What is a Barranco? On definitional irregularities in Guatemala City

Authors: Melanie Ford Lemus*, Rice University
Topics: Environment, Latin America, Urban Geography
Keywords: Guatemala, architecture, urban planning, landscape, landform,
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 55
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Nearly 42% of Guatemala City’s territory is fractured by long, deep and tropically forested canyons known as barrancos, or ravines. An increase in rural to urban migration, clandestine landfills, and informal settlements have provoked ecologically minded professionals to propose conservation interventions within these spaces. However, in comparison to other prominent geological features throughout the country (such as volcanoes, rivers, and hills), barrancos often lack clear boundaries. Although residential encounters with these landforms are routine, their volumetric and cartographic variability prevents any unified understanding of what exactly constitutes one barranco; there are no two barrancos alike and it is nearly impossible to know where one ends and where one begins. As such, initiatives to conserve, claim, or study barrancos as distinctive geographic features are challenging. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork between urban planners, ecologists, and geographers, this paper examines the definitional irregularities of a barranco. By mobilizing “definition” as an evolving relationship between historical, material, and linguistic epistemes, I explain that barrancos are not self-evident landforms, despite their ubiquity. Instead, I argue that barrancos are in constant process of physical and conceptual redefinition as their objectivity is ironically remade by social, political, and natural powers and pulls. To do so, I bridge abstract definition with site-specific context and demonstrate that irregularities in the definition of a barranco are consequences of classification perspectives that privilege monumentality over multiplicity.

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