by Levi Gahman Filiberto Penados and Shelda-Jane Smith
16th September 2021

Prior to the pandemic and only a couple of years removed from a historic indigenous land rights victory in the Caribbean Court of Justice in 2015, Maya communities of Toledo District, Belize engaged in a communal process of articulating their desire for a sustainable, life-giving future. The final product was a movement-based document entitled ‘The Future We Dream’. 

The grassroots collaborative report, which made use of creative expression and participatory arts-based methods, illustrates the Maya people’s collective yet pluralistic vision of what constructing autonomy and a better world looks like from their standpoint. Notably, Maya notions of se’komonil (‘collectivity–community–dignity’) and ral ch’och (‘children of the earth’) are at the heart of The Future We Dream.

What the document represents, more broadly, is indigenous people’s political agency, authorship and self-determined ‘desire-based research’. The community-oriented process included village gatherings (ab’inks), communal dialogue, collective dreaming, game-playing and art-making. One of the problems the Maya sought to confront and overcome through the exercise is the degree to which orthodox academic knowledge production reproduces what countless indigenous communities and Unangax̂ scholar Eve Tuck describes as damage- and deficit-centred models of research.

Damage-centred research, which is ironically often well intentioned, pathologises certain groups (e.g. negatively racialised, cash-poor) because it uncritically fixates upon the adverse consequences and deleterious effects (e.g. poverty, depression, substance misuse, ill-health, high suicide rates) of institutionalised oppression and structural violence that communities have historically experienced and continue to experience. Similarly, deficit-driven approaches, which are not uncommon in mainstream development and global health studies, define communities by what they are perceived to be lacking.

Both deficit- and damage-centred research suggest something is broken within indigenous people or wrong with communities-in-struggle, meaning they must be ‘fixed’ via some sort of external, benevolent intervention. Rather than diagnosing and labelling as ‘deficient’ and ‘ill’ the political and economic forces (state power and capitalism), enduring historical factors (colonialism), and social institutions (heteropatriarchal norms, ableism, hierarchical governance) that have compromised groups targeted by the driving forces of capital accumulation, racial domination and institutionalised sexism – damage-centred research approaches scrutinise and stigmatise communities themselves. Such studies, despite involving liberal academics who are purportedly concerned with social justice, are as divorced from political history as they are from structural analysis. It is therefore not surprising that damage-centred research lends credence to the axiom ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’, is a common refrain heard across various indigenous communities vis-à-vis academic research and funding schemes.

Towards indigenous epistemologies and methods

Damage-centred research approaches to health and wellbeing rarely recognise or promote interventions into what can be more accurately referred to as the colonial determinants of health (e.g. surviving attempted genocide; land dispossession; deracination; extractivist racial capitalism; austerity/state abandonment). In turn, the realities, struggles and traumas of indigenous people and other negatively racialised groups are measured and (mis)interpreted using liberal Western worldviews and Eurocentric frameworks that are, as many radical thinkers argue, acts of epistemic violence. The Maya of Toledo District, all too familiar with these dynamics, sought to depart from damage-centred models by drawing upon indigenous epistemologies, methods and a Maya cosmovisión that are rooted in land, relationality and kinship for their The Future We Dream exercise.

To facilitate a holistic and inclusive form of self-determined research, the Toledo Alcaldes Association (TAA) and Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) brought together traditional leaders (Alcaldes) and village members from the 39 Maya communities that are dispersed throughout southern Belize. The TAA (elected leaders) and MLA (activists/advocates) are independent organisations that work in tandem and are composed of Maya organisers, farmers, families and environmental defenders. Notably, the MLA-TAA are at the forefront of the indigenous rights struggle in Belize yet are neither associated with the state nor structured as a typical non-governmental organisation. Together, the MLA, TAA and 39 Maya communities in Toledo District comprise a grassroots autonomous social movement, which is politically distinct from a government-sanctioned body and conventional NGO.

In convening the The Future We Dream, the MLA-TAA felt the decades-long legal battle they had been engaged in over land was a frustrating, time-consuming and racially discriminatory process. At times, due to having to fight for their lands on the government of Belize’s (formerly British Honduras) terms and conditions in a Westminster-modelled court system, progress related to self-determination was not always easy to see. Moreover, their struggle was not limited to merely making the state recognise indigenous land rights, but rather was oriented towards defending territory, confronting extractivism, responding to slow violence and breathing life into autonomy and a dignified Maya future. After winning land rights in 2015 in the CCJ, then, it was necessary for the movement to focus inward and consult community members to find out what this Maya prefigurative future would look like. What ensued was an inclusive and intentional process involving Maya elders, women, men, youth and others, which allowed community members from across southern Belize to share with each other what their dreams of a life-giving and healthful future entailed. The results and details of the process can be seen in The Future We Dream report and video included in this piece.


A coda on the coloniality of knowledge production

Incidentally, indigenous and movement-based outputs like The Future We Dream are regularly not afforded the same degree of legitimacy and status as standard articles published in impact-factored commercial journals. This is despite the fact that the Maya document challenges the coloniality of knowledge and represents future-making rooted in community relevancy and indigenous epistemologies and worldviews. That such a manuscript and manifestation of knowledge, which emerged from the political agency of a people marked for elimination by empire, is not rated as highly as a discursive intervention that advances theory or is put into conversation with academia’s Western, classist canon is as inexcusable as it is unethical. On this point, it is crucial to be reminded that neoliberal universities and career-driven individuals will often, paradoxically, continue to attempt to at once pirate and peripherialise indigenous and movement-based knowledges. It is equally important to be reminded that corporate journals and editorial boards, even the ostensibly ‘critical’ and ‘radical’ variants, are responsible for rent-seeking and the enclosure, co-optation and commoditisation of data and knowledge.

While it is a humbling prospect for credentialed researchers in elitist institutions to sit with, as numerous anticolonial struggles and revolutionaries have asserted in times past and present, emancipatory politics, transformative thought, actually existing impact and non-metaphorical decolonisation emerge from neither bourgeois organisations nor industrial complexes run by the professional classes. Rather, they are born out of the struggles of grassroots communities, autonomous movements and peasants who refuse to be rendered docile and are willing to collectively fight for land and life-giving alternatives. The Future We Dream, which was an effort in mobilising open-access knowledge for social change that was co-created by and for indigenous people, is one such example. The challenge researchers, funders and academia at large all now face is how to make space for, listen to and responsibly engage with such knowledges.

Filiberto Penados is Chair of the Julian Cho Society and technical advisor to the Toledo Alcaldes Association and Maya Leaders Alliance. His research focuses on indigenous future-making.

Shelda-Jane Smith works in the University of Liverpool’s Power, Space and Cultural Change Unit. Her research focuses on the conceptual, social and political dimensions of health, with an emphasis on youth healthcare.

Levi Gahman focuses on emancipatory praxis, environmental defence and engaged movement research. He is the author of Land, God, and Guns: Settler Colonialism and Masculinity in the American Heartland (London: Zed Books, 2020).

This piece was supported by a Heritage, Dignity, and Violence programme grant from the British Academy under the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (Award: HDV190078).


Bristol University Press/Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

Follow Transforming Society so we can let you know when new articles publish.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Image credit: Ton Rath Photography