Landslides are a form of mass movement, a term used to describe any gravity-induced movement of sediment down a slope.   Mass movements can occur slowly over a period of years, or they can happen in a matter of minutes.  With any mass movement, a soil layer is separated to some degree from the underlying bedrock.   The soil is the relatively loose mixture of worn-down rock, minerals, air, water, and decayed organic matter that covers the ground.  Bedrock is the more stable, solid layer of rock underneath. 

A slide refers to a mass movement where rocks and sediment are loosened from the stable, underlying bedrock along a distinct zone of weakness. (1)

The sun pierces through the clouds hovering above the narrow paths connecting thousands of corn fields eternally repeating the cycle of life. Today, as for countless generations, the men of this rural Western Guatemalan Highland community* have assembled for their day of service.  But, today the foundations of the community are trembling due to the absence of a young man that has decided that he was no longer obligated to participate in community mandated projects because of his new found status as an educated professional. 

The community was forced to relocate higher up the mountains and closer to the highway after Hurricane Stan in 2005.  This change represented greater access to education as well as a growing presence of outside agencies that were previously constrained by the challenges of travel to access the former isolated location.   

A consequence of this move is that more young people have been able to access Western Education and one has had the ability to go to University and study Law.  In addition to learning the practical skills of the profession,  new ideas and world views are encountered that generate internal spiritual, psychological and philosophical conflict.  This tug-of-war frequently transcends the individual and generates community conflicts that represent profound challenges to the maintenance of indigenous identity and political integrity. 

The choice of an educated person not to participate in manual labor may make rational sense for a Western reader, the thinking behind it represent a monumental shift in world view for the world view of community members.   In this world view, everyone is equal and has a moral obligation to participate in the common good.  A person status in the community is based on their contribution and leadership is manifested through participation and not separation.   What is symbolic in the conflict is not as much a sense of obligation for civic participation but the introduction of concepts that represent the stratification of the community based on status rather than service. 

While not codified into the laws of the Guatemalan state, the social pressure to maintain the customs of civic participation has been stronger than any legal code could achieve.   These social obligations have transcended generations supported by the customs, morals, and traditions of the community.  The unspoken social contract has enabled highland people to maintain a sense of shared identity and maintain a decent quality of life in a nation state with a poor history of meeting the basic needs of rural indigenous people.

Since the dawn of philosophy, social contracts imagines the agreements that individuals make to give up some degree of personal freedom to cooperate as part of a group.   Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679, described social contracts as being a rational choice for the survival of persons living in a situation before the establishment of society, the State of Nature. 

"In the State of Nature, which is purely hypothetical according to Hobbes, men are naturally and exclusively self-interested, they are more or less equal to one another, (even the strongest man can be killed in his sleep), there are limited resources, and yet there is no power able to force men to cooperate. Given these conditions in the State of Nature, Hobbes concludes that the State of Nature would be unbearably brutal. In the State of Nature, every person is always in fear of losing his life to another. They have no capacity to ensure the long-term satisfaction of their needs or desires. No long-term or complex cooperation is possible because the State of Nature can be aptly described as a state of utter distrust. Given Hobbes' reasonable assumption that most people want first and foremost to avoid their own deaths, he concludes that the State of Nature is the worst possible situation in which men can find themselves. It is the state of perpetual and unavoidable war." (2)

In rural Indigenous Guatemala, there have existed two parallel institutions since the invasion of Europeans.  The first is the indigenous political and cultural organization that has survived on a community level through constant adaptation.  Its power has been based in part on an unconscious maintenance of a non-western world view as well as the conscious choices to maintain traditions and customs.   The second system is the European imposed Nation State with a federal political system and Christian Churches imposing a foreign world view.   The conflict and adaptation between the two systems have danced for five centuries and produced what Maya novelist Gaspar Pedro Gonzales describes as the " Two Faces of Existence."   One that is native and perpetuated in the home and the other colonial persona needed for interactions with the outside world. 

Today, as the penetration of schools, roads, and churches into the most isolated communities continue at an accelerated pace, the internal conflicts between the two worlds is beginning to crack the bedrock of Indigenous identity and cultural survival.   Changes in the social pact erode the bonds that maintain people together and weaken their relationship to place. 
Jean-Jacques Rousseau explains in his essay The Social Contract written in 1762 that  "The most basic covenant, the social pact, is the agreement to come together and form a people, collectivity, which by definition is more than and different from a mere aggregation of individual interests and wills. This act, where individual persons become a people is "the real foundation of society" (59). Through the collective renunciation of the individual rights and freedom that one has in the State of Nature, and the transfer of these rights to the collective body, a new ‘person,' as it were, is formed. The sovereign is thus formed when free and equal persons come together and agree to create themselves anew as a single body, directed to the good of all considered together. So, just as individual wills are directed towards individual interests, the general will, once formed, is directed towards the common good, understood and agreed to collectively. Included in this version of the social contract is the idea of reciprocated duties: the sovereign is committed to the good of the individuals who constitute it, and each is likewise committed to the good of the whole. Given this, individuals cannot be given liberty to decide whether it is in their interests to fulfill their duties to the Sovereign, while at the same time being allowed to reap the benefits of citizenship. They must be made to conform themselves to the general will; they must be “forced to be free”" (3)

In a recent meeting, the Community Development Board,(COCODE) requested our assistance in mediating this conflict.  We were almost paralyzed by the understanding of the significance of the resolution.  The community voted on our suggestion to allow the young man to pay a fee and hire a substitute to perform his task.    While this represented a victory and a functional adaptation for the traditional political authority and cultural maintenance, it is also a significant shift in the underlying values manifested in the communities social contract.   

This shift aligns with the current global consensus of valuing money, educational status and power over community contribution as the foundational element of social contracts.   It is justified by the theory of comparative advantages and represents the most efficient division of labor in a community.  The question we face today is if this is ecologically and morally sustainable.

While addressing the immediate crisis of conformity with community standards, the solution represents the adoption of a value system that has historically accelerated radical change for Indigenous communities.  

Jean-Jacque Rosseau raised questions concerning the normative value of a social contract based on private property in his Second Discourse.  "As time passed, however, humanity faced certain changes. As the overall population increased, the means by which people could satisfy their needs had to change. People slowly began to live together in small families, and then in small communities. Divisions of labor were introduced, both within and between families, and discoveries and inventions made life easier, giving rise to leisure time. Such leisure time inevitably led people to make comparisons between themselves and others, resulting in public values, leading to shame and envy, pride and contempt. Most importantly, however, according to Rousseau, was the invention of private property, which constituted the pivotal moment in humanity's evolution out of a simple, pure state into one characterized by greed, competition, vanity, inequality, and vice. For Rousseau, the invention of property constitutes humanity’s ‘fall from grace’ out of the State of Nature.

Having introduced private property, initial conditions of inequality became more pronounced. Some have property, and others are forced to work for them, and the development of social classes begins. Eventually, those who have property notice that it would be in their interests to create a government that would protect private property from those who do not have it but can see that they might be able to acquire it by force. So, the government gets established, through a contract, which purports to guarantee equality and protection for all, even though its true purpose is to fossilize the very inequalities that private property has produced. In other words, the contract, which claims to be in the interests of everyone equally, is really in the interests of the few who have become stronger and richer as a result of the developments of private property. This is the naturalized social contract, which Rousseau views as responsible for the conflict and competition from which modern society suffers." (4)

Social contracts have prioritized power of some over others and have served as exclusionary tools for domination (Pateman and Mills 2007).  The reaches of power express themselves not only through economic and social domination, but also through environmental changes that threaten the basis for livelihoods, production, and a sense of place (Hayward 2008). 

Regarding this community, it represents the adoption of a competing social contract and the rejection of the ancestorial values that may lead to eventual loss of community identity and social cohesion.

"Part of the context of the debates about social contracts concerns globalization, neoliberal policies that lead to globalization, and the rise of civil society as a major player in participatory environmental management. Globalization processes, viewed by many as an avenue for spreading prosperity and development (Friedman 2005), have been criticized for ignoring social and environmental goals in favor of economic outcomes that are nonetheless unequally distributed both within and across nations (Bello 2004). The human consequences of these changes and transformations have led to growing inequalities, and the gap between winners and losers appears to be widening rather than closing (Roberts and Parks 2006, Held and Kaya 2007). In many cases, the capacities of societies to manage ecosystems are evolving far more slowly than changes to the same systems (Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) 2005). In times of unprecedented global environmental change and globalization, the interactions between these processes are influencing the resilience of individuals, communities, regions, and social groups"  (Leichenko and O’Brien 2008). (5)

We continue to navigate the complex adaptations and evolutions and appreciate that our programming intersects with a communities historical trajectory.   We struggle to ascertain the most ethical and productive path in our efforts to assist Indigenous peoples of the America to stay on their land, in the community, and with their culture.   We strongly believe that the value of the normative solutions these exercise produce can contribute in the effort to find a global social contract to enable people to live the freest and enjoyable life on our shared planet. 

* The name of the community and participants are not shared for reasons of privacy. 

(1) Jennifer Horton "How Landslides Work" 12 March 2008.

(2) Celeste Friend "Social Contract Theory" http://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/

(3) Rousseau in The Social Contract (1762)

(4) Celeste Friend "Social Contract Theory" http://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/

(5) Rethinking Social Contracts: Building Resilience in a Changing Climate Karen O'Brien 1, Bronwyn Hayward 2 and Fikret Berkes 3