Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Geography and Anthropology

First Advisor

Kent Mathewson


This dissertation studies how small farmers of two ethnic groups manage the soil resource in a portion of Highland Guatemala that is considered marginal for crop production due to steep slopes. In the past, various groups concerned about environmental degradation tended to blame peasant farmers such as these for degrading the land resource through "primitive and backward" agricultural practices and a general lack of knowledge of the consequences of their actions. Yet attempts to convince small farmers to adopt new techniques have often failed due in part to an inadequate knowledge of local conditions and to a failure to recognize local farmers' knowledge of the local environment. This study investigates the environmental and socioeconomic factors that may affect local farmers' decisions concerning the management and conservation of soil resources for maize production in the Guatemalan Highlands. To accomplish this, I designed a three-part study that combined ethnographic and physical research methodologies with a six village survey that contained questions pertaining to demography, crops produced, agricultural practices and soil management. What I found is that local farmers have a sophisticated knowledge of local soils and their potentials for crop production. This includes the use of "hot" and "cold" designations to describe various soils' ability to produce crops. This indicates that local conceptions of soils reflect edaphic and ecologic considerations, rather than pedological ones. They are also aware of soil loss in their fields, and the effect that it can have on crop production. Most are also aware of various conservation systems that are available to them. However, farmers' knowledge of these systems and their effectiveness at slowing soil losses does not always translate into the systems' adoption. Farmers' reluctance to use terraces, grass strips and infiltration ditches stems from awareness of the high labor inputs involved, or from observations of negative effects that they can have on crop production. What emerges is a greater appreciation for the sophistication of local farmers' knowledge concerning local soils and their management. The study also points to various social and environmental factors that can affect farmers' management of the soil resource.