Exposing Land Grabs

‘Global sociologist’ Jasmin Hristov writes, teaches and conducts research on how state and paramilitary violence has forced millions of Latin American people off their land.

THEY SPED AWAY FROM THE VILLAGE, as fast as their car could go on rutted roads through sugar cane fields. Stopping was not an option.

At the wheel that day was a member of a peasant organization driving Jasmin Hristov, assistant professor of sociology at UBC’s Okanagan campus, and filmmaker Benjamin Cornejo, to a remote village in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Hristov, fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, planned to interview families who had been forcibly displaced off their land by paramilitary forces. Cornejo was there to film the encounter for a documentary he and Hristov are making on displaced peoples.

Nearing the village, their driver was warned by phone that a paramilitary group was shooting at dwellings there. “We turned back,” recounts Hristov. “But we worried the group might catch up with us as we were driving away.”

It’s not a typical scenario for an academic researcher. Yet this wasn’t the first time Hristov had been in a dangerous situation.

As part of her research unearthing how corrupt capitalism, hand-in-hand with paramilitary violence, has stolen land from generations of Latin American peasants and Indigenous peoples, Hristov has made many trips to such countries as Colombia, El Salvador, Brazil and Honduras.

It’s academic work of a courageous nature that connects this professor to activists, victims of land dispossession and journalists in many parts of Latin America — which is not only the most unequal and violent region in the world, but also the deadliest for human rights defenders and environmentalists. The situation has been drastically worsened by COVID-19, as Latin America became the pandemic’s epicentre in late May 2020.

“This pandemic has only exacerbated the destructive consequences of land dispossession and the vulnerability of human rights defenders,” Hristov explains. “Sadly, the risk of violence to both peasants and activists has increased immensely, along with heightened food insecurity and health risks.”

Landless peasant in front of his makeshift home

A makeshift home constructed by a landless peasant in Chiapas, Mexico, after he was evicted by the government from his own land.

Academic Empowerment to the People

Hristov teaches political sociology, globalization and human rights, gender, and sociological theory. Her research examines a wide span of political violence in South and Central America, including violence carried out by state forces and irregular armed groups, the impacts of economic globalization on human rights, gender violence, sex trafficking and other social ailments.

In developing a theory of violence that offers new ways to see and understand the secretive relationships between ‘non-state armed actors’ (typically paramilitaries) and land seizure by large-scale capital (supported by oppressive governments) in an era of globalization, Hristov has done more than 100 interviews with victims of land dispossession. She has used those interviews to illustrate — in her books, courses and forthcoming publications — the massive human suffering and injustice that is still taking place in Latin America.

In Hristov’s office, the walls are brightened by a colourful blanket from Chiapas and other craftworks collected from research trips. The walls also sport a red flag with an image of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and a poster of Berta Cáceres — one of Hristov’s heroes.

Grafitti of Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres.

Cáceres was an Indigenous Honduran activist trying to stop construction of an internationally-financed hydro-electric dam on the Gualcarque River, a river considered sacred by the Lenca people. Their land was threatened by the project. Cáceres was murdered in 2016 by now-convicted former members of the state military and employees of DESA (Dessarollos Energéticos SA), the company building the dam.

Tragically, Cáceres is one of many.

“Some (peasant) leaders are under constant threat,” says Cornejo, who met Hristov in Toronto during the early 2000s. “Some of them have been shot, kidnapped and seriously hurt. We have to be careful when we interview them and the locations we choose.”

Hristov regards herself as part of a small but growing number of ‘global sociologists.’ She hopes her particular research, books, and teaching — exposing the veiled mechanisms of greed and profit behind the atrocities of land displacement — will empower its victims in Latin America and elsewhere to find the justice they deserve.

An Ingrained Sense of Injustice

Hristov authored Blood and Capital: the Paramilitarization of Colombia in 2009, and followed that five years later with Paramilitarism and Neoliberalism: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond.

In simple terms, neoliberalism is an economic philosophy that supports a free-market, competition, deregulation, government austerity and privatization of business and services.

Yet, her preface in Paramilitarism and Neoliberalism makes it clear that Hristov sees neoliberalism as a ruthless dog-eat-dog ideology that favours the rich and powerful and locks more and more people into an inescapable cage of poverty.

In Latin America, neoliberal governments and other proponents often use paramilitary groups to do their dirty work. Paramilitaries — armed groups organized and financed by sectors of the elites but unofficially supported by the state — have been involved in widespread human rights violations.

Hristov is angered by the misery and injustice created by uprooting people from their land because of neoliberalism. She’s fiercely committed to far more than dry statistical academic enquiries. She wants to fight the forces that generate poverty and dehumanization.

The roots and impacts of land dispossession is not a field of study Hristov chose for herself. “It chose me,” she says.

She was just five when she began to have a growing sense of the injustice in the world.

“When I was growing up, there was a part of me that rebelled against, or felt indignation towards the ways in which poor people in Brazil did not matter and were silenced. On a daily basis they had to swallow the humiliation as if they were lesser human beings than the wealthy. The bloody conflicts over land in the Brazilian north were a product of the landowning elite robbing the rural poor of their human dignity, and having the power to decide who had the right to exist.”

It all left an indelible impression on her. “I know millions of people live in these countries that are very unequal, and are accustomed to the way the poor are robbed of their dignity. And it has become as natural as the air they breathe. But it was never that way for me.”

Even after moving to Canada with her parents as a teenager, part of Hristov always wanted to, one day, have the power to make oppressors pay for what they were doing.

The Rebel in the Researcher

Hristov earned a Bachelor of Education, a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) with a major in Sociology and Geography, and later her Master’s and PhD in Sociology from York University. At UBCO, she is now the principal investigator for two major projects funded by the Canadian federal government’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

With the ‘Violence and Land Dispossession in Central America and Mexico’ project, Hristov leads an international team that includes three UBC research assistants, two international research assistants, a documentary filmmaker and collaborators in each of the countries where research is being conducted.

The team is documenting the prevalence and core patterns in the relationship between land dispossession and paramilitary and/or state violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.

In her role as principal investigator for the ‘Human Rights Monitor of Honduras’ project, Hristov is working in partnership with Honduran NGO The Association for Democracy and Human Rights in Honduras and 15 researchers in that country. The team, collaborating with 20 community organizations in Honduras, has conducted more than 220 interviews in the process of creating a database documenting political violence and human rights violations over the past decade.

  • Three empty desks to symbolize students killed

    A memorial for student activists who were allegedly murdered by Honduran state security forces.

  • Paramilitaries confronting peasants

    A typical eviction scene in the Aguan region of Honduras — the site of some of the country’s most contentious land struggles. Peasants who refuse to leave are often sprayed by police with tear gas.

  • A paramilitary guards access to a local mine in Guapinol, Honduras

    Paramilitary forces guard a contentious mining site in Guapinol, Honduras. In 2018, 1,500 police and military violently evicted about 100 unarmed peasants at the site, who were shot and beaten.

  • Protests in Honduras

    A protestor denounces the rule of Honduras’ president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, who took power in 2017 despite widespread claims of election fraud.

  • Jasmin photographed with Honduran peasant activists.

    Hristov (fourth from right, back row) and Honduran peasant activists who are involved in land claim struggles and have experienced attempts on their lives and/or been followed by state and non-state armed actors.

For Hristov, becoming an academic became her source of empowerment, and empowerment is something Hristov has tried to pass on to her students. One of those students is Jamie Arnett.

Now a first-year master’s student under Hristov’s supervision, Arnett graduated from UBCO with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology in the spring of 2019. Aside from her studies, she’s currently working as a research assistant with Hristov. Part of her work involves examining the relationships between Canadian mining operations and human rights violations and environmental destruction in Honduras.

Right from the start, when she took a required class in contemporary theory of sociology for her bachelor’s degree, Arnett says she instantly appreciated Hristov’s teaching style and passion for what she does.

“Dr. Hristov was not simply content to allow us to sit and have information handed to us,” says Arnett. “We were required to engage with it, discuss it, work in groups, present our own ideas and questions and consider those of others.”

A second course she took with Hristov — ‘Globalization, Social Justice and Human Rights’ — changed the course of Arnett’s education. One part of the course dealt with resource extraction and armed violence. That course, recounts Arnett, changed the way she saw and thought about the world.

“Once again, we were pushed to engage with the material at a deep level and were responsible for presenting seminar sessions on particular topics,” explains Arnett.

Hristov’s teaching was also a catalyst in the direction of Paula Jimenez Argumosa, an international student from Spain who took two sociology courses with Hristov. “I couldn’t stop myself from not only asking her a billion questions, but also sharing reflections after class,” recalls Argumosa.

Argumosa never lost touch with Hristov after she moved to the Okanagan, and later became her research assistant. She has done literature reviews, bibliographies, and translated and transcribed interviews. The skills and knowledge she developed after one year on the job, combined with her deep interest in human rights, put her in a position to become the coordinator for Hristov’s ‘Human Rights Monitor of Honduras’ project.

Argumosa sees Hristov as a strong-willed and committed activist who is making a difference by shedding light on the ways violence has become a preferred strategy for governments and dominant groups in the global south. “She is the voice of many that are fighting for their rights and live on the ground,” explains Argumosa.

Hristov’s fight on behalf of the victims of land-grabbing has been made easier now that she’s an assistant professor at UBC Okanagan. “I really like working here. With this being a smaller institution one can get things done more efficiently,” she says. “This university has supported my research in very important ways.”

A Global Pandemic Brings New Challenges

The situation has only become more critical since the onset of COVID-19.

“Pandemic-related government measures have stripped these already disadvantaged and persecuted people of the few recourses and rights they had,” says Hristov. “Human rights defenders and members of land rights movements have been assassinated while being forced to quarantine. Others are constantly in peril as they face death threats and other intimidatory acts.”

Under usual circumstances, these individuals would move around to seek refuge in another city or with relatives. However, government preventive isolation measures have forced them to stay home, where Hristov says “they’re basically an easy target for non-state armed actors and abusive state security forces.”

“Now, more than ever, the importance of allowing the poorest to access land as a source of livelihood has become evident.”

Peasants and activists are also facing increased health risks and food insecurity as a result of the pandemic. Families evicted from their land — who often migrate to slums in urban centres — as well as political prisoners in pre-trial detention centres are confined to crowded and unsanitary conditions, putting them at higher risk for contracting the virus. In countries such as Colombia, destructive government policies are undercutting the livelihood of local farmers, while curfew violations in Honduras are being used as a pretence to harass and detain activists.

“Now, more than ever, the importance of allowing the poorest to access land as a source of livelihood has become evident. As we seriously rethink our relationship to the environment and to each other, the land that small farmers and Indigenous groups have for decades given their lives for, emerges as one viable alternative to the challenges we face,” Hristov says.

Pushing Against Pushback

Hristov’s research garners wide-ranging attention from the media. She recently received the Early Investigator Award from the Canadian Sociological Association in recognition of the theoretically novel nature of her work and her deep commitment to human rights. She’s written expert-witness reports for human rights violation trials in the US and Canada. And it’s not just students that have been swayed by Hristov’s passion for justice in Latin America.

In December 2017, when Juan Orlando Hernandez was installed for a second term as president of Honduras, Hristov gathered signatures for a collective letter to Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s then-Minister of Foreign Affairs. The letter asked Freeland and the Canadian government to take a stand against what was widely regarded as a fraudulent election. Hristov also was involved in urging Canada to take a stand against a wave of violence, including 30 murders of civilians, by Honduran police and military.

Yet, Hristov acknowledges, in some academic circles there are those who are uncomfortable with her social justice approach to academic investigation.

“Being a passionate academic seeking social transformation can be harmful to one’s career in many ways. But it’s not something that I planned for. It’s part of me. And I can’t change that.”