structural elements" and participants of the water projects who are responsible for certain tasks are kept from attaining a dominant position through a number of ways. An important instrument in avoiding this is the rotation principle. This principle can be found in different "structural elements" and tasks of the projects. It is used for constituting the junta directiva, the comité de disciplina or the comité de vigilancia. It is also used to assign single persons and maintenance groups for the tasks, which have to be fulfilled regularly in the different projects. Because of this, all the project members have the possibility but also the obligation to know and to fulfil all the tasks existing in the project. These tasks also include representation to the outside world, conducting negotiations, solving conflicts, coordinating and organising within the project, or working on the technical infrastructure (Berghuber et al., 2009). The rotation principle prevents that some persons are always in charge of organisation matters, while others always do finances, and yet others always have to work on the technical infrastructure. In other words, a monopolisation of knowledge and power is made very difficult in this way. Applying the rotation principle is a third libertarian aspect detected.

A further central point made in order to avoid a dominant position in one of the water projects is its internal way of decision-making. It is a fourth libertarian aspect detected. First, it is a kind of mixture between votes and decisions based on a consensus that is not faithful to the claims of the consensus principle (Burnicki, 2002). From a closer examination, however, it shows that decisions based on a consensus are the main form used for decision-making. As shown before, votes as majority decisions in the assemblies do not mean the end of the discussion about a problem. As long as there are objections against a decision vote, a problem is discussed further. This gives the votes the character of testing how wide-spread opinions are more than of an instrument to make binding decisions. Only an explicitly granted right of a veto for the project members doesn't exist. The dissatisfaction of a decision or solution for a problem can be expressed by re-introducing the discussion again in the following assembly. In relation to "delicate" problems like patriarchal dominance this however is not the rule.

Actions of solidarity and mutual aid among the members of the projects are further libertarian aspects found in them. Taking care that all members of a project have the same amount of water available creates solidarity and cooperation in the projects. That is interpreted according to Kropotkin (1923) as libertarian. This solidarity is especially relevant in the irrigation projects because disposing of more water means more monetary income. Behaviour based on competition about water, on the other hand, is expressed for example through the violation of the projects rules. But this is an exception. Mutual aid between the members of a particular project exceeds common work on private household water connections. It is also visible in a solidarity stock for members in difficult situations.

Following Flores Magón (2005), the property regime of the water projects can be seen as another libertarian aspect of them. The water and the infrastructure belong to all its members. This means that the given property regime of the water and the technical infrastructure utilises libertarian ideas of common property on resources. However this is only valid within the different projects. The tapping of springs and the derivation of water in a supply network is a mechanism of exclusion of other individuals from the use of water. Before tapping the spring, its use was possibly free for everyone. With Kuhn (2007), it becomes possible to understand the water projects as a real existing "collectivity", since the participation in the projects is a voluntary affiliation with a certain structure and its rules. This is a further libertarian aspect of the projects. They adopt individuals' concerns. With its members' investment of work and money, they are liberated from the worries about the satisfaction of their personal need of water. By this, mainly the women of the village are liberated from the daily task of carrying water to their houses, or the time-consuming cleaning of clothes in the river.

Another libertarian aspect found in the water projects of Vista Hermosa refers to thoughts of an anarchist economy. This means that the collective satisfaction of needs in the projects is, according to Degen and Knoblauch (2006), an approach to reach this kind of economy. Further, "acts of donation" of water for village neighbours who don't have their own connection to a project, are a common praxis in Vista Hermosa. This "gift giving" of water of project members to others without a water connection is detected as a libertarian aspect of the projects from an economical point of view. Finally, the existence of 12 different water projects in Vista Hermosa that are mainly independent from each other can be considered as a last libertarian aspect. Following Barclay (1985), none of the projects can get a monopoly in the local water supply. Furthermore, exerting a certain power within the water supply system of the village due to a dominant position in it is impossible. However, a lot of the projects are in competition with each other due to space limitations where infrastructure can be built and maintenance of it takes place. This contradicts the intention to see the projects as parts of a decentralised form of organisation with a libertarian character.



I want to thank the University of Applied Life Science Vienna for funding the research by the programme "Stipendium fur Graduierte 2008", Ao. Univ. Prof. Dr. Christian R. Vogl, Univ.-Prof. Dr. Ulrich Brand and Ao.Univ.Prof.Dr. Gerhard Senft for supporting the research and Prof. Dr Silvel Elias for supporting the publication.



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1 In the present article the term "libertarian" refers to the german "libertar", which in political dicourses of Germanspeaking people is often used as a synonym for anarchism. The article doesn't consider the right-wing philosophy of "libertarianism", which became popular in the USA in the 20th century.

2 Commercializing means that a national state doesn't privatise a public enterprise. A state owned enterprise however starts to act in a capitalistic, profit orientated manner (Kohler, 2008).

3 Anarchist theories in this paper include also non-hierarchical and non-authoritarian theories.

4 Translating the German libertar to English often leads to the misunderstanding that it refers to libertarianism. To discuss this philosophy in the context of indigenous people in Guatemala is not the aim of the present article. Here it is used as a synonym for anarchism. That's because anarchism is often understood as chaos and not as a social and political theory that tries to structure a society without dominance.

5 The civil-religious hierarchy was a hierarchy of offices, which for a long time allocated different religious offices and public tasks to the male population of a village, which had to be held for one year each. Taking over the offices and tasks was obligatory for its inhabitants and was connected with getting more prestige and a higher status in the community, but also with rising costs for fulfilling it (Birk, 1995a).

6 Cofradias are religious brotherhoods in the villages that were taken over by the indigenous population from the Spanish tradition and equipped with cultural and religious elements from the Maya mythology (Birk, 1995b, 1995c).

7 In the assemblies voting is possible for each decision. It is applied irregularly. In assemblies, one or two votes can occur as well as none at all. During the research there was no exact count of the voting because of the fact that they where never the end of a discussion.

8 Exceptions from the observed decision-making process via consensus (agreeing to a decision or sharing it; compare Burnicki 2002) were situations in which the points of view of men and women were different. In these cases the men's position always won. An example is a discussion about where to place the second allowed household water connection. The women wanted it in the kitchen, where only they have to cook every day, but the men wanted and got a shower.

9 The empirical data for this argument comes from participant observation. It shows that the people of Vista Hermosa act collectivly in the water projects and in other opportunities like road maintanance or organizing medical care. In other parts of life like agriculture, household or wage labour, they have the possibility to act individually.

10 In Vista Hermosa, families which have developed a small affluence coexist with poor ones. The affluence results from small scale irrigation that allows the cultivation of cash crops and from remesas from relatives in the USA. The affluence influences how the people can use the gained time and energy from the water supply. It can be used to carry out duties that make live materially better. The people can decide, however, if they want to use it only for that kind of effort. The observations in Vista Hermosa showed that less time needed to bring water to the houses or to wash the clothes in the river gives the women also the possibility to engage for example more in the social life of the village or in giving their children a better future.

11 The people of Vista Hermosa celebrate the beginning and the end of the construction of a new water project or el día de los pozos. For a broader description of the rites and customs refer to Berghuber et al. (2010). With the rites the people express thanks to a spiritual reference like Mother Earth for getting water from the wells or the water projects. There are however no mediators needed to express this thanks to the spiritual. This means that no one gets power in the projects or in the related decision-making process because of his/her function in the rites. That's why they are qualified as non-hierarchical and non-authoritarian in the present study.

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