2017 Virtual Edition: Laurie Kroshus Medina

When Government Targets ‘The State’: Transnational NGO Government and the State in Belize” engaged the political ecology literature on the ways neoliberal policies were structuring contemporary conservation practice. At the same time that an accelerating global biodiversity crisis led conservationists to advocate for the creation of protected areas to stem species loss, debt crises across the global south led to the imposition of neoliberal reforms that reduced states’ capacity to fund traditional forms of management for protected areas. Alternative forms emerged, including the devolution of state responsibilities to non-state entities and market-based mechanisms to generate revenue to fund protected areas management. “When Government Targets ‘The State’” focused on the devolution of rule from state to non-state entities. Although most analysis of devolved rule had foregrounded how entities, such as non governmental organizations (NGOs), governed resource-dependent rural communities, this article explored how the NGO actors who perform devolved rule sought to govern state officials.

In the Belizean case, a transnational alliance of local and North American conservation NGOs advocated for the creation of a wildlife sanctuary to protect jaguars. In an act of sovereignty, the Belizean state designated a sanctuary, expelled the Maya community residing within its boundaries, and enclosed resources upon which other nearby Maya communities had depended. Afterwards, the state assigned responsibility for managing the protected area to the Belizean NGO. With funding from international NGO allies, the Belizean NGO worked to govern the wildlife sanctuary and the Maya communities on its perimeter. In addition, this alliance of Belizean and US NGOs collaborated to ‘conduct the conduct’ of the Belizean state officials who set conservation policies, revealing that the state is not always on the governing end of government. Under devolved forms of rule, state officials may also become targets of government. The transnational nature of the governing NGO alliance also demonstrated that the analysis of government as the ‘conduct of conduct’ should not be spatially constrained within the territory of a single nation-state.

gregorios taxi_Medina

Sign advertising Maya family’s taxi and guide service to the wildlife sanctuary (image by author)

The alliance of conservation NGOs promoted ecotourism as a means to generate funds to pay for management of the sanctuary over the long term. Ecotourism, they promised, would also generate foreign exchange required by the state for debt servicing and provide alternative livelihoods for the communities displaced from resources enclosed within the sanctuary. The implementation of ecotourism in Belize and the integration of the wildlife sanctuary and nearby Maya communities into global markets for nature resulted in the further devolution of rule: nature and communities came to be governed largely by market forces. A 2015 article, “Governing Through the Market: Neoliberal Environmental Government in Belize” (Medina 2015), examined how the commodification of protected nature via ecotourism served as a technique of “government” in the Foucauldian sense that involves shaping conduct indirectly by arranging conditions to channel individuals’ decisions (Foucault 2008).

nuukcheil sign_Medina

Sign advertising accommodations and services offered by a Mayan family (image by author)

After the act of state sovereignty that evicted Maya from the wildlife sanctuary and the devolution of management responsibility to the conservation NGO, integration of the sanctuary and the communities on its perimeter into markets via ecotourism brought market rationalities to bear on villagers’ actions vis-à-vis the sanctuary. Displaced from resources upon which they had depended for subsistence, these Maya communities became more dependent on markets to meet their basic needs. The conservation NGO subsequently governed those communities via the market, rather than through coercion. As community members began to participate in global ecotourism markets through the sale of crafts or services to tourists, the income they earned led them to abandon hunting in the reserve (see also Medina 2012). They became collaborators in the ongoing production and sale of protected Belizean nature as a commodity for ecotourist consumption.

Furthermore, reliance on ecotourism to fund the sanctuary and other Belizean protected areas also made conservation NGO staff and government officials increasingly subject to markets for protected nature. As a result, NGO staff reoriented their conservation priorities and practices to capture a share of the global market for tropical nature, while the state worked to “brand” Belize to compete in the global ecotourism marketplace.

This analysis extended the study of contemporary forms of devolved government beyond the usual focus on NGOs or community-based schemes to consider the market itself as a mechanism of devolved rule. It pushed beyond political ecology scholarship on the commodification of nature to explore how the process of commodification is a means to govern as well as a means to create and capture profit.

Both articles are pieces of a larger book project currently in process that explores the diffuse methods by which nature and indigenous communities are governed in the present. The project juxtaposes neoliberal forms of devolved rule with contemporary practices of sovereignty and Maya claims to indigenous rights over lands and territories pursued across both Belizean and international legal venues (Medina 2016). The lands claimed by Maya communities include lands the state has enclosed in protected areas.


Maya man leading a tour of the sanctuary (image by author)

The theoretical frame for the book derives from Foucault’s work on “governmentality,” which focuses on the rationalities that shape distinct forms of rule. I analyze the intersection of two forms of rule: a neoliberal rationality of government, which aims to direct human conduct through markets and thus relies on the production of calculating market-rational subjects; and sovereignty, a form of rule that operates through the application of law across a determined territory, whose focus on law produces rights-bearing subjects. Some scholars propose a shared origin in liberalism for market-rationality and rights and thus cast them as complementary dimensions of a single unfolding liberal project. In contrast, I build on Foucault’s assertion that sovereignty and government are “disparate,” “heterogeneous” forms of rule that construct distinct kinds of subjects and distinct objects: ‘the state’ and ‘the market’ respectively (Foucault 2008). However, though disparate, government and sovereignty operate simultaneously across the same terrains, intersecting in ways that sometimes conflict and sometimes reinforce one another.

The book analyzes how efforts to govern through markets articulate with practices of sovereignty and assertions of rights in Belize, specifically indigenous rights to lands. It explores how Maya communities, conservation NGOs, and state officials wield the disparate rationalities of markets, rights, and sovereignty, as well as how they become their targets.


Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Medina, Laurie Kroshus. The Production of Indigenous Land Rights: Judicial Decisions Across National, Regional, and Global Scales. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, vol. 39, no. S1 (2016): 139–153.

—.  Governing Through the Market: Neoliberal Environmental Government in Belize. American Anthropologist vol. 117, no. 2 (2015): 272–284.

—.  The Uses of Ecotourism: Articulating Conservation and Development Agendas in Belize. In Global Tourism: Cultural Heritage and Economic Encounters, Society for Economic Anthropology (SEA) Monographs #30, Sarah M. Lyon and E. Christian Wells, eds. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2012. Pp. 227–250.

—.  2010  When Government Targets “The State”: Transnational NGO Government and the State in Belize. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review vol. 33, no. 2 (2010): 245–263.